There are probably a hundred reasons why you should invest in a tripod. I am not going to detail each and every one of them. The tripod is, surprisingly, one of the most underrated tools in photography. I have seen even photographers who shoot regularly, skeptical about investing in one. They cite reasons like – they hardly shoot in a studio environment or that they love the feel of hand-holding their camera or that a tripod severely limits their mobility. There cannot be any sillier excuses than these.
As a matter of fact the very question ‘why you should invest in a tripod’ is illogical and meaningless. It should be ‘Why shouldn’t you?’ Once you have read the reasons that I am about to discuss, you will realize no doubt, what you have been missing thus far.
What is a Tripod?
The most obvious question, and it deserves an answer before I go any further. This is how a tripod looks. A tripod is sometimes referred to as the three-legged-thing. Now you know why. There are three legs. The legs have sections and they can be extended. The lower sections are hollow, allowing the top sections to collapse when not needed.
Once extended, the legs can be locked into position using the locking levers provided at every section joints. Ideally, the height of a tripod, when fully extended, should extend the camera up to the eye-level of the photographer. This height also includes the tripod head and finally the camera height. So, choose something about 6 – 8” shorter than the combined height of camera and the tripod head. More on the design specifications later on.
Why you should invest in a tripod: Long shutter speed, seascapes, lights trails, fireworks
The first reason that comes to my mind why you should invest in a tripod is creative long shutter speed photography. Now I know you must have seen a million times how photographers have captured breathtaking waterfall, seascape and light trails and fireworks photos. You probably know that in order to capture such a scene you need to keep the shutter open for a really long time frame. But what you may not have realized is how the photographer managed to keep everything so steady and so sharp over such a long exposure time frame?
Obviously, there are more to such photos than just keeping the shutter open. You have to select the right lens, the right aperture, the right shooting technique, including whether to use mirror up or live-view shooting, so on and so forth. But at the heart of everything there is the tripod. Without a tripod, no matter what other trick you try, your images are never going to be perfectly steady, let alone be sharp.
For the exact same reason you need a tripod when shooting landscapes. With a tripod you can focus on the composition and framing and take your mind off having to balance your camera perfectly in your hands, so that it does not wobble around.
Product photography requires absolute razor-sharp precision and sharpness. If a business is hiring you to make great quality photos of their products, the last thing that they would want to see are blurry images. A tripod is the best chance you give yourself to make your clients happy.
Macro photography is a highly specialized genre of photography. It entails the use of extremely precise techniques such as focus stacking, use of adapter rings and extension tubes as well as close-focusing specialized macro lenses. All of these require that your camera is perfectly still when the images are made.
Though the use of tripods in portrait shoots is not mandatory, some photographers, especially those who shoot tethered and have a fixed lighting set-up prefer the convenience of a rigid established set-up. That way they don’t have to change anything each time they want to shoot a portrait. Let’s say that you have been hired to shoot high school yearbook photos. You have a clear idea as to the background, the lighting and the pose. All you have to adjust in between shots is focusing. Once you have your camera on a tripod and the lights are in place you don’t want to change it until the shoot is done. A tripod allows you to keep things tight and get through the assignment quickly.
Choosing a tripod: Some tips
Choosing your first tripod is significantly more difficult than answering the questions why you should invest in a tripod in the first place. There are simply too many choices and you could very easily pick one which you are going to regret later on. Here are a few pointers.
Has to be good. If not great. Good build quality suggests that the tripod should be able to weather the usual knocks during everyday use. A tripod is never used with the same care as someone would his/her camera and lens. I have seen a photographer use his tripod as a walking stick going up the mountain. There are obviously exceptions. A good quality tripod should be both sturdy and light weight. The ideal material for such a construction is carbon-fiber. There are other alternatives as well. You could opt for aluminum.
Always choose a tripod that can support your heaviest camera and lens combination complete with any accessories that you normally shoot with. These would include wireless triggers, filter holders, filters, external mic etc. you may not shoot with all of them at the same moment, but it is good to have the option in case you ever decide to put everything you own on the tripod.
