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Cameras & Photography Equipment

Getting The Most Out Of Your Tripodby Scott Bourne

Summary: The tripod is an important tool in any arsenal of photography equipment. These tips from a seasoned professional will help you choose, and use, the right tripod for your needs.

ast year I was teaching basic photography tips at a workshop when a student asked me how to properly use a tripod. It occurred to me that no one had ever actually asked me that question before. I also realized that no one had ever actually "taught" me how to use a tripod. I developed tripod technique based on trial and error. Here is what I have learned.

First Things First

Buy the biggest and best tripod you can afford! Actually, I recommend buying more than one tripod. (You have more than one lens don't you?) Not every tripod is perfect for every situation.

My big, beefy Bogen 3051 is perfect for the studio. But the beast is overkill on a hike through the Olympic National Park. My Gitzo 1127 is just right for my Hasselblad xPan but not nearly enough tripod for my Canon 1DMK II with a 300 mm /f4 lens. My everyday road warrior is the Gitzo 1348 MKII. It's just right for heavy-duty 35mm work but light enough to pack into the forest.

Look at your equipment and the type of shooting that you do. Then match your tripod to the task. Test several tripods and buy something based on how it suits you.

When you select a tripod, make sure that you underestimate how much weight it can really handle. Tripod manufacturers are notorious for rating their equipment on the plus side of the scale. So if your tripod maker says their model can handle nine pounds worth of equipment, impose a four and one half pound limit.

If you cut their specs in half you are usually closer to the truth. And even if they are accurate, technique plays a part in the success or failure of a tripod. By underestimating the weight a tripod can carry, you create an insurance policy that protects you against bad technique.

Also try to select a tripod that will get low to the ground. The theory is that the lower to the ground the tripod goes, the more stable it is. Also, opt for tripods with three sections rather than four. While four section tripods will pack up smaller and be easier to pack into the field, they are not as stable.

Set Up

When you set your tripod up, look for a level space. This will help minimize vibrations caused by legs jutting out at awkward angles. Keep things balanced. The top platform should be horizontal and as level as possible. If you're shooting on a slope, you should shorten the uphill leg, angling it farther from vertical so it points into the hillside.

Depending on the shot you want to make, keep your tripod as close to the ground as possible to minimize the effects of wind and vibration. Try spreading the legs a little wider. You can go too far and make the whole thing unstable, but remember that a fat pyramid will be more stable than a thin one. Less extension always means greater stability. At all costs, try to avoid raising your tripod's center column. This actually destabilizes the tripod. If you need more height, try moving to higher ground. Of course the higher you go, the more likely you will have to deal with the wind.

Always try to set your tripod up so that wind is not a factor. Use something to block the wind. Stand behind a vehicle or a tree. Get your friends and family to block the wind by forming a human wall. Anything that you can do to minimize wind interference will help steady the tripod.

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About the Author Scott Bourne is the author of "88 Secrets to Selling & Publishing Your Photography" and "88 Secrets to Photoshop for Photographers." Both are available from Olympic Mountain School Press, His work has also appeared in books, magazines, galleries, calendars, on greeting cards, web sites and on posters.

Scott is a professional photographer, author, teacher and pioneer in the digital imaging field. His career started in the early 70s as a stringer covering motor sports for Associated Press in Indiana. Since then, he has shot commercial, portrait, wedding, magazine and fine art assignments. His new passion is wildlife photography.

Scott regularly lectures on a variety of photo and media-related subjects. He's appeared on national television and radio programs and has written columns for several national magazines. He is the publisher of, an online magazine for serious photographers and also serves as the executive director of the Olympic Mountain School of Photography in Gig Harbor, WA.