Born into an upper-middle-class family in Devonport, England, Tripe joined the British East India Company in 1839 and was assigned to the 12th Madras Native Infantry. Following several years of deployment in India, he returned to Devonport in 1851 for an extended home leave. There he discovered photography and began to make his first pictures, probably in 1852. Unlike most beginners, Tripe bought a camera that made large, 12-by-15-inch negatives, similar in design to the one pictured at left. In 1853 he also joined the Photographic Society of London, where he met and shared valuable information with other amateurs.
His first photographs reveal both his rigorous, disciplined approach and his desire to record subjects of importance to the military, such as dockyards, ships undergoing repairs, and breakwaters. This focus distinguishes his work from that of most other members of the Photographic Society, who preferred more picturesque subjects, such as landscapes or genre scenes.