Three legs is an interesting configuration. It never wobbles. One or two legs fall over easily. Four legged tables rock unless fed an endless supply of matchbooks and cocktail napkins. Three legs can sit on almost any solid surface with all three legs touching at the same time.
One of the easiest ways to improve your photographs is to use a tripod. The obvious benefit is increasing the sharpness of your shots by reducing camera vibration. The more subtle benefit is that it takes a little more time to setup your shot.
"Why is that a benefit?" You ask.
Photography is all about seeing. You see better if you take the time to look carefully at what you're shooting. The extra few seconds it takes to lock the camera in position on the tripod gives your brain more time to look at the subject. You start to see the little things: the lone tree branch that looks like it's growing out of Billy's ear, the glare on Dad's glasses.
Cameras today have built in motor drives capable of consuming a 36 exposure roll of film in a few seconds. Auto-exposure and auto-focus make it easy to machine gun our subjects hoping one of the shots will be good. Slow down, give the motors a rest and treat each frame like it cost ten bucks.
If you're buying a tripod, there are a few things to consider. Get a tripod that is a comfortable height for you when the legs are fully extended and the center column is down. You want a sturdy tripod. A wobbly tripod does more harm than good. Lighter is not always better, make sure it can hold the weight of your camera and heaviest lens.
Some people like to shoot from close to the ground. If that describes you, you will want to ensure that the tripod you select will go low enough. Some tripods have short or two part center columns to allow them to go low. Some allow you to invert the center column and suspend the camera between the tripod's legs.
Consumer level tripods usually come with a pan head. Some are good and some are bad. Check the legs. Do they lock firmly or do the locks slip? When properly positioned do they flex? When you lock the head, does it have any slack? Are the knobs big enough to work easily and lock tightly? Does it use a quick release mount? If so, does the mounting plate twist when on the camera body?
Professional tripods usually require the separate purchase of a head. In addition to pan heads, ball heads and geared heads are common. You can easily spend a lot of money on a tripod.
Pan heads can have one, two, or three handles. The most common have one long handle for left-right panning motions and two shorter knobs or handles for up-down and left-right tilts. Pan heads are fine for still photography and a must for video.
Ball heads consist of a ball and socket where the camera is attached to the ball and the socket to the tripod. There's a lever on the socket that locks the ball in place. When the ball is unlocked you can move it and the camera in any direction. The advantage over pan heads is that you only have one lever to work and you control motion with the camera itself. Ball heads are not well suited for video.
Geared heads are great for precise positioning. Three knobs control up-down tilt, left-right tilt, and left-right rotation. Geared heads are most commonly found in a studio aimed at things that don't move.
Using a tripod is pretty easy. You need to make sure the camera is locked onto the tripod securely and the tripod legs are fully splayed out. Extend the tripod legs so that the camera platform is level. This will place the camera in the center of the three legs and make it more difficult to tip over. Some tripods have braces that lock the legs open, use them.
Tripods can and do tip over. Snagging the tripod with your clothing, uneven legs, soft or sloping ground, and gusts of wind can all topple your expensive camera and lens onto the ground, into the water, or over the cliff. These events have a way of ruining your day and perhaps, depending on who triggered the toppling, your marriage.
One handy tripod accessory is the cable shutter release. This used to be a fairly cheap device that screwed into the shutter button. It had a plunger on one end that, when plunged, caused a metal shaft to press the shutter button attached to the other. You can buy one of these for about fifteen dollars.
Most modern cameras have electronic shutter releases that do a bunch of other stuff, like trigger the auto-focus and auto-exposure. They require a special electronic shutter release cable that costs around a hundred dollars. It's only a bit of lamp cord with a button on one end and a fancy plug on the other, but each camera uses a different plug. It's a lot like drugs, until the generic model comes out the price stays high.
If you don't want to shell out the bucks for the electronic release, you have a couple of options. You can carefully release the shutter. Hold the camera as you would for normal shooting. Position yourself so you aren't moving the camera and squeeze the shutter. Another technique it to use the self-timer. Setup everything, engage the self-timer and let it take the picture. You can still claim credit for the shot.
The author at work.