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Tripods—How to Use Them, How to Choose Them

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Hi, I'm Phil Steele. Now it may seem like a no-brainer, but there are actually a lot of things to know about using tripods for photography. So in this video we're going to cover everything about tripods, from how to choose the right one to using all the features of a tripod including some features you may not even know about, and how to avoid dumb mistakes that could damage your gear or result in bad photos.

Alright, let's start with choosing the right tripod for your needs. I'll keep this part brief because we want to get on how to use a tripod. But using it depends on which features it has so we need to talk about this part first. Now, I'm assuming you're still photographer. There are specialized tripods for video which are different from tripods for still photography. For example, this video tripod, it can pan and it can tilt. Two directions of movement. But for still photography, you want to be able to put the camera in any position so you need a tripod that has one more degree movement. You need what's called a 3-Way Head or a Ball Head, and we'll talk about those in a moment. Also, you'll notice this tripod is all in one piece. The legs and the head don't come apart. Now, if you're on a low budget, you may start with a one-piece tripod like this, but generally for the more sophisticated tripods the head and the legs come apart and you buy them separately.

So let's talk about the heads first. As I mentioned, at the bare minimum you want a 3-Way Head like this one. You can see it has one, two, three levers to allow you to move the camera in three different directions. It's basically like that video pan and tilt head that we saw with one more axis of movement, and that allows you to put the camera in any position. However, there is another alternative that allows you to quickly put the camera in any position, and that is a ball head like this one. The ball head is basically a ball in a socket and by moving one lever, it releases the friction on the ball and allows you to move the camera to any position you like.

So which is better, a 3-Way Head or a Ball Head? It depends on what kind of photography you do and how much speed and weight matter to you. The ball head tends to be smaller, more compact, and faster to work with. So if you're traveling and want the most compact tripod, or if you're shooting moving subjects and want to be able to move your camera around very quickly to recompose, then a ball head is probably for you. The 3-Way Head has an advantage if you want to be able to put your camera in very precise positions and you don't mind it being a little slower because you have to use three different levers to reposition the camera. And if you don't mind it being a little bit bulkier. So if you're shooting landscapes or product photography or architecture or macro photography where you want to take your time and set up very carefully composed shots and you don't mind it being a little slower, then the 3-Way Head is probably better for you. I personally use Ball Heads because I like my tripod to be very compact and portable. I also like to be able to move my camera very quickly. Now, if you really want the ultimate in quick movement there's a type of Ball Head called a pistolgrip head, sometimes called a joystick head. The great thing about these is, with one hand, with one motion you can grab it and squeeze the trigger and then move the camera to any position you like and release. It's very fast but the downside is, it tends to be a bit bigger and heavier than other types of Ball Heads. Also, if you've got a big heavy camera out on it it can get kind of unbalanced when that camera's hanging way out at an angle. Finally, for those of you who shoot with long lenses for sports or wildlife photography, you might want to consider a Gimbal head. These are big and expensive and highly specialized, but if you do really long lens photography then they can be a lifesaver.

Now let's talk about the tripod legs. There are generally two different ways that tripod legs are latched. We sometimes call them 'flippies' and 'twisties'. So, here's an example of flippies: you flip a little lever to move the leg, when it's in position, you flip it back to secure it. Here's an example of what we call twisties: you turn a little collar to move the leg, and you tighten it by rotating it. The advantage of the twisties is they are more compact, they're quiet, they are less likely to get caught on things, less likely to get broken off. The downside is it's easy to fail to tighten one of them enough, and then one of your legs collapses and dumps your tripod over. Believe me, I've done it. The flippy lever latches have the advantage of being faster to use and you're less likely to leave it partially latched. The downside is usually they're made of plastic which means they can break, they get caught on things, they are not quite as compact, and they make a little bit of noise if being quiet is really important to you. Now, there are strongopinions in favor of both types. I typically prefer the lever latches for their speed and ease of use. But, I have this travel tripod that has twistyies because it's compact and it's quiet. One more thing to know about tripod legs is that many of them have replaceable feet. So, if you're indoors on a smooth surface you can get suction cup feet or if you're outside on soft ground or maybe on ice, you could put metal spikes on there. So if that's important to you, make sure you look for a tripod that has a replaceable feet.

There's a raging debate about whether carbon fiber or aluminum makes a better tripod. Some people would argue that carbon fiber makes a better material because it absorbs vibration better than aluminum. On the other hand, some people would say aluminum because it's stronger and sturdier, makes a more stable tripod. It's certainly true that if you shoot in cold weather you might prefer carbon fiber it's less cold to the touch and won't freeze your hands. On the other hand, some aluminum tripods have these rubber grips added to them and that protects your hands. It mostly comes down to a choice based on price and weight. If weight is your primary concern - if you're a traveler or a backpacker - you're probably going to want to go with carbon fiber because it's lighter. But carbon fiber is also more expensive so if money is your primary concern than aluminum probably wins.

