How to use Your Tripod (it's not as simple as you think!) - Digital Photography School

How to use Your Tripod (it’s not as simple as you think!)

how-to-use-tripod.jpgIn this post, Steve Berardi from PhotoNaturalist talks about a few things to consider when setting up your tripod.

When you first got a tripod, you probably thought it was pretty simple: just extend the legs, put the camera on top, and voila! It’s ready to go!

I’ll admit that I definitely thought this way for awhile. But, then I read Ansel Adams’ great book The Camera, where he dedicates two whole pages to proper use of the tripod. He starts off by explaining that:

“Many photographers casually set up the tripod and use the various tilts and adjustments in a haphazard way. It is preferable, however, to be more methodical in setting up the tripod, if time and situation permit, to provide precise positioning of the camera and the greatest possible stability.” –Ansel Adams, The Camera

So, although the tripod seems like a simple piece of equipment, there are a few things to keep in mind when you’re setting it up to ensure you get the sharpest image possible:

1 – Find your composition first

Since it takes a good amount of time to setup a tripod, It’s a good idea to find your composition first, and then worry about the tripod. So, walk around and explore your subject from different angles. It may help to look through your viewfinder as you do this to help you see exactly what the composition will look like as a photo.

2 – Point one of the tripod legs towards your subject

Pointing one of the tripod legs towards your subject will give you room to stand between the other two legs (helping to prevent you from tripping over the tripod), and it can help stabilize the camera some more when It’s pointed towards the ground.

3 – Keep the center post vertical and perpendicular to the ground

To ensure the weight of your camera is evenly distributed to all three legs, make sure the center post is vertical and perpendicular to the ground. Using one of those bubble levels that attach to the center post can tremendously help you level the tripod like this and show you precisely when It’s good to go. These bubble levels, if they’re not already built-in on your tripod, are usually specific to each tripod model and available for less than $10.

4 – Avoid extending the center post

The center post is significantly less stable than the three legs spread out, so only use the center post as a last resort. This will often cause some frustration in setting up your tripod to that perfect height, but just remember that It’s helping you get the sharpest image possible.

5 – Use an L-bracket for short lenses

The “L” bracket is a special kind of plate that attaches your camera to the tripod head. It’s shaped like an “L” (heh) and allows you to mount your camera in portrait orientation, while still keeping the camera at the center of the three legs. Here’s a few photos that illustrate the difference between the L-bracket and a standard plate:

tripod-brackets.jpg

The L-bracket has two big advantages: it keeps the center of gravity where the tripod can best support it (at the center of the three legs), and it gives you a few more inches of height when you’re shooting in portrait orientation (these few extra inches can certainly make or break a photo!).

6 – Use a tripod collar for long lenses

Since big heavy lenses will often shift the center of gravity of your camera, It’s important to use a tripod collar that evenly balances the weight between your camera and lens. Without one, you’ll surely notice how your camera has a tendency to slowly shift down after you lock the head into place.

7 – Hang a camera bag or other heavy object from the center post for extra stability

If you find yourself in some super windy conditions, it might help to add some more weight to your tripod by hanging something (like a camera bag) from the center post. Many tripods already have a hook in place, but if yours doesn’t then check to see if you can just screw in a hook from a hardware store. Be careful with this method though: if your camera bag is shaking a lot in the wind and hitting the tripod legs, you might actually lose stability.

Why It’s important to carefully setup your tripod

Although setting up your tripod may seem like a slow and tedious process, It’s important to do it carefully to ensure you get the sharpest image possible. Ensuring that your tripod is in a stable position will also help prevent it from toppling over and damaging your camera and lens.

And, finally, the more time and care you take in setting up your tripod, the more you’ll be forced to concentrate on your composition. Knowing that It’s going to take you a long time to set up that tripod, you’ll be more careful about what composition you choose.

steveb-1.jpgAbout the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, and computer scientist.

