Some thoughts on proper tripod usage

The most important thing to remember about tripods is that if they can move, they will move. The best highest-end tripods and heads in the world will give you blurry images if you don't use them right.

Here are some things I've discovered you need to think about while shooting with a tripod.

If all you gots is a screw, you are screwed

This is more a configuration issue and tripod selection issue, but it bears mention. If the only thing holding something down is a screw against a mounting plate, you are in trouble. This is most evident when you look at most quick-release and the mounting platforms of non-quick-release heads.

I knew a guy who had a flash bracket that worked just fine. Until he was taking pictures at a wedding in Hawaii and he discovered that the camera wasn't staying stationary any more. All of the humidity was causing the cork that was supposed to make the camera not rotate to start letting the camera rotate.

If you tighten it so hard that it'll never in a million years move, it'll probably never come apart again. Or you'll have stripped something. Really, you want more than one screw. See, with a single screw, it can turn -- it's an axle. Add a second screw or pin or something like that and it won't turn anymore.

The camcorder folks solved this a long time ago. They added a hole next to the tripod mount that a pin on the tripod head slides into. It's the same place no matter what. Very simple, and fairly standard.

Whenever a camera maker has tried to do this, nobody else has tried to copy it. And they've tried to use it to drive vendor lock-in, so they won't just add the same hole the video people use. So camera folks generally need to get a really fancy and really expensive quick release system to not have stuff rotate on them. Often times, because there's only one hole on the bottom, it clamps against the back of the camera.

I have yet to get together the money to buy this, mind you. But I've dealt with a camera that was moving during the shot and it sucked because it'll usually look fine on the LCD when you review it... and then you dump the card and you realize that you are going to have to go back.

Watch how you do portrait orientation

One of the bright things the fancy quick release systems did was make "L" brackets so that you can pop the camera out of the quick release and pop it back in on the side.

Even better are the 6x6 medium format cameras and rotating-back cameras that don't require you to ever have the camera on the side. This is what I use.

Either way, when the camera is flopped on the side, that's when you are applying a lot of rotational stress to a single screw when you are using a cheap quick-attach or just screwing it into the head. You can get away with this for a while by tightening the mounting screw. You will eventually end up with a stripped tripod socket in the camera (that being the harder part to replace) if you keep doing this.

You will likely find that a marginal tripod will behave better with the camera not on its side, so you may find it looks better to crop off the sides, even after the resolution loss. And even with a good quick release, you generally have a much more limited range-of-motion when you have the head tilted over.

Center column

The center column, as far as I can tell, is there for people who don't want to develop impressive forearms, not people who are into taking good pictures. Well, that, and making the figures for how tall it can get more impressive.

Or maybe it's more handy for video. I'm not really sure. But at least with still cameras, if you aren't stretching the limits of stability, you will be much happier with a monopod. Same ability to make the camera light, improved stability over handholding, and it's much less of a pain than a tripod to deal with.

If you are doing long exposures, where you really can't get away with a monopod, you are causing your tripod to turn into a monopod the more you extend the center column. Remember, the whole reason why the tripod works to keep your camera steady is because it's braced in all directions. Monopods aren't braced.

You can get short center columns or spacers to mount the head directly on the tripod and they will make the tripod lighter. But if you don't want to bother, at the very least leave the center column all the way down.

Tighten all the knobs

Like I said above, if the camera can move, it will move. Everything needs to be locked down hard before you shoot.

The better ballheads will let you loosen up the tension just enough to get the lens pointed where you want it and you can even let the camera go and it won't dive... and then you can tighten the knob and it's rock-solid and the camera will still be pointing where you had it before you started tightening. Cheap ballheads won't be like this. It's mostly a matter of precise machining and that still costs.

If you are using a pan-tilt head, you want to lock everything that's not in use so that you'll only need to tighten one thing at the end. Especially the knob that lets you put the camera on the side.

Control exposure times

There are certain exposure times, which often times depends on your tripod and camera and lens, that will be very hard to get right. Often times it's somewhere within the range between 1/60th and 1 second.

If your camera shakes for a sixteenth of a second when you trigger it, that's going to ruin a one second exposure. It may be nearly imperceptible if you are doing an hour exposure, as long as your camera is stable enough. There is one exception... let's say you are taking a long exposure and there's streetlights. What you need to watch out for is that the shake will be enough to cause the streetlights to get blurry or have a tail, but the rest of the scene will be just fine.

If you have the camera on its side, you may want to take a shorter exposure because it will be more likely to turn.

Use a time-release, a cable release, or a remote release and mirror lockup

I break this piece of advice all the time. But I also know, by a huge number of critically sharp shots, that I can get away with it.

There are three things that cause your gear to shake. First, when you press down on the button, it'll shake -- which is why you want a cable release or a self-timer. Second, if there's a mirror, when the mirror triggers, it will shake the whole works again -- which is why you want to use mirror lockup. Third, the shutter itself will shake, but you can't really get around that too easily.

All of these are different depending on the camera, which then changes how strictly you need to follow this pointer. If you have a leaf shutter in the lens -- like most point-and-shoot digital cameras, some medium format cameras, and just about every large format camera -- the shake from the shutter is much less. If the camera is heavy, the pushing of the button won't rock it much. Newer cameras have mirrors that are better damped than older cameras. If you have a shutter button on the front of the camera, it's not going to cause the camera to nose downwards.

So, for my Canon G7, I need to use a 2 second time delay for anything that's a long exposure. For my Mamiya RB67 I get away with murder and use nothing. For my 35mm camera, I usually end up using a cable release and it doesn't even have mirror lockup, but it comes out sharp enough.

Weight down the tripod

It's one of the basic lessons of physics and engineering that the higher up the center of gravity of an object is, the more likely it'll topple or at least try to. If you put a heavy camera on top of a light tripod, the center of gravity is fairly high. If you sling a camera bag on a bungie from the light tripod, suddenly it will have a lower center of gravity.

Sometimes, the tripod is stable enough

Even modern image-stabilization / vibration-reduction doesn't always detect that it's on a tripod. This means that sometimes you'll get sharper results by turning off IS, especially for super-long exposures. This has ruined shots for me on my G7.

Don't be a slave to the tripod!

I spend a lot of time talking about tripods, because sometimes you really do need them.

On the other hand, they aren't nearly as compulsory as you might think. Even as the shutter speeds reach a half second or beyond. Always remember that!


The part about the not-turning off-IS sucks, by the way. I'd assumed somehow that they'd fixed that... until I realized that nope, they hadn't.

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