Tips on how and when to use a tripod
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Without any doubt, a tripod is my most important photographic accessory. Whenever it is possible I use one! Images are sharper and I have more control over my camera settings. Without it my options for depth of field, shutter speed, diaphragm, iso and artistic possibilities are limited.
If you want to improve the technical quality of your photographs, the best tip I can give you is to buy a tripod. They can be quite bulky to carry around and add some extra weight to your already heavy photo equipment. But using a tripod enables you to create pictures you otherwise couldn’t. In this tutorial we focus on the technical aspects of the use of a tripod.
Avoiding camera shake
The main purpose of a tripod is to avoid unsharpness caused by camera shake. Camera shake occurs when you take handhold pictures at long shutter speeds. Every movement that occurs during the time that your shutter is open will cause a blurred image. A tripod helps to keep the camera steady.
Camera shake is caused and influenced by a combination of factors:
- Camera stability
- The shutter speed
- The lens you use
- The size of your sensor
When shooting handhold try to keep your camera as steady as possible. Some people claim to be able to shoot sharp images at 1/15sec with a 50mm lens. Just let them enjoy their blurred images! The fact is that most handhold images shot at 1/125 with a 50mm lens still show signs of camera shake. But you will only notice this if you have a look at a 100% enlargement of the image. For most purposes this shouldn’t be a problem, but if you really want a sharp image use a tripod; even at fast shutter speeds!
The influence of shutter speed, lens and sensor size on camera shake
An old photographic rule of thumb says that to obtain a relatively sharp photo with any consistency when handholding a camera, you need a minimum shutter speed equal to the focal length of the lens in use. For example if you have a 50mm lens on your camera your slowest handhold shutter speed will be 1/50sec. Use a 100mm lens you will need 1/100sec. At slower shutter speeds you certainly need a tripod or image stabilization to produce sharp images.
When using this rule you will also have to take the size of your camera sensor into account. For digital cameras with cropped sensors, one needs to convert to a 35mm equivalent focal length. That means for example that for a Canon rebel with a crop factor of 1,6 you will have to use faster shutter speeds to shoot sharp images. A 100mm lens becomes an equivalent of a 160mm (100mm x 1,6) lens and your shutter speeds needs to be equal or faster than 1/160sec.
So the longer your lens and the smaller your sensor the more likely to get unsharpness in handhold images. When you compare a 100mm lens with a 50mm lens you have doubled the optics and with it every movement, vibration and being out of focus will be doubled to. With a 200mm lens every mistake is magnified four times and with a 500mm lens it is even ten times.
Get the best out of your tripod
Handholding a camera restricts you to photographing in bright light, using wide-open apertures, high iso, only short lenses or a combination of these. Why not use a tripod to remove all these restrictions?
At low light conditions you can choose a wide diaphragm in combination with a fast shutter speed in order to be able to create sharp handhold images. However the choice of diaphragm should be based on your desired depth of field and not on the available light. If you want to capture the glory of a vast landscape you want a depth of field as wide as possible. This mostly means you will have to use a slow shutter speed so you will need a tripod.
By using a tripod you have full control over your camera settings and your photographic possibilities will expand significantly. With a tripod a wide new world will open to you. Low light and night photography, HDR, panorama, long exposures and macro photography all require the use of a tripod.
Full control over camera settings
With a tripod you will be able to choose an optimal combination of diaphragm, shutter speed and ISO. Because you’re able to use slower shutter speeds you can shoot at any aperture and ISO you like. You will have more control over the depth of field. You can shoot landscapes with a wide depth of field, even in low light conditions.
Low light and night photography
Low light and night photography is only possible with the aid of a tripod. With a tripod you will be able to use long exposures. In night photography exposures can be very long; exposures of seconds, minutes or even hours will enable you to capture the nocturnal world.
Including motion blur in a sharp picture
Long exposure times give you also the possibility to include motion blur within a sharp picture. A tripod will help you to avoid blurriness caused by camera shake, but object movements within the scene can still cause motion blur. This motion blur can ad some extra mystical aspect to your image. You will be able to capture the world in a way you would never see without a camera. Flowing water, a moving car, drifting clouds, wind blown vegetation can creatively used to produce artistic images.
Milky water caused by long exposure: on the left a small forest stream and on the right mangrove roots in the surf of the sea. Click on images to see at full size.
Long exposures can be achieved by using small apertures. But you have to be careful not to use the smallest apertures because they will lead to unsharpness caused by diffraction. A better way to achieve long exposures is by using neutral density ND filters.
Long exposure images with from left to right moving vegetation, moving water and moving clouds. Click on images to see at full size.
Long exposure also has the benefit that you can make unwanted “intruders” disappear from your pictures, When the exposure is long enough and they keep on moving they become invisible. This enables you to shoot empty streets or other scenes without people that are normally crowded.
Create panorama images
Another use of a tripod is to take a series of overlapping images and stitch them together to create a panorama image. Shooting handhold makes it difficult or impossible to keep your camera level. You can create your panoramas handhold but then you will be limited to stitching 2 or 3 images together. When you use a tripod you have a very precise control over your composition and you will be able to create compositions including 5, 10, 50 images.
