9 Tripod Mistakes That Could Be Ruining Your Images and Putting Your Camera at Risk

Are you making any of these tripod mistakes? If so, you could be ruining your chances of getting sharp images (the whole point of using the tripod in the first place!) or worse yet – putting your expensive camera gear at risk of being damaged.

Every time I do a photography workshop I see many of these common errors being committed, even by experienced photographers. The issue is that nobody teaches you or talks about how to set up and use a tripod properly. It is assumed that if you buy one you know how to use it. WRONG!

So, in this tutorial, I will go through the dos and don’ts of using your tripod so you can avoid making these mistakes.

9 Tripod Mistakes You Need to Avoid

  1. Extending the small leg sections first
  2. All knobs, legs locks, and levers not tightened well enough
  3. Raising the center column
  4. Tripod head mounted to the legs improperly or too loosely
  5. Not setting the tripod legs up on a hill properly (not level)
  6. Failing to mount the tripod insert to the camera correctly (too loose or wrong direction)
  7. Failure to mount tripod insert and attached camera on the tripod securely
  8. Positioning the legs incorrectly and standing in the wrong position
  9. Carrying the tripod wrong

#1 – Extending the Small Leg Sections First

If you only need to unfold your tripod legs part-way, always use the largest (thickest) leg sections at the top first. Then if you need more height, open the lower, thinner leg sections.

I know it’s easier and more convenient, but by extending the small sections first you’re using the weakest parts of the tripod. Keep it steadier by always extending the thicker top leg segments first.

tripod mistakes - small leg sections extended
Left: WRONG – Right: CORRECT

#2 – Not Tightening Everything Enough

This is a simple one, yet I often see tripods with floppy legs, ones that sink slowly to the ground, and ball heads that slowly tilt under the weight of the camera.

Do a simple check that everything is tightened down properly before you ever mount your camera on the tripod. Carry Allen keys (hex wrenches) or any other tools that you need to do this, in your camera bag. It’s a good idea to just do this periodically (like with your spring cleaning habits), but do check it again when you go to use the tripod on site.

tripod mistakes
You may have a larger twist lock to secure the center column. Check it!

Ditto with the center column. Make sure it’s locked down and there is no wiggling. It should not jiggle a little or move up and down easily without loosening the adjustment knob or twist lock.

Keep an Allen wrench handy for quick adjustments. If you have the flip lock kind of legs each segment can work its way loose, so check those often too.

#3 – Raising the Center Column

Honestly, I don’t even know why tripods have a center column. I almost never raise it! The center column is the weakest link in the entire system. Raising up, especially to the maximum height, is like putting a monopod on top of your tripod and hoping it stays still.

tripod mistakes - raised center column

Instead, always extend the legs all the way to their maximum length if you need the height. If that’s still not enough for you, then you may need to look at investing in a tripod that has bigger maximum height.

I’m NOT tall at all (5’0″!) so this is never an issue for me. But if you’re closer to six feet and find you’re always hunching over to look in your camera – it might be time for a bigger tripod. You might even choose to have one that you use when you’re at home and a smaller, more compact one that you use for traveling.

#4 – Tripod Head Mounted Improperly

This is similar to #2 above. Depending on the tripod, the head may work itself loose and need to be tightened from time to time. So before even putting your camera on top, check that the tripod head is tightly secured to the legs and that it doesn’t rotate or slip if you force it.

If it does, figure out how to tighten it down. Most tripod heads just screw onto the legs so a simple twist is enough. Others have a little screw that needs to be tightened.

tripod mistakes - loose tripod head
Your tripod may have a twist mechanism or a screw tab like this to tighten the head. Make sure both are secure.
Tripod mistakes
If the tripod head is loose, it will likely be here.

#5 – Not Setting Up on a Hill Properly

This is the most common issue I see over and over, sometimes even committed by seasoned shooters! Not setting up your tripod correctly on a hill or uneven ground.

What’s the big deal, just adjust the ball head – right? 

Well, in a word – NO! Look at the following example.

tripod mistakes - setting up wrong on a hill

See how the cameras in both setups above are actually level. But what do you notice about the legs in the one on the left? They are tilting downhill, which is not good! This actually puts your tripod at risk for tumbling down the hill or tipping over and taking your precious (and expensive) camera and lens with it.

This is easily fixed by not extending all the legs to the same height. Make the downhill legs a bit longer and the uphill on a bit shorter. Ideally, you want a tripod that has a level on the legs, make sure that part is level in the place where you’re going to shoot before you ever put your camera on the tripod.

tripod mistakes - not level
Buy a tripod with a level on the legs like this. Then use it!
Tripod mistakes - level
A level on the tripod head is helpful to make sure the camera and thus your shot are straight. But use the level on the legs to make sure the tripod is balanced properly.

