How a Tripod Can Make You a Better Photographer

My take.

Last month, my husband Mike and I went to a photography lecture at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix. (If you’re in the Phoenix area and have never been to the DBG, treat yourself; you won’t be disappointed.) The lecture was given by Arizona Highways magazine photo editor Jeff Kida and covered photographing wildflowers. (Jeff took the excellent portrait of me that you’ll find on this Web site and elsewhere; I wrote more about him and this photo in February.) We’d had a very wet winter and although the desert was greening up at the time, no one was sure whether we’d have a good wildflower season. So far, it’s turned out to be spectacular in certain parts of the Phoenix area, including Wickenburg, where I live.

Poppies and Desert Chicory

Desert chicory’s white flowers among golden poppies. (Click for a larger image.)

The lecture included a discussion of equipment and that equipment list included a tripod. I have a tripod — in fact, I’m ashamed to say that I have numerous tripods, far more than any one person should have. (I was always looking for the right tripod and have finally zeroed in on a good combination with a Manfrotto tripod and ball head.) And I agree that everyone serious photographer should have a tripod.

But then Jeff said something I’d never thought about. I wish I could remember his exact words. The gist was that using a tripod would automatically improve your photographs.

Whoa. This was something that interested me. Although I have all these darn tripods, I don’t use them very often. Maybe I should.

A Tripod Eliminates Camera Shake

I mostly use them for low-light situations when I absolutely must have a tripod. After all, a tripod’s main purpose is to hold the camera steady to take the shot. When used with a cable release (or similar device) or the camera’s built-in timer, motion from external sources should be eliminated. The final image should be clearer. But that was low light. Surely on a bright sunny day — just about every day here in Arizona — a tripod wouldn’t be necessary.

I also put a lot of faith in my camera’s VR (vibration reduction) lenses. I have two of them now and I can clearly hear the VR motor kicking in when I prepare to take a shot. Surely that would help keep my camera steady for each shot.

Poppy Blanket

A blanket of poppies and other wildflowers cover a hillside in the Sonoran desert near my home. (Click for a larger image.)

But since that lecture, I’ve been giving my photography a lot of thought. For the past two years, I’ve noticed a serious decline in the clarity of my photos. I was beginning to think it was the camera (a Nikon D80, now 3-1/2 years old) or my preferred lens (a Nikon 16mm-85mm zoom). Perhaps one or both of them needed adjustment or cleaning. I even went so far as to print out warranty repair authorizations for both of them in preparation for sending them back to Nikon for inspection, cleaning, and possible repair.

Perhaps the problem wasn’t my equipment. Perhaps it was me. Maybe I think I’m holding the camera steady for each shot or that there’s enough light to get the image, but maybe I’m moving the camera when I “snap” the photo by pressing down on the shutter release. Maybe I’m ruining my own photos. Or at least preventing them from being as good as they could be.

I decided to experiment by using my tripods and cable release more often. By ensuring that there’s no camera shake when images are being captured, I can eliminate camera shake as a cause of my problem. If the problem persists, I know it’s either bad focusing on my part or the camera’s. Since I don’t have the best vision, I trust my camera’s autofocus feature to get the focus right. So either I’m not telling the camera to focus on the right thing (my fault) or the camera can’t focus properly (the camera’s fault). Using a tripod would help me troubleshoot the source of the problem.

Using a Tripod Forces You to Slow Down and Compose Properly

Vulture Peak Poppies

This is my secret poppy place on the east side of Vulture Peak near Wickenburg, AZ. (Click for a larger image.)

I went on a photo shoot the other day out in the desert near my home. The poppies were blooming and I knew exactly where to find a lot of them. (Hint: Getting there requires a Jeep, ATV, or horse.) We took the Jeep out and found the poppies right where I expected them. We also found lupines, chicory, and a bunch of other flowers I didn’t even know existed.

The big problem with the site is that the flowers covered a steep hillside. Setting up a tripod was a royal pain in the butt. I admit that I cheated and took quite a few shots the lazy way. But then I remembered my mission and went through the bother of setting up my tripod and cable release and framing the photos. It slowed me down considerably. But I reminded myself that I wasn’t in a race. The best light was already gone for most of the day and the flowers weren’t going anywhere.

And that’s when I realized that using a tripod had yet another benefit: it forced me to slow down and pay close attention to what I was doing. It forced me to try harder to make every shot count. Because of all the extra time and effort required to make each photograph, I was motivated to put more effort into composition.

Could that be what Jeff meant?

The Jury is Still Out

The few photos on this post are among those I made that day. In general, I’m more pleased with the quality of the images. But I’m not done testing to see if the problem is with me or my camera. It’ll take more photo shoots with the tripod to convince me.

In the meantime, it’ll be interesting to see if I can shoot better photos just because I’m using a tripod.

Any thoughts on this? I’d really like to get some feedback from other photographers.

2 thoughts on “How a Tripod Can Make You a Better Photographer

  1. My photography is much better when I’m able to use my tripod. There are several gardens I photograph at where I can’t use a tripod – and I can tell the difference just looking at the photos. They just aren’t as sharp.

    When I use my tripod I use a cable release and the mirror lockup function – both really do make a difference in minimizing camera shake.

    This spring I’ve been experimenting with live view and manual focus. I took one set of photos using live view, manual focus and no tripod – let’s just say that’s one set of photos that no one will ever see. The ones that I’m doing with live view, manual focus and the tripod are some of the best photos I’ve ever taken.

    I’m currently using a gitzo carbon fiber tripod with an acratech ball head. It’s not very heavy so I have no excuse for not carrying it and using it whenever I can

  2. Indeed.

    Though I am no camera or photography expert I do concur with what Jeff has said. Automatic benefit of tripod.

    Ok I am saying this in context of my rifle shooting. If I am to use bi-pod sand bag the group on the targets are very good, but recon if I do the same while standing without any external support then its embarrasing group. Now thats me. But when zeroing the rifle for specified distances we use bench rests/bi-pods or sandbags.

    my two cents.

    On the funnier note, just remembered I had been holding my JVC HDD handicam shooting the comic characters parade in Disneyland Paris, just to realise that I had not pressed the record button and was rather just viewing through the display. silly me. Finally got only last few minutes recorded.

    Good luck.

What do you think?