Beyond stability and sharper pictures, the greatest benefit I've found in using a tripod is that it makes me slow down. It forces me to evaluate a scene more carefully. Rather than snapping a shot and walking away, I observe a scene with much greater care. The slowing down of the picture-taking process has resulted in consistently better photographs. Before I commit to positioning my tripod, I look at varying aspects of a scene—lighting, contrast, tones and composition—without feeling as if I'm rushing.
As I'm increasingly making larger and larger prints using inkjet printers, I have to be certain that my images are as sharp as possible, that highlights and color are clear and well defined. Any weakness in an image becomes more obvious the bigger the print. Although they make acceptable 4x6-inch prints, photographs with such faults become completely unusable when enlarged to 8x10 or more inches. After using a tripod faithfully, my images boast their strengths in 13x19-inch prints and even larger.
Choosing A Tripod
The benefit of choosing a tripod today is that one doesn't have to be burdened with bulk, weight and difficult controls. Instead, lightweight aluminum and carbon-fiber materials make even a large tripod easier to carry. Despite their lighter weights, tripods with advanced designs have retained the stability needed to capture sharp photographs. Thankfully, you don't need to purchase the heaviest, largest and most expensive tripod to improve the quality of your pictures.
There are many different factors to consider when choosing a tripod. The best question to ask is "How do I plan to use it?" This will help you evaluate the various features to determine which is truly the best choice for you.
Weight And Height
How heavy is the equipment that you intend to mount on your tripod? This is an important question to answer because exceeding the weight recommended for a tripod risks the stability you hoped for. If you're using a compact camera or an SLR with a lightweight lens, you can invest in an amazingly portable tripod that will be a useful tool, whether you're traveling, hiking or creating close-up images in your own backyard. With today's high-quality designs, even a very light tripod can support rather substantial weight.
If you're a wildlife photographer and expect to mount a 400mm or 600mm lens, you might want to use a tripod that supports the combined weight of your camera and lens. If the largest lens that you expect to use is an 80-200mm, then your maximum weight threshold won't be as high, and there's little need for such a heavy-duty tripod.
Height is just as important for stability. Your choice of height often is a decision made out of convenience. You might choose a particular tripod because you don't have to bend over when you look through the camera's viewfinder. When it comes to height, evaluate a tripod based on its legs being fully extended. Although a center column often is provided in a tripod, you shouldn't see this as a viable way to achieve greater height. A column fully extended actually reduces stability. If maximum height is vital, then consider a four-section tripod rather than a three-section.
Minimum height also is critical, especially when photographing objects that are close to the ground. This is available either through the angle adjustments of the legs or by mounting the camera to the bottom of the center column. If you're a fan of close-up photography, this is a must-have function.
If you're like me, you prefer a tripod that's easy to set up and configure. I dislike spending too much time finagling with a tripod and risk missing a wonderful shot. Components that provide a secure setting but also allow for quick adjustments are paramount.
Tripod legs are released and secured using screws, knobs or levers. Levers and knobs offer rapid functionality. There are a wealth of variations in knobs and levers, and each has a different feel. Some photographers are strong adherents to specific types of controls, but I believe that the best choice largely falls on personal preference. Make sure you handle a tripod to determine what you prefer to use.
Manfrotto's new Neotec tripod sports an alternative for securing tripod legs. This design has the locking mechanism hidden within the leg, which pushes outward on the tube to lock it in place. The heavier the weight atop the tripod, the greater the pressure exerted to maintain stability. Simply pull out the leg and release.
Some tripods include a tripod head. Otherwise, you'll need to make an additional purchase of either a pan-and-tilt head or ballhead. The pan-and-tilt head uses two independent arms to control vertical and horizontal movement. The control arms also can be turned to control tension, providing fine manipulation over the movement of the camera.
The ballhead typically has one tension screw that frees the head to move in virtually any direction. Rather than depending on two different controls, the camera itself is moved to its position and locked down by increasing tension. Many outdoor and sports photographers prefer this style of head because it has a fast means of changing orientation. Remember to increase the tension before releasing the camera, however.
Using A Tripod
As with any photographic tool, it takes practice to use it effectively. Don't make the mistake I made early on, thinking that a tripod is a tripod is a tripod. I quickly discovered that wasn't the case when I took a new tripod out into the field and struggled to set it up for a shot in waning light. Don't wait until the last minute to figure out how the various controls of your tripod work. You'll save yourself a good amount of grief.
Where you place your tripod is crucial. Before handling your tripod, look at the scene you're intending to photograph for the best possible position. It's easy to fall into the bad habit of placing the tripod in a location that's convenient, but may not be the ideal place for the best photograph. Carefully evaluate the scene first to reduce the chance that you'll let the tripod dictate its location.
Then, you want the tripod's feet—whether rubberized or spiked—to have solid footing. This is particularly necessary when you're positioning your tripod on uneven terrain. Make sure that the legs are properly locked down and press down on the top of the tripod to ensure it's secure. Follow these steps each time you change the height or position of your tripod.
Even with the camera on a tripod, it's important to have a gentle hand. Depressing the shutter release button too abruptly can create vibration, which defeats the stability promised by the tripod. Press halfway down to lock focus and then gently depress the button all the way down to take the shot. You also may want to consider the use of a remote trigger release to eliminate the possibility of your own body producing unwanted vibration. This is beneficial for close-up work, with its challenge of a very limited depth of field.
There have been many photographers before me who stressed the necessity of a tripod. For better or worse, I came to learn this as a result of looking at my own enlargements. Now, when I view my photographs, I'm so pleased that I joined the fold of avid tripod users. The crisp beauty of the prints silences all arguments against using a tripod.