Do you keep getting blurry photos that you’re embarrassed to share? Maybe you’re starting to experiment with long exposures, or shooting in low light conditions? Getting sharp photos is one of the most challenging aspects of photography. But in many cases, the problem can be solved with something as simple as a tripod. In this article you’ll learn everything you need to know about tripods, so you can start taking sharp photos you’ll be proud to show others.
Do you need a tripod? No, of course you don’t – that is, if you like soft, blurry images! Blurry photos usually occur when there is movement between the camera and the subject while the camera’s shutter is open. The movement could simply be caused by the subject moving too much, or the camera being held unsteadily, or both.
A tripod prevents or reduces, camera movement caused by the photographer’s unsteady hand. However, care should be taken to press the shutter button lightly, or use the camera’s built-in timer or a remote shutter button, as even the smallest movement caused by pressing the shutter button could introduce camera shake and, therefore, blur.
We’ll start by looking at when you would need to use a tripod. Then discover the main features of a tripod and what you should look for when buying one. Next, we’ll look at some sample tripods and, finally, some alternatives.
2. When Would You Use A Tripod?
Tripods are most suitable for situations where both you and your subject are stationary. This is because most tripods don’t give you the freedom to follow a moving subject easily.
2.1 Landscape Photography
When shooting landscapes we tend to choose an aperture that’s fairly small. This cause the camera to choose comparatively slow shutter speed – which in turn increases the chances of getting blurry shots. Using a tripod means you don’t have to worry so much about the shutter speed – since the camera shouldn’t move at all whilst the photo is being taken and the shutter is open. Furthermore, once you’ve gone to the trouble of framing the shot, it’s unlikely you’ll want to capture one photo.
You’ll probably want to make a few tweaks to settings, or the framing, or wait for the sun to sink a little lower on the horizon. Again, the tripod helps here because once you’re set up, you don’t have to worry about re-framing the shot.
2.2 Portrait Photography
If you are shooting lots of portraits in the same location – perhaps at a prom evening or other social event – it can be really useful to have your camera mounted on a tripod.
Not only does it save you some back-ache it also frees you up to direct and pose your subjects.
2.3 Wildlife Photography
For wildlife subjects that are at rest (i.e. not running or flying at great speed!), a tripod is really useful. Not least because wildlife photography usually involves long, heavy telephoto or zoom lenses, and lots of sitting around waiting for the subject to appear, or re-appear. The longer the telephoto or zoom lens, the great the chance of getting blurry images. This is because just as long lenses magnify the scene, they also magnify any movement of the camera. Therefore, the longer the lens, the more likely you are to need a tripod.
Photographing the moon, the stars or other celestial bodies used to be beyond the reach of the average photographer, requiring expensive telescopes and camera adaptors. In recent years we’ve seen most of the leading lens manufacturers launching super-zoom lenses – typically in the 150-600mm range. Coupled with a camera having an APS-C or crop sensor, and possibly a 1X or 2X teleconverter, anyone can get superb astrophotography results. But, for the same reasons mentioned in Wildlife Photography above, only if a tripod is used.
2.5 Long Exposures
Tripods are also required for long-exposure photography where the use of a slow shutter speed or bulb-mode is required. As explained in Landscape Photography above, slow shutter speeds require a tripod to ensure the camera doesn’t move whilst the shutter is open.
2.6 Product Photography
Products don’t usually move around much, if at all, so are perfect for shooting with your camera mounted on a tripod. Not only do you benefit from better image quality but your hands are free to make adjustments to the subject position, or swap one product out for another.
2.7 Multiple Exposures For HDR Or Focus Stacking
Tripods are essential whenever you need to take multiple shots of the same scene, without altering the camera position. This could be for taking bracketed exposures where you want different exposures of the exact same scene – perhaps for creating HDR images. Also, multiple shots are needed for time-lapse photography where you need many images of the scene over time.
All of these uses require the camera to be in the same position throughout, and using a tripod is the best way to achieve this.
3. What Exactly Is A Tripod?
It seems like a ridiculous question. Everyone knows what a tripod is, right? Well, that may be so, but understanding the properties and features of a tripod is a great way to learn the benefits of using one.
3.1 Tripod Legs – for stability
The main feature of a tripod is its three legs. Three legs provide the best stability. A four-legged chair needs a perfectly flat surface to rest upon, otherwise you get the all-too-familiar wobbly chair problem. A two-legged ‘pod would fall over right away. Counterintuitively, there are one-legged pods – known as “monopods” – and we’ll look at them later in this article.
