It is a photographers nightmare to see precious and expensive camera equipment fall. I have seen it happen quite often and most of the times a tripod was involved. Fortunately it never involved my equipment. Perhaps it is due to luck, but I believe ten important guidelines helped a lot.
In my last article about setting up a tripod I explained what should be done before placing the tripod. Although most photographers probably use this easy way, there is a change these things are taken less seriously over time. This also applies for the ten guidelines I use when using the tripod. So, even if you know these rules, it can be valuable to be reminded once in a while. To be honest, I sometimes ignore my own guidelines. Just be aware of the possible risks that can be involved when you do.
1) Spread the Tripod Legs Until the Stopping Point
It is best is to spread the legs up to the stopping point. This prevents the legs from unintentionally opening further when the weight of the camera is placed on top. This risk will be even more when the legs are in a greater angle or on a slippery surface. Of course you can prevent the legs from gliding wider by placing it firmly in the mud or grass, or perhaps by placing the leg against a stone.
2) Try to Level the Base Plate as Much as Possible
The base plate of the tripod should be as level as possible. If you don't do this, you increase the risk of tilting over. It does not have to be exact spirit level, but as much as possible.
3) Keep You Camera and Lens in Balance
By using a lens collar you balance your equipment as much as possible. This sounds evident, but I have seen people ignoring a lens collar just because they would have to change the quick connector plate from the camera to the lens, or just because they're lazy.
When you are using the camera in portrait stand often, you have to tilt your camera, placing everything off center. In that case, try consider using a L-bracket. This way your camera stays much more center gravity.
4) Be Careful With Legs in Wide Angle Positions
When tripod legs can go wide, make sure your legs are not extended too much. It can be necessary sometimes, but you have to be careful. Extending tripod legs and placing in a wide angle can even decrease stability. The legs can get a springy effect and in the worst case scenario they break. When using a wide spread, try to avoid extended legs.
5) Try to Extend the Lowest Part of the Legs First
Although often it's advised to extend the thickest part of the tripod legs first, I would advise to extend the thin, lowest parts first. This way you don’t have to reach to the ground, or raising the tripod with camera on top, when adjusting the height of the tripod. Unless you have a really cheap tripod, most are stable enough even with extending lower legs first. But there is another reason for this. When you use your tripod in water or mud, the clips for extending the legs will be submerged, wet, dirty, and hard to reach.
6) Try to Prevent Using a Center Column
You can use the center column to reach that bit of extra height, which can be necessary sometimes. Using a center column decreases stability a lot. Think of it like a flag pole, and imagine the movement it can have in a breeze. Your heavy equipment on top of a pole will make the movement even larger. Try to prevent using the center column as much as possible.
When you use a traveler tripod, you probably will need the center column more often because the smaller size and weight of the tripod, which can be more important. In that case always be aware of the decreased stability of your setup.
7) Use Disks in Loose Sand, Snow, or Mud
When using a tripod in loose sand, in snow, or on the beach, you can have an unstable surface. Especially at the beach when the surf is displacing the sand constantly, the tripod will loose its stability with every wave. By enlarging the surface of the legs you can avoid that. Some tripods have special disks for that, but you can also use CDs or DVDs, or better still, drinking cups. Just place every leg into a cup and you have more stability.
8) Place Two Tripod Legs Against the Wind
When using a tripod in strong wind you can place two tripod legs against the wind. This way the third leg is placed with the wind, which will make tilting over much more difficult. Nevertheless it is wise not to leave the tripod unattended in these situations. A gust of wind can knock over the heaviest of tripods. This positioning of tripod legs works also in strong water currents and in the surf on the beach. Combine with legs that are in a wider angle for extra stability, but be careful not to extend the legs like I mentioned in point 4.
9) Use the Hook Underneath the Center Column Wisely
The hook that can be found at the bottom of a center column, or underneath the base plate, can be used for extra weight. Your heavy camera bag can pull down the tripod firmly on the ground. But be careful, make sure the total weight (bag and camera) is not exceeding the maximum carrying weight. Another problem that can occur is the swinging of a bag in the wind. It can introduce even more vibrations.
A good way of weighing the tripod down, is a rope connected to the hook. Pull the rope down and step on it. This way you are pulling the tripod down without any risk.
10) Watch out for the Maximum Carrying Weight
Your tripod has a maximum carrying weight. You should not exceed this. Best is a tripod that can carry the heaviest of your equipment and then some more. Always remember, the carrying weight of a tripod is something else than the carrying weight of a ball head or 3-way head. If your ball head can hold up to 40 kilos, it does not mean your tripod can.
An Extra Guideline
Last but not least a warning. Call it guideline number 11: never walk around with your camera attached to your tripod. I do it too often because I know the camera is secure, but I strongly advise against it.
Do you have extra guidelines? Please share it in the comment below.