Buy a good tripod and use it religiously.
Too many photographers feel that a tripod isn’t necessary unless shooting in a low light situation or shooting with long lenses. They tend to rely on the old “1 divided by the lens’ focal length” rule (a “rule” that recommends not using a shutter speed below the reciprocal of the focal length lens used. For example, if you’re shooting with a 50mm lens, the minimum “safe” shutter speed to hand-hold the camera would be 1/60th sec., for a 200mm lens – 1/250th sec.). Although this “rule” is actually a pretty good guideline to watch for camera shake (blurred images due to camera motion during the exposure), it’s not a free pass to shoot everything hand-held. If your camera is moving during that 1/60th sec. exposure, either due to jabbing the shutter or from too much coffee, you’re going to get 1/60th sec. of motion in your image. Although that doesn’t sound like much, the visible difference in sharpness between that image and the same image shot while using a good, sturdy tripod can be the difference between a prize winner and bird cage liner.
Apart from holding your camera steady, a good tripod allows you to carefully consider your composition and make small adjustments to improve the final image. It’s difficult to hand-hold a camera and, for example, notice a small twig in the composition, move to remove the twig, and return to the exact same composition. When hand-holding a camera, most people will not notice the twig, and those who do usually don’t take the time to remove it, resulting in a rushed image that could have been better – not to mention sharper.
I keep referring to a “good tripod” – well what exactly is a “good tripod”? The answer depends on the type of photography you do. A studio photographer will probably have a much different tripod than a nature photographer shooting in the field – and, believe it or not, weight is not necessarily the main concern.
The majority of my work is nature photography. For me, the ideal tripod has the following qualities:
Has To Have Some Substance
A tripod has to be heavy enough to be sturdy, so I prefer the heaviest tripod that I can comfortably carry in the field. A tripod is meant to be a solid base, and you can’t get a solid base with a lightweight tripod – I don’t care how “strong” the new composite material is – if it shakes when you barely touch it or when the wind blows, it’s not solid.
Has To Be Tall Enough
For me, a good tripod has to come up to eye level without the center post being extended. Bending over all day to look through your camera is a sure fire way to get you looking for a different hobby or career. Extending a center post to get the camera up to eye level reduces the stability of the tripod – it’s no longer a tripod, it’s a monopod on a stand. If I do want to use the center post, however, I prefer not to have a geared column (gears mean cranks, and cranks mean mechanical moving parts, and mechanical moving parts mean trouble when they decide to clog or strip in the field).
How many sections do the legs have?
The fewer, the better. A tripod with multiple leg sections (more than 3) is a headache waiting to happen. Yes, it will collapse to a smaller size, but to allow for all those leg sections, each section has to be smaller than the one above it, leaving you with tiny little stems at the bottom of the tripod holding your whole system up. More sections also mean more areas of the tripod that can malfunction in the field.
How low can it go?
For me, as low as possible and still use the tripod normally, meaning I don’t want to have to reverse the column to get low. I don’t like operating my camera upside-down – it doesn’t hurt it, but I just don’t like it – my hands aren’t built that way. Reversing the column also means one of two things – either you’re fighting one of the legs to get to the viewfinder, or one of the legs is in the way when you compose your shot. I prefer a tripod that lets me span the legs out so that they’re practically flat on the ground. Your only limiting factor then is the height of the center column. I’ve literally cut off the bottom section of the center column on my tripod (leaving just enough to add on a section should I need additional center column height) – so I’m able to get right down to the ground and operate my camera normally
So Much For The Legs – How About The Head?
Much like a camera system, I prefer a tripod that offers some flexibility where the head is concerned – preferably an interchangeable head. There are basically three types of tripod heads: pan-tilt heads, ball heads, and fluid heads.
A pan-tilt head has separate locks for individual head movement: up and down, side to side, and rotating (for setting up vertical compositions). Avoid heads that only have two way motion, as this means you will have to loosen the camera from its mount and spin it to compose a vertical shot and you will lose one of the other movement directions in the process. The advantage of a pan-tilt head is that it allows you to make corrections in one direction without changing the others (such as leveling up the horizon without turning the camera), making them ideal for landscape work.
Ball heads are a ball and socket design and operate with one lock that allows full motion of the camera. Higher priced ball heads incorporate a tensioning setting that adjust how loose or stiff the movement is when the head is unlocked, making them ideal for wildlife work. For the most part, the bigger the ball,the smoother the operation and the more sturdy the head.
Fluid Heads are primarily designed for video use, and as such offer no provision for vertical compositions. Inside a fluid head is a cushion of oil or liquid that dampens the movement of the head so sudden “jerks” don’t occur. Ideal for video use, but not very practical for still photography.
I also like a tripod head with a good, solid quick release feature. A “quick release” is typically some sort of plate that you screw into your camera’s tripod socket. That plate then affixes onto the tripod head, allowing you to quickly remove the camera from the tripod and quickly replace it. This allows you to remove the camera without disturbing the tripod position. This allows you to grab a quick hand-held shot that you would miss otherwise (sometimes getting a blurry image may be better than getting no image at all – remember that UFO that landed in your backyard last year…and your neighbors wouldn’t believe you?), or, more importantly, it allows you to walk around and compose compositions without the camera being attached to the tripod. Once you find a good composition, set up the tripod, attach the camera and fine tune the composition. Now, when I say “a good, solid quick release feature”, I mean exactly that. Many lower priced tripods will offer a quick release, but the plate is a tiny piece of plastic, and the mount on the tripod itself is made from the same flimsy plastic, resulting in a weak, flimsy tripod camera mount. To me, it just doesn’t make sense to risk your new $1,000.00 camera on a $19.95 tripod!
Sometimes You Gotta Make Do
There may be times when you are simply forced to use a lighter-weight tripod (weight restrictions while traveling, space restrictions, etc.). One trick to sturdy up an otherwise light tripod is to affix a bag to the bottom end of the center column and fill it with sand, rocks, bricks – anything that will add some weight. This will actually stabilize the tripod considerably. This technique will also increase the stability of an already stable tripod!