Previously, I discussed selecting a tripod and head. A tripod opens up a whole new vista of photographic possibilities but to make the most of the stability of a tripod, proper technique is needed.
Stability and Mounting
The first consideration is making sure you’re not overloading your tripod legs and head. The heavier your equipment and the narrower the angle of view (more zoom), the more sensitive will the final picture be to residual vibrations and external forces such as wind. I seldom shoot at focal lengths greater than 200mm so my tripod needs are comparatively simple. If you have 300mm or longer zooms, a large sturdy tripod with a gimbal mount is recommended.
If your tripod does not have a quick release, you’ll be screwing your camera directly onto the mounting plate of the tripod head. One thing to watch out for is that if you take a photo in portrait format, the camera can twist and unscrew itself. You may find this happening if you tilt the camera to the left (so that the handgrip is to the top). By rotating the camera so that the handgrip is to the bottom, then the torque of a heavy lens will tighten the mounting screw instead and preventing further rotation.
If you find yourself having to mount and dismount your camera from the tripod repeatedly, a quick release plate might be a good investment. It’s increasing rare to find tripod heads without them in any case. The de facto standard mounting solution is the Arca-Swiss plate which has a dovetail and a matching clamp. Do note that some variation exists between nominally compatible plates and mounts from different manufacturers. There are many other types of quick-release mechanisms to suit cameras of different sizes and applications.
You should avoid raising the centre column of the tripod if possible as this makes the whole system more flexible. For the same reasons, you should spread the tripod legs out to give a wide base.
The main priority of using a tripod is stability, whether for long exposures, or simply to get rid of hand shake. To reduce the possibility of introducing vibration when activating the camera, you can use a remote shutter release. The traditional mechanical remote release is a plunger attached to a sheath and cable screwed into the shutter. This was superseded by electronic wired remotes which allowed functions such as an intervalometer and times long exposures (minutes to hours). Wireless remotes (usually IR) are becoming popular nowadays. Any of these will prevent extraneous vibration due to touching the camera when starting the exposure.
If you find yourself without a remote release, your camera may have a shutter delay function, usually 2 or 10 seconds. The 10 second delay is to allow you to get into the shot, the 2 second delay is so that after pressing the shutter release, the camera and tripod has time to settle before the actual exposure. If you do not need to trigger the shutter at an exact time, then a 2 second delay can often work as well as a remote release.
Even if you use a remote release or camera timer, there are other sources of vibration that could impact upon sharpness. In an SLR, the mirror has to be raised out of the beam path before the shutter activates. This raising of the mirror can lead to vibrations. Some DLRs have a mirror-lockup function that allows the vibrations due to the mirror being raised to dampen. It is often combined with the 2s timer delay. “Mirror-slap” will usually have greatest effect at an low to intermediate shutter speed, a critical range of exposures where mirror-lockup gives greatest benefit.
Even on non-SLR cameras, the shutter actuation can cause vibration. The opening of the front-curtain can cause blur. Some cameras have “electronic first curtain” (EFC) where the physical first shutter curtain is replaced by an electronic means of starting the exposure. This eliminates any vibration at the start of the exposure.
Sometimes the ground itself can vibrate, e.g. bridges. In this situation, it will be difficult to achieve sharp results during long exposures. You may want to time your exposures in between passing cars or pedestrians. On some surfaces, the distortion caused by your own shifting weight can cause the tripod to move during long exposures.
One thing to watch out for is image stabilization, either lens or camera based. Some image stabilization systems do have modes specifically for tripod use but often you’ll get better results if stabilization is switched off when mounted on a tripod.