Pro tip: When and why to use a tripod

Pro tip: When and why to use a tripod

Photographers have all sorts of opinions about tripods. Some won’t use them, some won’t shoot without them, and most of us use one sometimes. Especially with image stabilization and high-ISO options on modern digital cameras, tripods are not as essential, nor do they need to be as heavy, as they used to be. But they still provide value in many cases – some obvious and some not so obvious. It is worth going over the advantages of using a tripod so you can make an informed decision for yourself:

Tripods make you more patient

This is one I’ve written about before, but it was driven home to me again during a recent outing to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida. The last time I was there, with my friend Moose Peterson, we all used long lenses and large tripods. We patiently worked our way around the boardwalk circuit and had no problem waiting to get just the right pose from the variety of unusual species we saw.

Rookeries are an especially good place for a tripod,
as you can lock in on a nest and then wait for behaviors,
like nest exchanges or feeding.
Great Blue Herons nesting, Southern Florida.

A big reason for that is once a properly-sized tripod and lens are set up, all you need to do is stand there, perhaps with one hand resting on your camera near the shutter button. As long as you (or someone you’re with) keeps an eye on the subject, you’re ready to shoot in a second or two, and in the meantime can relax. This of course assumes that your tripod is tall enough so that you don’t have to scrunch over to use it, and that your head and plate combination support your long lens in a balanced fashion. If you are using a tripod and head that are too small or too cheap, you won’t get this benefit.

By contrast, I was traveling lighter this time, so I was hand-holding my and . There was plenty of light, so there was no compromise needed on image quality because I didn’t have a tripod. But I found it much harder to wait patiently for things to happen. Either I had to keep the camera held up near my eye for long periods – which is very tiring and stressful – or let it fall back down onto its shoulder strap – which meant I was nowhere near ready when action happened. The result was I got some good shots, but less “great” ones than I would have if I had been more patient.

NOTE: When you are hand-holding on a boardwalk, consider leaning your left elbow on the railing with the lens supported in the palm of your hand. If the railing is at a convenient height this makes for a reasonable monopod substitute.

NOTE: When you do use a tripod on a boardwalk, remember that the legs are directly connected to the vibration of the platform. If enough other people are walking near you, the tripod might actually make camera motion worse – so pay attention to your image stabilization settings.

Tripods help you see differently

By holding your camera in place, tripods let you “scout” a bit and then return to your viewfinder to see if you still like the composition you have. While you can do this on your own by simply moving around and remembering what your previous composition looked like, it is frequently hard to move back to exactly the same location. Even the act of setting up your tripod and positioning the camera makes you think in a different way than simply pointing and shooting.

A good lens collar and tripod support system makes it easier to reframe vertically,
which works well in the case of this perched African Spoonbill in Southern Florida.

Tripods can make it easier to follow action

While in many cases hand holding is the best way to stay with a fast moving subject, if you’re following objects like race cars or migrating birds that are moving in a predictable path it can be easier – especially if you want to capture smooth panning blurs – to use a tripod. It is also a lot less work, so you may be able to keep at it for much longer.

NOTE: When shooting panning blurs, if your Image Stabilizer has a panning setting, make sure to use it.

My tripods of choice

Like most pro photographers I know, I am a huge fan of Gitzo tripods. I have wound up with a collection of them in various sizes over the years, but for serious work my goto model is the . I have a larger model for very heavy lenses, but the Series 3 models are more than stable enough to support my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens quite nicely. They do the same with a 500mm f/4 lens. You can skimp a bit and get a smaller , but you lose a little bit of stability. There are plenty of Gitzo knock-offs, some of which are also quite good. , for example, makes decent carbon fiber legs for about 2/3 the price of a Gitzo.

For tripod heads, I use either a Really Right Stuff ballhead, or my most of the time. When I don’t mind carrying the extra weight I use a full-sized Wimberly model, but that’s a lot to lug around.