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Buy a good sturdy tripod and use it as often as possible.
Yes, they're heavy, bulky and the last thing you want is more stuff to carry around with you, but they also open up a whole range of techniques you can try that would not be possible without one.
Sometimes I use one just to focus my mind on what I'm doing. Because it's more difficult to move everything around it makes me think more about the camera angle before I line up the shot. When I'm photographing people I don't like anything to slow me down, I think it's very important to get the shots as quickly as possible before the subject gets bored, but when shooting objects it's good sometimes to slow down and think a little more.
1) Take pictures at slow shutter speeds without getting the dreaded camera shake. This enables you to do lots of interesting things like having some, non-moving, parts of the picture sharp while other, moving, parts are blurred. In the picture on the right the water takes on a cloud like quality due to the slow shutter speed.
Also panning with a moving object, like a car, is easier with a tripod. Panning at a slow shutter speed will render the object (car) sharp and the background as blurred streaks. (see the bicycle picture on Shutter Speeds and Apertures)
2) Use much smaller apertures giving you greater depth of field. Because you can use slower speeds you can shoot at any aperture you like. (see the coffee bean photo on Shutter Speeds and Apertures)
3) Shoot a series of frames that will join up into a panorama more accurately. Although this is possible hand held, the best way to shoot panoramas is to shoot in upright format, take lots of pictures that overlap and use a tripod that has been carefully adjusted to be level with the ground.
4) Shoot a series of frames at different exposures to create a montage
like this picture that I shot for a website. I decided that I wanted to shoot the fire on the terrace against a sunset background.
I needed to try to shoot the whole thing as one photo rather than compositing two shots together as this would have been tricky to get right, especially behind the glass.
By setting up the shot using a sturdy tripod I could shoot different exposures for the different elements of the photo and then layer them together in Photoshop.
Here are the three separate shots that make up the final composition, the top one was exposed for the sunset and is the background in the final image. As you can see, very little of the fire or the flame are visible.
The second shot was taken much later, an hour after the first shot, but exposed for much longer to really bring out the flames. You can see that the sky is much lighter in this shot as a result of the longer exposure, which gives very bright highlights in the glass.
This introduced the only really unnatural looking part of the shot, the highlights are too bright for the sky, but I kept them anyway because I just like the look of them. As a bonus I got lights on the hillside as well which adds to the atmosphere of the shot.
The third picture was shot with as flashgun to show the base of the fire, the stones and the table. You can see by the position of the clouds that this picture was shot at about the same time as the first one, but it could have been shot at any time.
The flash on camera gives horrible highlights on the glass but that's OK because I wasn't going to use that part of the picture anyway.
I did get a nasty highlight on the foot of the base though but manage to dull it down a bit in Photoshop.
Because the three shots were taken with the camera securely fastened to a tripod the composition is exactly the same in each one, so it was easy to drop them on top of each other in Photoshop and then, using layer masks, select the bits I wanted from each photo.
If I had used the camera hand held, each shot would have been slightly different and the montage would not have been possible.
Below is the layer palette from Photoshop showing the three layers. The layers stack on top of each other and the way to reveal some of the layer underneath is to use a layer mask.
The black and white smudges to the right of the pictures are the layer masks. The black parts of the layer masks are transparent, gray bits semi-transparent and the white bits are opaque. So you can see which bits of each photo I have selected.
Don't buy a tiddly little thing just because it will fit into your gadget bag. Most of them are worse than useless. The trick is to get the right balance between weight and strength. It's no good if it's so heavy that you never want to take it anywhere and it's no good if it won't support the camera properly. The manufacturers seem to delight in over estimating what their tripods will support. Buy one that's man enough for the job. Then go to the gym and build up your muscles.
I use a Slik Pro 700DX with my Canon EOS7D. It is quite a heavy beast but it's rock steady even with a longer lens on the camera. It goes up to a decent height and even at almost full height it is still quite steady. Also the good news is it's not too expensive. I have even been known to use it for a bit of video in an emergency although you should really use a fluid damped head for that. The manufacturers say it will support up to 15lbs well, I'll tell you, I think that must have been on a good day. Take that with a pinch of salt but also bear in mind that it will be twice as good as one that says it will support 7lbs.
A few quick tips to help you get the best from your tripod.
Always spread the legs fully. Common sense really, it's going to be more stable the further you spread the legs. Some tripods, like mine, allow you to spread the legs past the normal stops to get you out of trouble in tight situations. Only use this facility when it's really necessary.
Use the minimum height you need. Don't go higher than you have to, the higher you go the more wobbly the tripod will be.
Extend the legs rather than the central column. The central column should only be used for fine adjustments, it is not as solid as the legs.
Adjust the height of the legs before spreading them. It's the only way to make sure that the legs are all the same height. This will give you the best chance of the camera being level. However you still need to check it by eye or with a spirit level.
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