5 top tips for keeping your camera stable
All photographers – particularly landscape photographers and astrophotographers – need a good tripod. Any kind of photography that requires less than super-fast shutter speeds will result in blurry photos unless you put your camera on one of these three-legged devices. However, choosing a tripod isn't easy. They come in all shapes and sizes, from super light and travel-friendly to large and heavy designs. So how do you choose? Here are some of our top tips to get you started …
1 Do you need a tripod?
Before you go and spend a lot of money on a tripod do you consider whether you need one or not. A tripod is primarily for low light environments, but they do have a few other uses. If you're a landscape photographer, or an astrophotographer, you're likely to be opening the shutter for long enough for any movement to introduce a nasty blur. For example, that milky water effect on a waterfall is achieved by opening the shutter for a few seconds. Similarly, images of the Milky Way often need to be exposed for up to seven minutes. Any photography at night demands a tripod, which could just as easily be architectural images or urban shots that are poorly illuminated.
Tripods can also be used during the day to capture movement, such as cars speeding by or clouds moving across the sky, so can help you capture a sense of movement. Modern cameras, including smartphone cameras, often have excellent image stabilisation, which would let you get away with a lot more movement than was previously possible. However, as well as keeping images sharp a tripod can also be used to create time-lapses, take self-portraits and shoot video. They can also be used to allow a lower ISO to be used, thereby reducing image noise as much as possible.
Author tip: If you don't need a tripod, don't buy one. As well as adding to the size, weight and expense of your kit, they're often not allowed into some tourist sites, or at the very least you may have to pay for a permit. If you do invest in a tripod then make sure that any camera backpack that you have, or plan to buy, has tripod specific straps on at least one side so that you can easily travel with a tripod without having to keep it in your hand whenever you're on the move.
2 Understanding tripods
There are all kinds of extra features offered by tripod manufacturers, but at their core they have three key characteristics. Firstly, they have three legs, which typically collapse from either three or four sections into one. Depending on these tripod legs' quality, the sections can be unfurled and packed away quickly, though do bear in mind that if you get any sand or dirt in the mechanisms they tend to go stiff.
The second major thing to think about when buying a tripod is the feet on each leg. Most tripods come with a simple rubber or silicon rubber pad with some kind of grip for holding on fast to smooth and rough surfaces alike. However, more advanced tripods tend to have at least the option for spikes. Although these can look rather fierce, they're incredibly useful when using a tripod for landscape and astrophotography because they allow your tripod to really lock into place.
Thirdly comes the Centre column, extendable leg in the middle of the tripod that can be raised up to increase the maximum height of your tripod. However, it's really important to consider the stability of the centre column because many cheaper tripods centre columns can be so wobbly they're completely unusable.
Author tip: Most tripods tend to come with some kind of tripod head. Typically this can be either a ball head or a pan tilt head. A ball head tends to be the lighter of the two and also the easiest to use, largely because they enable the photographer to move a camera in all kinds of directions with only one locking knob. However, depending on the quality, some ball heads can droop when attached to heavy gear. Pan tilt heads are a lot more complicated to the untrained eye, offering separate horizontal, vertical and panning motions on three separate axes. These are heavier devices, but they're more accurate and generally more stable. Both types of heads have quick release plates (typically Arca Swiss) that screw into the tripod socket on the bottom of a camera.
3 The right tripod for the job
There are all kinds of tripods available, but that doesn't mean you should pick the cheapest or the lightest. Strong and sturdy tripods capable of holding your camera steady in strong winds can be heavy, but worth their weight. Although many are tempted to buy travel tripods where the emphasis is on a lightweight and compact build, in practice they can often be both too short and too unsteady, particularly if you have a full-frame DSLR and/or long or heavy lenses. Also look at the maximum load capacity of a tripod before purchasing and don’t get too obsessed about how small they are when packed-up. More important for usability is their maximum height, with your own height incredibly important since you want your camera at eye-level.
Author tip: If you're serious about landscape photography and think about using both an L-bracket and a levelling base. An L-bracket around your camera will allow you to swap from landscape to portrait orientation in seconds. The levelling base means you can level your camera without having to adjust your tripod’s legs.
4 Carbon fibre versus aluminium
Most tripods, and certainly all affordable tripods, are made from aluminium. It's both reasonably strong and reasonably lightweight. However, another material has appeared in recent years in the form of carbon fibre. This polymer material is much stronger than aluminium and less likely to scratch or corrode, but it’s also much lighter. It enables super-strong and super-light full-size tripods, with the downside being that they're incredibly expensive. However, they’re hard wearing and easy to hike with. Spending big on a tripod is a difficult decision, but a carbon fibre tripod often proves an excellent investment for landscape photographers.
Author tip: Whatever kind of tripod you invest in, don't plan on taking it into an airline cabin. No sane photographer would check in the camera bag, of course, but it’s definitely worth putting your tripod into your checked luggage purely because they can often be taken off you at security.
5 Tripods for smartphones
Smartphone manufacturers have done a lot of work with image stabilisation in recent years, which makes a lot of sense. However, if you want to be as creative with a smartphone as you can be with a mirrorless or DSLR camera then a tripod is equally as important.
There are three kinds of tripods you can buy for smartphones; smartphone case tripods (literally phone cases with pop out tripod legs, which offer basic support when used on a table top), small tabletop tripods (available in much higher quality, pocket sized devices that still have to be used on a tabletop or surface) and larger tripods (typically raise your camera to above the waist height to make it easy to operate). The latter two types of tripod for smartphones both require some kind of universal smartphone clamp. An alternative is to use the same tripod you have for your full-size camera, merely adding a dedicated smartphone clamp, which are available at bargain prices online and, increasingly, as more refined products from the big tripod brands.
Author tip: The trouble with very small compact tripods designed for smartphones is that they lack height. However, there is an easy way to fix this. If you travel with a collapsible selfie stick you can use it as an extender for your tripod. Another good way of travelling light is to use a smartphone tripod with flexible wraparound legs. That way you can attach your smartphone to fence posts and tree branches to gain height without having to travel with a large tripod.