We’ve all heard the expression “all the gear and no idea”, and experience has taught me that this extends well beyond referring to cameras and lenses alone. The humble tripod is a great example. This seemingly simple tool is often misused by photographers, compromising not only their shots, but the safety of their other gear.
People can pay so much attention to camera settings and composition that they overlook the vital aspects of where and how they’re setting up their legs. Try these simple fixes, though, and it won’t happen to you.
1/ Check your location
You can have the best technique in the world but if your tripod is placed on the wrong type of surface it’ll all be for nothing. So the first thing to check is where you’re setting up. I try to avoid any unstable surface, or anything which transfers vibration to the tripod, and therefore to the camera. Even areas that seem solid, like the decking of a jetty can have movement in them. You might not notice it at the time, but after a 10 second exposure, it’ll be clear enough in your unsharp shots.
Unstable surfaces, like small bridges or walkways, are made worse by heavy footfall, so if you have to shoot from one, watch out for people walking past and creating movement. Wait until they’ve gone, or ask them to stop until your exposure is finished.
2/ Put your best foot forward
You wouldn’t wear sandals to hike up a mountain instead of walking boots, so if your tripod has interchangeable feet make sure you choose the right ones for the job. Non-slip rubber feet are fine for most places, such as shooting on rock, earth, asphalt or stone. And if you have access to larger, cup-like feet, they’ll give even more stability, especially on flat and even surfaces. If you’re shooting on sand or soft ground, use spiked feet and drive the legs in so they’re more securely planted. A quick squirt from your water bottle or a dip in a lake will clean them off afterwards.
3/ Stop at the stop sign
All good tripods have a series of stopping positions to the leg angles. There are usually three or four of these, allowing you to set the legs at different angles appropriate to the subject. Make sure you set the leg to one of these stops or it can slip outwards, which could be game-over for your shot – or worse still your camera. I’ve also seen photographers trying to gain extra height by using the tripod legs in a much-too-vertical position; this creates a really unsteady platform, and one that’s quite likely to topple over. The legs don’t need to be set at the same angles as each other, so if you’re on slanting ground, you can use a mix to get the right height and level.
4/ Face the right way
You might not think much about the direction your legs are facing when setting up, but you should. The best position is usually with one leg facing in the direction you’re shooting. This helps in two ways. First, in this ‘anchor’ position, the tripod is unlikely to fall forward, even if you’re shooting on a slope. Second, with the one leg pointing forward you can stand more easily between the others, without risk of knocking the leg during an exposure.
Pointing a leg forwards isn’t alway possible though; if you’re shooting at a very wide angle, especially when framing vertically, the leg may appear in the shot. That’s great if you like pictures of tripods, but not so much if you need to spend ages cloning it out in Photoshop.
5/ Get on the level
All good tripods (or tripod heads) come with built-in bubble levels. They’re not just there to look pretty, either. Getting your legs level is important, and not just in terms of making sure your horizons aren’t on the wonk. But why do the legs need to be level, when you can just throw them down and tilt the head, levelling the camera alone? The reason is to do with load bearing and overall stability; if the legs are on an angle, more pressure is put on one leg than the others. That uneven distribution of weight can cause vibrations, which softens shots and also means the legs are more likely to tip over.
6/ Follow your orders
By and large, the thicker the legs of a tripod, the more stable it will be – and that means sharper pictures. But each time you extend a tripod leg, the sections get thinner. Therefore it makes sense to use the top sections first, only extending the lower, thinner sections as you need them. The more sections the tripod has, the thinner they’ll be at the bottom, so four or five-section travel tripods can get very thin indeed.
7/ Use some column sense
Just like the leg sections, how you use the centre column has a big influence on stability. No matter how thick it is, or what it’s made of, the centre column is the weak link in the tripod chain; it’s the least stable of the sections to usem as with only one point of contact, at the collar, it’s prone to the most vibration. For that reason, it should be used only when absolutely necessary, and certainly not before the leg sections – even if it take less effort to extend it than the three legs.
8/ Worth the weight
You might not be thanking physics when you’re carrying a heavy tripod up a mountain, but the fact remains: larger, heavier tripods are more stable than smaller lighter ones – when used correctly of course. Adding weight is something that works to improve image sharpness on any set of legs though, so find the hook under the collar or at the bottom of the centre column, and hang your camera bag on it. The only time this isn’t a good idea is if conditions are windy, wherein you can end up causing more problems than solutions as your ballast swings or knocks into the legs.
9/ Bracket your shots
L-brackets are often seen as a convenience, allowing you to switch from a vertical to a horizontal framing without affecting the angle of shooting, or having to change the position of the tripod or head. But L-brackets also help in terms of weight distribution. For example, with a regular mounting plate, shifting the camera from landscape to portrait on the head pushes the weight out to one side, decreasing stability. With an L-bracket, the weight remains centred so stability is uncompromised.
10/ Find your centre
Longer, heavier lenses, like fast telephotos, shift your setup’s centre of gravity forward and this can quickly reduce the stability of your shooting position. An unstable position means camera shake, already pronounced in telephoto shots, increases, and of course there’s the possibility that everything could fall over if your tripod is poorly placed. To prevent this, always make use of a long lens’s tripod collar. It can feel like a pain to swap the quick release plate from camera to lens as you swap optics, but it’s well worth the trouble. Better yet, buy a second plate and leave that on the long lens’s mounting point.