Well, thanks to the little Skribit widget I recently installed in the upper left corner, I am getting reader suggestions for potential post topics, and – time allowing and subject appealing – I will be happy to elaborate on those suggestions. Here, hence, is the first in a series of photography ticks and tricks entries.

To the question "Why do I use a tripod?", I would simply tend to answer "Because I’m lucky enough to have one." and that would feel like enough has been said. However since 6 lines do not a thorough entry make, I shall now explore the issue a little deeper.

Let me start by making a statement: All that is tripod does not glitter. There are tripods and tripods, and if all were equal, our lives would be simple. They are not. While one can find many a creatively packaged and richly bells-and-whistles adorned tripod at the local superstore, these things have little else to offer their customer than a relatively thin price tag. We must face it, a really good tripod is not always good looking but enormously expensive compared to the camera it will support.

So what makes a tripod that good, and what would it be used for? Let’s see… Self-defense is the first advantage that comes to mind. ‘Nothing like a nice heavy tripod and it’s fancy fluid head swung at arm’s length in dodgy situations. Impressing chicks would be another, even though I am posting this one only as a courtesy to fellow photographers because I personally need not impress any chick, having my own, and generally being the one who is impressed by her. Oh, and tripods impress guys, too.

Ok, seriously now. A tripod is a commitment. It’s a photographer’s way of saying "I do." What was the question? "Do you, X, accept the fact that your photos could be taken to the next level? Are you willing to commit your time to achieve it? Will you agree to have and to hold and carry the bloody tripod around endlessly, until death – or a new model – do you apart?"

If you answered yes, you are ready. A tripod can mean tremendous improvement to your photography and certainly opens up an incredible creativity Pandora’s box. Before jumping to the actual use of it, here’s a brief outline of handy or essential tripod features that are worth considering, keeping in mind that some of these are much pricier than others – but I won’t discriminate.

  • Stur-di-ness. The absolute, bestest, mostest important feature for a tripod. A flimsy tripod will give you terrible headaches and only correctly handle 50% of your needs. Price, sadly, rises exponentially with sturdiness. Look for strong and steady leg and extension locking mechanisms and a head that both pivots fluidly and locks down in an iron-fist grasp. Video heads are even more fluid but heavier, pricier and superfluous for photographers. Test your tripod before buying; once locked in any position, including full extension, it should remain as sturdy as if bolted to the ground. Keep in mind that the further up an extension slides, the more prone to shake it will be. Height always compromises steadiness.
  • Height. The above mentionned notwithstanding, I’d recommend the tallest model you are willing to carry around because when the time comes to take multiple shots of a sunset over a period of an hour, your back will thank you profusely if you don’t have to bend down towards a waist-level viewfinder for the duration of the shoot.
  • Detachable hot-shoe. You do not, repeat, do not want to be forced to screw your camera onto the tripod head every time you decide to take a picture, especially in cold weather. Instead you attach the hot-shoe to the camera once and for all and leave it there. Setting the camera onto the tripod then takes all of 2 seconds with the fast-release handle. Have a hot-shoe for each body, too.
  • Ball head. We’re already talking about a much more expensive feature, rarely standard with a new purchase, and which can easily cost as much as the tripod itself! Rather then having separate adjusting and locking levers for each axis of head movement, a ball head combines all of the above in one fluid control which locks and unlocks instantly with a single control. It makes leveling your frame with the horizon a breeze no matter what position the tripod is in, and it avoids having to shorten a leg to compensate for uneven ground.
  • Bubble levels. Very handy if you are shooting panoramic landscapes and must make sure your camera pivots around its vertical axis. Otherwise? Bof.
  • Anti-skid feet. I really like the system where a screw-in allows to switch from a rubber boot to a sharp metal point, allowing a good grip on both natural and artificial surfaces.
  • Bottom (or reversed) head attachment. Amazingly useful in macro photography to get the camera closer to the ground.

So. You’ve gone ahead and invested in a super-duper tripod. You’ve fitted it to your photo backpack and carried it to the grocery store a few times to get used to its bulk. You’ve practiced attaching the hot-shoe behind your back in the dark with frozen hands in life threatening conditions. You’ve tripped over it at night when getting up in the dark, and have then gotten used to folding it back up after use. You are tripoded to the max. Cool. Let’s proceed to the uses.

Here are, in no particular order, my top 5 reasons and tips for using a tripod:

1 – Say good-bye to blurry shots and heavy noise. Of course, when taking pictures of your drunk friends dancing half-naked in the street, there might not be enough time to setup the tripod. Don’t about you, though, but that’s not too high on my list of favourite subjects any way. Landscapes, on the other hand, allow for more preparation and are way worth taking the time to setup. Why use a tripod when you can hand-hold a camera? Perfection! By using a ground anchor, you are suddenly able to keep your ISO setting to a minimum and obtain the best quality image possible in terms of noise and sharpness. The usable speed range drops along with ISO and that’s why you need to be steady. But each lens has a sweet spot, an aperture at which it gives the cleanest results, and very often a tripod is the only way to achieve that setting if the light is anything but perfect. The whole spectrum of aperture / speed / ISO combinations becomes available, whether you are using a DSLR or a small point-and shoot.

2 – Play with motion blur. In step one, we got rid of accidental blur; it’s time to re-introduce it as a motion indicator. Photographs are not called "stills" for nothing; they can manage to shave a slice off of the fastest moving scene and freeze it into eternity. In come long exposures. When exposing longer (sometimes much longer) than a second, water turns fluids, nocturnal cars leave amazing light trails and people join a volatile crowd or simply disappear.

3 – Capture invisible light. Our eyes are poor sensors and only weakly register a faint portion of the spectrum. A tripod allows for long exposures in near complete darkness, when our brain has decided that the session is over due to overwhelming obscurity, and yet when the shutter has been open for a few minutes, a new world emerges, bright and colorful and completely unsuspected.

4 – Test your affinity with HDR. The only way to bracket efficiently for HDR is to use a tripod and either over and underexpose a number of shots manually, or use the camera’s auto bracket feature. I recommend using mirror lock too if you go into very long exposures to avoid the vibration caused by shutter movement.

5 – Explore the mesmerizing world of macro photography. Only a tripod permits the patience and precision required by most macro situations, but a set of macro focusing rails is the only way to maximize tripod use and allow for easy framing and focusing. If the tripod is still too shaky, hanging a weigth from its base will steady it a little more.

Time to go play. I guess now I’ll try to follow my own advice and apply what I have just preached so eloquently. I need a better bloody tripod. ;-)