Why Shoot With a Tripod – the ultimate guide


Getting Started

When you first got a tripod, you probably thought it was pretty simple: just extend the legs, put the camera on top, and voi’lá! It’s ready to go!  However, I can assure you that it’s not that simple.

Let me start with a quote from the great Ansal Adams:

“Many photographers casually set up the tripod and use the various tilts and adjustments in a haphazard way. It is preferable, however, to be more methodical in setting up the tripod, if time and situation permit, to provide precise positioning of the camera and the greatest possible stability.” –Ansel Adams, The Camera

Invest in a Good Tripod System

First I want to highlight the importance of investing in a good tripod system. Unfortunately, many of us end up making poor choices when it comes to purchasing tripods. I remember how I started out with a few cheap tripods, which didn’t work out good at all. Then bought a moderately-priced tripod, only to realize that I needed something better. Over time, I spent too much on “experimenting” with different tripods. Don’t go through the same process like I did and invest in a good tripod system sooner than later. Keep in mind that good tripods often do not come with a head, so make sure to carefully pick a solid head for your tripod as well. Usually, the type of head you pick will depend on what you shoot. But the most common type on the market today is a ballhead, which does well for various photography needs.

My favourite 3LeggedThing tripod and head with my Fujifilm GFX 50s
My favorite 3LeggedThing tripod and head with my Fujifilm GFX 50s

When Should You Use a Tripod

It is important to know when you need to use a tripod or monopod. Shooting hand-held is effortless compared to setting up a tripod and mounting the camera on it, which is why many of us (myself included at times), prefer shooting hand-held when possible. Although most modern cameras are capable of producing excellent results with very low noise levels at high ISOs. Thus have certainly reduced the need to use tripods. Still, they are preferred in low-light situations, especially when one would like highest quality images with little or no noise on high-resolution cameras. Since there are so many variables involved, such as camera hand-holding technique or lack off, shutter speed, ISO performance, sensor size, focal length, image stabilization, lens sharpness, and camera to subject distance, there is no magic formula for figuring out exactly when a tripod must be used.

I use a tripod every possible opportunity, often with a wireless remote control or with Live View and shooting tethered. In the studio, I have a big camera stand which is smooth as butter for still life, product photography and top shots.

By shooting tethered with the camera on a tripod I was able to control more accurately the light and details of each shot.
By shooting tethered with the camera on a tripod I was able to control more accurately the light and details of each shot.

With the camera placed on a tripod, I am able to get out from behind the camera to look at my subject directly Face to face communication works much better for me than being hidden behind the camera.
With the camera placed on a tripod, I am able to get out from behind the camera to look at my subject directly Face to face communication works much better for me than being hidden behind the camera.

The Key for Better Communication with the Subject

Because of my large and medium format background, I like getting out from behind the camera to see my subject directly. If I am taking a portrait, for example, I also let my subject see me directly. Face to face communication works much better for me than being hidden behind the camera.

I usually direct my subject to look at me. If I want that look to be at the camera, I’ll position my eyes right above the camera (looking very slightly above the lens has a better effect on the eyes than looking directly into the lens). If I want the subject to look to the side, I will move around, stand up, crouch down, always asking my subject to be looking at me regardless of direction. During this, I am shooting remotely by using the wireless remote control or via mobile wireless, such as FUJI APP. This technique works especially well with Actors, Athletes, and small children.  Children depend tremendously on seeing the face for much of their communication. Athletes and Actors are generally camera shy.

When I’m behind a camera, my voice is muffled, the subject loses much of the facial communication they depend on. To avoid that, I’ll focus a short telephoto on a spot. Then put the subject there and squat just out of the camera’s view.  And I will use the remote release to photograph. It also allows me to retain a certain framing and yet go forward to adjust the pose, move a whisp of hair, and keep the rest untouched. When shooting groups, especially with children, having the camera on a tripod keeps the scene in the register. Later I can swap heads or eyes, even shoot them all separately.

My big and super stable studio camera stand.
My big and super stable studio camera stand.