The main problem when shooting handhold images is the unwanted vertical and horizontal movements you make with your camera and these results in motion blur. With macro photography you have an extra problem. Depth of field in macro photography is very limited, often no more then a few mm wide. This makes it very difficult to keep your object in focus when taking handhold images. The slightest movement (forwards or backwards) will change the plain of focus resulting in focus-blur and an unsharp image. Without a tripod extreme macro photography would be impossible.
When you shoot people or animal portraits you want the front eye to be sharp otherwise the image will lose its power. Sharpness behind the eye just won’t work.
Create a series of exactly the same frame
Certain photographic techniques such as HDR, time lapse and light position require a series of exactly the same frame. This can only be achieved by using a tripod or another device to keep your camera perfectly fixed.
Left and middle are light compositions (layer blending in photoshop) of a series of images with different exposure to compensate high light contrast. The right image is a high definition range image (automatic composition with photomatrix software). Click on image to enlarge.
Precise control over your composition
With a tripod you will be able to make small adjustments to your composition. A tripod slows you down and forces you to think about the picture you are taking and getting the framing right. In studio photography, the tripod frees you from the camera. You will be able to concentrate on your composition and lighting.
How to use a tripod
Using a tripod is a little more complicated than just setting it up with your camera attached and start shooting. Here are some tips how to use your tripod and get the best out of it.
Don’t buy the cheapest lightweight tripod, it will be unstable and a waste of money. A good tripod will be relatively heavy as most of its stability derives from its weight. I use a Manfrotto 055 prob (3,5kg) for most of my shots. Even for relatively short hikes (1 or 2 days) I carry it with me. For the longer hikes I have a lightweight Manfrotto 732 CY (1,3kg), but it really limits my photographic options. The lightweight tripod won’t be of any use in windy conditions or whenever I want to use very long exposures.
Frame your shot first
Finding the best composition is crucial to create high quality images. A camera attached to a tripod makes it more difficult to find that perfect frame. It can be very tempting to just set up your tripod and start shooting. In this way a tripod will restrict your photographic creativity. Don’t let this happen! First frame your shot by hand holding your camera before you set your tripod. This process will slow you down, but it will also help you to find the best composition instead of just starting to shoot hoping to get a lucky shot.
When you are using a tripod you want it to stay as stable as possible. The slightest movement or vibrations can cause the image to be blurred.
- Use a stable underground
- Limit the height of your tripod
- Stabilize your tripod
Whenever possible set up your tripod on a hard surface and make sure the legs are not slighting. On a soft surface you can push the tripod until it’s seated securely.
You should not go higher than necessary, the higher you extend your tripod the more instable it will be. Try to avoid using the center column, only extend it if it is really necessary.
Stabilize your tripod by hanging a weight (camera bag) from the center column. Make sure the weight is stable and not swinging. Shield the tripod from wind if necessary.
Use mirror uplock mode
In a DSLR camera the mirror will flip up out of the light path just before the shutter opens. This mirror movement causes the camera to vibrate and can cause a lost of sharpness. The impact of this mirror movement will be most noticeable at shutter speeds between 1/50 and 1 second. Whenever using shutter speeds within this range or close to it I would advice to use your mirror uplock mode. In mirror uplock mode the mirror flips up a few seconds before you take the actual shot. In this way the vibrations caused by the mirror movement will be faded out.
Turn of the image stabilization (IS) or vibration reduction (VR)
While IS or VR reduce camera shake when shooting handhold images they can cause the camera to vibrate while attached to a tripod. Especially when there are small movements within the frame (foliage or cloud movements caused by wind, a moving object…) the IS or VR system will try to compensate these movements and will cause the image to be blurred.
Use a time-release, cable or remote release
Every time you touch your equipment you may cause unwanted movement or vibrations. By using a time-release, a cable or remote release you will be able to avoid these vibrations and movements.
Be aware of diffraction
When you use a tripod you will be able to shoot at very small apertures in order to achieve a wide depth of field. However you have to try to avoid the smallest apertures of your lens. When your aperture is smaller than a certain threshold you can loose sharpness caused by diffraction.
When not to use a tripod?
My advice is to use a tripod whenever possible. Sometimes I don’t use a tripod, but I know my photographic options will be limited. I only do this when image quality is of less importance or when it is impossible to use a tripod. At certain locations you are not allowed to use a tripod. Using a tripod is only a small part of shooting sharp images, but it is one of the most crucial ones.
Whenever you have to be able to react quickly in order to get the shot you want, tripods can be limiting your options. What I sometimes do when I have to be able to react quickly is to leave the tripod attached to the camera. With the tripod legs folded up and without putting it on the floor the tripod acts as a stabilization device. The extra weight of the tripod hanging down from the camera will significantly reduce camera shake. The lighter your camera the more it suffers from camera shake when shooting handhold images.