Steady as she goes
Even if you have the world's steadiest hands, you shake the camera when it's not attached to something stable.
This imperceptible shaking is enhanced when you are using a lens with a long focal length (or when you zoom all the way in). Shake is more noticeable with a 600mm lens than with a 28mm.
What Camera Shake Does to Your Photos
Camera shake results in photographs that are not completely sharp, especially if you are using a slow shutter speed.
Do not confuse the blurriness produced by camera shake with a photo that is out of focus. The camera can be focused perfectly on the subject of your photo, and still wind up looking fuzzy since the camera moved when you pressed the shutter.
A Tripod Eliminates Camera Shake
When you camera is attached to a tripod, you get photos that are razor-sharp. All camera shake has been eliminated. The only time this doesn't work is when the tripod itself is not stable. Say that you are taking photographs off of a bridge with a lot of traffic. Every time a large semi goes by, the entire bridge shakes. So does your tripod and you camera on it. Result: blurry photo.
This is a pretty rare occurrence. Usually it is pretty easy to stabilize a tripod so that there is no motion. If you are using moderate shutter speeds (30-125) then tripod motion is not much of an issue. If you are shooting photographs at night with very long exposures, then making sure that no part of the camera moves while the shutter is open will produce clearer photographs.
When You Can Use a Tripod
The most obvious use for a tripod is when your shutter speed is very slow. The general rule of thumb is that you can't hand-hold a camera and get sharp photos at shutter speeds less than 60. This is especially true when you are using really long lenses that magnify every little twitch of the camera.
If you can find a way to brace the camera (against a table, wall or floor) then you can get break this rule, but only to a point. Eventually it won't matter how braced or still you think the camera is — all of your photos will wind up blurry.
Once your camera is attached to a tripod, you can use any shutter speed you want. This gives you a lot of creative flexibility.
You can take photos at night. You can blur motion during the day. You can also use any aperture you want (since increasing the aperture decreases the shutter speed). If you love shooting landscapes at f32 (a very tiny aperture) then you're going to have to use a slow shutter speed to get a proper exposure, even if it is a sunny day.
Many professional photographers use their tripods for almost every photo they take, even in the middle of the day, and even with a shutter speed higher than 60. Why? They get crystal-clear photographs. Even when you are not breaking the shutter speed rules for hand-holding your camera, it is still in your hands and it still shakes. And while this blur may be less noticeable with a fast shutter speed, it is still there.
Why Most People Don't Use Them
With all of this benefit in terms of picture clarity, a tripod seems invaluable. So what's the catch?
The catch is that tripods are bulky and heavy. Unless you are prepared to spend $ 500 on your tripod, you are going to get something that weighs several pounds.
Imagine going on a 10-mile hike with not only all of your camera gear, but also a 7 to 10 pound tripod. It does not seem like much when you first pick it up, but it begins to weigh after a short period of time.
So why not find the lightest, flimsiest tripod you can? Then you could take it with you everywhere. Here's why this doesn't work: a tripod is supposed to be a highly stable object you can attach your camera to so that it won't shake. What good does it do to attach your camera to something that moves all over the place in a light wind? Tripods tend to be bulky and heavy so that they are a strong, stable support for your camera.
A tripod is made up of 3 parts: the legs, the "head" and a plate where you attach the camera.
|A tripod's legs are pretty straightforward and most work the same. When the tripod is closed, the legs are folded together so the tripod is compact. On some tripods, all of the legs move together: when you unfold one to set the tripod up, the others unfold with it. On other tripods, each leg unfolds individually, which can be nice if you are on uneven terrain.|
The head of a tripod attaches above the legs. It is the bridge between the camera and the tripod. The two main varieties of tripod heads are pan-tilt and ball-head. Pan-tilt heads are what you usually see on video camera tripods. The head can rotate or pan and can also be tilted up for vertical shots.
|A ball head is much more versatile. A ball head works a lot like your own head: it can tilt in any direction and rotate in any direction. If you take a lot of action photography a ball head is a great tool to have: it keeps the camera stable, but gives you a wide range of motion so you can pan and tilt the camera quickly and efficiently.|
|The last element of a tripod is a plate that screws in to the bottom of the camera. There are two types of plates: ones that are part of the tripod, and detachable plates (also called quick-release). This photo shows the locking mechanism where the plate on the camera attaches to the tripod.|
I highly recommend a detachable plate: this is something that you can screw into the bottom of your camera and leave on at all times. When you want to attach it to your tripod, you just lock it into place. This is much easier than screwing and unscrewing your camera to the tripod every single time.
Varieties of Tripods
There are three important factors to consider when you're looking at tripods:
The weight of the tripod is important, as we've already discussed. If you get something that is too heavy, then you won't ever want to take it with you. If you get something that is too light, it will move all over and won't help to keep the camera steady.
The height of the tripod is important when you're trying to compose your photograph. If the camera is attached to the tripod and you want to look through the viewfinder or at the back of the camera, the camera should be at eye level. If you are 6 feet tall and your tripod is only 4 feet tall, you will be hunching over every time you try to take a photograph with it. Not so comfortable.
You will notice that the cost of tripods varies wildly. You can spend anywhere from $ 50 to $ 600 on a tripod. What's the difference? The more expensive tripods are light, but made of composite materials so that they are still extremely stable. These are the tripods used by pros who want one at all times, but don't want to weight lift in the process.
Expensive tripods are also easier to extend and retract. This is another matter of convenience. If you are constantly setting up and taking down your tripod you don't want to have to fiddle with a lot of knobs and locks. Advanced tripods have locking mechanisms that make it easy to extend and retract the legs.
Additional factors that you can consider are the type of head and the type of plate used by the tripod.