Techniques for Photographers Shooting with a Tripod

  • HDR Photography: You can shoot three different shots at different shutter speeds to get different exposures. Then combine them with programs like Photomatix and get a really amazing high dynamic range.
  • Photography Genres: Landscape, Macro, Architecture and some other photography genres might require tripod use for precision, framing and consistency, even if light conditions are good. One might want to introduce intentional motion blur. Such as when photographing waterfalls, moving clouds and other movements. Also, some specific techniques such as Panorama, HDR, Timelapse and Exposure Blending might also require tripod use.
  • Long Exposure Photography: You can shoot exposures up to 30 seconds long makes waves and water look smooth clouds.
  • Exposure Delay: If your camera has exposure delay feature and you don’t have a remote cable release, this mode can help effectively.
  • Night Photography. You can shoot amazing sharp photos at night by combining a low ISO with a high aperture and long exposure.
By using a tripod in this situation I was able to capture the movement of the carousel, which gave the final image a much more dynamic feel.
By using a tripod in this situation I was able to capture the movement of the carousel, which gave the final image a much more dynamic feel.

  • Time-lapse photography. If you have an Intervalometer you can shoot several shots a minute or second for hours. After that combine them to make a time-lapse video.
  • Masking. If you’re shooting a family or group and some people smile in one photo and some not. You can take several photos and replace just the faces from their good photo to have everyone smiling in one shot.
  • Portrait. Better interactions with subject allowing the photographer to step away with from behind the camera.
With a tripod, I can keep the camera fixed in one place and move the subjects around. Later, I can composite an image merging several shots.
With a tripod I can keep the camera fixed in one place and move the subjects around. Later, I can composite an image merging several shots.

Do Not Let Your Tripod Dictate Framing and Composition

One of the major pitfalls with tripods is developing tunnel vision for framing and composition. Many of us fully extend tripod legs, set up the camera and then start framing and composing our shots. How many times have you seen photographers stacked up like this:

All capturing the same scene at the same angle. Before you set up your tripod do the following: walk around the area, look for good angles and work on the composition with your camera hand-held. Drop down, look at lower angles or move higher up and look for a different perspective. Once you figure out what your shoot will look like, only then open up your tripod and mount your camera on it. Develop this habit of working with your tripod and avoid doing it the other way around. Do not let your tripod hinder your creativity and dictate your framing and composition!

Using the tripod on a boat from such a low angle gave me the small bit of stability I needed to get the shot.
Using the tripod on a boat from such a low angle gave me the small bit of stability I needed to get the shot.

 Setting Up your Tripod

Although setting up your tripod may seem like a slow and tedious process, It’s important to do it carefully to ensure the sharpest image possible. Ensuring that your tripod is in a stable position will also help prevent it from toppling over. Which will most likely damage your camera and lens. Another reason to invest in a quality tripod is: you have thousands invested in lenses and bodies and then to ensure the safety of it with a 50 euros tripod is just poor thinking.

And, finally, knowing that It’s going to take you a long time to set up that tripod, you’ll be more careful about what composition you choose.

  • Secure Your Camera / Lens Tightly: To avoid potential accidents, always make sure to secure your camera or lens tightly. Once you mount your gear, hold it with your hands and try to move it. There should be no wiggling or shaking of any sort.

1 – Find your composition first

It’s a good idea to find your composition first and then worry about the tripod. So, walk around and explore your subject from different angles. It may help to look through your viewfinder as you do this to help you see exactly what the composition will look like as a photo.

  • Tripod Placement and Leveling: Before you start setting up the tripod, first identify where it will be placed. While most locations have firm and flat grounds making it easy to set up a tripod, some places can be very tricky, requiring some of the tripod feet to be extended shorter or longer to be fully secure. Always make sure that the tripod base is properly leveled – use those bubble levels on the tripod legs. You want the load in the center of the tripod to be distributed evenly to all three legs. The last thing you want is accidents with your gear crashing down! Also, be extremely careful about placing tripod feet on anything that moves or can potentially break (thin ice, sand, etc).

 

examples images different points of view

An unconventional custom-made tripod that we built to shoot this Inifity campaign.
For this Infinity campaign, I wanted to shoot through the car window. So we built thisunconventional custom-made tripod.

Infinity Campaign

I placed the camera on a tripod with the framing I wanted for this scene so that I could move and compose the foliage and direct the model without moving the camera.
I placed the camera on a tripod with the framing I wanted for this scene so that I could move and compose the foliage and direct the model without moving the camera.

Joao Carlos - Chloe Jasmine Whichello

2 – Point one of the tripod legs towards your subject

Pointing one of the tripod legs towards your subject will give you room to stand between the other two legs (helping to prevent you from tripping over the tripod), and it can help stabilize the camera some more when it’s pointed towards the ground.

Keeping one of the tripod legs towards the subject helps to make the camera more stable.
Keeping one of the tripod legs towards the subject helps to make the camera more stable.
Rui Veloso Portuguese Rock\Blues Icon for BaniF Bank. 
Rui Veloso Portuguese Rock\Blues Icon for BaniF Bank.