You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of Southern California. Read more of his articles on nature photography at the PhotoNaturalist and follow him on Twitter.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • William j dochertaigh

    I am 6’4″ so was careful when shopping for a tripod. But i was rewarded with a sturdy though relatively weighty tripod. Well worth the time of care in choosing and the cost.

    TIP – I purchased matching Quick Release plates for my two tripods and two cameras. Allows me to switch easily btwn tripods n cameras!

  • http://www.kathiesphotos.com Kathie M Thomas

    It’s because it takes so long to set one up that I don’t use one most of the time. But then I tend to take shots of things that are moving a lot of the time. Loved all the tips though – think I need to go purchase a couple of extras to get the best use out of mine when I am using it.

  • charles lee

    Just bought my first tripod..,
    I hope I can take advantage of it

  • http://spusht.blogspot.com/ Nisha

    Hi Steve/Everyone – I need advice on tripod. Just found a deal for Manfrotto 7322YB-BB with specifications:
    Closed Length:
    18.9 in / 48 cm
    Leg Angles: 25°, 51°
    Leg Cross Section: three-faceted
    Leg Sections: 4 number
    Legs Tube Diameter: 0.87, 0.71, 0.55, 0.41 in / 22, 18, 14, 10.5 mm
    Load Capacity: 4.41 lbs / 2 kg
    Maximum Height: 4.63 ft / 141 cm
    Maximum Height (with center column down): 4 ft / 122 cm
    Weight: 2.4 lbs / 1.09 kg
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Completely alien language for me. Tried learning/understanding from Google but isn’t helping much. Need your expert opinion if this tripod (here http://tinyurl.com/3v7pfrr) is worth buying or can I find something equally good but cheaper elsewhere (like this one http://tinyurl.com/3p3ru69)?

  • http://photonaturalist.net Steve Berardi

    Nisha – If you’re planning to put an SLR on the tripod, then I would recommend something with a load capacity of at least 10 lbs (if you have some long telephoto lenses like a 300mm or 400mm, you might want to think about 20 lbs too). Any tripod by Manfrotto is probably good (they’re a GREAT tripod manufacturer). Personally, I’ve used their 190XPROB which is fairly inexpensive but still provides great support for your camera. I also highly recommend their heads too (I’ve used their 486RC2, but the newer model is the 496RC2).

    btw, I have no affiliation with Manfrotto or any other tripod manufacturer, I’m just a satisfied customer ;)

Some older comments

  • Steve Berardi

    October 2, 2011 05:12 am

    Nisha - If you're planning to put an SLR on the tripod, then I would recommend something with a load capacity of at least 10 lbs (if you have some long telephoto lenses like a 300mm or 400mm, you might want to think about 20 lbs too). Any tripod by Manfrotto is probably good (they're a GREAT tripod manufacturer). Personally, I've used their 190XPROB which is fairly inexpensive but still provides great support for your camera. I also highly recommend their heads too (I've used their 486RC2, but the newer model is the 496RC2).

    btw, I have no affiliation with Manfrotto or any other tripod manufacturer, I'm just a satisfied customer ;)

  • Nisha

    October 1, 2011 02:38 am

    Hi Steve/Everyone - I need advice on tripod. Just found a deal for Manfrotto 7322YB-BB with specifications:
    Closed Length:
    18.9 in / 48 cm
    Leg Angles: 25°, 51°
    Leg Cross Section: three-faceted
    Leg Sections: 4 number
    Legs Tube Diameter: 0.87, 0.71, 0.55, 0.41 in / 22, 18, 14, 10.5 mm
    Load Capacity: 4.41 lbs / 2 kg
    Maximum Height: 4.63 ft / 141 cm
    Maximum Height (with center column down): 4 ft / 122 cm
    Weight: 2.4 lbs / 1.09 kg
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Completely alien language for me. Tried learning/understanding from Google but isn't helping much. Need your expert opinion if this tripod (here http://tinyurl.com/3v7pfrr) is worth buying or can I find something equally good but cheaper elsewhere (like this one http://tinyurl.com/3p3ru69)?