Tripod legs are usually telescopic. Each section of each tripod leg is slightly larger or smaller than its neighboring section, so it can slide into or over its neighboring section. The benefit of telescopic legs is twofold: a) The camera height can be adjusted and b) the tripod can be packed away to a more portable size.
The tripod legs can be folded out – usually to one or more pre-set angles.
3.2 Center Column – for height adjustment
From the bracket where all three tripod legs fold out from you’ll find a center column. It’s a pole which extends vertically from the tripod and supports the tripod head.
The column is height adjustable – which is useful for making small height adjustments to your camera.
3.3 Tripod Head – for horizontal and vertical adjustment
At the top of the center column you’ll find the tripod head. This may be removable from a base-plate attached to the top of the column, but on cheaper models it may be fixed.
Its purpose is to allow the camera to be rotated or moved around, so it can point at the intended subject. There are different kinds of tripod head, for different purposes.
3.3.1 Ball Heads
These are the most common type of tripod head for photography. A locking screw is loosened to give a wide range of positions, and then tightened to lock the head into position.
It’s perhaps the most flexible type of tripod head but it’s difficult to make very small adjustments, and nearly impossible to change just the horizontal or vertical position accurately.
3.3.2 Pan & Tilt Heads
Pan and Tilt Tripod heads have a clever feature. The horizontal and vertical movement is isolated so that you can adjust one without affecting the other. Typically they come with an arm for horizontal movement, and another arm for vertical movement.
Twisting the arm loosens the head so that the camera mounted above can be moved. It’s easier to make small adjustments than with the ball head.
3.3.3 Fluid Heads
Fluid heads are similar to pan & tilt heads but they feature drag or friction controls which make smooth panning easier.
Primarily aimed at videographers, this kind of tripod head is still useful for stills photography.
3.3.4 Pistol Grip Heads
A Pistol Grip head is a variation on the ball head. Instead of a locking screw a pistol grip is provided – similar to those found on garden hoses.
The main benefit is that adjustments can be made with just one hand.
3.3.5 Gimbal Heads
This is a somewhat specialist tripod head. It’s most useful for photographers using long, heavy lenses who need the freedom to move their camera around easily. It’s popular primarily with wildlife or nature photographers. The professionals rarely lock the gimbal head into position, preferring to be able to swing the camera around to focus quickly on a subject, or to follow a moving subject across the scene.
Rather than mounting the camera body on the head, it’s more common to have the lens mounted on the head, somewhere near the center of gravity of the combined lens and camera equipment. This makes for much easier movement and a better-balanced setup.
3.3.6 Geared Heads
Geared heads offer the ability to make microscopic adjustments to the direction your camera is pointing, without having to unlock and lock the head. They’re very niche items, preferred by architectural and product photographers require great precision and control.
The very best geared heads can cost far more than the tripod they sit on, since they are so well engineered, but cheap models are available too.
3.4 Tripod Plate – for attaching your camera to the tripod
The Tripod Plate connects the tripod head to the base of the camera body (or a tripod mount on longer, heavier lenses). It’s a good idea to have a few of these – at least one for each of your camera bodies – but a spare in case you lose one. They’re not expensive, and your tripod is useless without one.
It’s sensible to purchase tripod plates designed and manufactured for your specific tripod head. Cheaper third-party versions may be available
4. What Should You Be Looking For In A Tripod?
4.1 Leg Stiffness
Good tripods will have stiff legs, with very little flex. This is important because camera equipment can be quite heavy. If the legs are too flimsy they will flex under the weight of heavy camera gear, or even in strong winds.
If you’ll be carrying the tripod long distances you should consider the tripod’s weight. The cheapest tripods will almost always be made of heavier, cheaper materials. Look for lightweight aluminum, or, if you have deep pockets, a carbon fiber model.
The maximum height of a tripod is something you should check too. If you’re tall, you’ll want to make sure the tripod you choose is tall enough that you don’t have to crouch down every time you take a photo. On the other hand, if you know most of your photography is going to be done close to ground level, or on a tabletop – say for macros or small product shots – then you may get by with a far smaller tripod.
4.4 Leg Angle Range
Another important feature to consider is how far the tripod legs can be folded out. Most tripods have legs which can only be folded out far enough to make the tripod stable. But some photographers need more options, so they can position their tripod in very awkward situations.
4.5 Rubber Feet
A useful feature to look for is rubber feet at the bottom of each leg. These make the tripod grip the ground a little better and won’t scratch the floor surface when moved. The better tripods have articulated feet which cope better with uneven surfaces.
5. Which Tripod For Your Budget?
There are almost 60,000 tripods available on Amazon, so we’ve pulled together several of the most popular, best-rated tripods to suit every pocket.
