December - snowflakes You are here: Home Techniques Using a tripod

Use a sturdy tripod with independently adjustable legs to avoid frustration when using it. The Bogen/Manfrotto tripod pictured here is very versatile.

Photographing by holding the camera by hand

A somewhat well-known rule in photography is that you can hold a camera by hand if the shutter speed is shorter than about the inverse of the focal length used (t < 1/f). So, if you'd use a 50mm standard lens to photograph a scene, you could handhold the camera when taking a picture if the shutter speed is about 1/50 second or shorter. If you use a too long exposure time without a tripod, the photo will appear to be blurry.

This rule works fairly well, although with a bit of practice (holding a camera steady) you can usually do better. For example, by not holding your breath but rather slowly exhaling while taking a photo you will cause less camera shake. Also, by firmly supporting both arms by your torso, the camera will be more steady.

The need for a tripod

Even though in many cases you can hand-hold a camera when taking a picture, it is always better to use a tripod. Careful inspection of the sharpness of the film will often reveal that photos taken with the camera on a sturdy tripod are sharper than hand-held photos even though the shutter time was fast.

A tripod is usually clumsy to carry around and many photographers hold their cameras in hand while shooting. But if you are out in nature specifically to take pictures, bring and use a tripod!

I recommend that you use a ball-head on the tripod as opposed to a video head. Ball heads allow the camera to rotate and lock quickly in any orientation and this is a must to have.

Photography of some weather subjects requires a tripod-mounted camera: lightning, aurora, noctilucent clouds, mesospheric clouds, sunsets and twilight colors, the sun and moon, green flash, zodiacal light, star trails, macro photography and all nighttime photography can only be done well with some sort of tripod. After the camera and lenses, the tripod is I think the most important piece of equipment to have if you want to photograph the weather (or nature in general).

Choosing a tripod

There are many types of tripods available, but choose wisely. Some of which look really sophisticated and shiny while being made by plastic and only costing about $30. These are actually quite impractical (better than nothing though). As with so many things, all tripods are worth what they are sold for. If you are serious about photography, I'd recommend that you get a metal tripod from a brand like Bogen/Manfrotto or similar.

Choose a model that can extend itself to your own height, with height-adjustable legs (most tripods have adjustable legs). It is also good to have a tripod of which the legs can move independently from one another. Some tripods have legs that are interconnected, and these can be quite difficult and frustrating to level at uneven ground. You need to level the tripod at least a bit, if only to not have it balancing on edge and blowing over by wind.

The second thing to look for when choosing a tripod is its head (where the camera will connect). I highly recommend that you get a tripod with a ball-head rather than a video-head. Ball-heads generally cost more, but allow the camera to point in almost any direction in any orientation and will allow you to aim and lock the camera quickly. This is particularly useful for subjects that require quick action such as lightning.

In general, you may expect to spend US$150 or more for a decent tripod with ball-head. Consider this as a requirement for your photo equipment, rather than a handy accessory! When you buy a tripod, also buy a cable release or remote shutter control, so you don't need to touch the camera at all during exposures when it is tripod-mounted.

Wooden theodolite tripods are an excellent choice for telescopic weather photography such as the sun's green flash and mirages.


Most or all modern tripods have some kind of camera quicklink system. A quicklink (also called release plate) is a plate of some form that you mount on your camera semi-permanently (using its tripod mount). The release plate will snap in and release from the tripod head quickly.

However, quicklinks will actually be a pain to use unless you have a release plate mounted on every camera body and all large telephoto lenses that you will use. Otherwise, having to remove the release plate from one camera and mounting it to another takes lots of time and defies the point of having a quick release system. So, depending on the number of cameras (and lenses that have their own tripod mount) you use, you may need several of these plates.

Wooden tripods

For any photography that requires telescopic telephoto lenses (1000mm or longer) such as the sun's green flash and mirages, you need a very sturdy tripod, preferably a wooden one. Wood damps vibrations better than metal, and any vibrations (even the shutter tremor from the camera when taking a photo!) will be noticeable when using such long telephoto lenses. Theodolite tripods work well for this, since they are rugged and generally not too expensive if you buy one used. You may need to adapt the tripod to accept a ball-head or camera screw (1/4-20 or 3/8-16 thread).

Guide mounts for astrophotography

For astronomy photography, you will need to have the camera track the stars (counteracting Earth's rotation). This is most conveniently and cheaply done using a so-called equatorial mount. These mounts (because the better ones are motor-driven) are generally more expensive than a regular tripod, but there are several types available commercially starting around US$200.