  • charles lee

    March 1, 2011 11:14 pm

    Just bought my first tripod..,
    I hope I can take advantage of it

  • Kathie M Thomas

    January 25, 2011 08:43 am

    It's because it takes so long to set one up that I don't use one most of the time. But then I tend to take shots of things that are moving a lot of the time. Loved all the tips though - think I need to go purchase a couple of extras to get the best use out of mine when I am using it.

  • William j dochertaigh

    January 24, 2011 10:06 pm

    I am 6'4" so was careful when shopping for a tripod. But i was rewarded with a sturdy though relatively weighty tripod. Well worth the time of care in choosing and the cost.

    TIP - I purchased matching Quick Release plates for my two tripods and two cameras. Allows me to switch easily btwn tripods n cameras!

  • Fais

    June 21, 2010 04:07 pm

    People , turn off vibration when shooting in tripod to get max sharpness , << i dif agree on this

  • The Progen

    June 1, 2010 04:27 am

    I don't think the L bracket thing is such a good idea and applicable to the majority of us unless you're the kind who shoots in potrait orientation just about all the time. For the cost, even with shorter zoom lenses, IF there's one for it, I'd rather use a lens mounted bracket. WAY easier to change between landscape and potrait orientation plus I get to retain the same center. :D

  • sahil

    May 24, 2010 07:17 pm

    a very helpful tutorial for the biginnerss
    thanks!!!

  • John Syl.

    May 24, 2010 01:54 pm

    You need "Print this Article" tab

  • Dannyp19

    May 22, 2010 05:04 am

    I use my strobe frame on a tripod. To me its easier than an "L" bracket.

  • Diane

    May 21, 2010 01:57 pm

    those are great tips, each one. Thank you.

  • Rob S.

    May 21, 2010 01:41 pm

    At least the RSS (dunno about the Kirk) uses an arca-swiss mount, so you don't necessarily have to use the RSS clamp

    (at least that's what I am reading so far...please correct me if I'm wrong)

  • Steve Berardi

    May 21, 2010 01:16 pm

    Hi all, thanks for your great comments!

    I realize I should have mentioned a few more things about the L-brackets: they're specific to each ballhead and camera. So, an L-bracket that's made for a Nikon camera won't work with a Canon camera..

    And they're even more specific than that: an L-bracket that's made for a Canon 5D (with battery grip) won't work with a 5D that doesn't have the grip. Personally, I use ballheads/L-brackets by Really Right Stuff (http://reallyrightstuff.com/index.html), but Kirk and Arca-Swiss also make them.

    @Daniel / JohnK - good point. I meant #2 as more of a guideline. Certainly, proper balance is the #1 priority, so sometimes having one leg pointed towards the subject won't give you the best balance.

    @Eric S / Mary K - I use and recommend ballheads/L-brackets by Really Right Stuff (RRS) - http://reallyrightstuff.com/index.html

    @Eric R - ahhh, great point! totally forgot about that: turning off IS when your camera is on a tripod.

    @pierre - Bubble levels really come in handy for panoramic shots, but they're probably overkill for most situations. I think you can generally just feel if the tripod is balanced enough.

    @Patrick - the L-bracket also works for landscape orientation :)

    @Arturo - I guess I should have been more accurate and said: the center post should always be pointed towards the center of the earth :)

  • Gary G.

    May 21, 2010 12:11 pm

    The L-bracket is part of a system, in that you must use a matching quick release clamp.

  • Sarah

    May 21, 2010 11:48 am

    The bubble level in mine is useless - I can do a better job setting it up by my eye.

    Also, tip for buying one - take your camera along and make sure you can put it on without any difficulty. The locking system my tripod uses doesn't work for a camera with a large base (like any DSLR).

    You've got me thinking about that L bracket though.

