By Roger (4 April 2016)
One of the more under-appreciated pieces of photography gear is the tripod, and that's a shame. They have many important uses in photography, and, in the old days, they were part of every photographer's kit. A good tripod can last forever if it's treated properly. It never needs a software upgrade or new batteries. Yet, so many photographers either don't own one or let them gather dust in the closet.
Let's cover just a few of their more negative traits, first, and end on the high side. They can be a pain to carry around if you need maximum mobility and don't want the added weight. A high-end tripod and ballhead can be a very expensive addition to your toolbox. With today's high ISO capabilities and built-in image stabilization, too many photographers think they don't need a tripod.
All of these complaints are valid; however, although tripods aren't practical for every occasion, they are still extremely useful in certain environments. I always keep one in my vehicle and, usually, bring one when I’m going by plane. During my recent four-city road trip, I needed my tripod at each location, so I was really glad I dragged it along.
The most basic use of your tripod is as a solid foundation to remove any worries about camera movement. New cameras are almost all equipped with some sort of image stabilization, but that can only help so much. To achieve maximum sharpness, you often need a platform to keep your camera absolutely still, especially as the focal length and/or exposure times increase. Nature photographers, with their long, heavy lenses, and landscape photographers, who require edge-to-edge sharpness, will “always” use a tripod.
Don’t be lulled into complacency because new cameras are capable of higher ISOs than were imaginable in the recent past. There are trade-offs there, too. High ISO photographs are more prone to noise in the shadows. I have a camera that works very well in low light, but who wants to worry about noise when you can use a tripod and keep your ISO and noise low?
This is a six second exposure at ISO 200. There is no noise, even when you zoom into 600%. (Yes, I’ve checked to be certain.) I couldn’t have made this photo without a tripod; you can't hand-hold the camera that still. Even with a high ISO setting, I would not have the clarity this photo required.
There are so many other similar reasons for relying on the stable platform of a tripod. If you need to greatly increase your depth of field, the resulting small aperture greatly reduces the light to the sensor and necessitates slower shutter speeds. Use a tripod. If you need several varying exposure photographs for a high dynamic range photograph, a tripod will keep your camera stable for perfect alignment. If you want to create the best panorama alignment, use a tripod. Night photography, with or without star trails, self-portraits, light painting photos, macro photography – the list of obvious uses is long.
There are even more uses that might not be so obvious to you.
So many photographers whip from photo to photo, never slowing down to contemplate the best way to record what is in front of them. Since a tripod will reduce your mobility, you can slow down and more carefully examine the composition inside your camera. This is a good thing and can improve the quality of your photos. You get no extra points for making more photos than someone else, especially if those photos are mediocre. Take your time and concentrate on better quality photos.
You can use tripods to hold continuous lighting, flash guns, or reflectors. There are lots of accessories specifically designed for tripods. When Mark did his Halloween photobooth (link), he had a table, from Tether Tools (link), set up on a tripod, holding his laptop. Since his camera was plugged into his computer, the photos would come up on the screen for immediate viewing by the guests.
If you want to shoot video, a tripod can get rid of those jerky movements you see in so many videos. I would recommend a fluid head to get the smooth movements you see in professional videos. You may not shoot much video, but it is a rapidly growing area of photography. You can never start learning too early.
There are so many varieties and price ranges for quality tripods today. I think we'll just save that topic for another blog. So the next time you go out to make some new photography, think about your dusty tripod, and take it with you. You'll never use it if you leave it at home.