Getting the Most Out of Your Tripod

As I've mentioned in one of my starter posts (10 Ways to Improve: Tripod) I think a good tripod and tripod head are vital to the landscape photographer. While they can be a pain to carry and use the benefits they bring are many. The choice of tripod and head is a very personal choice. There are loads of reviews online to help guide your choice but I'd also offer the following advice.

Firstly, you've likely spent hundreds or thousands on a camera and lenses so there is no point skimping on your tripod. The sharpest lens in the line up won't compensate for a wobbly tripod! That doesn't mean you have have to spend a grand on a tripod but please avoid the super cheap tripods 'to see if I use it' - the results will quite possibly be poorer than handholding and so put you off tripod usage for life.

Secondly, usability is not often referenced but is a key consideration. Some usability issues are a function of quality and therefore partially of cost. Others are just personal preference. You may get on better with twist locks on the legs rather than lever locks for example. I'm a firm believer that tools need to 'just work'. If it's difficult and frustrating to use it's a hindrance not a help and will likely get left at home. So choose a combination that works for you, ideally trying it out in a shop. Then learn to use it so that you can adjust it without thinking about it.

Ok, so you've got your tripod, what now? Here's a few pointers to get the most out of it.

  1. Unless you need to make rapid movements with the camera then mount the camera on the tripod whenever you are shooting.
  2. Switch Image Stabilisation / Vibration Reduction off. The gyroscopic action of the stabiliser actually introduces movement when at rest so will cause your shots to blur if you leave it on.
  3. Extend the top leg sections first. They are thicker and so more stable than the lower leg sections. The exception to this is if the the leg locking mechanism will be immersed in water, particularly salt water. Here I will extend the lower sections first to keep the rest of the tripod out of the water.
  4. Splay the legs. The wider the base of the tripod and the lower the camera is to the ground, the more stabile it will be.
  5. Use the centre column as a last resort. Not only does this place the camera higher, it also increases vibration by only having a single point to disipate vibrations rather than the 3 legs of the tripod. If you do raise it only do so to fine tune a composition, extending it all of the way will be sure to have the camera swaying.
  6. Attach additional weight. If it's really windy then e.g. hooking your camera to the tripod can weight it down to increase stability further.
  7. Normally when you press the shutter the mirror flips out of the way creating vibrations. Use mirror lock up (MLU) or LiveView to lock the mirror out of the way prior to the shutter opening, avoiding the associated vibration.
  8. Use a remote release to trip the shutter without touching the camera to avoid vibrations.
  9. If you do touch the camera (e.g. to change a setting) give it a good few seconds (15 or so ideally) for the vibrations to disipate before tripping the shutter remotely.
  10. Whilst you can carry your camera on your tripod, generally I'd only advise this for short distances. It always feels vulnerable whilst mounted. You risk forgetting about it and smashing it into a tree or a rock, or damaging it if you fall. I've also heard of heads detaching from tripods unexpectedly!
  11. Watch out for the tripod legs encroaching into the bottom of the frame.

Who said I didn't like lists? To conclude I'd like to restate a point I made at the start. It's really important to get a tripod and more importantly a head that you get along with. Finding your equipment finicky is a sure fire way to reduce your enjoyment and stop using it. I enjoy - relish even! - using my tripod since upgrading to a Gitzo+RRS combination from my Manfrotto, which I constantly fought with (especially with a saggy head).