Guide to Tripods
- Tue, 15 Sep 2009
If you want to get serious about your photography then one of the most important accessories you can own is a sturdy tripod. Whether your passion is for landscapes, nature, wildlife, macro, travel, sports or portraiture, a tripod (or monopod) is a pre-requisite if you want to achieve professional quality results. Without one your creative potential will be limited.
Tripods have many benefits. They enable you to fix the camera’s gaze on a predetermined spot – perfect for achieving precise composition, and a level horizon, in landscapes or for saving your arms when you need to keep a camera and long lens trained on a nest or lair, or a corner of a racetrack, for extended periods.
They’re great for shooting portraits, so you can concentrate on maintaining a rapport with the subject rather than keeping your face hidden behind your viewfinder. They can also help you achieve, and hold, viewpoints that would be uncomfortable or impossible if you had to hold the camera, such as low or high angles.
But perhaps the most obvious benefit is that they enable photographers to get sharper shots.
This is because we are all inherently a bit shaky, though we may not be aware of it. Even at moderate shutter speeds the movement caused by our shaking reduces the image sharpness.
The slower the shutter speed we use the less sharp our pictures become until the blur is obvious even at small viewing sizes.
The answer may be to always shoot at fast shutter speeds but this isn’t always practical, or desirable. You may be forced into using a slower shutter speed because the light level is too low to use a faster one and you don’t want to sacrifice image quality by raising the ISO.
You may be using a slower shutter speed because you’ve selected a small aperture, for maximum depth of field. Or you could have chosen a slow shutter speed because you deliberately want to introduce artistic motion blur to a moving subject in your composition, such as running water or car lights.
A tripod completely eliminates this movement, enabling shutter speeds of minutes, and even hours. Alternatively a monopod, which is more portable and potentially more useful when you need to move the camera quickly, is not as stable but will still provide several extra stops of useable speeds.
How Slow is ‘Slow’?
So at which point should a shutter speed be deemed ‘slow’ enough to benefit from the use of a tripod? The answer, rather unhelpfully, is that it depends.
A speed that isn’t fast enough to freeze camera shake is, ergo, too slow. But that point depends on a variety of factors. Our choice of lens focal length also has an important part to play. As we zoom in, the lens not only magnifies the subject we’re photographing, but magnifies our shaking too. Therefore, the more we zoom in, the faster our minimum shutter speed needs to be to freeze the action and negate any camera shake.
The rule of thumb is that the shutter speed number needs to be higher than the focal length the lens is set to, so if your lens is at 200mm you need a shutter speed over 1/200sec.
But other factors come into play too, such as the weight and balance of the camera and lens combo, how we hold it, and whether the camera or lens has some kind of image stabilisation technology, which will delay the visible effects of camera shake by two to three stops.
But what is without question is that the range of speeds at which you can safely hand-hold a camera without losing some image sharpness is quite narrow, and to limit yourself to using just these is to hold your creative photographic potential in check.
So now you’re convinced about why you need a tripod and how it’s going to improve your photography, here’s our guide to buying one...