There’s no other piece of equipment that a photographer possesses that elevates the perception of skill and professionalism than a tripod. Walk down a pathway or a trail with just a camera and you’ll blend in, but put it on a tripod and walk down the trail and you’ll be noticed and recognized as someone who must obviously be taking more than snapshots.
A tripod is usually the first accessory that photographers will acquire after they buy their first fancy camera, but I have found that it’s also the most misunderstood. A tripod doesn’t elevate a photographer’s skill or professional ability. Sometimes it’s the photographer without a tripod that knows when and how to use one, but understanding your tripod (as with any other tool that you use) will certainly allow you to elevate the quality of certain photos.
The purpose of a tripod can be to steady the camera to prevent it from shaking during extended shutter speeds that are longer than is practical by hand, such as for smooth water photographs of creeks and waterfalls. It can also be used to simply allow for a brighter exposure or to give the photographer a platform to rest their camera on while they compose their photos. You can maintain the same position while you wait for conditions to change for instance. The most practical purpose is that it’s used when the shutter speed isn’t fast enough to hold the camera by hand for the photo that you are trying to make.
The times where your tripod is indispensable is when light is dim and the shutter speed needs to be extended, but the average photographer isn’t taking photos during this time. Daytime lighting can typically allow photographers to have a shutter speed that’s fast enough to eliminate motion blur for a clear and focused photo while handheld. Making sure that you have a shutter speed that’s quick enough is usually nothing more than choosing the proper ISO or aperture setting, as both can allow increased exposure without extending the shutter speed.
Taking photos without a tripod can be liberating, especially while hiking. A tripod can be cumbersome, heavy and usually unnecessary. Using a tripod can also limit creativity in composing a shot. You must fiddle around with the tripod to get it positioned properly to get the photo, when if you didn’t have it you can simply come up to the scene, focus and frame the shot and snap it. A photographer is typically more apt to wander around and find different compositions if not tethered to a planted tripod.
A tripod comes in handiest to landscape photographers as they tend to take their time composing, focusing, adjusting and reshooting the scene. In that case it’s handy to set up on the tripod and take the time to make sure that everything is perfect. It’s also used to maintain a composition while conditions change. It’s most indispensable to a landscape photographer than most other genres of photography. In the case where there’s a lot of moving from one shot to the next, such as candid photos during an event, being able to react quickly prohibits the use of one.
Tripods can come in varied levels of quality, sizes and types and made, basically, from two kinds of material – aluminum or carbon fiber. Weight is a very important consideration, especially while travelling, hiking or in cases where the tripod is carried throughout the day, but weight saving should never compromise stability. Make sure that it’s sturdy enough for the camera that you use and the conditions that you plan to use it in. Remember that we use tripods to steady our cameras, so having a steady tripod is a must.
When choosing a tripod, I’ve found that paying a bit more for one that is of a higher quality, like most things in life, will pay dividends in time. When I first started in photography I used cheap tripods, but after having a few break, typically with no way to repair them, usually at the most inopportune times, or being frustrated by unstable versions that would move in the slightest breeze, I decided to save my money and buy a sturdy carbon fiber tripod that will last a lifetime. If I had done so in the beginning it would have eventually paid for itself.
No tripod is complete without an accessory that attaches the camera called a head. The more inexpensive versions may have a head that is attached permanently, but most tripods will need a separate head. There are typically two types that are most commonly used – pan-tilt or ball head. My experience is that a ball head is the most versatile, reliable and most simple to use. A ball head has a spherical joint that can be easily positioned in many ways and then locked down with a single knob. A pan-tilt head has two levers that are used to adjust the tilt, elevation and direction separately. As with the tripod legs, buying a sturdy head will save you a lot of frustration and will last longer.
Carbon fiber or aluminum? Carbon fiber is always preferred, but carbon fiber tripods are usually more expensive.. Carbon fiber is lighter and will not oxidize or rust. There have been many times where I’ve been in creeks or lakes or even worse, in the surf at the ocean with my old aluminum tripods where I hadn’t gotten around to cleaning it before it started to seize up due to the corrosive nature of saltwater. Saltwater is terrible for aluminum. Carbon fiber and plastic parts will not corrode and will give you more time to get around to rinsing or cleaning your tripod. Keeping your tripod clean is an absolute must, so learn how to disassemble it and reassemble it.
I hope that this helps to better understand your tripod and how and why it’s used. My advice is to learn your camera and the basic principles of photography to allow you to know when a tripod is needed and when it’s not. As with any tool, using your tripod properly will enhance not only your photography but your experience of creating photos.