The final aspect of choosing a tripod that I want to mention before we get into how to use them is the center column. That's this part that goes up and down. Some tripod have this and some don't. The advantage of having a center column is that it allows you to make very precise adjustments to the height of your camera very easily. Another advantage is that some tripods have a center column that's reversible. You can take it out, put it upside down, hang your camera from it and it allows you to get your camera very close to the ground. Now, the disadvantage of the center column is: the more you raise it, the more wobbly and weak your whole setup gets. Ideally you would only raise it when you absolutely need to you. You would want to normally raise your tripod legs to their full height and keep the center column all the way down in the lowest, most stable position and shoot like that. If you have a big, heavy camera and need a lot of stability, you might want to consider a tripod that doesn't have a center column at all. When you're shopping for a tripod, whether it has a center column or not, you should make sure you get one that's tall enough that you can look through the viewfinder of your camera without having to stoop over because that gets very tiring. This is one good reason to test a tripod that you're considering in a camera store instead of just buying it online. Another reason to test out a tripod in a camera store instead of just buying one online, is you can test it with your actual camera gear and see how it performs with that amount of weight. So go in, take your heaviest camera and lens and flash combo - whatever you use - put it on there and then give it a little tap and see how long it takes for the vibration to settle down. Tap it in the middle of one leg and see how long it takes the vibration to settle down. If there's a lot of shaking and wobbling going on, then you probably need a heavier duty tripod. In general it's better to have a tripod that's too sturdy than one that's not sturdy enough. So if you're on a low budget, you might consider buying a used tripod that's good and sturdy instead of a new one that's flimsy because that's all you can afford. Like all photography gear, good tripods cost money. If you start with a cheap one, pretty soon you'll be replacing it and buying a more expensive one. So you might just want to skip that first step and go right to a better one from the start. You're going to spend at least $300 on a decent tripod. Some people spend much more.

Alright. Now let's talk about how to use a tripod. One of the most important features of any tripod is the quick release plate. There are many different styles of them on many different brands of tripods, but they all serve the same function: they allow you to take your camera quickly on and off of the tripod by screwing the plate to your camera instead of having to screw your camera to the tripod each time. So they're great. But, they have some quirks. First of all, even though they're called quick release plates some of them are quicker than others. I like this Manfrotto style where with a single motion you can just put the camera down and lock it into place. There are other types where once you put the camera down you have to tighten a little screw to tighten it down. I like my quick release place to be quick, other people prefer the mechanical security of the screw-down style. Also, once you snap it down, you might want to wiggle it a little to take out any slack, because otherwise if you move it to a different position to take out any slack, it might slip a little bit. Of course, quick release plates also vary in the way that you tighten them on to your camera. For example, this Manfrotto has a very typical - what they call a D-ring style - there's a little metal ring you can flip up, that makes a handle that you use to tighten it. But you have to remember to push that back down before you try to put it on the tripod. That may seem obvious but I've seen people struggle with that.

Other tripods have a different design and they have a notch that's designed so that something like a screwdriver or a coin could fit in there to turn it and tighten it, on the assumption that people always have coins. Well, I don't know about you, but I don't carry coins anymore so it's a good idea to always have some coins in your camera bag or you can do what my colleague Julie does: she actually velcros a coin to her tripod so that she's never caught without a coin to tighten the release plate. Speaking of Julie's tricks, here's another thing she does with her quick release plates. One of the tricky things about these plates is they're often not symmetrical. There's kind of a lip on one piece that goes under a little ledge on another piece, and by definition we're often using tripods in the dark when it's hard to see and it can be hard to figure out which side goes where. So she marks both the tripod and the plate with a little bit of colored nail polish so she can tell which side lines up with which side. It also helps because it tells her which side of the plate is going forward on the lens when she screws it onto the camera.

Most quick-release systems have some kind of lock you can't accidentally bump it and drop your camera. For example, this Manfrotto system has a little lever pin right here and when it's in the locked position then you can't unlatch it. So if you're trying to get your camera off and can't figure out why, check and make sure it's not locked. Finally, you want to buy some extra quick release plates because you'll lose them or other photographers will take them - either accidentally or not. Or you might do the dumb thing that I do, which is I'll leave the plate attached to one camera and then I'll go out with a different camera and my tripod and I'll get out in the field and discover that I don't have the plate because it's on a different camera. So if you always have a spare plate in your camera bag then you can avoid those kinds of problems.

