Using Your Tripod: Why and How

In my last two articles, I talked about how to select tripod legs and a tripod head, with that gear assembled it’s time to get out into the field and learn how to use your new tripod to best advantage.

One of the primary reasons we use tripods is stability. It is simply impossible to hold a camera steady enough for a critically sharp image as shutter speeds get longer and longer, and longer shutter speeds are often an inevitable requirement of smaller apertures and wider depth-of-field.

For maximum stability when shooting from a tripod, first set up your tripod in a position where the legs have a firm connection to the ground. This can be a challenge in wet sand or snow, in those conditions, if you can sink the tripod legs and reach solid ground do so. Make sure that the leg locks (particularly on the Gitzo-type leg locks) that the legs are solid, with a number of leg locks it’s surprisingly easy to leave one a little loose, which can lead to unpleasant surprises, I’ve made this costly mistake twice over the years. Make sure the tripod head is over the center of the legs. On level ground this is simple, you simply extend the legs evenly, but in steep slopes it can be easy to set up a tripod in a way that seems stable but is actually very close to tipping over. After setting up your tripod (and perhaps before putting your camera on it), simply push the tripod to make sure it’s stable. Make sure your tripod head is locked securely as well, and make sure that you haven’t extended your center column at all unless it’s absolutely required.

While I usually recommend not touching the camera or tripod while shooting, there is an exception. High winds often leave me in a position of shooting in conditions in which you’ll still feel the tripod “ringing” with movement. Pushing the the tripod down into the ground with your hand can reduce this vibration and increase stability.

In order to avoid touching the camera, you’ll want to use a remote or a cable release, as well as using the mirror lockup feature on your camera. In digital (and film) SLRs the internal mirror flips out of the way before shooting, but the motion of the mirror creates a vibration in the camera that’s most noticable in moderate shutter speeds (1 second down to maybe 1/50 second). With mirror lockup, you press the shutter release twice, the first press locks up the mirror, the second press triggers the shutter, allowing the vibration caused by the mirror to settle out before shooting.

Take a moment (if you have that moment) to look at what you’re about to shoot. Look at your composition for distracting elements near the edges, perhaps a small change in camera posiiton will leave you with a stronger result. Take time to choose the right focusing distance for your composition, you may want to estimate the hyperfocal distance if you’re trying to for maximum DOF. Now shoot!

After shooting, don’t (save for the most pressing changing conditions) immediately run to the next shot, take a very short moment to check your exposure using your camera’s histogram function. If you’ve blown out highlights you or have otherwised missed getting a good exposure it’ll usually be easty to quickly dial in an exposure compensation adjustment and reshoot.

With care and a few good habits, a tripod will raise your photography to a new level–now, go out and shoot!

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