Rick Hobbs Photography

Wildlife/Nature/Outdoor Photography

Photo Tips

Using a tripod can improve your photography

During a recent photography workshop I was asked, "What single piece of equipment or accessory can improve my photography the most?"

Whatever the brand of camera equipment or media you use to record an image, everyone's photography can improve dramatically once they begin to use a tripod and develop good technique. In fact, tripods are an important tool for quality nature photography.

While my tripod is certainly not the most expensive piece of camera gear I own, it is the most important, and it is the one I use the most often. While I may take advantage of several different lenses, filters or other accessories, I am always using my tripod or some type of camera support.

Mt. Rundle, Banff, Canada

How can using a tripod improve your photography?

1. You can get sharper images.

The tripod will provide your camera with a stable platform from which to shoot. By using a tripod, combined with good technique, you should be able to get sharper images than when just holding the camera in your hands. This is especially true when you have low light situations or choose to shoot at a slower shutter speed to create an effect.

2. You can get more depth of field.

Example #1 When photographing a landscape, instead of hand-holding at 1/125sec at f/8 you can put your camera on a tripod and make the same photograph at 1/15sec at f/22. The image created at f/22 will have much greater depth of field and, as a result, be a much better photograph.

Example #2 You are photographing stationary wildlife with a 300mm lens, or hopefully longer depending on the species. Let's also assume the fastest proper exposure for this photograph is 1/250sec at f/4. Instead of hand-holding and getting the minimum depth of field, you can put the lens on a tripod and make a sharp photograph with an exposure of 1/125sec at f/5.6. Better yet, with good technique you could make a sharp photograph at 1/60sec at f/8. The result can be a sharper image with more depth of field.

3. You can improve your composition.

You have found the right perspective for that flower shot and you are ready to make a photograph. Put your camera on a tripod and you can take the time necessary to check the background, check the edges of the frame, check the depth of field, and make sure everything is the way you want it. This is important to do before you make the photograph and leave the area. It is usually too late once you get your film back and find a problem.

Roaring Fork Area, Gatlinburg, TN

4. You can improve your creativity.

When photographing a stream on an overcast day, put your camera on a tripod and create a beautiful milky scene shooting at about 1/2 sec. to 1 sec. at f/22.

5. You can get more out of the experience.

When using a tripod it slows you down. If I am going to spend the time to setup a tripod, I am going to spend the time necessary to make sure I get the best photograph I can make. The result is that you get to spend more time enjoying the area. Making a great photograph is nice, however, it is the experience that matters most.

6. You can have more photo opportunities.

When you are photographing in an area for a while, why hold onto a heavy camera body and lens when you can let it sit on the tripod. I find that when I am not tired from holding my camera gear I am more likely to keep looking for other photographs in the area. This usually translates into more photo opportunities and adds value to the time I have already invested.

Badlands National Park, SD

What should you consider when purchasing a tripod? I am not going to suggest a specific tripod for you because everyone's needs are different; however, these questions should help you find the right tripod for you.

1. What size tripod should you get?

It is important that you get a tripod that fits you. When you extend the tripod legs fully in their normal position, you should be able to stand straight up and look through your viewfinder without extending the center post at all. It is easier to get a great composition when you can be straight behind your viewfinder. Also, your back will feel better when you do not have it bent over all the time.

2. Do the tripod legs work independently?

It is very important that the tripod legs work independently. There will be times when the tripod legs do not extend directly below the tripod and you need to extend one or more legs to the side for solid support. For instance, when photographing along the edge of a stream there are many times when the rocks are in the way and I need to move the legs independently to find a solid position. I suggest you avoid tripods with cross-bracing, they are too restricting for nature photography.

3. Do the tripod leg releases lock in place quickly and securely?

All tripods have leg releases that allow you to extend your tripod legs. When shooting wildlife it can be important that you set your tripod up quickly. Also, there will be times when you need to make a small adjustment to raise or lower your tripod. In both cases, you want leg releases that work quickly and easily with your fingers. There are several different styles and I recommend you go to your local camera store and try out a few different ones before choosing your tripod.

Also, the leg releases must lock securely. You do not want your expensive camera gear sitting on your tripod with a leg that is not locked securely.

Shooting Star, Yellowstone N. P., WY

4. Is the center post on the tripod too long?

You want to find a tripod that has a short center post. I suggest you do not ever try to use the center post to "get a little taller". The tripod becomes less stable as you raise the center column. So extend your tripod legs instead. A tripod with a short center post will allow you to open the independent tripod legs all the way and get your tripod close to the ground.

I prefer using a tripod that does not have a center post at all, this is usually the case on the high end tripods from Gitzo for example.

5. What are you planning to put up on top of this tripod?

This question is important for determining the weight and strength of the tripod. You have to find a balance between how much support do you need and how much are you willing to carry into the field. If you shoot a large, fast, heavy, telephoto lens for your wildlife, you need to make sure the tripod can support that weight. However, if you do a lot of hiking with your tripod you will want something you can carry all day.

Be sure to consider how you plan to use the tripod before making a purchase so you end up with a solution that meets the needs for your type of photography.

6. What kind of head should my tripod have?

There are many different tripod heads available and it comes down to what equipment you plan on putting on it and your personal preferences. If you are planning on photographing wildlife with a large telephoto lens I highly recommend getting a Wimberley head. Otherwise, there are several good ball heads that work fine for supporting any of your other equipment and they will also give you the flexibility you need.

7. Does the tripod have a quick release system?

A quick release system allows you to "quickly" mount a camera body and lens to a tripod. You can attach a quick release plate to either the camera body or the lens if it has a tripod collar. Once this is done you can easily mount and remove your photography gear from the tripod.

I have a quick release plate for each of my camera bodies and one for each of my lenses with a tripod collar. This way I do not have to take the quick release plate off of one piece of equipment to put it on another. When I get an opportunity to photograph a subject, I can quickly mount my equipment on the tripod and I am ready to go.

Rocks underwater in Lake McDonald, MT

What else should I know about a tripod?

1. When using slow shutter speeds you should also use a cable release so you are not touching the tripod.

2. You can purchase tripod pads or make your own from pipe insulation that you can buy at the local hardware store. One advantage is that the pad is a place to hold the tripod when you are putting it up or down in the winter without your gloves. However, the biggest advantage to having tripod pads is that you get some protection from the legs digging into you when you are walking with the tripod over your shoulder.

3. I also suggest removing your camera from the tripod before putting the tripod over your shoulder. This will be safer for your equipment and put less stress on your equipment.

4. Except for when I am using my tripods out in the field I keep them in padded tripod cases. If you have an expensive head on top of your tripod legs you want to protect it. I have had my tripod bag knocked over and the padded tripod bag kept the tripod and ball
head from sustaining any damage. Without the bag, I have broken off knobs on my ball head.

5. Please understand, your tripod is a tool used to create a photograph, it is not a tool used to find a photograph. I do not suggest you mount your camera on your tripod and look for photographs from there. Instead, I do suggest you use the quick release and take your camera off the tripod when you go looking for a photograph. Once you have found a subject and determined the perspective you like, only then, put your camera on the tripod and make some great images.

In summary, a tripod is the one piece of photo equipment that can dramatically improve your photography. Hopefully the benefits I have mentioned will give you a reason to get a tripod if you do not have one. If you have a tripod and do not use it regularly, it is time to take it into the field and put it to work.


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