When to use a tripod for photography

"Real photographers use a tripod." 

"You need to use a tripod to take your photography to the next level."

"Don't leave home without your tripod."

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This was standard advice dished out in the 1980s when I was painstakingly learning my craft via the somewhat seedy pages of Practical Photography magazine (more on that here: The Story Behind a Year With My Camera). So I dutifully carried my heavy, pre-carbon fibre tripod around with me everywhere, rain or shine, up hill and down dale.

As I became more confident, and an actual professional photographer, I learnt that - as with so, so, so much photography advice - it's only partly true. It's very easy to spout advice like this - always use a tripod, never shoot into the sun, only shoot full frame - but unpicking the broad brush advice to get to the actual reason takes a bit more skill.

"Always use a tripod" - where did this advice come from anyway?

I think this advice started because landscape photographers pretty much always use a tripod. Most amateur photographers want to take great landscape photographs, so the advice became; always use a tripod. It takes no account of any other genres of photography where a tripod won't make any difference (eg non-studio portrait photography) or may downright get in the way (eg travel photography).

Better advice - there's a time and a place to use a tripod

Think of a tripod as simply replacing your hands in the process of taking a photograph. If there's ever an occasion where it would be a disadvantage that you are actually holding onto the camera, then consider using a tripod. These occasions include:

- if your hands are not steady enough, and you'll get camera shake, and you can't use a faster shutter speed to avoid it (most people can only hand hold the closest equivalent of the focal length of their lens, eg 1/60th second for a 50mm, 1/200th second for a 200mm)

- if you want to have a large depth of field (small aperture) and a low ISO, so you need to rely on a long shutter speed to make your exposure

- if it's dark, and you've run out of aperture and ISO options, so you need to rely on a long shutter speed

- if you're shooting macro without a flash (because camera shake is more noticeable)

- if you want to use a long exposure eg. to capture motion blur, or star trails

- if you think that having the camera one step removed from yourself will force you to be more contemplative, and pay more attention to your composition

- if you are shooting portraits and you don't want the camera to be a barrier between you and the person you are photographing

 A tripod was essential here, when I was using a shutter speed of 0.8 seconds to get the following photo:

A tripod was essential here, when I was using a shutter speed of 0.8 seconds to get the following photo:


If your subject is moving, either under it's own steam or because it's windy, and you want to stop motion blur, then using a tripod adds no technical benefit at all - because you'll need a fast shutter speed anyway. And if it is so windy that your tripod wobbles, or your camera lens is so heavy that it starts to droop, then you also lose all the benefit of being hands free.

How to use a tripod

You don't actually need a tripod. You can set your camera on the ground, or on a bag of rice, or a pile of books. The important thing is that you are not in contact with it at the time the shutter fires. So not only do you need to stabilise it, but you also need to use either a cable release, or the self timer. 

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You might find it hard to see through the viewfinder when you camera is on a tripod. Try using Live View if you have it. If your camera has a tiltable LCD, you'll find it even easier. 

Make sure the base plate is tight, and all the legs are locked firmly. 

Frame your composition.

Choose your settings.

Use mirror lockup if you are shooting macro (to avoid even the tiniest internal vibration in the camera), and then use your cable release or self timer to fire the shutter.

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