If your goal is to capture sharp photos while shooting indoors, at night, in shady areas, or with a narrow aperture, a tripod is an essential piece of equipment. Unfortunately, plonking your camera on a tripod and just firing off shots like normal is not going to net you crisp images. Instead, you must carefully adjust your tripod, your settings, and your accessories to maximize sharpness – and that’s what I discuss in this article.
Specifically, I share five fundamental tripod photography techniques for sharp photos, and I include a handful of examples so you know exactly what my techniques can offer. Whether you’ve tried to use a tripod but you keep producing blurry photos, or you’ve only just purchased a tripod and you want to get off on the right foot, you’re bound to find this article useful!
Let’s dive right in.
1. Extend the tripod legs only when necessary
Before buying a tripod, you likely researched its maximum height; after all, you probably didn’t like the idea of stooping for each and every shot. But while purchasing a tall tripod is completely fine – and you’ll certainly run into scenarios when taller is better! – I don’t recommend extending your tripod to its maximum height the moment you pull it out of the bag.
I see budding photographers do this all the time, but here’s the truth: As you extend the length of the legs, the stability and sturdiness of the tripod are reduced. And this loss of stability can impact sharpness, especially if you’re working on uneven ground, shooting ultra-long exposures, or are set up in a windy location.
Of course, lengthening the legs to their full height is sometimes unavoidable. But if you do wish to extend the legs, start by opening up the top (larger/thicker) section of the legs, and only then move to the lower (thinner) ones.
You should extend your tripod’s center column (the tripod “neck”) last of all. Center columns are very prone to causing shake, and you definitely don’t want to shoot with an extended center column in wind, rain, or rushing water unless you can see no other way of capturing the photo.
Bear in mind that your results will also depend heavily on the type of tripod you’ve purchased. A big, heavy, rugged model may be capable of extending to its full height – even in tougher conditions – without a significant loss of stability, while a lightweight travel tripod (especially if it’s on the cheaper side) will be far more impacted.
2. Switch off any image stabilization
Does your camera offer image stabilization? How about your lens?
These days, a lot of equipment boasts stabilization, which can be hugely useful for capturing sharp handheld shots at slow shutter speeds. However, if you take image-stabilized equipment and mount it on a tripod, the stabilization will cause the lens or camera internals to move after you press the shutter button (it looks like a slow drift in the viewfinder).
As you can probably imagine, a moving image isn’t so great for sharpness, and while it isn’t a problem when shooting at shutter speeds of around 1/60s and above, as soon as you get into long-exposure territory, you’ll start to see its effects.
My recommendation? As soon as you mount your camera on a tripod, make sure that all stabilization technology is turned off. You can generally deactivate camera stabilization in the menu, while lens stabilization can be deactivated by a switch on the barrel:
Note: If you’re shooting in unstable conditions (e.g., high winds), it might be worth switching the image stabilization back on. It’s tough to determine whether stabilization is ideal in such situations, so I’d really encourage you to capture a handful of shots, some with stabilization and some without.
3. Make sure the camera mirror is out of the way
DSLRs include mirrors, which reflect light up through the viewfinder so that you can see through the lens. However, the main mirror – which sits in front of the camera sensor – flips up when you press the shutter button, and this “mirror slap” can cause internal vibrations that lead to – you guessed it! – blur.
Fortunately, there are a couple of easy ways to avoid blur due to mirror slap. You can use your camera’s mirror lock-up setting, which will generally cause the mirror to flip up when you press the shutter button (you’ll need to press the button again to actually take the photo). Another option is to switch your camera to its Live View mode, which automatically flips the mirror out of the way.
Note that mirrorless cameras – as the name suggests – lack this mirror, and therefore avoid mirror slap entirely.
One more (related) tip: Even once you’ve dealt with any mirror-related vibrations, your camera shutter can produce vibrations when it moves to expose the sensor. You can prevent this, however, by setting your camera to its electronic front-curtain shutter mode or its standard electronic shutter mode.
4. Use the two-second timer or a remote shutter release
Do you ever use the shutter button to take a photo when the camera is resting on a tripod? If the answer is “Yes,” then you’re likely introducing blur simply by pressing the shutter button with your finger – so it’s essential you switch on your camera’s two-second timer.
You see, a two-second timer will give the blur a moment to die down before the shutter actually fires. Note that you’ll need to take your hands off the camera after pressing the shutter button; otherwise, the two-second timer won’t have an effect.
If you want to be extra cautious, however – or you don’t like the idea of waiting around after each press of the shutter button – then you can use a remote release. This will let you trigger your camera wirelessly, thus ensuring that you never touch the shutter button and your images are crisp and sharp. (Some cameras allow you to create the same effect using your smartphone, so if you don’t want to pay for a remote, I recommend looking into this option!)
5. Use a sturdy tripod (and pay attention to the weather)
Even if you do everything right, you might still end up with blurry photos – simply because your tripod and/or the conditions are sabotaging your good technique.
Some tripods are simply flimsy, especially plastic models you can buy for a few bucks off of Amazon or eBay. I really recommend purchasing an aluminum or carbon fiber model (aluminum tends to be cheaper but heavier, while carbon fiber is lighter but pricier). You should also make sure that the tripod you purchase is capable of supporting your camera setup’s weight; a compact mirrorless camera with a 24mm prime lens is far easier to keep stable than a heavy DSLR with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.
It’s important to think about the weather and the conditions, too. Wind can destabilize a good tripod (especially if the legs and the center column are fully extended). The same is true of rushing water (if you’re shooting on a beach or in a river, for example). You can purchase rugged, ultra-sturdy tripods that can handle extreme conditions, but these tend to be prohibitively expensive or uncomfortably heavy.
And sometimes, it’s simply not possible to get a sharp shot with the equipment you own, in which case you’ll either need to accept a bit of blur or come back when the conditions aren’t so difficult.
How to capture sharp photos with a tripod: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to capture sharp shots while using a tripod, and you’re ready to head out with your camera and get some amazing photos!
Just remember to use that two-second timer or wireless remote, pay careful attention to the conditions, deal with any problems caused by camera internals (e.g., image stabilization), and ensure you have the right gear for the job.
Now over to you:
Do you have any tips for sharp tripod photography that I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!