Part One of Two – Techniques of the pros
I was teaching basic photography tips at a workshop when a student asked me how to properly use a tripod. It occurred to me that no one had ever actually asked me that question before. I also realized that no one had ever actually “taught” me how to use a tripod. I developed tripod technique based on trial and error. Here is what I have learned.
First Things First
Step 1. Buy the biggest and best tripod you can afford! Really.
Step 2. Buy the heaviest tripod YOU WILL ACTUALLY CARRY! If you won’t use it because it’s too heavy, it’s better not to buy it all.
Actually, I recommend buying more than one tripod. (You have more than one lens don’t you?) Not every tripod is perfect for every situation. I have big heavy tripods I use in the studio because they roll around on wheels. I have lightweight carbon fiber tripods for field work. I have a monopod for use in places that won’t allow a tripod.
Look at your equipment and the type of shooting that you do. Then match your tripod to the task. Test several tripods and buy something based on how it suits you.
When you select a tripod, make sure that you underestimate how much weight it can really handle. Tripod manufacturers are notorious for rating their equipment on the plus side of the scale. So if your tripod maker says their model can handle nine pounds worth of equipment, impose a four and one half pound limit. If you cut their specs in half you are usually closer to the truth.
Also, try to select a tripod that will get low to the ground. The theory is that the lower to the ground the tripod goes, the more stable it is. Also, opt for tripods with three sections rather than four. While four section tripods will pack up smaller and be easier to pack into the field, they are not as stable.
When you set your tripod up, look for a level space. This will help minimize vibrations caused by legs jutting out at awkward angles. Keep things balanced. The top platform should be horizontal and as level as possible. If you’re shooting on a slope, you should shorten the uphill leg, angling it farther from vertical so it points into the hillside.
Depending on the shot you want to make, keep your tripod as close to the ground as possible to minimize the effects of wind and vibration. Try spreading the legs a little wider. You can go too far and make the whole thing unstable, but remember that a fat pyramid will be more stable than a thin one. Less extension always means greater stability. At all costs, try to avoid raising your tripod’s center column. This actually destabilizes the tripod. If you need more height, try moving to higher ground. Of course the higher you go, the more likely you will have to deal with the wind.
Always try to set your tripod up so that wind is not a factor. Use something to block the wind. Stand behind a vehicle or a tree. Get your friends and family to block the wind by forming a human wall. Anything that you can do to minimize wind interference will help steady the tripod.
Coming up later this afternoon, part two of my Tripod tutorial starting with proper tripod operating technique.