Even if you spend a fortune for the finest, sharpest lenses available, you still can find that your images are soft. Camera shake from shooting handheld usually is the cause.
Here's the problem. When you're shooting handheld, slight unsteadiness from your hands prevents you from keeping the image perfectly still on the film or image sensor. Even subtle camera movement can lessen the brilliance of your image highlights, making a snappy image look lifeless. More camera movement creates a noticeable loss of sharpness until the image becomes soft or even downright blurry.
Your first line of defense is to keep your shutter speed high and freeze that camera movement the same way you can freeze a diver in midair or a bird in midflight. A good rule of thumb for 35mm cameras says that for sharp handheld images, you should use a speed that's at least as fast as the focal length of your lens. If you're shooting with a 50mm lens, your slowest speed would be 1/60 sec., but with a 200mm lens, you'd need to shoot at 1/250 sec. or faster.
You can get that faster shutter speed by opening up your lens, but that approach isn't always practical. Slow zooms may not let in enough light to give you the shutter speed you need, and any filters you use will cut down the amount of light and make the problem even worse. On top of that, most landscape shots are taken at small apertures for maximum depth of field. Since it won't do you any good to get everything in sharp focus front to back and then let camera shake make everything fuzzy, you need better solutions.
Simply put, tripods give you a steady platform from which to shoot so camera movement will be eliminated and you can freely use any shutter speed you choose. As an extra benefit, the same stability that gives you sharp images also means the image won't dance around in your viewfinder like it does when you're handholding your camera. You'll find it a lot easier to take a careful look at your composition and make sure your camera is expertly aimed.
Some tripods come equipped with a head; others are sold as legs only, and you'll need to select a head separately. For landscapes, either a three-way pan-tilt head or a ballhead works well and allows you to make vertical compositions.
Both types have their advantages. Three-way heads give you separate controls for panning and tilting, as well as for rotating your camera for verticals or leveling the horizon. The separate controls let you make adjustments in one direction without affecting your setup in the other two directions.
Ballheads are faster and more intuitive to use because just one lock releases the head to move in almost any direction you want. You can position the camera as easily as if you were shooting handheld and then quickly lock it in place. The downside is that you could disturb your perfectly aligned horizon if you try to tilt the camera up or down, or vice versa. If you're using a heavy camera and lens combination, it can plunge forward if you're not holding it firmly when you loosen the ballhead.
For fast-moving telephoto subjects like wildlife, a gimbal head or a fluid head provides smooth movements so you can follow moving subjects with ease. They offer steady support for your camera and lens while letting you pan and tilt rapidly when you need to.
Generally, the taller and more stable a tripod, the heavier it will be. If you need to keep your tripod's weight to a minimum, you've got two choices. One is to compromise and get a short, but stable tripod. You also could invest in a full-sized tripod with carbon-fiber legs. These advanced tripods are noticeably more expensive than aluminum tripods, but they weigh up to one-third less than the metal ones while providing superior rigidity. Magnesium heads can help lower the total weight even further.
Tripods' telescoping leg sections allow simple height adjustment. The sections are locked with screw-tight collars, knobs or levers. Many photographers find the knobs or levers easier to work with. Some models provide automatic leg sections, allowing you to shorten or lengthen them at the touch of a button. They provide the quickest setups, but they're more expensive and slightly heavier than tripods with conventional locks.
Some tripods feature legs that can be spread open at different angles to find solid footing on uneven terrain. That's a big advantage because winning shots have a peculiar knack for showing up in the most inconvenient places. I've lost count of how many times I've set my tripod over the top of boulders or in between them, with each tripod leg splayed out at its own individual angle and length. Spreading all three legs far apart lets you get a large tripod closer to the ground.
Imagine a single leg from a tripod with a camera mount on top, and you've got a monopod. Mono-pods are faster and easier to set up than most tripods. They're also lighter, take up less space and are much less obtrusive than tripods, which can be essential for travel shots.
Although monopods can't match a tripod's stability, they still allow you to get sharp images at slower speeds than you could shoot handheld. Monopods can be moved quickly from place to place, and they're easy to use for panning, so you can track a moving subject on a safari or at the wildlife refuge.
Some photographers attach their cameras directly to the monopod, but a small ballhead or a swivel-tilt head can lend greater flexibility by letting you rapidly tilt your camera for vertical shots. Some monopods come already equipped with ballheads, and you can add the heads to most others.
Like tripods, monopods use a variety of leg-locking mechanisms to adjust their height, and it's a personal choice as to which is best for you. Most monopods are fitted with a strap to put around your wrist for extra security against losing your grasp. Many offer a cushioned foam grip for extra comfort. The soft covering also can help insulate your hands from cold monopod surfaces in winter and hot ones in summer.
Some models feature a fold-out or snap-on foot, increasing the monopod's contact with the ground for extra stability. Other models offer a pedal for you to step on to make sure the monopod stays put.
Although hiking staffs are designed primarily for helping you traverse challenging terrain, many of them can be used for camera support like a monopod, saving you the weight of a separate photographic platform. Remove or interchange the knob on top of the staff to get a screw mount for attaching your camera. Hiking staffs won't support heavy telephoto lenses, but they can be a useful tool for more moderate focal lengths or advanced digital compacts.
While you're on the trail, staffs provide extra support and can be a real help for moving over larger rocks or crossing creeks. Hiking staffs also provide an extra measure of safety on slippery surfaces and steep inclines. A staff helps put some of your pack's weight onto your arms, easing the stress on your back. When you're headed downhill, a staff lessens the load on your leg muscles.
These ultralight tabletop tripods have a number of uses. One is for shooting near the ground—these small units can get you much lower, and much more quickly and easily, than most large tripods.
Because mini-tripods weigh so little, they might make it into your backpack when a heavier tripod wouldn't. When you're in the backcountry, you can place them on a convenient rock or tree stump to shoot from a more usual tripod height.
Some mini-tripods also can be used as a mini-monopod or shoulder stock. In these configurations, you rest them on your chest or shoulder for added stability while shooting handheld.
Lay a versatile beanbag on top of any convenient object and rest your camera on it for a surprisingly stable shooting platform. You also can brace a beanbag against the side of a vertical surface. Although most photographers imagine a rock or the top edge of a lowered car window as a likely place for a beanbag, the supports also can be used on top of a tripod. Beanbags provide support quickly, and let you remove your camera equally as fast when you're done.
Some beanbags feature zippers so you can travel with a featherweight empty beanbag and fill it when you arrive at your destination. Uncooked rice or beans make a great filler.
Screw the end of a stabilizing strap into your camera's tripod socket, step on the other end and pull up—the tension on the strap will keep your camera steadier. This simple device can make a difference for the sharpness of your images, and it's quick and very light.
Another way to get sharper images when shooting handheld at slow shutter speeds is to use a lens with image stabilization built in. These special lenses detect your camera's movement and "counter-jiggle" a group of their lens elements to compensate, keeping the image on your film or image sensor much steadier. The stabilizers work well enough to let you shoot handheld at shutter speeds two or three stops slower than you could without them. Used together with a monopod or beanbag, the combined system becomes even more effective.
Currently, three manufacturers offer lenses featuring this technology under different names: Image Stabilizer (IS) from Canon; Vibration Reduction (VR) from Nikon; and Optical Stabilizer (OS) from Sigma. While telephoto lenses and long zooms were among the first designs to offer these technologies, some wide-angle lenses now feature them as well.
Konica Minolta's Anti-Shake system performs the same feat by shifting the image sensor in several of its digital camera models, including its new digital SLR. The Maxxum 7D can provide Anti-Shake capability with nearly every lens in the line.