When and Why to Use a Tripod

Digital cameras offer a level of technology that was unimagined only a few short years ago. The funny thing is, the old techniques are still as important as ever.

A tripod is still an essential piece of equipment for good photography. For beginners, the purchase of a tripod is usually a sign that one is ready to move beyond the snapshot stage and get more serious about photography. But if you have managed without a tripod in the past, perhaps you have wondered if you should take the plunge, or continue to get by without. So here is the first question you need to answer: “Do I need a tripod?”

night market

Captured by PictureSocial member Mohammad Amziry bin Roslan

The answer depends on how seriously you take your photography. If you’re happy with simple snapshots and have no ambitions of delving into more serious photography, you would probably be wasting your money. Tripod photography takes a little more time, thought and effort; if good photography is not important to you, you will not get value out of a tripod and probably would not use it even if you had one.

Now for the second question: “Why do I need a tripod?”

A tripod keeps your camera completely still, so you can take photos that will not be blurred by any movement of the camera caused by an unsteady hand.

There are two reasons why you might use a slow shutter speed for your photos. Sometimes the light is very low, and you need a slow shutter speed to get a good exposure. Or you may choose to use a slow shutter speed to capture a special effect. In either situation, your tripod will ensure that the camera is perfectly still and the photo will not be blurred.

An additional benefit is that the tripod allows you to compose a photo carefully, without having to concentrate on keeping the camera still in your hand. It is much easier to check that the horizon is level, and all parts of the photo are as you want them before you press the button.

traffic long exposure

“Queen Elizabeth Bridge” by PictureSocial member Wayne Gibbons

Let’s assume for a moment that you have a tripod. Now for our third and final question: “When do I use my tripod?”

Some people will tell you you should never take a photo without a tripod below a certain shutter speed. The trouble is, different people recommend different speeds. Some photographers will tell you 1/125 of a second is the lower limit; other will recommend 1/60 or 1/30 second.

So who is telling you the truth? Actually, all of them. Because the truth is, it’s not that simple.

When you use a large lens to magnify your subject, you also magnify the effect of any camera movement. So if you use a telephoto lens, a shaky camera will affect your photo much more than if you use a wide-angle lens. So it could be that a photo you could take hand-held with a wide angle lens would require a tripod with a telephoto lens.

How do you know, then, when to use a tripod? This is a guideline that was recently told to me, and it is a good one to keep in mind.

Let your choice of shutter speed match the size of the lens. For example, if you are using a 200mm lens, you should be able to take photos without a tripod at speeds of 1/200 second or faster. Once your speed drops below 1/200 second, be sure to use your tripod.

aurora photo

“Fantasy Sky” by PictureSocial member Spidey

For a smaller lens, you can go with a slower shutter speed to match. So if you are using a standard lens (around 50–60mm) you could set your cutoff point at 1/60 second. Faster, and you can take the photo hand-held; slower, and you should use a tripod. With a wide angle lens of 28mm, your cutoff point would be 1/30 second.

There are some photographers who insist that all photos should be taken with a tripod, no matter what lens or shutter speed you use. This is simply not practical, but it does point to the simple fact that the tripod is always steadier than the hand. If a photo is important to you, it is worth going to some extra effort and leaving nothing to chance. So if in doubt, use a tripod, even when the shutter speed suggests you can get by without it.

Oh, and one more thing. Never, ever, ever take a photo slower than 1/30 second without a tripod.

About the Author
Andrew Goodall writes for http://www.naturesimage.com.au and is a nature photographer based in Australia. He manages a gallery in Montville full of landscape photography from throughout Australia.

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