Beginner's Guide to Tripods

Beginner’s Guide to Tripods

The lowly tripod – the unsung hero behind so many fantastic shots – finally gets its day in the spotlight here on dPS.

Do you want to photograph the stars? You’ll need a tripod. Want to get silky smooth waterfall photos? Yep tripod again. Need to photograph an HDR to extend the dynamic range of your scene? Oh yes, tripod required there too.

Basically, if you want to do anything more than point and shoot, you’ll need to bring your three legged friend along with you.

I’ve decided to write this article in a way that assumes you’re just starting out with your journey in photography. So for those of you who have spent some time getting to know your tripod and how to use it, please feel free to add your own advice to the comments section below.

Buying the right tripod

A tripod allows you to frame a shot exactly how you want, and keep it there indefinitely. This allows you to take long exposures, use heavy lenses without straining your arms, or compose the same scene with different subjects in order to photograph it later. All tripods are essentially the same – three legs meeting at a center-point that supports your camera. However, all tripods are not created equal.

Buying the right tripod can be a challenge, one that can easily cause you to give up, head to your local big box store, and by the first $30 dollar option you see on the shelf. This is not the best idea, especially since you’ve spent good money on that camera body and lens you’re trying to support. Would you trust a $30 plastic tripod to hold your camera steady for a shot like this? I know I wouldn’t.

sturdy-tripod-must

In general you want a tripod that’s strong enough to support your camera, light enough to carry with you wherever you go and affordable enough to not break your budget. Here’s some simple pointers to help get you started:

  1. Know what you need: For working in the studio weight and a compact height won’t be so important, but for landscape and travel you’ll want something light enough to hike with, and compact enough to fit in your luggage.
  2. Aluminum or carbon fibre: If you’re on a tight budget, or won’t be doing many rigorous activities with your tripod, then aluminum will be your go-to as it’s more affordable, but still offers great support. Carbon fibre will set you back a bit more than its aluminum counterpart, but it offers a huge benefit in terms of strength to weight ratio, so it’s ideal for the landscape photographer – especially those intending on more rigorous travels.
  3. Tripod heads: I’ve always been a fan of ball heads and honestly haven’t used anything else. They are often less expensive then the more feature packed options, and are smaller, lighter, and allow you to frame your shot quickly and easily.

Got any more buying tips? Share them below!

Using a tripod

In this video I share some basic tips on how to set up a tripod in various situations to get the best shots every time. I’ll talk a bit more about various setups below the video as well.

Low angle perspective

Many tripods offer the ability to get very low to the ground, which is a great way to change the perspective of a scene to create interest. If this is the sort of thing that you’re looking to do, make sure when you’re comparing tripod options that you pay attention to the minimum height specifications.

low-angle-perspective

When height is needed

When you’re looking to add height to the tripod remember to keep a few things in mind. As I mentioned in the video above, always extend your legs from the widest segment first, as these will offer more support than the smaller legs and always use your center column as a last resort. Finally, something I didn’t mention in the video but that’s also very important, is that weighing down your tripod can really help quite a bit when you’re out shooting on a windy day. You can either carry a sandbag with you, or simply use your camera bag if you’ve got a couple of heavy lenses or bodies inside.

When you’re on a tricky landscape

Finally, using a tripod on a tricky landscape like a hillside or staircase is something that takes a bit of planning. Each leg of the tripod will likely have to be extended to a different length, and positioned at a different angle, but the goal is to have your center column (and thus your center of gravity) aligned evenly between the three legs, and perfect straight up and down. This will give you the most support, and allow you the most freedom to frame your shot.

Throw it all out the window

Of course there are times when you just have to throw everything mentioned here out the window ,and do what you have to do to get the shot. As an example I’ll show you a shot I made earlier this year at Trap Falls, framing the waterfall inside of a Y-shaped tree.

trap-falls-framed

The tree is on a hill, and the base of the Y was a bit too high for my tripod fully extended, which meant that I needed to use every bit of the tripod to its full potential.

As you can see in the behind the scenes photograph below, the center column is extended well beyond what I’d consider an ideal situation. I wouldn’t necessarily call this setup stable, but it did allow me to get the shot I wanted. So like everything in photography, just because there are rules that you should follow whenever you can, if there’s a shot you can’t get by following them, but think you can get it safely by bending the rules a bit, then by all means go for it.

20140411-125515

Note: This is not a mysterious two legged tripod – the third leg is hidden behind the front leg due to the perspective of the shot.

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John Davenport

John Davenport is the creator of PhoGro an online community that aims to help you grow your photography through engagement with other photographers. Join today! John also offers a free email course 6 Weeks to Better Photos. This course covers the most important techniques you need to learn when getting started with photography.