How To Use Your Tripod

Updated: May 21, 2019

Today we will talk about a camera tripod support system, which we attach your camera and lens to. This support system is to reduce vibrations or any slight movements. This facilitates maximizing the sharpness in your photos. But it can only do that if you develop the practice of always using it.

When you look on websites or in camera stores to buy your tripod, it may well overwhelm you. I know I was when I researched for this blog. So I will start at the top of a tripod, work my way downward and point out details. I will also share experiences I have had.

At the top is a quick release plate; this attaches to the base of your camera. The quick release plate makes it easy to remove your camera from the tripod. Not essential but very handy. Make sure yours fits well into the top of the head and is very secure when you tighten down the set knob.

A quick release plate; it screws to the bottom of your camera

The quick release plate attached to the top of the ball head; the knob on the right needs to be tightened well .

Next down is the head; I found easily a dozen or more types. Most of these were to facilitate a specific photography niche, such as macro photography for example. The design allows for quick changes when needed such as during wildlife photography. But the most common tripod head, and the one I recommend for beginning landscape photography, is the ball head. This design allows movement in myriad directions, and usually has one main knob for allowing this movement, or conversely, locking it into position. Most ball heads have a 90 degree cut-out on the side allowing you to position your camera vertically, such as for panoramic photos. Many also have a locking knob to control a panning, or moving from left to right, motion. The main concern with a ball head is that it firmly locks your camera/lense in position when you tighten the knob. Some inferior ball heads will allow the ball to creep, or move to another position. I always check product reviews before buying any new equipment looking for problems such as this; I start with the 1 star reviews where the problems with a product are best found.

The ball head on my Zomei Q666 tripod; knob on left is to tighten the ball so it doesn't move. The knob on the right tightens the ball head so it doesn't rotate. You can see the cut-out that allows you to rotate the camera position 90 degrees.

The tripod head is attached to a center column . The center column runs down thru the collar which attaches the legs to the tripod. Never raise the center column; leave it down so your camera base and tripod head is resting on the collar. This is because raising it allows some instability to enter your tripod system. This defeats somewhat the purpose of using a tripod and diminishes the sharpness of your photos. Even if there is a handy crank handle that will raise your camera to your eye level, don’t use it. It is better to buy a taller tripod right up front so you don’t have to raise your center column to see thru your viewfinder.

This is the collar that the center column runs down thru and which the legs attach to.

One good thing about many center columns is that there is a hook built into the bottom of the column. You can hang a weight from it, a custom bag or just a sturdy bag of your design, filled with sand or small rocks. This weight will help with stability in your tripod system. Look for a hook when deciding which tripod to buy.

The bottom of the center column on my tripod didn't come with a hook to hang weight from, but it does have a threaded hole so I could attach one.

They make your tripod legs from aluminum, carbon fibre, or even wood. (wood is old style, not common). Each has advantages and disadvantages. Aluminum is cheaper to buy, is light, but can corrode. It's hot to the touch, or cold to the touch, depending upon the season. Carbon fibre is more expensive, That is its main drawback. It is corrosion resistant, nice if you shoot photos near lakes, streams, or in particular, the salty ocean. Carbon fibre is much lighter than aluminum, about 30%, and dampens vibrations better than aluminum. I won’t discuss wood tripods, even though I am old enough to remember them.

Tripod legs have 3 sections; thickest up near the collar, a medium thickness section which slides in and out of the thick section and then a thinner bottom section that slices in and out of the middle section. This nesting of the sections one inside another allows for the legs to telescope from a short length for storage or travel to a fully extended longer length for use. This also allows for independently extending the legs out to different lengths, for use on uneven surfaces.

If possible, don’t extend the lower, thinner sections more than halfway out; these skinny sections can lend instability into your otherwise rock solid system.

Where the legs attach to the collar will be locks to adjust the angle that the legs jut out from the center column; these are great finger pinchers on some tripods so be careful. Also, the bolts that hold them onto the collar can loosen with use and the leg will flop about. I have one leg that I need to tighten; it is always sticking out depending upon how I hold it when carrying it.

There are 3 locking mechanisms on each leg that are to allow the leg to telescope out and then lock in place. This is so you can adjust its length. There are two types: these are a flip lock, and a screw type lock. I have used both. I liked the flip locks, quick, easy to use, seemed secure. But the rest of the tripod was cheap junk, so when I bought my next tripod it had the screw locks. Screw locks supposedly tighten or loosen with a 1/4 turn; I find on mine it is much more. And with 3 locks on each of 3 legs, I do a lot of twisting to get my tripod set up. Also, at the ocean shore, sand was a real issue. Every couple days I had to take the legs apart to clean out the sand between the leg sections, and also out of the screw lock threads. Whichever tripod you buy, practice doing this at home first so you don’t waste precious time learning how to on a field trip.

These are screw type locks; you need to twist 9 of them to extend the legs.

At the end of each leg, tripods have rubber feet with a metal spike in the center. Twist the foot one way, it retracts the spike and you are just on the rubber feet. Twist the foot the other way and the metal spike comes out; I guess this would be helpful in certain slippery situations such as ice, but I haven’t used them.

Two physical characteristics to know about. Each tripod/head has a weight rating. On large websites selling camera equipment, such as B+H for example, they will list the weight rating for each tripod/head combo. I am not sure if Amazon advertisements list this info consistently. This is important for your camera/lens safe keeping. If you put a large camera/telephoto combo on a tripod rated at 5 lbs. for example, I predict a terrible incident happening in your future; a 15-20 lbs. rating would be more appropriate.

Just as photographers come in different heights, tripods come in different lengths. To determine the proper length of your tripod, measure from your jaw line to the floor if you are looking for a tripod/head combo. If just wanting a tripod without a head, measure from your shoulder to the floor. If still unsure, buy a tripod 2-4 inches longer than your measurements; you can then adjust to the correct height for you by not extending the lower leg section all the way out. (remember that this will also help with tripod stability) If you have a camera equipment store in your area, give them a visit and ask them to help determine your proper tripod length. Some things are best determined by getting hands on the equipment.

There is your tripod, top to bottom. When you go looking for one, do as I suggested and really read the product reviews; learn from other's experiences. And I found several sites and articles that suggested the following. Buy a tripod in the $100-150 range, don’t go all out with a $1000 dollar tripod at first. Use the heck out of your tripod, figure out what you like and don’t like about it. Then, If you want to get exorbitant with a new $1,000 carbon fibre tripod with a fancy $700 head, you have a good foundation for making that decision.


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