I’m sure most of you know what a tripod is, but if you are the occasional photographer that snaps a few shots at a family event or kids’ sporting event, you may never have used a tripod. You probably think tripods are only for professionals, but you’d be wrong. Tripods can vastly improve the quality of your photos by eliminating blur due to shakiness. So when do you need a tripod and how much does one cost?
The most obvious reason to use a tripod is to make sure your photos are sharp and clear by preventing camera shake. A good rule of thumb is that even if you are careful about holding the camera steady and pushing the exposure button correctly, (review tips) even the most experienced photographers have a hard time getting a truly clear shot at a shutter speed at less than twice the focal length of the lens being used.
What I mean by the shutter speed being twice the focal length of the lens is that for a 50mm lens you need to use a shutter speed of no less that 1/100sec. On many digital cameras the sensor is smaller than the traditional 35mm camera so you must use a multiplication factor to know what the effective focal length of your lens is. For example, with many of the popular Nikon and Canon digital SLR cameras this factor is 1.6x.
That means a 50mm lens has an effective focal length of 80mm. Using the rule for shutter speed you then should expect to get truly clear photos at shutter speeds at 1/160 sec or faster. There is one case where you can break the rule and that is if you have a camera or lens that has image stabilizing technology. In that case, you can usually get clear photos if your shutter speed is equal to rather than twice the focal length of the lens.
Another consideration in whether or not to use a tripod is how large a print you want to make or whether or not you plan to crop your image to use only a portion of the original shot you took. If you are planning some stock photography ideas, or you also want to enlarge you photo to an 8×10 inch print you should give yourself some extra room to get a clear photo. Perhaps cut the shutter speed in half again so that a 50mm lens should be used at no slower than a shutter speed of 1/200 sec.
What kind of tripod should you buy? It’s true with many things, but especially with in tripods, you get what you pay for. I have a couple of cheap tripods that I received “free” when I bought some other equipment as part of a promotion and they are not worth the plastic they are made of.
A good tripod should be sturdy and most commonly made of metal (usually aluminum) or carbon fiber. Aluminum is less expensive, but heavier than carbon fiber. There should be no more than 3 sections to the legs, avoid “compact” tripods with 5 or 6 sections as they are less stable. If you don’t get a stable, sturdy tripod, you might as well try to hold the camera yourself.
Tripods in which you buy the legs and the head separately give you more flexibility and tend to be of higher quality. It is worth investing in a separate “quick-release” attachment where you attach one part to your camera and one part to the tripod if the tripod doesn’t come with one. This allows you to take the camera on and off the tripod easily and quickly which means you are more likely to use it.
So how much should you expect to pay? For the tripod legs, figure between $150 and $200 for aluminum and $250 or more for carbon fiber. There are two kinds of tripod heads, pan & tilt and the ball head. I prefer the pan & tilt head where there are separate adjustments for horizontal and vertical tilt. The ball head is just like it sounds where the platform swivels on a ball with a single locking mechanism.
It may work better for you if you are taking photos of moving objects such as sporting events. You can find tripods that combine the legs and head, but don’t spend less than $150-200 on one. Most tripods have a maximum load or weight capacity. Don’t buy anything with less than a 10-15 pound weight capacity; it just won’t be stable enough.
I’ll talk about additional tripod tips and techniques in a future post, but if you can afford one, try using a tripod, I think you will be surprised at how much better your shot come out. You might even try borrowing one from someone just to see how well they work.