  • Kevin Williams

    May 21, 2010 06:52 am

    RE: Tip 7

    Hanging something from the center post can initiate a lot of movement in the tripod if there is any wind or if the hanging object is not perfectly still. I find it much more useful to stretch an elastic cord between the center post and something heavy on the ground like my backpack. This provides downward force without introducing so much inertial movement.

  • Arturo Martinez

    May 21, 2010 05:12 am

    Thank you Darren, Steve for this article, It added to the technical part of being a photographer, I liked it very much.

    Just one thing: isn't it the only way to get the post both vertical and perpendicular to the ground when the ground is horizontal?

  • Julie Short

    May 21, 2010 04:35 am

    I found this artlcie really interesting (and common sense), though I had not heard of the L bracket before. I have 3 tripods a titchy little thing the size of a pen, and for 99p it has really earned it's keep (living cheek by jowl with my camera, as it does), a small one (scopes down to about a foot) and a regular size one (can't remember the dimensions and too lazy to go and look right now). Mostly I use my 99p one, as ir's always with me. But, having two different sized larger tripods makes it much easier to get the right height.

  • Gary G.

    May 21, 2010 03:21 am

    Several folks asked about L-brackets. IMHO, they are the greatest things since sliced bread. They allow you to shift from portrait to landscape orientation in seconds while keeping the camera and lens centered over the tripod. Mine is from Really Right Stuff, as is my ball head. A little pricey, but solid beyond belief. Getting used to a ball head takes a little practice, but not a whole lot.

    If you wish to shoot panos, the bubble level is absolutely essential.

    Richard, tripod collars are part of the lens package for longer focal lengths, usually starting around 200 mm. Olympus Zuiko lenses in longer focal lengths have them.

  • Rob S.

    May 20, 2010 08:26 pm

    Picked up a Benro (forget the model number but if someone really wants to know I can go look) carbon fiber tripod before my last trip to Cambodia...amazing tripod and ball head that more than supports my gear. The best part, one of the legs comes off and you got an instant monopod.

    As for the L bracket...found some on ebay about 1/2 the price of the kirk and rss ones....just wondering if anyone has tried one before?

    (And on a side note, I agree with the Slik Pro 400DX...have one of those as well...lightweight, pretty sturdy)

  • Azadine

    May 20, 2010 04:24 pm

    Amazing... I only bought my tripod today and it didn't come with an instruction manual, so this article along with all your tips are great!

  • paige whitley

    May 20, 2010 08:54 am

    Great tips and ideas in both the article and the comments. DPS is a great place for loads of information!

  • Patrick Skotniczny

    May 20, 2010 05:38 am

    The L-bracket seems like a good idea, but what if you want to go back into landscape. you would be faced with the same offset issue right? you would actually have to remove it before setting it into landscape?

  • Joel

    May 19, 2010 08:40 pm

    Thanks for the tips, Steve. I decided to invest in a Slik Pro 400DX tripod just as I was starting out with photography. I didn't realize the importance of a good tripod and that using a tripod right could in fact be a challenge then. However, a friend of mine encouraged me to get a good tripod and he gave me some useful tips on using it.

    I wrote a review of the Slik Pro 400 DX some time back: http://www.shutteria.com/2010/01/review-of-slik-pro-400dx-tripod.html

  • Richard

    May 19, 2010 07:19 pm

    Where (or are there) any tripod collars for Olympus lenses?

  • Leo Angelo

    May 19, 2010 03:38 pm

    Lastly, after properly setting up the tripod and camera, set your timer to about 2 seconds. This will eliminate the movement or shake caused by pressing the shutter button.

  • Michael Hoehne

    May 19, 2010 01:56 pm

    foo, some places where it is usually not recommended to use a tripod are in crowds, where jostling people are likely to kick it; in museums and similar institutions, where they are usually forbidden because of interference with other patrons (and, let's face it, because of their potential as weapons against the artwork); and aboard boats and ships, where what you place the tripod on isn't stable anyway---except when you are photographing inside the cabins with no view of the outside, where they are way more valuable than they are on solid land. And maybe some other places ....

