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In 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!).
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.
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.
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.
About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, and computer scientist.