The Importance of Tripods

The photographic tripod dates back to the beginning of the photographic era mid 1800s, when wooden variations of the artist’s tripod used with the camera were pressed into service with the cameras of the day.

While everybody knows that a sturdy tripod will help you get sharper pictures when you have to (or want to) shoot at slow shutter speeds, and provides a handy perch for composing landscapes or portraits, the extreme versatility of these not-so-simple three-legged devices is vastly underappreciated by many photographers. To give you a better idea of what a tripod can do for you, and why no serious photographer should have fewer than two, here’s a handy guide of tripod capabilities and uses. It’s guaranteed to give you a better appreciation of why a good tripod can play a lot more than a supporting role in your photography.

1. Enhancing sharpness: A sturdy, stable tripod that’s properly set up will get you sharper pictures every time. Comparison tests prove that even at fast shutter speeds in the 1/250-1/1000 sec range, images shot using a tripod are measurably sharper than those taken handheld.

2. Enhancing depth of field: To achieve maximum depth of field—an image that’s critically sharp from foreground to background—you must shoot at a relatively small aperture, generally in the f/11 to f/32 range. And to maintain high image quality, it’s best to shoot at ISO 100 to 400. In most cases, unless you’re shooting in brilliant sunshine, this means that you or your camera will select a relatively slow shutter speed in order to provide a proper exposure. The inevitable conclusion: If you require extreme depth of field for pictorial or artistic effects, set your camera on Manual or A (aperture-priority) mode, select a small aperture, and use a tripod.

3. Enhancing capture quality: For reasons alluded to above, a tripod will allow you to set a lower ISO when taking picture under any lighting conditions because you can shoot sharp pictures at slower shutter speeds. Most digital cameras deliver optimum image quality with less “digital grain,” aliasing, artifacts, etc. when you set the ISO to 100 or 200.

4. Enhancing framing precision: A tripod is the supreme image-control device, allowing you to compose the picture perfectly using its panning (lateral rotation) tilting (vertical swing) and center post height adjustments. Many tripods also provide grounder capability for extreme low-angle shooting, and levels on the yoke and/or head platform to aid precise composition and minimise keystoning and other types of linear distortion. Using a tripod is also the only convenient way of shooting multiple frames exactly the same picture at different exposure settings, allowing you to choose the rendition you prefer in terms of tonal range, depth of field, etc.

5. Extending your focal-length range: The longer the focal length of your lens or the focal length setting of your zoom lens, the higher the magnification of the image on the sensor or film. That’s why the image-blurring effects of even a slight amount of camera shake will be amplified at longer focal lengths. Yes, enabling your camera’s image-stabilisation systems and shooting at higher shutter speeds can certainly help, but if you often shoot at equivalent focal lengths of 300mm and above, you should be using a sturdy medium-sized or larger tripod, preferably with the center post in its lowest position or extended only minimally for maximum stability. Candidates for hefty tripods used with long lenses include nature photographers, bird photographers, sports photographers and surveillance photographers.

6. Extending your photographic range: The number of subject types and situations where a tripod is essential or highly beneficial is virtually limitless, but here are a few you might consider: Night photography, shooting time exposures, getting yourself into the picture using the self-timer, remote photography of a pre-planned subject, view, or location, macro photography at high magnifications, architectural and astrophotography, scientific, testing, nature, and identification photography where repeatability is required, time-lapse photography, panoramic photography and of course action photography when you want to blur the background by panning the camera.

7. Enhancing your videos and movies: There’s no substitute for a tripod with a fluid head in achieving smooth panning and tilting when shooting videos and movies. Even moderately priced video tripods with fluid-effect heads instead of true fluid heads are a big help in achieving smooth looking pans that give your videos a professional touch. Serious amateurs and pros will opt for true fluid heads that can actually adjust the degree of damping action, not just the amount of friction on the movement. Even if you don’t use a tripod with a fluid head, it’s a good idea to mount your digital camera or camcorder on a tripod whenever you can—your results will look far less jerky than using a handheld camera, and you can even mount your tripod on a dolly to achieve true Hollywood-effect dolly shots, which often look a lot more realistic than zooming in or out with your lens.

8. Enhancing your creative expression: How can a tripod possibly enhance your creativity? Basically by forcing you to slow down, giving you time to think about creating a photograph and expressing your ideas, as opposed to grabbing snapshots of the passing scene. This is not to denigrate either snapshooters or photojournalists who have certainly produced timeless images of life on the move, but there is also something to be said for taking the contemplative approach, carefully considering everything in the frame before pressing the shutter release. Yes, there are some geniuses that can consistently capture decisive moments on the fly, but most shooters find their photography improves both technically and esthetically when they use a tripod. Try it—we guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

9. Extending shooting flexibility: Tripods have many uses besides holding a camera. They can be pressed into service as light stands, to hold flash units, slaves, and reflectors, or (when fitted with suitable hooks, platforms, or baskets) to hold and protect delicate equipment. We’ve even heard of one intrepid wildlife photographer who used his heavy-duty tripod with spiked leg tips to fend off a bear!

Calumet has a wide range of tripods on offer, I have highlighted two of my favourites below. 

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Calumet 7500 Tripod £109.00 This mid-sized tripod provides solid camera support for all camera formats up to medium format and can be used in the studio or out in the field. The 7500 tripod features three-section legs with convenient quick-release leg locks for fast setups, three-position leg-angle adjustments with spring-loaded locks to facilitate different height requirements, a split-shaft centre column that allows for low-angle shooting and three foam leg covers that offer over-the-shoulder carrying comfort. It also comes with a weight hook at the bottom of the column for attaching sand bags or weights for additional stability.

Manfrotto 755XB Aluminum Tripod £189.00 Designed for professional videographers, this is an extremely versatile tripod ideal for lightweight camcorders. The 755XB is entirely made from aluminum, and has a removable centre column with built-in 50mm leveling ball and bubble spirit level.

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One comment

  1. Great informative post Rory and congrats on the success with your photography career. I use a good sturdy Manfrotto myself but it does get a bit heavy when carrying it around the Lake District for a landscape shoot. I’ll have to check out the lighter variants for when weather conditions permit the use. Thanks for the info, all the best.

    Liked by 1 person

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