Ode to the Tripod

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If someone were to ask me what is the fastest, easiest, and most effective way of instantly improving their photography, my answer would be: a tripod. In the quest to make better photographs, we often dream of owning the latest camera body or the most expensive lenses. For many of us, these remain out of reach and impractical. A quality tripod, however, can be had for less than the price of a New York City dinner for two (with drinks) and, because of that, I believe it is the first, and most important, accessory you should add to any camera system you are building.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

 

Tripod love.
Tripod love.


History and Lore

Believe it or not, the Internet is devoid of information dedicated to the history of the use of the tripod in photography, but I surmise that its first use happened almost simultaneously with the use of the world’s first cameras. Many early cameras obscura sat on tables, but as soon as photographers started moving these cameras, they were likely mounted on a tripod.

According to Merriam-Webster, the English word “tripod” has been around since the 15th century, but humans have been using three-legged supports since long before then. A c. 5000-year-old three-legged support is currently in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and some Chinese examples date back almost 10,000 years.

Ireland
Ireland

Why a three-legged tripod instead of a four-legged quadpod? Well, if you hadn’t noticed (and you’d think more furniture makers would), anything with three points of contact will be stable—even on uneven surfaces. Yes, you can tip over a three-legged table or tricycle (recently proven by my son), but, with respect for your support’s center of gravity, the tripod is supremely stable on any surface, even uneven ones, when compared to supports with one, two, four, or more legs. Four-legged dinner tables get folded napkins and paper stuffed under one foot for balance; tripods do not.

Moving clouds. Moving water. Beautiful light. All thanks to a tripod.
Moving clouds. Moving water. Beautiful light. All thanks to a tripod.

When teaching sailing, I advise my students (and crew) to always maintain “three points of contact” with the boat—any triple combination of feet, hands, elbows, knees, and bum works.

Tripods have been a part of our culture since way before records were kept. One of the world’s most famous tripods is the Greek three-legged stool at Delphi where the Pythia sat to deliver her oracles. Why three legs? Well, you certainly don’t want an all-important prophecy delivered by a priestess distracted by an annoyingly unstable four-legged stool, nor do you want to see her with random tunic fabric jammed under one of the chair legs either.

Fountain.
Fountain

And fun fact: There are no known animals born naturally on earth with only three legs. The animal kingdom comes in twos, fours, fives, sixes, eights, and whatever snakes have, plus some other oddballs. This fact is one reason that when science fiction aliens visit our planet, many of them have three legs, and they are angry not to have any brethren on earth.

Other tripods in this photo are holding telescopes.
Other tripods in this photo are holding telescopes.

Anatomy

I could go into all the parts and pieces of the tripod in this article, but to keep things on point, I will skip it. But don’t worry—I have you covered. If you want to dissect all the components that make up the modern photographic tripod, click here.

Instead, let’s dive into a discussion about the scenarios where you’ll want to employ a tripod when making photographs.

Sixteen minutes of exposure shows that the earth is indeed spinning.
Sixteen minutes of exposure show that the earth is indeed spinning.

Long Exposures

Many photographs happen in, literally, the blink of an eye—a tiny fraction of a second. However, sometimes we must leave the camera shutter open a bit longer to allow sufficient light onto the film or camera sensor for an adequate exposure. When shutter speeds get longer there are two side effects that we can see visually:

  1. Anything that moved while the shutter was open will appear blurry or ghost-like in the frame. This is called “motion blur.” Some objects might vanish entirely.
This image shows the motion blur of a single car, the clouds, and the earth over an 8-minute period.
This image shows the motion blur of a single car, the clouds, and the earth over an 8-minute period.
  1. Any movement of the camera imparted from your not-ever-as-steady-as-you-want-them-to-be hands will render everything in the image blurry. This is called “camera shake.” For most photographic artists, camera shake is rarely, if ever, desirable in a photograph.

In order to eliminate the second side effect, we need to place the camera on a steady support. There are many options for camera supports, but the tripod is the usual suspect.