  • foo

    May 19, 2010 12:52 pm

    is there a situation where the tripod should not be present? I'm still new here to any heads up would be great.

  • Andy MIlls

    May 19, 2010 10:18 am

    And the other tip - if your tripod has two or more extendible sections, only try and only extend one section where necessary, and then the fatter section, not the thinner section(s) at the bottom of the tripod as these are weaker and will introduce more vibration.

  • Ken

    May 19, 2010 09:25 am

    When choosing your tripod, consider your environment. Aluminum and cold can be painful. Metal also contracts. I have picked up my tripod and watched the legs fall off.

    Granted, where I am its currently -60 but its a good idea to think about where you are taking your tripod.

  • Pierre

    May 19, 2010 09:12 am

    Steve as usual an excellent and concise article. Am I the only one who thinks bubble levels are a waste of time? Do you really have to be that accurate.............. just look at the tripod then through the viewfinder. That should be good enough. Bubble levels introduce another variable for possible error anyway. Can you trust it?

    "f/8 and be there"

  • mg

    May 19, 2010 08:09 am

    the most important thing here is, get a tripod that -properly- supports your camera. using cheap plastic tripods with a massive camera and even more massive lens is just asking for trouble.

    i've got a manfrotto tripod with a ball joint on top and it's probably the most sturdy thing in the world, but that sturdiness comes at a price... luckily we got it really cheap from a storage unit as someone left it there when they didn't pay their bills (perfectly legit by the way

    the sturdiness of the tripod means that setting it up is really guided by using your common sense to protect the camera from falling to the ground. The center post is likely to be much sturdier too when you pay more as well.

    I noticed a comment above about finding ball joint tripod heads too hard to use. find the adjustment dial that controls how easy or hard it is to move it about, it should be on nearly all of them (cause of expansion and contraction it needs adjustment from time to time)

  • Jen at Cabin Fever

    May 19, 2010 07:19 am

    I've never used an "L" bracket before... I will have to look into this because I have definitely had the issue of the few inches of height making a big difference!

    My Photo Blog

  • Kyle Bailey

    May 19, 2010 06:11 am

    Great article and a few good articulated tips that I will keep in mind as I move forwards on my journey from Rookie to Pro. I like the idea of the 'L' bracket and never consciously thought about pointing a leg towards my subject but have started to do it after tripping over a leg a time or two.

    I'd also advise getting really familiar with your tripod in a variety of situations and times of day/night as I've found the experience of adjusting in the dark rather difficult with a new rig or one I am borrowing from a friend.

    If you are interested I'll be writing about my experience with my new carbon fiber tripod and posting to my blog (www.rookiephoto.com) in the next week or two.

    Thanks for the tips!

    Kyle Bailey - RookiePhoto.com

  • lauren

    May 19, 2010 06:10 am

    thanks for the tips! these will help me dust off my tripod and put it to use...

  • Jason Collin Photography

    May 19, 2010 05:58 am

    I just used a tripod with a ballhead for the first time last week and thought it would be much easier than the usual submarine control panel tri-lever head, but I found the ballhead to be a real challenge as setting a straight angle on all 3 axis at the same time will take some getting used to.

    The L bracket looks like the way to go.

  • Paul

    May 19, 2010 04:36 am

    Eric: Check out Really Right Stuff (http://reallyrightstuff.com/) They make all manner of tripods, L brackets, and ball heads. Their brackets use dovetails like the expensive Arca Swiss brand, but cost much less.

  • Mary K

    May 19, 2010 04:00 am

    Where can I find an L bracket like the one pictured in the article? I'm in the US, so a US website would be great.

  • Lloyd Barnes

    May 19, 2010 03:14 am

    Great reminder on getting the mode from your tripod! After it's setup I often use a cable release or the self timer to minimize camera shake especially for longer shutter speeds.

