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How Not to Use a Tripod

Many photographers have a love/hate relationship with their tripod. Here's some help with rationalizing the use of a cheap, lightweight one. And perhaps a nudge towards using a better one.

Good tripods are heavy. If you want to avoid the hassle of carrying one around, just leave it in your car. Or go for the gusto and leave it at home. Of course, unless you do have it with you, you'll never use it, and therefore you'll never benefit from using it. Some people will tell you that tripods not only hold your camera stationary so you can avoid movement blur during exposures, they can improve your compositions by affording you the luxury of studying everything in the frame before committing yourself to a press of the shutter release. But that's just some people.

One way to make carrying a tripod easier is to buy a lightweight one. Never mind that lightweight tripods simply can't hold reasonable sized loads with any degree of stability. Never mind that the whole point of carrying a tripod at all is to add stability. You're doing OK with what you've got.

Tripods with four leg segments can also be easier to carry than ones with three segments since you can pack them up smaller and thereby fit them in a smaller space. Of course to perform that feat the bottom leg segments have to be pretty skinny in order to nest inside the remaining ones. Skinny legs again can't hold much weight very well, but at least you can it's easier to carry that way. It's your call whether carrying a tripod is more important than using it. A tripod optimized for one is rarely your best choice for the other.

Those department store tripods with a cross-brace between the legs can help add stability to a lightweight tripod that might otherwise be a tad flimsy. You might wonder why more substantial tripods don't have this feature but perhaps they just haven't caught on yet. One could make the case that better tripods are inherently more stable and don't need such added bracing, but then lightweight tripods are indeed easier to carry around so never mind what better tripods have or don't have. And never mind the fact that such bracing between the tripod legs precludes the ability to adjust the legs independently. There may be three legs to a tripod but you need to extend all of them to use the thing.

Indeed, when you go to use that tripod you've been lugging around, don't waste any more time than necessary. Loosen those leg joints and extend each leg completely. You didn't buy a tripod that was too tall did you? Long legs would just add more weight that you don't really need. You'd have to jump or stand on a box to use tripod taller than eye level. Either that or use it on a hillside where one leg has to be longer than the others to reach your eye level when you're effectively standing above the end of that leg.

And stooping over to use a tripod isn't so bad, is it? If your back is in good shape it can work. But it can be a bit of a pain (literally) if you do it too much on a day when you're already sore from hiking all over looking for the best shots. The other curious thing about stopping over to use a tripod is that it can make it quite difficult to keep the horizon level. Bend your head to one side to see through the viewfinder and the entire world will look crooked. Tilt the camera over to compensate and things will look better. But later on you'll notice that many of your images are crooked since the problem all along was your tilted head rather than anything to do with your camera. Oh well.

But wait a minute. When you get right down to it, it really does matter what you want out of a tripod. If you get one that's as easy to carry around as possible, you'll probably end up concluding that tripods aren't much use since you will discover that such a tripod doesn't help your images much at all. You'll probably come to believe you can't justify carrying a heavier tripod since your lightweight, flimsy one isn't much use. You know you should carry a tripod, so travelling with a small one fills the bill without weighing you down much. In other words, using a cheap tripod can become a self-reinforcing strategy. Using one does little good, so you end up expecting little from it. And since you thereby end up thinking it can do little for you, you won't be readily motivated to invest in, and carry around, a better tripod.

But if you consider what a tripod is supposed to do, it's hard not to conclude you need one that actually can hold the load you ask it to. And you have to commit to carrying it and using it. Don't knock it until you've tried it.

Date posted: November 30, 2014


Copyright © 2014 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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