Is Your Tripod Sturdy Enough? Let's Test it

Is Your Tripod Sturdy Enough? Let’s Test it

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If you are looking to take long exposure night shots like this 10 second exposure of downtown Marietta, Ohio, you'll need a quality tripod to give your camera a stable base.

If you are looking to take long exposure shots like this 10 second night image of downtown Marietta, Ohio, you’ll need a quality tripod to give your camera a stable base.

One of the most important pieces of equipment for a photographer to have access to is a sturdy tripod. You might be tempted to purchase just any tripod without regard to whether or not it is up to the job you are asking it to do, but a strong and stable tripod can be the difference between a great image and a blurry one.

Warning: a high-quality tripod is not cheap! If you want a really functionable tripod, be prepared to invest more than a few dollars. However, in this article we are going to look at some ways you can test the tripod you are currently using to see just how effective it is. To begin, let’s examine a couple of tips that can make any tripod a little more stable.

Tips for making your tripod stable

  • Tip #1 – If you are using your tripod for a long exposure, avoid extending the center column with the mount above the fulcrum.
  • Tip #2 – When setting the height of your tripod, make use of the thicker top sections of the legs before the thinner, less stable lower sections.
  • Tip #3 – If your tripod has different types of feet available, use the spiked feet to secure the ground for outdoor landscape shooting. When shooting indoors, use the rubber feet to prevent skidding on smooth flooring.
  • Tip#4 – When shooting outdoors on windy days, be sure to secure your camera strap. If the strap is blowing in the wind it will cause your tripod to move.

Many photographers can be observed with their cameras mounted to tripods extended beyond their intended specifications. You may have heard that your tripod should be strong enough to hold a bowling ball. While this sounds funny, it’s a good idea to have a tripod that is rated for more weight than the combined weight of your camera and largest lens. For example, a tripod having no movement with a mounted camera and a 28mm lens may allow unacceptable movement with the same camera and a 300mm or larger lens.

Regardless, even the best tripod will have some movement. Approximately 80% of the movement will most likely come from the head and the Quick Release mount, and very little actually from the tripod legs. There are many potential sources of vibrations, so let’s look at a series of tests that can help you determine if your tripod is up for the job you are giving it to do.

Test Method #1

Make a test pattern similar to the one below, or download the one I used here.

Create a test pattern similar to this one.

Create a test pattern similar to this one.

Mount your print on a stable object with no movement. It’s important that the print has no movement at all. Mount your camera and heaviest lens combo on your tripod. Set up your tripod close enough to the target so that it fills the frame.

What's wrong with this picture?  The center post is extended and the camera strap is hanging loose

This setup has some problems. Can you spot them? Refer to the tips above.

First, take a series of shots with a variety of different exposure speeds ranging for 1/100th of a second down to 1/2 a second. Use a remote or cable release to start the exposures. It’s also a good idea to use your mirror lockup feature to remove any camera vibration from the process.

After completing this series of exposures, open the images in your choice of image software and check your target for any doubled or blurry lines which would indicate that your camera was moving during the exposures. If the faster shutter speeds are sharper than the slower ones, your tripod is not stable enough to use for shooting at slower shutter speeds.

If your images show that you are getting movement during your exposures, the next step is to determine what part of you tripod is causing the problem.

Shrink your tripod to its smallest height and repeat the test. If the results are not better, then your problem may be caused by your tripod head.

Your problem could also be caused by your tripod’s leg locks, so test again with legs extended to different lengths, extending one, two or three sections and taking the same series of test shots.

Repeat the process indoors, outdoors, and in windy conditions or with other camera and lens combinations.

Test Method #2 – Multiple Exposures

Many digital cameras have a setting for taking multiple exposures. If yours does, set your camera to take two or three exposures. Again using the test pattern, shoot a series of different shutter speeds ranging from 1/100th down to 1/2 a second.

If your camera doesn’t have the multiple exposure feature, you can still use this method by simply taking two or three different images, then layering them over top of each other in Photoshop, and adjust the blending method of each layer so that all layers are visible. If your tripod is doing its job, all three images will be right on top of each other.

The image on the left was created with a three shot multiple exposure set with a  1/2 second exposure on each. The fairly sharp image indicates that this tripod is up to the task. The image on the right was created with the same setting as the one on the left with another tripod, if you preview looks like this your tripod is not doing its job.

Both of these image were created with a three shot multiple exposure with a 1/2 second exposure on each. The sharp image on the left indicates that this tripod is up to the task. The image on the right was created with another tripod. If your preview looks like this, your tripod is not doing its job.

Test Method #3 – Live View

Use the same test pattern as in the ones above. Focus your camera on the center of the target. Turn on Live View and zoom the preview to show the center of the target as large as possible.

Remove your hands from the camera and tripod and see if the target remains still in your preview.  If the target in your preview continues to move, your tripod is not providing a sturdy enough base for your camera to produce sharp images at a slow shutter speed.

Also in this method, try just touching and moving your camera strap. You may be surprised to see the preview move from just the slightest touch.

Test Results

If your tripod did not pass these tests, it is probably time to start looking for a better one. Be sure to check that the tripod is rated to support the weight of your camera and your largest/heaviest lens. If the tests show that your problem is in your tripod head, the solution might be as simple as replacing the head. If you have any other tips to enhance your tripod’s stability, please post in the comments below.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Bruce Wunderlich is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr

  • Trish Caldwell Landsittel

    As a mere point-and-shoot, with my Samsung Galaxy, I shouldn’t be surprised by the time, energy and appropriate equipment that enters into capturing the perfect shot……but I am. Thank you, Bruce for sharing your knowledge and skills, both in written form and through your spectacular photographs! Trish

  • gtvone

    Sure is, and his name is ‘Frank’

  • sillyxone

    Don’t forget to turn off VR/IS on the lens.

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Yes, very good point, it will definitely make a difference

  • Dave_TX

    A carbon fiber (graphite) tripod damps vibrations much, much better than an aluminum tripod. A aluminum tripod can be “sturdy enough” and still ring like a bell. The ringing will show up as blur in your images if the shutter speed is not fast enough.

  • Frank is a Tank! Hope to meet him one day for now, Dave will have to undergo this test!

  • M.h. O’Dell

    Excellent article. Never thought about testing my tripod at various shutter speeds.

  • Phil Coxon

    My tripod has a little hook that pulls down from the centre column. I usually hang my camera bag from that to add stability.

  • Another good article Bruce. I think I have sturdy tripods but I will be checking them with your print. Thanks!

  • DavidR8

    The multiple exposure test is not something I’ve seen before; interesting idea.

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    The issue is that I don’t photograph test patterns. There is very little market for them. I hate tripods and rarely use them and it works out OK. Just take images of interesting subjects.

  • Steve Wyant

    Other things to consider… Get a tripod with 3 leg extensions instead of 4 or more. The more leg extensions, the more joints and locks. If you can, get a tripod that doesn’t have a center column at all, just make sure the tripod, when extended, is as tall or slightly taller than your eye-level. And you’re right, a good tripod can be VERY expensive!

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