#6 – Failing to Mount the Tripod Insert to the Camera Correctly

Step one is to get a tripod that has a removal quick-release tripod plate or insert. If it doesn’t have a plate then it’s more cumbersome and time-consuming to mount the camera and remove it. So look for one that has a removable plate or insert that snaps into and locks onto the tripod head.

Tripod mistakes
Here you see the removable tripod plate on this tripod. The side knob tightens to keep it secure.

Step two is mounting the insert/plate onto your camera correctly. Make sure:

  • It’s attached tightly! This is a big issue I see a lot as well. See my tip for this below.
  • That the insert or plate is mounted the right direction. Sometimes there will be an arrow on the plate, if not see how it fits into the head. If the camera feels sideways (the head tightening knob should be easily accessible), take it off and rotate the plate.
See where it says “LENS” and has a directional arrow? That indicates which way to mount the plate onto the camera.
TIP: After you screw the tripod insert to your camera and mount the camera to the tripod – do a little test. Try holding the head still and turning the camera. If it rotates independently it’s probably a loose insert at fault. Take it off and tighten the insert again. If you can’t tighten it enough with your fingers, do what I do. Put it on the tripod, hold the head still, and just crank it the camera in the direction needed to screw it on tighter. To get it off, just do the reverse. 

#7  Failure to Mount the Camera on the Tripod Securely

Once your insert is securely attached to the camera, the last step of putting it all together is making sure the insert is clipped into the tripod head right. It can get slid in crooked, miss the spot it’s supposed to be, and not be locked in right.

Again this is a BIG risk to your camera. Of course, it will not be secured well enough to keep the camera steady so even the best case scenario there is you get blurry photos. But the worse thing that could happen if the insert isn’t clipped in and locked correctly your camera could just fall off and hit the ground. NOT what you want!

Grab onto the camera like this and make sure you have a good drip (put the strap around your neck). Then lift the tripod off the ground and give the whole thing a good shake to test it.
TIP: To test that it’s clipped in right, just grab the camera and pick up the whole rig (tripod and all) off the ground. Holding your camera securely with two hands, give it a good shake. If the tripod falls off – well, you know what to do! If it doesn’t, you’re good to go. 

#8 – Positioning the Legs Incorrectly

This one might seem pretty basic but how you position the legs and where you stand is also important.

When shooting on a hill (like the image above left) position two legs downhill, and one uphill. Straddle the uphill leg but be cautious not to kick over the tripod. This works shooting both up and downhill.

tripod mistakes - wrong leg position
Left: put two legs downhill and one uphill when shooting on an uneven ground. Right: position two legs back and stand between them when shooting on flat ground.

If you’re on reasonably a flat surface. Position the tripod with one leg forward, and two back (above right). Stand between the two back legs. That will give you less chance of kicking it during a long exposure or when you move in and out away from the camera.

#9 – Carrying the Tripod Wrong

Of all of the tripod mistakes, this one is a huge pet peeve of mine. Not only is it dangerous for your camera to carry the tripod/camera combination incorrectly, but it can be hazardous to other people’s health!

So if your camera is mounted on a tripod and you’re shooting, but need to move to a slightly different spot, you can just pick up the whole rig and carry it as one piece. But many newbies do it wrong. This is how I often see people carrying their camera and tripod.

tripod mistakes

Can you figure out why I look unhappy in the photo above? That is because I’m carrying this rig with my lens facing the ground, am using one hand, and the strap is just swinging in the breeze. This is all bad!

If I were to stumble and fall, the lens will hit the ground first, resulting in probably some less than desirable things. The tripod insert could just fall out (if I didn’t do the test above) and the whole camera and lens come crashing down.

AND the thing people don’t often think about is the tripod legs. I’ve seen this happen in a group of photographers walking together all carrying tripods. One turns around and whacks the person next to them or behind them with the tripod legs. Not good photographer etiquette!

tripod mistakes
Try this instead!

Okay, now we’re talking. Can you see what I’ve done in the image above? The camera strap is now around my neck, preventing any unwanted camera crashes. The lens is still facing down but it’s on my shoulder so the chances of it falling and hitting the ground are slim.

Lastly, the tripod legs are out in front of me where I can see them. Thus if I move or turn I can avoid hitting others with it or bumping into things.

Plus, the bonus of carrying it this way is that it’s MUCH easier on the arms and back. Just easier and more comfortable, especially if you’re walking any distance.


So, admit it. Were you guilty of any of these tripod mistakes? If you were, hopefully, you now have the right tools and information to maximize the use of your tripod as it was intended and you’re on your way to taking sharper photos.