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Tips for Purchasing and Using a Camera Tripod

A good tripod is a necessary part of any photographer's equipment. However, just having a camera tripod will not make you a better photographer unless you learn how to use it. It is a shame that many photographers will spend thousands of dollars to get a good camera with excellent lenses but will either not use a tripod, not know how to use a camera tripod or use a cheap tripod that will introduce camera shake.

Getting a Good Camera Tripod

Like many things today camera tripods are constantly being redesigned and improved. With the exception of lighter weight materials, a good quality tripod from 20 years ago will still serve you well today. Don't be afraid to spend a little more money than you originally planned to buy a good quality camera tripod. It could easily be something that you will still be using though you have changed cameras several times.

When looking for a tripod you want to find one that is well constructed and light weight. Of those two options, a well constructed camera tripod is more important than a lightweight tripod. But also remember that you are more likely to use a tripod if you are willing to carry it with you. A camera tripod that you leave in the hotel room while on vacation because it is too heavy will not help you take better pictures.

Features of a Camera Tripod

Tripod Mount – Some tripod mounts are easily removed which allow you to attach it to your camera. You can then quickly attach and detach the camera from the tripod.

Tripod Head – The tripod head should allow you to pan and tilt it. This is done by having to friction release screws or handles that allow you to move the head left and right, and up and down while the tripod is in a fixed position. This is more of a feature that is necessary when shooting video.

Gimble Ball Head – While using a pan and tilt head works well, there is a newer type of head that is more popular with still photographers: Gimble head. A gimble ball head allows the photographer to release one screw and be able to tilt and pan the head in much more natural movements. The downside of this type of head is that it makes it difficult to get smooth panoramic shots to stitch together.

Tripod Level – Many tripods today have levels in the head. This is critical when using a standard tilt and pan head. If your tripod has a gimble ball, then a level is not as helpful.

Telescoping Legs – Virtually all tripods have telescoping legs. Buying a camera tripod with good quality legs and locking units is important. There are various types of feet that a tripod can have two help stabilize it in various environments. High-end camera tripods have legs that can open wider than normal. This allows you to place the tripod leg in more creative places.

When to Use a Camera Tripod

When taking pictures at low shutter speeds you should consider using a tripod. It is harder to hold a telephoto lens steady than it is a wide-angle lens. Here is a general guideline for knowing what shutter speed is too slow to hand hold a particular lens. Never shoot at a fraction of a second that is slower than the length of the lens. For example, if you are shooting with an 800 mm, lens you should use a tripod with any shutter speed 1/500 s or slower. The next fastest shutter speed is 1/1000 s. You should be fine shooting at 1/1000s by hand, but using a camera tripod would be better.

You should also use a tripod when you need to consistently take pictures from the same position. A camera tripod can help you when needing to shoot from odd angles or low to the ground. It may be difficult to hold the camera while trying to balance yourself, but a tripod does not care how close to the ground it needs to be.

The most obvious use for a camera tripod is when the photographer wants to be part of the picture. You can use your camera's self timer to give you an opportunity to join your family or friends in the photo.

Using the Camera Tripod

A tripod is not a complicated device. However, there are some things that you can learn to help you get good clear shots every time you use your camera tripod.

One of the first things you will do is extend the legs of the tripod. If it is not necessary to extend the legs to their complete length then extend the thicker top portions of the tripod legs instead of the thinner bottom portions. Because the top portions of the tripod are thicker they are also more sturdy. This will result in a better final image. When extending the legs, take notice of the ground around you and if necessary adjust one of the legs longer or shorter to help you make the tripod sturdy. Use the level on the tripod head to help you know how to adjust the legs.

If the tripod has a removable mount then it will be easier to take the mount off the tripod head before attaching it to the camera. If you have multiple cameras you can buy extra mounts to help you switch cameras quickly. Not all camera tripods offer extra heads and those that do can be expensive.

If the main purpose of using a tripod is to eliminate camera shake then you will want to use the camera's self timer or a remote shutter release. This will keep you from bumping or shaking the camera while pressing the shutter release button.

One of the problems with a lightweight camera tripod is that wind can shake the tripod while in use. Many tripods have a hook underneath the center pole, or column, that is designed to hang a weight on it. You can use small sandbags or hang your camera bag on the hook to provide the necessary weight. This keeps the center of gravity low for the tripod and camera. Wind is a bigger factor when you have a larger camera.

Purchasing a good camera tripod is something that you may only need to do one time in your photographic career. If you choose well, then it will also become one of your most prized pieces of equipment.