Alright, we've talked about the difference between the flippy lever latches and the twisties on the tripod legs. There are better and worse ways of dealing with these, especially these twisty ones. First of all, you don't want to over-tighten them. Of course, you don't want your leg to collapse, but if you get in the habit of tightening the crap out of them you can damage them and it also makes it very hard to undo them again. Usually all that's required is about a quarter of a turn to loosen it or to tighten it. If you want to get good at putting your tripod up and down you should learn what that minimum movement is on your tripod and just make that minimum movement each time. So I go: a quarter-turn, quarter-turn, quarter-turn, quarter-turn, collapse, and tighten, tighten, tighten, tighten. And the reverse: quarter-turn, quarter quarter-turn, quarter-turn, quarter-turn, extend and then tighten, tighten, tighten, tighten. You always tighten from the top and loosen from the bottom. And then, when you put it down make sure to lean on it and make sure none of your legs collapse because you rather find out now if one of your legs is not quite tight enough then after you've put your camera on there.

Alright, we're halfway through and the best stuff is yet to come, including my super-secret last tip. I just want to take a couple of seconds to let you know: if you like my videos you can find a lot more of them on my website including many that you won't find on YouTube, and you'll also find my full-length photography courses including courses on using Photoshop and Lightroom. You can check it all out on my website at

Most tripods allow you to put the legs in a number of different spread positions and there's usually some kind of a little latch at the top of the leg that allows you to move it to different positions. On this one, for example, there's a little latch here that you can kind of pull out to release it and then you can move the leg to a different position. You can also, if you needed to, sometimes if you're in a crowded space you may need to get one leg entirely out of the way, you could leave two legs down and put one leg out and maybe there's a wall or a bench or something here blocking you, you could rest one leg on something like that or even get it up like that, get out of the way and lean it on something. Of course, one way to get your camera very low to the ground if you need to, is you could put all three legs in this position so that your tripod is basically flat on the ground. You can get your camera very low that way. Now, another way you can get your camera very low to the ground, if your tripod allows it, is you can take the center column out, turn it upside down, and hang your camera from it and get it as low to the ground as you want. Another thing to think about with your tripod legs: you want to make sure that the weight of your camera is well supported by the arrangement of the legs on the tripod. So, if you have a big heavy lens hanging out, you want to make sure one of the tripod legs is directly under that weight. An easy way to do this if you're setting your tripod up on level ground is just to set it up with one leg facing your subject, then you're guaranteed to have a leg under the weight of your lens. But, you have to keep in mind too, if you tilt your camera, let's say you go over to portrait mode, now suddenly the weight of your camera may be hanging over the open space between the legs and if your legs are not spread far enough or if you have a big heavy camera that weight could pull it right over. Believe me, I've done it. So you might want to rearrange the legs of your tripod when you tilt it to make sure that the weight always stays well supported. An alternative to that is to use what's called an L-bracket as your quick release plate. That way, when you tilt your camera to portrait mode its weight stays directly over the center of your tripod. You can find L-brackets for almost any brand of tripod by searching online.

Another thing that help keep your cameras table on a tripod is to use a tripod collar for long lenses. Look at the difference here: if the camera was mounted directly on the tripod then the whole weight of the camera and lens system is hanging out in space. It's not only being un-balanced, it's putting a lot of strain on that tripod mount in the bottom of the camera. But instead, by using the collar, it's supported in the middle so that the weight of the camera and the lens is balanced.

Many tripods have a built-in bubble level somewhere on the top of the legs to help you set up your tripod so that it's perfectly level in situations where that matters. For example, if you're shooting a landscape and you want to make sure the horizon is level. The problem is, if you're using a Ball Head, your tripod maybe level, but you don't know if your camera is. Fortunately, most newer cameras have a built-in leveling mode we can go into that mode and view an on-screen display that helps you level your camera not only side-to-side but fore and aft also. Now that we have this, I don't even care if my tripod level anymore because i know that my camera is.

