As you probably know, a tripod is very simply a device designed to stabilize your camera to keep it from moving when you’re actively taking a picture. The classic tripod has a base that screws into the standard port on the bottom of your camera and features three legs on the other end. When not in use it collapses for easy storage. Tripods come in formats from ultra-tiny units that can fit in your pocket to professional systems with options galore. “Monopods” are another alternative. These are simple, telescoping rods with a camera connector on one end. Monopods are even more portable but they don’t keep your camera completely stabilized, though with practice they can be almost as effective as tripods.
The primary cause of blurry photographs is not the camera or the environment but the photographer: Even the slightest shake of the hand while the shutter is open can cause your photos to look like abstract paintings, and you probably won’t realize it until it’s too late for a do over. Even if the blur isn’t quite that bad, when you look at the picture on a screen larger than the little LCD on the back of the camera, you’ll realize that the shot isn’t usable.
The impact of motion is exaggerated as you take pictures in more difficult conditions, such as shooting in low light or photographing extreme close-ups. As you slow down the shutter speed or increase the ISO level, even simply breathing while holding a camera “freestyle” can introduce enough jitter into the photograph to make it unusable.
There’s almost no situation in which a photograph won’t be improved by placing the camera on a tripod, and even cameras that have exceptional image stabilization, will take better shots on a tripod. That said, you can’t exactly break out a tripod in the middle of a kid’s birthday party or while you’re running with the bulls, but you’ll do well to understand the conditions that will benefit the most from having a tripod on hand. These include:
• Landscape Shots. The lush greenery of a panoramic forest shot or a snow-capped mountainscape can be ruined by even the slightest jitter, since the details are often so delicate due to their distance from the shooter. A tripod ensures you get a top-quality shot.
• Low Light. When the sun goes down your camera has to compensate (either automatically or through manual intervention) by keeping the shutter open longer or upping the ISO level, which makes the sensor more sensitive. Either of these means the camera is much more vulnerable to shaky hands.
• Slow Shutter Shots. If you want to leave the shutter open for extra time—to catch stars in motion or to give fluidity to a waterfall—a tripod is a necessity, since over a few seconds even the steadiest photographers will move just a bit no matter how hard they try to stay still. If you want to try to capture a lightning strike, for example, a long shutter, a solid tripod and lots of patience are the way to go.
• Getting High or Low. A tiny tripod can make shooting from ground level or from up in the air a much less painful ordeal, while giving you better results than you’d get from, say, laying down in the mud. Just set your camera on a pocket tripod, aimed however you like.
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