  • Shaun Fisher

    May 19, 2010 02:46 am

    Those "L" brackets seem to save alot of hassle.

    With regards to setting up the tripod common sense got me most of the setup points, but I never have any time at all since I don't generally photowalk alone nor with other photographers, where you could spend 5 minutes setting up the tripod just right, I take about 20 seconds.

    Thanks for the bullet point post!

  • Eeps

    May 19, 2010 02:37 am

    Definitely underused on my part since most of my recent photo ops involve chasing around my kid. Need to brush up on all those long lost and forgotten tripod techniques I've read about. Thanks Steve

  • JohnK

    May 19, 2010 02:29 am

    There are caveats to points 2 and 3. When you are on uneven ground like a hill, stairs, rocks or some other uneven surface, you may have to have either one leg downhill or two legs parallel and downhill in order to provide a stable platform. This would obviously overrule the desire to point the front leg toward the subject.

    Also you will obviously want to adjust the lengths of the legs to keep the "center of mass" (i.e. the camera) as centered as possible between the three legs. This may require that the center post not be perpendicular "and" vertical to the ground .

    One other feature of higher priced tripods is to splay out one or more legs at a wider angle to the body by pressing a button or lever where the leg attaches to the tripod.

  • Zack Jones

    May 19, 2010 02:27 am

    @Eric S - www.reallyrightstuff.com - look for L Plates or www.kirkphoto.com - look for L Bracket. Something to keep in mind is the L Bracket is model specific and one that works with a battery grip attached will not work with the same camera without a battery grip attached.

  • Jan

    May 19, 2010 02:22 am

    Yeah, I used the centre hook and it broke off, serves me right for buying a cheap pod! One more tip. The handle that swivels the head points toward the front of the cam, not the back like I was using it. Just gets in the way and is unwieldy/uncomfortable in use.

  • Greg Taylor

    May 19, 2010 01:48 am

    The simplest way to better your photography is definitely by knowing when to use the tripod. Hands down!

    Related post: When to use a Tri-Pod

  • Eric R.

    May 19, 2010 01:30 am

    You might also remind people to TURN OFF vibration reduction/image stabilization when shooting from a tripod to also help maximize sharpness.

  • MeiTeng

    May 19, 2010 01:27 am

    I see your point in using the L bracket. Thanks for sharing this tip.

  • Perry

    May 19, 2010 01:23 am

    Great advice.

    How much does quality of the tripod affect your ability to do these things though? If you buy a crappy tripod that can't hold your camera, it would be nearly impossible to get a good shot, regardless of all the advice you gave.

  • wingsabr

    May 19, 2010 01:23 am

    lol, I always wondered what the hook was for in the center pole of my tripod...

  • Brandon

    May 19, 2010 01:07 am

    Great post, stuff I commonly overlook, thanks!

  • Eric S.

    May 19, 2010 12:57 am

    Do you have any links to good L brackets?

  • Daniel Fealko

    May 19, 2010 12:57 am

    "2 – Point one of the tripod legs towards your subject"

    This obviously assumes a level surface. Doing this on a hill may not produce the most stable configuration. It that case, it depends on the slope and the direction of the subject.

  • Patrick

    May 19, 2010 12:33 am

    Great tutorial! really makes me think about the way I use my tripod, I'm going to make it a habit to run through all these steps before taking my photos from now on.

  • Zack Jones

    May 19, 2010 12:28 am

    Great tips, Steve here's one that should be added to the list....

    Tip 0 -- do this before you buy the tripod. Check the height of the tripod with the legs extended. My tripod is just short enough that I either have to bend down to use it or extend the center post which I prefer not to do. Next time around I'll be certain to buy one that is tall enough that I don't have to bend down to use it.

  • C

    May 19, 2010 12:27 am

    I did a quick search for an L-Bracket but only came up with ones by Manfrotto that are north of $60 and designed for one type of tripod head. Any more economical, less proprietary products?

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