Bizarrely, I get asked more questions about which tripod I recommend than what camera to buy. It’s a surprisingly emotive issue. I regularly encounter travellers who have built up an irrational hatred of their tripod, either because it’s too flimsy and won’t keep the camera still, or because it’s just too heavy. Buying the wrong tripod can seriously damage your holiday, so here’s some advice for making an informed choice.
Creative uses for a tripod
At its simplest, a tripod will help you to shoot in low light levels without increasing the sensitivity, and avoid camera shake on your pictures. Even in daylight you will sometimes need to use a narrow apertureto get the maximum depth of field.
It will also open a number of creative options for you. It’ll help you to shoot panoramas, where you combine a number of shots in order to produce a wide image, and can allow you to shoot star trails where you need a massive exposure of 20 minutes or more, or images where you deliberately use a long shutter speed to allow a moving subject to blur.
Choosing a tripod
Choosing a tripod is always a trade-off between weight and stability. A large heavy tripod will be perfect for keeping your camera still, but if it is too heavy, you will just never want to carry it with you. The third variable is cost: some of the best tripods for the travel photographer are lightweight carbon-fibre models, but these can be quite pricey. It’s better to buy one expensive tripod though, than a number of useless cheap ones.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation. It really does depend on the camera and lens combination you use – or rather the combination that you are aiming to buy in the future. If you have long and heavy lenses, you’ll need a bigger, more stable tripod. There’s no substitute for trying out a tripod in a store. Tap the end of the lens lightly: if it moves at all, then you risk camera shake when you use it in the field.
It’s the tripod head that is arguably more important than the legs. Although I have a carbon fibre tripod, I use a standard steel head as I found the recommended magnesium head too unstable in anything but the merest zephyr – especially when using a 300mm telephoto lens.
You’ll usually have a choice between a ball and socket style head, and a 3-way head. I prefer the latter as you can adjust each axis separately. If you’re planning on shooting panoramas, then get one with a spirit level on the body of the tripod as well as the head. Both will need to be lined up for a panorama to work. If you’re using a ball and socket style head, make sure you can pan the camera, without moving in any other axis.
If your camera has a quick-release plate, that fits to the camera allowing you to take the camera on and off quickly, then make sure you have a spare with you. If you lose it, then your tripod is just ballast!
How to use a tripod
Extend the tripod as little as possible; it will be more stable. Ignore the centre column that will raise up the head further, using this will make the tripod very unstable. If you’re tall and don’t want to bend your legs, better to buy a taller tripod! And if there’s any wind, then take the strap off the camera – it will cause camera shake if it waves around in the breeze.
Don’t just use the tripod, try using some sort of remote or cable release to avoid camera shake when you press the release button. Some cameras also have a mirror lock-up facility to minimise shake. If your camera has one – use it!
If you have a light tripod, you can sometimes make it more stable by hanging a carrier bag of rocks, pebbles or sand between the legs.
Alternatives to a tripod
In truth, the high ISO of most modern digital cameras has progressed to a level where you would need to be quite a keen photographer before thinking about a tripod. There are some quality trade-offs, such as noise on the images, but it’s always worth considering if you really do need one.
If not, here are a few alternatives. None will give you the full flexibility of a tripod, but they’ll be easier to carry.
Monopod – a one-legged tripod! Great for keeping long telephoto lenses still, and shooting at relatively slow speeds.
Beanbag – Can do much the same as a monopod, but you need something to rest it on.
Table-top tripod – A mini tripod that will keep a camera stable, but has the drawback of being very short. They can be great for compact cameras though.
Clamp-support – Fixes to a solid object, allowing you to mount a camera. Works well, but needs the right solid object.
Steve Davey is the author of Footprint Travel Photography – the definitive guide to travelling with your camera.