5.1 Budget, Mid-sized, General Purpose Tripod
- Lightweight tripod with adjustable-height legs and rubber feet
- Compatible with most video cameras, digital cameras, still cameras, GoPro devices, smartphone adapters (not included), and scopes.
- Recommended max load weight is 6.6 lbs (3kg) for optimal performance
- Weighs 3 lbs; Extends from 25 inches to 60 inches when center post is fully extended; Carrying case included
- Two built-in bubble view levels and 3-way head to allow for tilt and swivel motion; portrait or landscape options
- Quick-release mounting plate helps ensure fast transitions between shots
5.2 Budget, large, general purpose tripod
- 3.63 lbs Net weight; 8.8 lbs Load Capacity; 4-Section Tripod 21″-70″ Height Range; Adjustable Center Column Converts to 5-Section Monopod 18″-65″ Height Range
- 3-Way Flexible Pan Head with Tilt & Swivel Motion; Provide 360 degree Rotation Panoramas; Built-in Bubble View Levels
- Quick-Release Plate with Standard 1/4”-20 Screw Mount Compatible for all Digital Cameras, Lenses, most Camcorders, GoPro devices, Binocular, Telescopes
- Includes a Carry Handle, Foam Grips on the Base, and a Center Column Hook for Hanging Additional Accessories, or to Add Weight to the Tripod for Additional Stabilization.
- Flip-Locks for Leg Height Adjustment; Telescopic Pan Handle; Rubber Feet with Enclosed Spikes; Locking Mid-level Spreader for Added Rigidity; A Carrying Bag & Gift Box is Included.
5.3 Medium-priced, general purpose tripod
- 26mm 3 section aluminum alloy legs adjust to 25, 50, and 80-degree angles to enable extreme low angle photography
- Smooth fluid-like ball head rotates 360 degrees and includes a quick release plate and bubble levels
- Hexagon-shaped central column moves from 0 to 180 degrees
- The Instant Swivel Stop-n-Lock (ISSL) System securely repositions the central column in one simple movement
- Premium magnesium die-cast canopy and anti-shock ring
- Quick flip leg locks and rubber feet with retractable spikes
- Outstanding stability and loading capacity up to 15.4 pounds
- Folded height: 28.125″, Extended height: 68.125″, Weight :5.38 lbs/2.44 kg
5.4 High-end, Professional, Aluminum Tripod
- 3-Section Aluminum Tripod with 90 Degree Center Column Mechanism – Extend vertically as normal as horizontally
- Quick Power Lock Levers – for custom orientation and easy single-handed locking
- Bubble Level – for precise framing of the shot
- Polymer Rings – smooth and accurate movement without grease
- Easy Link Connector – supports an accessory (like an LED light or reflector) on an extending arm or bracket transforming the tripod into a mobile studio
6. What Alternatives Are There?
Maybe you’ve decided a full-size tripod isn’t for you? That’s ok – there are a couple of other more portable options. They don’t have all the benefits of full-size tripods, but they’re better than nothing.
6.1 Mini Tripods
So far we’ve only looked at regular, full-sized tripods. But there are many smaller tripods that offer some of the same benefits, at a lower price, and without all that weight and bulk.
One of the more popular small tripods for DSLR and mirrorless cameras is the Joby GorillaPod. Its unique selling point is its flexible legs which can be wrapped around tree branches, lamp posts, fence railing – almost anything.
It’s important that you choose a version of this tripod that will take the weight of any camera and lenses you intend to use with it.
JOBY GorillaPod SLR Zoom – $40.00
A monopod is simply a single telescopic leg which you can attach your camera to the top of. You might be wondering what the point of a monopod is, since it certainly can’t stand up on its own like a regular tripod. While they’re not as popular as tripods they do have their place. Their main role is to support your camera’s weight so you don’t have to, whilst keeping the camera close to eye level so you can quickly frame and take a shot.
Despite their obvious shortcomings when compared to a regular tripod, a monopod does have some benefits. It’s at least a third of the size and weight of a comparable tripod, and you still have a reasonable degree of freedom to move the camera around and point it at your subject. For the more adventurous among us, they can double as a walking stick or staff. This makes negotiating uneven terrain easier and safer.
A less common but worthy alternative to the tripod is the bean-bag. Essentially, any old bean-bag will do – you could even make your own – but dedicated bean-bag products exist which will save you the time and trouble.
Grizzly Camera Bean Bag – $26.95
In this article you’ve learned all about tripods, why you need one, and when you’d use one. Hopefully you now have enough information to help you decide whether you should get a tripod, and if you do, what features you’d need. Despite being a nuisance to haul around, a tripod will give your photography a big boost – especially when it comes to image sharpness.