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