Tripods are one of the most misunderstood photographic accessories. Not all tripods are suited to all situations so here are our 25 top tips for ensuring that you buy the right tripod for you and you know how to get the best out of it.
1 It probably goes without saying that you need a sturdy tripod and this often means the heavier the better but if it is too heavy you are not going to want to take it out with you. If you want to do landscape images whilst out hiking or perhaps take low light images on a walk around the city at night look out for what are called travel tripods. They fold up much smaller and are usually much lighter than traditional tripods. This may mean they are not quite as stable but by using good technique and a few tricks you can still get rock solid images. vanguard veo travel tripod
2 Like many things, tripods are a classic case of ‘buy cheap, buy twice’. Many new photographers buy a cheap tripod and then find out that it is too flimsy and therefore unreliable for making sharp images in any conditions. They inevitably end up replacing their first tripod with a decent model before long, wasting what they spent earlier. We cringe when someone tells us they bought a ‘bargain’ tripod for £25 because we know that it will be as much use as a chocolate fireguard. Research the features that you need and buy a good quality model that will last.
3 Check how much weight capacity your tripod and whatever head you put on it can handle and compare this to the sum of your camera and heaviest lens. Give yourself a good margin of error as things like batteries and battery grips can add a lot. Remember that with big lenses there is a big turning effect so a tripod that is right on the limit weight capacity-wise will not be very stable.
4 Quick release plates are great for less hassle in the field. Get one for each of your lenses (if they have a tripod mount) and each camera body if you have more than one. That way you can pop kit on and off in seconds. arca swiss quick release plate
5 The old guideline for when you should stop hand holding the camera and stick it on a tripod instead used to be that anything slower than around 1/60 of a second should really require a tripod. However, in these days of high resolution cameras, the more megapixels your camera has the more you will need to use a tripod otherwise even the tiniest of movements will blur those very tiny pixels and your images will not reflect the level of detail that your camera is capable of resolving. For a camera with say 30+ megapixels you might need to use a tripod at anything slower than around 1/125s for the best image clarity.
6 For longer lenses that guideline increases further. Usually, we say 1/focal length is the longest shutter speed you should have before you need a tripod. Remember your focal length multiplier for a cropped sensor camera and number of megapixels may affect this guideline.
7 Image stabilisation is great for letting you hand hold at lower speeds but when you use a tripod you should turn it off otherwise it may try to compensate for camera shake that isn’t there and actually introduce blur into the image. Canon EOS DSLR image stabilisation
8 If your lens weighs more than your camera body make sure you mount the lens itself to the tripod and not the body. Mounting the body on the tripod if you are using a long lens on it will put too much strain on the lens mount. Canon tripod lens mount
9 If on soft ground push the tripod legs in until they become solid. Some tripod feet have spikes that can be extended/retracted to assist with grip. When shooting on soft sand, for example, you might need to place something solid under the tripod feet to spread the load. vanguard tripod spike
10 Some tripods have a hook or similar so you can hang your camera bag or something else heavy under the centre column. This isn’t for convenience, it is to increase the weight and lower the centre of gravity of the tripod to make it more stable and less prone to vibration from the wind, etc. Make sure that your bag hangs low down for the best effect and is not likely to swing in a strong wind. Camera_tips_advanced_tripod_tips_DCM104.shoot_gearcraft.tripod75[1]
11 Unless you want the camera at the maximum height your tripod is capable of, always open out the thicker leg sections first as they are more stable. Open out the lower, thinner leg sections last if you need more height as these are more flexible. Only as a last resort should you extend the centre column as this is the part most likely to wobble.
12 Remember that you don’t have to take the image from your normal eye line. You can use live view (and a flip out screen if you have one) to make composition easier with a lower viewpoint.
13 Consider using manual focus once you have set up your composition so that you don’t have to keep re-focusing, but make sure you don’t accidentally knock the lens.
14 Use a remote cable or wireless shutter release. This is to avoid any wobble occurring when you press the shutter release button being shown as camera shake in the image. If you don’t have one you can use the self-timer function in the camera to delay the image capture until it has stopped wobbling. Most cameras have the option of a two second timer for this purpose. Camera-Self-Timer-Symbol[1]
15 Usually you should place one of the tripod legs in the direction you are shooting. This is especially important when using a longer lens. Make sure that one leg is directly in line with the lens for greatest stability. This arrangement also enables you to approach the camera back more easily between the other two legs without getting tangled up.
16 Many tripods have built in spirit levels to assist in getting the head (and therefore the camera) level. This saves time correcting wonky horizons later in software. tripod head spirit level
17 As well as having a spirit level on the head, some tripods have a spirit level on the shoulders at the top of the legs. Getting the shoulder part of the tripod level (regardless of the head angle) ensures that the weight of the camera on the head is centralised and the whole thing is a lot less likely to tip over. Obviously a very long lens will affect the centre of gravity. This is also important if you are extending the centre column as if the shoulders are properly levelled then the centre column will be vertical and not leaning over which could cause instability. tripod spirit level
18 Consider using the mirror lock-up feature on your camera. This locks the mirror in the up position so that its movement does not cause any camera shake. You won’t be able to see through the viewfinder when you do this so make sure your composition and focusing is sorted out first.
19 Explore viewpoints and frame up your image whilst handholding the camera before putting your camera on the tripod. Once mounted on the tripod you are much less likely to explore alternative compositions and you may miss a better shot.
20 Look out for a tripod that has plenty of adjustability, not just in height but also the ability to get very low down for close-up/macro shots. Good tripods will allow you to open out the legs at a few pre-set leg angles, both to get you lower down and also to cope with difficult terrain. Make sure that you fully open out the legs to the stopper at whichever leg angle you want to use otherwise the tripod could shift when weight is applied. tripod adjustable leg angle
21 Consider how you are going to transport your tripod between locations. Some travel tripods can fold down small enough to fit inside specially designed camera bags. Others need to be mounted on the outside of bags and some need to be carried in their own dedicated bag. If you don’t have an appropriate bag you are less likely to take your tripod out with you. VEO-Tripod-in-VEO-37-camera-bag
22 There are four main types of tripod head:

