Yes, they're bulky, they can be a bit heavy and they’re a hassle to carry around. But a tripod can help you take better photos, and it can even help you get shots that would pass you by if you didn’t have one.
Here are a few ways a tripod can help you:
- It keeps your camera stable through a longer exposure, which will result in a sharper image.
- It makes it possible to take photos in low light
- It helps you take compelling shots that include motion-blurred subjects
- It slows you down (in a good way)
[Watch today's bonus advanced video on Red Eye at the end of this article]
Keeps your camera stable
The primary advantage of a tripod is that it keeps your camera stable. When you have stability on your side, you can capture razor-sharp images. It’s true that it takes a bit of extra time to get your tripod out, set it up and mount your camera on it. But the benefits far outweigh the inconveniences—without a tripod, you’ll have a lot more photos to delete, if you get any sharp photos at all.
Find solid, stable footing for your tripod because uncertain footing may cause your camera to wobble despite the tripod—or worse, it may cause the whole rig to topple over. Tripods have adjustable legs, so you can change the length of each one to compensate for uneven ground. For added stability, some tripods come equipped with a hook you can hang a heavy object from—I like to hang my camera bag from mine, which really helps cut back on some of the wobble a lighter tripod can experience when the breeze picks up. You can also adjust the angle of your camera—some tripods even have built-in bubble levels that will help you keep the horizon straight. Finally, nearly all tripods have a swiveling head so that you can orient your camera horizontally or vertically, depending on your goals.
Makes it possible to take photos in low light
When you hold your camera in your hand, you may get blurry photos at slower shutter speeds. This is called camera shake, and it happens to even the most rock-steady hands. Below speeds of 1/60th or so (higher if you’re using a telephoto lens), your camera will actually record the movement of your hands. If you have a point and shoot and don’t pay much attention to your shutter speed, just be aware that the risk of camera shake increases as the light decreases.
When you stabilize your camera on a tripod, you eliminate camera shake. You may still get some motion blur in moving subjects (that can’t be prevented when you shoot at slow shutter speeds) but you won’t get that jagged blur that we associate with a wobbly camera. With a tripod, you can leave your shutter open for minutes, or even hours—as long as your camera doesn’t move, you will get a tack-sharp image (just beware of wind and earthquakes).
One thing that you need to have along with that tripod is some way to remotely release your shutter—you can use a remote release, or you can simply use your camera’s self-timer function (set it to count down from five seconds). The reason for this extra precaution is because the simple act of touching your shutter button at the beginning of one of those long exposures can also create camera shake, so you need to make sure that you don’t touch your camera at all, even if it’s just to release the shutter.
You will find your tripod most useful in low light situations or at night—any situation where you need a slow shutter speed to get a good exposure is a candidate for a tripod.
Helps you shoot motion blurred subjects
Remember how I said you may still get motion blur in moving subjects? You can use this creatively—motion blur can look really cool when it’s one or more subjects moving through a tack-sharp environment. Have you ever seen a light-trail photo? This is an image that shows moving vehicles at night as streaks of red and white light traveling across a moonlight landscape or a cityscape—to capture a light trail photo you need a long shutter speed and a stable camera, and you can’t do that without a tripod.
Wihtout a tripod, you’d get a blurry cityscape or landscape, and those long streaks of light would turn jagged. Your camera needs to be stabilized in order to get the most effective capture of a scene like this one.
It slows you down (in a good way)
It takes time to set up your tripod, mount your camera and adjust all those thumb-screws and levers. This is going to slow you down, but if your subject is a landscape or a cityscape or something else that doesn’t move, that is really not a bad thing. When you slow down, you have extra time to think about things like composition, light and settings. Tripods can be thought of as attitude changers—you can’t hurry the shot when you’re using one, and that is almost always a good thing.
When not to use a tripod
Tripods are great for low light and long exposures but they don’t work in every situation. If you’re shooting street photography, for example, or even if you’re just out to get some candid shots of your kids, you don’t want to be bogged down by a tripod. A tripod will attract unwanted attention, which means that candid photos will become all but impossible. And because you’re spending all that time setting up and adjusting thumbscrews, you’re likely to miss some or even all of the action.
Tripods are also inconvenient, especially if you’re going to be walking long distances or visiting crowded places. They’re heavy and bulky, so if you don’t think you’re going to need yours, leave it at home.
What to do when you’re out without your tripod
There are some things you can do to lessen or eliminate camera shake in the event that you find yourself out without a tripod. First, you can use a camera or lens that has built-in image stabilization (this is a selling point, so it should be easy to tell if your camera/lens has this). With image stabilization you can take a hand-held shots at shutter speeds that are significantly slower than you’d be able to manage without image stabilization.
You can also use alternate surfaces such as fence posts, tables or boulders (but be very, very careful when you do this, dropping your camera is not an opiton). I always keep a Gorilla Pod in my car—this is a very small, very portable tripod that bends. You can wrap a Gorilla Pod (or similar product) around an object like a tree branch or a wrought-iron fence, and get instant, portable stability without the need to carry a larger tripod. And if your camera is a compact point-and-shoot, you can get away with a very small, light tripod—no need to go for that heavy one you saw on Amazon just to support a small camera.
You can also use self-stabilization techniques to get sharper photos at slower shutter speeds, but these require some practice. Sitting down with your elbows on your thighs is one way to stabilize yourself—leaning against a wall or other immovable surface is another. You won’t be able to go very slow with any of these techniques, but it can mean the difference between a sharp photo and a blurry one at moderately slow speeds like 1/15 and 1/30.
The bottom line is that stability during long exposures is often the deciding factor between good photos and bad—because there are almost certainly going to be situations that demand long exposures, especially as you grow as a photographer and start trying new things. A tripod should really be in everyone’s arsenal so you’ll have the necessary tools once you encounter these situations.
Today’s Video – Fixing Red Eye
In this, the third advanced photography tips video, I’ll explain Red Eye – what causes it and (more importantly) how to fix it.
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