Looking down.
Looking down

A good rule of thumb for figuring out the slowest shutter speed you can employ while avoiding camera shake is to divide one by the focal length of the lens (if shooting a cropped sensor camera, use the equivalent focal length) and make that number your minimum shutter speed.

Example 1:

200mm lens on a full-frame camera.

Use a shutter speed faster than 1/200 second…likely 1/250 on your camera.

Example 2:

200mm lens on an APS-C (1.5x) camera = 350mm equivalent focal length.

Use a shutter speed faster than 1/350 second…likely 1/500 on your camera.

If your shutter speed is slower than that “minimum,” you can try to increase it by opening your aperture or increasing your ISO. Or… use a tripod!

You may use a tripod on a moving platform to capture the movement of the rest of the world. This is creatively opposite of the usual aesthetic.

Now that we have eliminated camera shake with our tripods, we can employ long exposures creatively to get visual effects that are unique to photographs versus our normal vision. Our eyes cannot see the streaks of taillights of a passing car, or the milky smooth pour of a waterfall, nor can we see the runner’s legs moving in a blur, or the tracks of light left as the spinning earth etches star trails in the night sky. But the camera can, and that is an awesome reason to use a tripod.

Neutral density filters allow for slow shutter speed shooting during daylight hours while using a tripod.

Long Exposures—Daytime

When most photographers think about long exposures, they immediately equate them with nighttime photography. However, long exposures can happen in broad daylight, and certainly anytime indoors as well.

To force your camera to get a long exposure on a sunny day, you can reduce the amount of light getting into the lens by using neutral density filters and/or stopping down (making smaller) your aperture. Regardless of how you get the shutter speed to slow, you can now employ a tripod on a sunny day to steady your image and allow motion blur in the scene.

The smallest waterfall in Yosemite and a waterfall in Ireland, both photographed during the daytime on tripods.

When photographing indoors, unless next to a sunlit window, you’ll notice that shutter speeds slow, since the camera requires more light to properly expose the scene. The tripod is a handy tool for helping steady the camera when this happens.

Let’s do some nighttime photos!
Let’s do some nighttime photos!

Long Exposures—Nighttime

While your tripod is certainly happy getting a suntan, nighttime is when the tripod is fully in its element. Night photography is an amazing way to explore the world with your camera, and there are even more photographic possibilities to explore in the dark when your camera is paired with a tripod.

The world looks very different at night, especially to the camera. Our night vision is mostly monochromatic due to the design of our eyes, but the camera can see color at night just as well as it can during the day. This means that nighttime, to the camera, is just as colorful as the daytime is to us.

The streaks of light in the sky are caused by LED lights on pigeons.
The streaks of light in the sky are caused by LED lights on pigeons.

Also, because nighttime generally requires longer exposures, we get to explore the world photographically, not for a fraction of a second, but for a length of time. Circling back to motion blur, night photography is great for visually witnessing the movement of cars, trains, boats, clouds, and the movement of our planet.

I could wax poetically about night photography all day long (I’ll be doing photos at night). Never mind—l already did in this article.

Get up close and get stable with a macro lens and tripod.

Macro

Exploring the world on a small scale is another one of photography’s gifts. Macro or close-up photography is yet another realm of the art where the tripod is almost critical to capturing successful images.

As lens magnification increases and you get closer and closer to your subject, camera shake is magnified. The evil blur is the archenemy of macro photography. How do we overcome this? Simply by using a tripod.

Macro photography presents challenges to depth of field and focusing accuracy, among other things but, by using a tripod, a lot of those challenges are minimized.

New York City.
New York City

Sharpness

If you spend any time on the Internet reading about photography, you’ve come across countless mentions of “sharpness.” Capturing sharp images is one of photography’s holy grails. There are many ways to increase your image sharpness (and I shared 21 tips on getting sharper images here), but when it comes to removing camera movement, and thereby increasing sharpness, the tripod reigns supreme.

Stated succinctly, if you want the sharpest possible image from your camera and lens, use a tripod—even during a sunny day.