  • Pan & tilt heads – these are what we might have traditional thought of as a tripod head with various arms and knobs to release and move the camera. Whilst they can be used for stills they are most suited to video work. Look for a fluid head mechanism which will allow very smooth pans.

  • Ball heads – these have a knob that is turned to release a ball joint upon which the camera sits. It can be repositioned very quickly at any angle. Some have a separate knob to allow the horizontal movement (pan) to be locked off separately to the main ball joint.

  • Grip heads – these are basically ball heads that have a pistol grip with a trigger that releases the ball joint instead of a knob. These can sometimes be easier for adjustment but are much bulkier.

  • Gimbal heads – the camera site in a cradle or attached to an arm that can move very smoothly in any direction. These are unlike other heads in that you don’t generally lock these off for a long exposure image but they are more often used for moving targets such as birds in flight. They are especially useful for very long lenses to take the weight whilst still allowing movement.
pan and tilt head
23 Most tripods are made of either aluminium or carbon fibre. Carbon fibre tripods weigh less so are more portable but might be less stable than their aluminium equivalent. They also cost more. It is up to you whether the additional weight of an aluminium tripod means you are less likely to take it out with you.
24 If you use your camera in portrait orientation consider using an L-bracket to attach it to the head rather than just a plate in the usual position on the bottom of the camera and tipping the head over. Using an L-bracket means that the camera’s centre of gravity is properly over the tripod not off to one side which could strain the tripod mount on the bottom of the camera as well as the plate and head and make the whole setup more unstable. arca swiss L bracket
25 Don’t use auto ISO when using a tripod. Instead select your base ISO (eg 100) for best quality. The camera doesn’t know you are using a tripod so may choose a higher ISO than it needs to when supported.