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5 simple tripod tips for better photos

A tripod is an essential tool for any photographer. It's purpose is to steady your camera in order to avoid movement that occurs when hand holding. That's it, that's all they do.

Tripods allow you to position a camera in a set place for longer exposures or multiple exposures. It allows you to position the camera in awkward positions that would otherwise be uncomfortable for a photographer. It also allows you to step away from the camera for remote shooting.

While in principle it all sounds relatively simple, there are a few tricks to keep in mind when working with a tripod. Here are five of the more important ones;

1. Use a shutter release: Anyone who knows me knows my personal mantra about this; "If you buy a tripod, get a shutter release cable along with it." The two go hand in hand. A tripod does you no good if you shake the camera when you press the shutter with your finger. Nothing beats a corded release cable. They are inexpensive, reliable, compact, need no batteries, can be used under any condition and gets the job done.

A second place alternative is the radio trigger. Unlike a cable, though, they require fresh batteries. Another popular style is the infrared (IR) trigger but they have their drawbacks. You need line of sight with the front of the camera, meaning the trigger has to be in front of the camera. How many times is the photographer in front of their camera? IR beams are also affected by bright sunlight so they tend to have problems on a brightly lit day.

With today's technology we also have the option of using our smart phones to control our WI-FI enabled cameras. While it is a nice feature under controlled situations, the reality is that the technology is shaky at best. Radio interference, unexpected disconnects and signal lag are some of the symptoms of trigger failures with these systems.

One solution to not having a triggering device is to use the camera's self timer mode. The only downside to this is the delay between shutter trigger and the actual action. That's okay for landscape shots but not reliable when timing is important. There are times when wireless triggers are suitable but you should also have a corded trigger in your bag of tricks.

2. Turn off lens vibration compensation: Many of today's digital lenses come equipped with some form of anti-shake feature to compensate for shaky hands. While this is great technology when hand holding your camera it has the opposite effect when the camera sits on a tripod. With the camera in a stationary position, an active anti-vibration system will actually introduce lens movement, causing blur. Turn it off any time the camera is mounted on a tripod. That said, lens manufacturers have understood this to be a problem and are slowly making their lens smarter, sensing when it's on a tripod.

Note: Different manufacturers have various names for this technology. VR (vibration reduction), VC (vibration compensation), IS (image stabilization), OS (optical stabilizer) to name a few. Not all lenses have this feature. Check your lens' documentation for complete information.

3. Use mirror lock up: If you have a camera with a mirror system (a dSLR uses a mirror that flips up to allow the sensor to be exposed) the movement of the mirror may introduce camera shake at slow shutter speeds. Not every situation requires you to lock the mirror up prior to tripping the shutter but you should be familiar with how it is accomplished on your particular camera model.

The use of mirror lock-up is dependent the sturdiness of your tripod and the focal length and shutter speed being used. Longer focal lengths combined with slower shutter speeds may register blur to a noticeable level than shorter focal lengths. Specially if a tripod has an extendible neck. Raising that neck weakens the stability as it is, introducing movement from the camera just makes it worse.

4. Create a sturdy platform: A sturdy base is essential to avoid blurry images from camera shake. When you use a tripod there are actually two bases you need to be aware of; the tripod itself and what the tripod is placed upon. Flimsy tripods are designed for lightweight cameras like the small pocket sized point and shoots. Heavier cameras will benefit from beefier tripods, not necessarily heavier ones.

Tripods with extendible necks are nice for the added reach but will suffer from possible movement. With the neck extended the three leg base now becomes a single leg base. Some models also have extensions that can be angled 90 degrees to the tripod which places the camera off center for additional reach. Heavier cameras will cause the center of gravity to shift so be careful with this technique. Some photographers advise hanging a weight (camera bag) from the center part of the tripod for stability. I don't suggest this as it puts unneeded stress on the tripod itself, specially if you have a heavier bag. It can also introduce movement if a breeze catches the bag and makes it sway.

The second part of a sturdy platform is the surface the tripod is placed upon. It doesn't help to have a good tripod if the ground you place it on is unstable. Examples of unsteady platforms are decks, small bridges, small area rugs, gravel, soft soil, or any surface that can shift, vibrate or move. Vibrations caused by people walking past is one of the most common types of disruption I encounter when using my tripod. A little patience and careful timing helps in this situation. Outdoor environments can offer challenges. Mud or loose dirt can cause a tripod to slip. Ice and snow can shift if there is some melting under the legs.

5. Watch your legs: A fully extended tripod tends to have a rather large footprint, meaning the legs tend to splay out rather far. If you are alone it is rarely an issue but in a crowd, well, problems can arise. Keep a careful guard in these conditions. Some places have restrictions on the use of tripods because of pedestrian traffic. If you find yourself in this situation simply fold up two of the legs and use it as a monopod.

There are times when you can get by with just two legs extended and the tripod leaned up against a sturdy support for balance. Railings, walls, sturdy trees or large boulders can be used as a third leg for this technique. Under controlled situations you may even get by without having to completely unfold the legs offering a small footprint for the tripod. Just remember that the whole thing is less sturdy and can easily be toppled over.

These are just five of the most common tips to keep in mind. There are others. If you have an unusual suggestion, a unique method or just a common sense tip feel free to share them in the comments section.


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