Tripods, buying and using: Some practical tips

///Tripods, buying and using: Some practical tips

Buying and using tripods for your photography is one of your best investments… on!

To improve your nature photography better than the latest and greatest camera or lens you need a good tripod. This article will give you my take on buying and using a tripod and what makes a good tripod suitable for nature photography.

As nature photographers this is often an over looked “accessory?” which many feel they can do without because they have “image stabilisation” in their camera or lenses or both but in this article I hope to convince you that the humble tripod is an important tool which will improve your photography at least by 90%.

To begin with; we all have had or should I say most of us have used one of those “cheap” flimsy tripods you can buy anywhere, places like Kmart and the likes. I can bet that you tried to use it for awhile but found it hard to set up and never seemed to do the job the sales person said it would do! Well you won’t be alone in that frustration; many photographers have felt that using a tripod was more trouble than it was worth.

Relying on image stabilisation or as Nikon call it, vibration resistance, is no substitute for a good tripod and good techniques.

A good tripod will slow down your thinking; giving you time to consider the composition of your image, sharper images, and composition will be more accurate and repeatable.

If you want to do HDR or panoramas a tripod is almost a necessary for alignment.

Making that silky smooth effect of water (requiring shutter speeds counted in minutes) you need a tripod, try hand holding a camera still for 3 minutes.

What is a good tripod then?

Well first I would like to tell you what a bad tripod is! A bad tripod is a tripod you don’t use because it doesn’t do what you think it should do.

Some common elements which bad tripods share are as follows;

1. It was cheap

2. It was light in weight (seemed a good idea at the time)

3. Has a centre column which is good as I can get more height without bending over

4. Has leg braces which will make the tripod more stable

5. It is small when it is folded up (usually has more leg sections than a millipede)

These are all things in common with most tripods you see in camera stores these days.

If we now look at why these are not such good things to have in a tripod, especially when doing nature photography you will get a sense of what makes a “good” tripod.

1. You get what you pay for! You buy a cheap tripod it doesn’t work then you upgrade and that doesn’t  make the muster so you then spend more on a slightly better one until finally you spend the money and purchase a good tripod that you enjoy using. That good tripod has just cost you a lot more than those that bought smart from the beginning (but you will have a cupboard full of “bad” tripods to remind you!)

2. With tripods weight is a two edged sword, mass equal’s stability but makes it heavy to carry. If you have a too light tripod it can’t carry the weight of your camera and lens very well which means you have stability problems. Mount a medium telephoto lens and camera body on it and add some wind to the mix and you are likely to have your gear falling on the ground.

3. The centre column. Extend the centre column and you have essentially a mono-pod with legs. Again not good for stability. Plus if you want to get down to ground level for macro, where is the camera going to end up? About a foot above the ground! Not really ground level is it? I have heard people say that I can mount the camera on the centre post between the legs to get closer, have you ever try doing that? Firstly the image in the viewfinder is upside down (not the best way to work unless you have used plate camera before). Secondly, you have to wiggle between the legs to even see through the viewfinder (don’t know about you but I’m getting too old for that).

4. Leg braces. Fine if you are always on level ground in a studio or something but when you venture outdoors the ground isn’t even and many times you will need to put a leg against a rock or tree and the brace doesn’t allow you to do this.

5. Again mass equals stability. Have a look at the size of the leg sections on the tripods which have four or even five section, I bet the bottom sections will be about the size of a pencil, not very stable. Additionally you have to unlock more knobs to make adjustments when shooting. This becomes very boring after a while.

What would you suggest then for buying and using tripods for nature photography? (Which I can afford)

1. Maximum height and minimum height. You want to have your viewfinder at eye level without bending over to look through the viewfinder so choose a tripod that extends to about chin height or within about 6-inches of eye level (that remaining 6-inches will be taken up by your tripod head and camera). Want to shoot at ground level? Choose a tripod without a centre column or the centre column can be removed.

2. Choose a tripod with 3 leg-sections over 4 leg-sections. Since each leg section has to telescope into the previous section, the fourth and final leg section of a 4 leg-section model is thinner and can introduce a point of weakness. Opt for fewer sections to maximize your support. Tripods with 3 leg-sections have only two joints per leg, the fewer joints, the better the support and the less hassle to extend and collapse.

3. You don’t have to go out and buy the latest and greatest carbon fibre tripod as there are a number of “cheap” tripods available which almost meet what makes a good tripod in my opinion but if you buy something that you think about first and buy a good tripod which is easy to use, you will have a tripod for life.

For more tips about buying a good tripod check out Really Right Stuffs info page.


  1. Christine Tuesday, 26 November, 2013 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    I really need to buy a good tripod, this has helped me decide what I need.

    • James Doyle Tuesday, 26 November, 2013 at 6:39 pm - Reply

      When you get use to using a good tripod you will wonder how you lived without one Christine. ;-)

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