Two composite photos (see the traffic lights) illustrate another visual advantage the tripod can give photographers—allowing the camera to stay in the same spot for multiple images.

Process

This is where we go from the concrete to the spiritual….

Photography is a process. Regardless of whether you are using a smartphone camera to grab a snapshot of your ice cream sundae for social media, or using a large-format film camera and developing your image using alternative processes in a darkroom basement, there are steps to the process from capture to printing or viewing. Using a tripod adds a step (and sub-steps) to the process. These steps can be unwanted if you are “shooting from the hip” or just capturing a snapshot, of course, but there are benefits.

San Diego.
San Diego

The advantage of adding a tripod to the process—regardless of the subject—is that it slows you down and forces you to give more consideration to the image you are about to create. When you fix the camera in a position in space, you find that you pay more attention to the composition and what is inside and outside the frame.

Self-portrait.
Self-portrait

For many of us, slowing the act of photography down by adding a tripod to the process is one more way to improve the images we make. It helps physically by steadying the camera and lens, and it allows us to get long exposure photos that would be impossible without it. Yet, it also helps you mentally by forcing you to think more about the images you are capturing.

Block Island.
Block Island

Talking Tripods

Do you have questions about tripods? How have you used your own tripod to help get successful images? Let us know in the Comments section below, and thanks for reading!

I have more tripods than any one person should have. Actually, not all are in this photograph, because I was using one to support the camera to make this photo!
I have more tripods than any one person should have. Not all are in this photograph, because I was using one to support the camera to make this photo!

Items discussed in article

9 Comments

Prior to photographing the final Space Shuttle launch, I emailed Florida Today asking for photography advice. I listed my gear which included a pan/tilt tripod. He suggested that I mount the camera "backward" on the tripod where the tilt handle is under the lens. That way the handle wouldn't impede the upward tilt of the camera. 

Hi Ralph,

Good pro tip there! When doing astrophotography, I often have to mount the camera/lens or scope "backwards" so that I can point higher!

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

Great article, as always, Todd. Thanks! I bought my first tripod maybe 20 years ago, an aluminum tripod with 3 leg sections and a tilt-pan head. It is not very convenient to carry around, so I got a travel tripod maybe 10 years ago, a carbon fiber tripod with 4 leg sections and a ball head. These two work very well for me, the travel tripod has gone on many trips and hikes and the aluminum tripod gives a bit more support at home and when I'm near my car. I added a leveling base to the tilt and pan head later, and really like that combination. Not many people talk about this option, but it makes it really easy to level the head and then be able to pan and tilt on that level base.

Hi Hans,

Thank you for the kind words!

I actually have a leveling base on my tripod that I use for astrophotography in order to level the panning head. It is great for that as well.

Another thing that I enjoy (sometimes) is having a dual-panning head. It works similarly to a leveling head as you can level the camera and then pan at the top of the head instead of the base.

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

Great article. What features do you consider important in a tripod? I remember being extremely confused when I was looking to purchase my first one

As a 45-year professional architectural photographer, I've had a LOT of tripods, including 2 (heavy) Majestics for my 4x5 cameras.  You just need to make sure your tripod will support your heaviest camera and lens combination.  I have both a Gitzo graphite (carbon fiber) for travel and a (little bit) heavier but taller graphite Manfrotto to support a Nikon D800 with 16-35mm zoom.  Both are lightweight but stable and strong.  The head is actually more important, because it must be able to hold your camera in a fixed position, either horizontally or vertically.  Lightweight strength that can put the camera at a comfortable eye level is what you're looking for.  Good luck!

Good tips, John! Thanks for helping a fellow B&H customer!

John has made some excellent points. Aside from the load capacity of the tripod which would be based on the gear that you're holding, we feel that it's also important to have a tripod within your physical height. In this case, the tripod would be able to put the camera at eye-level when needed. We invite you to contact us via Live Chat today on our website until 8PM ET or e-mail us to [email protected] so we can go over some options with you. 

Thanks for the kind words, Taufiq! I agree with both John and Kirk below...good stuff. Let us know if you have more questions!

Best,

Todd

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