No matter how stable your tripod, if you're using your hand to trigger the shutter on your camera, then you are shaking it, you're introducing a little bit of motion vibration into your photo. So if you want the sharpest possible photos, you need to get what's called a cable release or remote shutter release. In the old days this was actually a physical cable that connected and mechanically tripped the shutter on the camera. These days, it's more often an electronic device that connects by a wire to a little port inside your camera, or sometimes it's a radio triggered device that connects to that port. Or, these days it may even be a Smartphone app that triggers a radio device connected to your camera or which maybe even directly triggers your camera itself if you have a new camera that supports that. Just look up remote shutter release for whatever camera model you have online and you'll find plenty of options. It doesn't matter which method you use, what matters is that you not be touching the shutter button when you're trying to take stable photos on tripod. If you don't have your cable release with you, or you have one but its batteries are dead, in a pinch you can use the camera's self-timer mode where you press the shutter button and then a few seconds later it takes a photo. You might be tempted to use the two second timer so that you can take photos more frequently, but I would urge you to be cautious. Sometimes, even after two seconds the camera and tripod still might be shaking. It may not be visible to you, but it may be enough to put motion blur in your photos. So I recommend using the ten-second timer to make sure that the whole thing has plenty of time to settle down before it fires off the photo. You can further reduce vibration by using what's called mirror lock-up mode. This is on a DSLR. If you have a mirrorless camera this doesn't apply because there's no mirror. On a DSLR, before the shutter can open the mirror has to flip out of the way and that mirror movement causes a little vibration. So if you're making a really delicate photo where absolute stillness is required, you can lock the mirror out of the way before taking the photo. Just look up mirror lock-up mode in your camera manual or online for your camera to see how you do it. One quick and easy way to do it on most DSLRs is to put the camera in Live View Mode so you have that live view on the screen, that gets the mirror out of the way and then take the photo.

Another way to reduce vibration when your camera is on the tripod is to remove the strap. You wouldn't believe how many people I see out shooting with the camera on a tripod, carefully using their cable release, and their strap is blowing in the wind shaking the camera. So, you can just hold it in your hand to prevent that, or you can secure it to the tripod somehow, or better yet you can just take it entirely off. If you don't want to fiddle with these little connectors that are so difficult, you can buy one of these kind of straps or just had a little clips here: you can clip it off, shoot like that and then later clip it back on.

You may wonder what this thing is on some tripods. Some tripods have a hook here, others have a hole in the bottom of the center column where you can screw a hook in. This is called the ballast hook and it's a way of adding extra weight to the tripod to make it more stable, especially in the wind. There are many different ways to do this. You don't want to carry extra weight with you, so there are little bags that are made that you can take out and on location you can fill them with rocks or gravel, and then you can hang that bag from the hook. You don't want to swing in the wind like a pendulum because that would shake the tripod, so it's usually best to hang something like that just low enough that it barely touches the ground so the wind doesn't make it swing. I often prefer to just use my camera bag for weight instead of taking something else, but sometimes it's hard to hang the bag from there so what I like to do sometimes is just take a standard bungee cord and use the bungee cord and connect that from the handle of the camera bag to the hook, just to add a little extra stability. One more way to add stability to your tripod and give yourself a little extra storage space is to get what's called a tripod apron or a tripod shelf for a tripod hammock. It's basically a little shelf that you swing between the legs of the tripod. You can load it up with camera gear, or you can put rocks on it just to add extra weight and extra stability.

Here's a little bit of tripod etiquette. How do you walk with a tripod? Well, if you only have to go a few steps it's no problem to just pick it up. Or, if you have a super light camera on it, it's no problem to just pick it up and carry it around. it's best to keep it close to you you can walk around like this. But if you have to go more than a few steps, that could get a bit top-heavy and a bit dangerous. So, if you have to go some distance, it's better to take your camera off the tripod, put it around your neck where it's safe and then pick up the tripod and carry it close to your body. I find it harder to carry with the heavy part up here, I think it's much easier to carry it with the heavy part down. Just put it in your hand, let the legs stick up, and keep it close to your body like this. Don't do what some people do and carry it like this because then the part that sticks out is swinging around and banging into things like a Three Stooges routine. So don't be a menace, keep it close to your body and walk like this.

There's an important setting to change on your camera when you're using a tripod that many people don't think of. I like to use stabilized lenses. Because I have shaky hands I'm almost always using lenses with the stabilizer turned on. But when you put your camera on a tripod, you need to turn that stabilizer off. This applies whether it's a lens-based stabilization or whether it's in-camera body stabilization. Those stabilizers are designed to work with hand movements and they go a little bit crazy when they're locked down on a tripod. If you doubt this, just put your camera on a tripod with the stabilizer on and shoot about 10 minutes of video and then when you watch the footage you'll occasionally see the camera make weird little movements for no reason. You can even see this in some of my old videos when I forgot to turn the stabilizer off.

Alright, I saved the most important tip for last. If you have this kind of quick release plate, the kind with a little D-ring loop that you flip up to tighten the screw, this can be a lifesaver in an emergency. If you find yourself out in the wilderness and you have a beer and you don't have a bottle opener, that little loop can open a bottle. It can be a little tricky, you got to get the edge of the loop under the edge of the bottle cap, it takes two hands sometimes, then you pry up and there you go: crisis averted. That's it for tripods. I hope you found this helpful, I look forward to talking to you again soon.