As already hinted before, the maximum height should extend the camera right up to the eye level of the photographer. Believe me, you don’t want to lean into your camera viewfinder for an extended period of time. Especially if you have a bad back.
Weight is a definite consideration if you intend to travel with your camera set-up. There are light weight tripods designed specifically for traveling. These fold down to a small convenient height, are made of carbon fiber and have retractable spiked feet which ensure you could use them on any surface. For studio shoot where your tripod is going to move as much as a snail does in about a year you don’t really need to bother too much about the weight.
Portability is a factor that goes hand in hand with the weight. You can’t lug a heavy tripod on your shoulders for an extended period of time. Let’s say when shooting time-lapses or traditional landscape shots or even architecture or interior shots, you have to continuously move around with your camera and equipment. With a heavy tripod and lens camera combination that is almost next to impossible. A lightweight carbon-fiber made tripod is the best solution. Size also matters in such situations.
Tripod legs are extendable. Each section extends the height of the tripod and therefore the more flexibility you have to shoot from a different camera angle. What you should look for is to ensure that each of the sections must snap close and hold the tripod securely. They are to be no wobbles when the tripod is set-up.
The center-post column is the most important aspect of the tripod. It can also be extended and holds the camera mount (tripod head) on which you place your camera. Some tripods come with a central post that give you the option to sling a small bag like contraption to put in weights. This gives the whole set-up additional stability especially when shooting in windy conditions.
There are a few type of feet available. The most common are rubber tipped. These are ideal for shiny or smooth surfaces, such as tiled or marbled floors such as in studios or churches or other types of interiors. These are unsuitable for use outdoors because they don’t provide a secure grip when placed on the ground. Especially when working over moist slippery surfaces rubber feet have a tendency to slip.
The other popular option is retractable spiked feet. These look like regular feet when the spikes are retracted. When working indoors the feet are retracted. When shooting outdoors, however, the feet are exposed and provide a secure grip.
Tripods come in a variety of budgets. You can get one for less than a hundred dollars. But that would never be the sort of that you can rely on at all times. The last thing that you would want is a flimsy tripod on which to rest your expensive camera and lens. Good ones are, unfortunately, very expensive often running into 500 dollars or even more. Ideally, investing in a good tripod, very early in your career is the best way to go. However, not many beginners have the budget to invest in a good tripod at the start of their career; especially after having invested in a good camera and lenses. My suggestion, if you cannot invest in a tripod that you really want to buy right away – borrow or rent for your needs. But when you do buy one, buy the one you can use for at least 7-10 years.
Choosing a Tripod head
The choice of a tripod head will depend on your style of shooting and the kind of work that you normally do. Since a tripod head can be interchanged, meaning you can replace one with the other, so long as the tripod has a mount, you can use the same tripod legs for a variety of shooting purposes.
Normally, a tripod head designed to shoot stills is designed different to a tripod head meant for shooting videos with. The controls are different. A tripod head designed for shooting videos must assist in panning and tilting movements; fundamental for shooting videos. A normal still shooter needs the ability to lock the camera at any angle s/he wishes. Thus, the best tripod heads for shooting stills are the ones that have a fluidic movement; the sort of that you can lock at any position.
Final words of advice
Look for a tripod that has everything that you need. You may not be able to zero in on a tripod at the start of your career. Take expert advice or use this guide. Your requirement for a tripod is bound to change as you grow as a photographer. Let’s say that at the start of your career you shoot more landscape photos. When you graduate to studio portraits or even photographing automobiles your requirement for a tripod will change as well. At that point you will be looking for a tripod that allows you to mount a larger camera complete with wireless triggers and a heavy lens.
No matter what your requirement is, don’t compromise on the quality of the tripod, just because you may not have the budget for it. If that is the case postpone your buying till such a time when you have that budget. For the moment borrow something useful. Don’t go the resale route either. Pro photographers don’t change their tripods often. Unless of course their existing tripod is out of sorts. In which such a case it is not worth buying.