3 – Keep the center post vertical and perpendicular to the ground

To ensure the weight of your camera is evenly distributed to all three legs, make sure the center post is vertical and perpendicular to the ground. Using one of those bubble levels that attach to the center post can tremendously help you level the tripod like this and show you precisely when it’s good to go. These bubble levels, if they’re not already built-in on your tripod, are usually specific to each tripod model and available for less than $10.  I use 3 Legged Thing tripods that have two built-in Levels located in the ball head and lower leg part.

4 – Avoid extending the center post

The center post is significantly less stable than the three legs spread out, so only use the center post as a last resort. This will often cause some frustration in setting up your tripod to that perfect height, but just remember that it’s helping you get the sharpest image possible.

  • If you do use the center column, always make sure that the tripod base is leveled so that the center post is in vertical orientation – you do not want to angle it, as the weight of the camera might make your tripod fall on the heavy side.
  • Extend Thick Leg Sections First: My 3legged Thing tripod is lightweight, but its legs are quite thin on the bottom. If I only need to use one or two sections, I will be extending the thicker ones and leaving out the thin ones, because it will make the tripod more stable. The same goes for all other tripods – the top sections are always going to be the thickest and the strongest.
  • Fully Open Up the Legs: All tripods will have stopping points where the legs will not open up any further. Always make sure to spread those legs all the way – you do not want heavy equipment to suddenly spread legs when shooting, potentially ruining not only your shot but also your equipment.
  • Leg Placement: When placing your tripod, it is a good idea to point one of the tripod legs towards the subject/scene middle, so that you could stand between the other two legs.

 

5 – Use an L-bracket for short lenses

The “L” bracket is a special kind of plate that attaches your camera to the tripod head. It’s shaped like an “L” (heh) and allows you to mount your camera in portrait orientation, while still keeping the camera at the center of the three legs.

  • Camera L Bracket: When mounting your camera on the tripod head, it is always a good idea to use an L Bracket instead of a single plate on the bottom of the camera. With a regular plate, your camera will be heavier on one side in portrait orientation, which might not be secure. L brackets can be expensive, as they are made specifically for each camera, however, 3LeggedThing produce universal L Brackets that are more affordable.
  • Long / Heavy Lens Mounting: If you are using a heavy lens, always make sure to mount the lens on your tripod using its tripod collar, instead of mounting your camera and letting your lense hang off the mount. Not only will you keep your camera safe from potentially breaking or bending the lens mount, but you will also end up with a much more stable setup.

Fujifilm GFX 50s with 3LeggedThing QRII-FB L bracket.

Fujifilm X-H1 with 3LeggedThing QRII-FB L bracket
Here are a few photos that illustrate the difference between the L-bracket and a standard plate.

Fujifilm X-H1 mounted with a standard plate on a 3Legged tripod Fujifilm GFX 50s mounted with a standard plate on a 3Legged tripod

The L-bracket has two big advantages: it keeps the center of gravity where the tripod can best support it (at the center of the three legs), and it gives you a few more inches of height when you’re shooting in portrait orientation (these few extra inches can certainly make or break a photo!).

  • Head Flip Lock Release Considerations: Flip locks are nice and convenient, but you always have to make sure that the plates are of the right size for your head. , which can vary in size depending on the country and manufacturer.

6 – Use a tripod collar for long lenses

Since big heavy lenses will often shift the center of gravity of your camera, It’s important to use a tripod collar that evenly balances the weight between your camera and lens. Without one, you’ll surely notice how your camera has a tendency to slowly shift down after you lock the head into place.

Using a remote helps to reduce camera shake, which is particularly prone to occur when you are using a tele lens. Notice also that when using a tele lens the camera is placed on the tripod through a ring attached to the lens. This shifts the center of gravity and makes the whole setup more stable.
Using a remote helps to reduce camera shake, which is particularly prone to occur when you are using a tele lens. Notice also that when using a tele lens the camera is placed on the tripod through a ring attached to the lens. This shifts the center of gravity and makes the whole setup more stable.

7 – Hang a camera bag or other heavy object from the center post for extra stability

  • Tripod Hook: If your tripod is equipped with a hook on the bottom, or perhaps in the center column, hanging your camera bag or a sandbag can provide extra stability. However, if it is very windy and your bag is not heavy enough, it could have a detrimental effect, potentially destabilizing your setup.
  • A sandbag is also a good solution to hang from your Tripod.
  • Camera Strap: Camera straps are convenient to have on your camera, but once mounted on a tripod, can cause camera shake in windy situations.
The power bank hanging on the center of the tripod not only helps to bring the setup more stable but also provides an extra battery kick to the cell phone that I was using to record some videos of the boats.
The power bank hanging on the center of the tripod not only helps to bring the setup more stable but also provides an extra battery kick to the cell phone that I was using to record some videos of the boats.

