Shooting with a tripod
Apart from your camera and a lens, a sturdy tripod is possibly the single most useful piece of gear you can own. Despite this, however, they are also the first item to be left at home when you go on a shoot, chiefly because of their bulk.
And when they are left at home, a tripod will become the first thing you’ll wish you had with you when you visualise the perfect slow-shutter speed shot. In fact, a tripod can make a huge difference to your photography. It contributes to everything from increased sharpness in low light to depth-of-field control and composition.
Modern tripods are typically made from either steel or carbon fibre composite materials. The former are heavier but more rigid so provide greater stability while the latter are much lighter, easier to carry but can flex more. If you use big lenses a heavyweight steel tripod is probably better, but if you need to hike with one, you’ll need a compromise between portability and weight. But whichever type you choose, a tripod will improve your photography.
With a digital camera, it’s easy to just snap away, firing the shutter willy-nilly and generally rushing into things. A tripod will force you to slow down and use a more considered approach, be it landscape, macro or portraiture. Your composition will improve because you’ll have time to study the shot through the viewfinder and arrange things as you want them.
In low light, a tripod allows you to use lower ISO settings and, consequently, slower shutter speeds that are simply not possible handholding. It will also come in useful when using a slow shutter speed to record creative motion blur, like waterfalls, flowing rivers and breaking waves. A tripod will also allow the use of small apertures without worrying about the lengthy shutter speeds that go with them – essential stuff for you landscape workers out there who value depth-of-field above all else.
Other features to look out for in a tripod include a built-in spirit level, a quick-release plate and a removable centre column to enable low-angle shooting – a must for those into macro and nature photography. If you’re an outdoor photographer, also look for spiked feet for some extra grip, and if you plump for a lightweight carbon fibre model you might want to make sure you can hang a bag off it for extra stability. There’s clearly a lot of choice out there, so to help find the right tripod for you, have a look at our round-up of six current models from the main manufacturers. And when you’ve picked one, turn over to find out how to put it to good use.
SLOW SHUTTER SPEEDS
The most common reason for using a tripod is simply to help keep the camera rock steady when you’re using slower shutter speeds. Whether low light or a small aperture is the reason for using a tripod, it’s essential for avoiding the dreaded camera shake. Cityscapes at night or extended exposures to capture star trails all become easy once you use a tripod to steady your camera. If you don’t have a remote shutter release, use the self-timer to avoid unwanted shake when pressing the shutter button. Some top-end SLRs have a mirror lock-up and using this will cut down vibration levels even more.
IMPROVED IMAGE QUALITY
With your camera safely mounted on your tripod, you can dial in the lowest ISO sensitivity thus preserving sharpness and reducing noise artifacts in longer exposures. As a result image quality straight out of the camera will improve and will probably save you time later as you won’t have to remove unwanted noise when editing on your computer.
With the camera tripod-mounted, you have more opportunity to check the composition, whether it’s watching out for trees sticking out of a portrait subject’s head or ensuring that the horizon is straight, rather than sloping downhill, in a landscape shot. A camera sat safely on a tripod also allows you time to fine-tune all the elements of a composition. This is especially important if you’re shooting a set-up such as a still life. Before you hit the shutter, you’ve the luxury of double (and triple!) checking that you’ve not left the price on the bunch of flowers you bought at the garage.
SHOOT MACRO, SHOOT LOW DOWN
Some higher-end tripods enable fine camera control for macro work. Not only is the control of depth-of-field using small apertures easier, but shooting subjects that are low on the ground is more simple too. Tripods with separately articulated central columns or legs that can be splayed out well beyond 45° come into their own for this kind of work, allowing you to get the camera into positions that normally can’t be reached without lying in the mud or balancing from a precarious perch. Removable centre columns let cameras be arranged inches off the ground.
Ensure your tripod’s legs are planted firmly so they don’t slip; if it has spiked feet, use them. To aid stability, add weight to your tripod. If a holder is supplied, use it; otherwise improvise by hanging your camera bag, or any other bag for that matter filled with your lunch or some sand or stones, from the tripod’s central column. This is particularly useful if conditions are windy.
Unless you have a very robust (read expensive) tripod, try to avoid extending or overextending the centre column unless you absolutely have to. Central columns can suffer from unwanted wobble. Again this is particularly important if it’s windy.
Use a ball head mounted on the tripod to allow fast camera movements. If you need to switch from landscape to portrait format, you’ll be able to tilt the camera quickly and easily.
A quick-release plate is an inexpensive gadget that allows you to quickly attach the camera on a tripod head, without the hassle of the darned screw-in lug. It mounts on the camera’s base so it doesn’t hamper you when you’re working with the camera off-tripod.
SHOOT MASSIVE DEPTH-OF-FIELD
Controlling depth-of-field to get everything within a given zone crisply rendered means using small apertures, which, in turn, means using shutter speeds that are simply too slow to handhold, even in bright conditions. A tripod will help you here. Let’s say that on a bright day with some high cloud your camera indicates an exposure of 1/125sec at f/5.6. Stop down to f/22 and you find your shutter speed has become a lengthy 1/8sec. We defy you to handhold that without shaking!
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