A tripod is one of the most important—and often overlooked—pieces of photography gear. Here’s what you need to know to get the most out of one.

Why You Need a Tripod

A tripod supports and stabilizes your camera. Without one, it’s almost impossible to do things like:

  • Take photos with a shutter speed longer than a fraction of a second without having everything be a blurry mess.
  • Easily take self portraits and group shots that include you.
  • Keep your camera locked down in the same position so you can take HDR photos or composite images (where you combine multiple photos into a single image).
  • Use a long telephoto lens for extended periods of time without massive amounts of back pain, shoulder pain, and emotional pain.
  • Make timelapse videos.

Get the Right Tripod For Your Needs

There are hundreds of different tripods out there that cost anything from $20 all the way up to well over $1000. It’s important to buy a tripod that fits your needs.

Tripods come in two main materials: aluminium and carbon fiber. Aluminium is cheaper but heavier, while carbon fiber is lighter and more expensive. Lots of manufacturers make otherwise identical tripods in both materials.

There are two parts to any tripod: the tripod legs and the tripod head. The legs support the camera, while the head is where you attaches the camera. Different heads allow you to position the camera in different ways. Cheap tripods may combine the two, but mostly, you’ll be able to buy the same tripod with a couple of different interchangeable heads.

There are loads of different styles of tripod head, but the most important ones are:

  • Ball heads: A ball head is the cheapest and most common tripod head for photography. They’re very flexible and let you position your camera pretty much anyway you could want.
  • Pan and tilt heads: A pan and tilt head locks your camera to two axes that are controlled independently. You can pan the camera side to side without affecting its tilt, or tilt the camera up and down without accidentally panning it. This makes it easier to make small adjustments and take panoramic photos. They’re also better for video than ball heads.
  • Gimbal heads: A gimbal head supports heavy camera setups while still allowing you to move it quickly as if you’re hand holding it. They’re mainly for wildlife and sports photographers, rather than people who want to lock their camera in a stable position.

What tripod setup you should get depends on your exact needs. If you just need something to hold your camera for family portraits, the cheapest thing you can buy with three legs will work. It only needs to hold your camera steady for a fraction of a second.

On the other hand, if you want the tripod to hold your camera steady for a 30 second exposure—or a six hour timelapse—then you need to invest in something a lot more stable. With tripods, you get what you pay for.

Personally, I use an aluminium Vanguard Alta Pro with a ballhead. At $169, it’s affordable while still being stable enough to support a heavy camera set up for long exposures and timelapses. The only downside is that it’s a bit big and heavy to travel with.

How to Set Up Your Tripod So It’s as Stable as Possible

Every tripod comes with nested segmented legs that extend so you can collapse your tripod down for travelling while still being able to get a reasonable amount of height when you need it. The problem is that the further you extend your tripod, the less stable it gets. This means you should never extend your tripod more than is necessary to get the shot you want. It’s better to have to bend over or kneel down and have your camera stable at waist level than to have it unstable at eye level.

When you’re extending your tripod, start with the thicker leg sections first since they’re the most stable. These are normally the top sections. After, work down through the two or three thinner leg sections using as few as possible.

Think about what surface you’re putting your tripod on, too. If it’s something loose like sand, snow, or gravel, then there’s a good chance the tripod could shift. If you can, place it on something firmer; if not, push and rock your tripod down firmly so that anything that is likely to shift, like pebbles, already have done before you start taking pictures. There’s nothing worse than your tripod shifting an hour into a timelapse.

If your tripod has a center column, you should only extend it as a last resort when you absolutely need the extra height. It’s the least stable section of a tripod.

Lots of tripods come with a hook underneath their centre column. This is so you can hang your camera bag—or better yet, a plastic bag filled with rocks—from the tripod to really hold it in position and stop the wind from affecting it. If your camera tripod has one, always use that hook if you’re taking a long exposure shot or timelapse.

Use a Spirit or Digital Level for Flat Horizons

It’s almost impossible to position a camera so that it’s totally level without a spirit level (or a digital equivalent). This isn’t as important for photography when you’ve got a bit more flexibility to fix uneven horizons in post, but it’s essential for video work.

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Many tripod heads have a spirit level built in. There’s a good chance your camera also has a digital level you can use. If you don’t have either, pick up something like this small $7 spirit level and use it to get your camera perfectly level.

Stop the Camera Moving While You Take Photos

When you take a picture, there’s actually a lot of movement happening in the camera. You just don’t notice it because you’re moving a whole lot more. With your camera on a stable tripod, however, that little bit of movement can affect your images—especially long exposure images.

Don’t just press the shutter button to take an image. Either get a camera remote or use the two second timer that’s built in to every DSLR. This means that you can’t introduce any movement while snapping your shot.

When you take an image with a DSLR, the mirror inside snaps up really quickly. This can also add some shake. To stop it, you can enable mirror lock up mode (if your camera supports it). The simpler option though, is just to shoot using live view; the mirror is always locked up then.

Although it might sound counterintuitive, if your lens has image stabilization, you should turn it off when you’re using a tripod. Image stabilization works by having elements inside the lens that can move a few millimeters. This works great if you’re holding your camera in your hands, but if you’ve got it locked down on a tripod, the small amounts of movement from the stabilization system can actually make each photo slightly different.

A tripod is a crucial bit of kit for a lot of different kinds of photography. There’s a reason landscape photographers are prepared to lug them for miles to get the shot.

Image Credits: ShareGrid and Andrey Emelianov via Unsplash.

Profile Photo for Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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