Weight:

If the gear is very heavy, it is best to avoid hand-holding it, especially when photographing for extended periods of time. Trying to hand-hold a 70-200  mm f/4 lens or f/2.8 mm Lens with a professional DSLR will quickly tire your hands, even if you work out every day.

ISO Performance and Acceptable Level of Noise:

Some of the modern cameras are capable of producing superb images at high ISOs without introducing too much noise, losing lots of dynamic range and colors. However, there is always a fine line between what the camera can do and what your preference is in terms of what you consider acceptable. Some photographers do not mind seeing lots of noise, while others are bothered by even a hint of it. Decide what you consider acceptable for your camera and if the conditions call for higher ISOs, you will know when tripod use will be mandatory.

Print / Output Size:

How large you are planning to print or display your images is also important. If you need amazing pixel-level quality for those large billboard-size prints or ultra high-resolution monitors, you might need to shoot at low ISO levels, which result in slower shutter speeds. However, if you are not interested in printing and only want to showcase your images on the web, then you could take advantage of resizing / down-sampling of images, which will drastically reduce blur, noise and other problems in images.

Focal Length and Subject Distance:

The longer the lens, the faster your shutter speed will need to be to yield sharp images when shooting hand-held. Subject distance is also important – if the subject is far away and represents a small part of your frame, poor sharpness will be much more obvious.

Shoot at Base ISO and Turn Off Auto ISO:

Most cameras have the least amount of noise and the highest dynamic range at their base ISO (usually between ISO 64 and 200), so use the lowest native setting. Make sure to turn off Auto ISO.

Eliminate camera shake:

With exposure delay, the camera mirror will go up, then the camera will wait for a specified time before taking a picture. On some cameras, you can specify the amount of time to wait. Some cameras allow you to use a self-timer in combination with exposure delay.

Electronic Front Curtain Shutter:

A number of new DSLRs (like Nikon D810) and mirrorless cameras have the Electronic Front Curtain Shutter feature. With this feature turned on, the camera will not operate its shutter mechanism at the beginning of the exposure, which can completely eliminate any kind of camera shake. If you are shooting with a DSLR, you will have to be in Mirror Up mode though and there might be other limitations. Although this feature is usually off by default, I would recommend to turn it on and use it actively.

Turn Off Image Stabilization:

Unless your lens has a specific image stabilization mode to be used on tripods, you should always keep it turned off. When your gear is on a stable setup, you do not want image stabilization to try to compensate for the movement that is not there.

 

Quick Tips For Photographers Using a Tripod

Using the built-in Count-Down Timer.

I find this useful when shooting on my lightweight tripod when I do not want the camera to move at all when pressing and depressing the button. Same with shots between HDR. This way I know the camera will not move and create any motion blur resulting in sharper images.

Position the tripod’s legs to support the weight of the lens.

If you’re using a heavier lens be sure to place one leg facing forward so the camera won’t fall forward in a strong wind or a slight bump.

Keep the Tripod Level.

If you’re on a hill adjust the legs so the leg that is higher up will be a bit shorter. You always want to maintain balance and stability.

Shoot a Low ISO.

No reason to shoot any higher than an ISO of 200. Having a low ISO number will help your stay relatively free of grain which can cause softness.

Know how to carry your tripod.

If you carry your tripod over your shoulder with the camera attached. Make sure the lens hangs to the right. Gravity will pull the lens down twisting the tripod tighter onto its plate vs looser if it was hanging the other way. You don’t want your camera loosening and falling off while you’re carrying it.

Be aware of where you set your tripod.

If your tripod is set up on soft grass, it may not give you very good results, as any movement you make might shift the ground the tripod is on which will blur your image.

Use Cable Release:

Squeezing the shutter release with your fingers will surely cause camera shake, so it is a good idea to use a remote/cable release or app.

Self Timer:

Adding a two+ second delay with self-timer is usually a good idea, especially if you do not have a remote/cable release.

Mirror Up:

If you have a DSLR, its mirror causes a lot of vibration when it moves up before each exposure. Using Mirror Up will raise the mirror first, then you can wait for a little before taking the shot. Mirror Up requires a remote / cable release.


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