Friday, April 7, 2017

What Tripod Should I Get?

I have taught some photography classes over the past several months.  One question that keeps coming up in class is "what tripod should I buy?"  This question is not limited to students in the classes.  Friends have sent me notes or come up to me and asked the same question.  It seems like a good reason to put some tripod suggestions down on this virtual paper.

I have had a tripod ever since I got my first SLR film camera.  I probably use them more than many photographers, carrying one for miles on hikes.  For landscape, waterfalls, macro, still life and many other kinds of photography, I find they make the difference in a blurry photo and one that is tack sharp.  Other people find tripods frustrating and get in the way.  It really depends on your style of photography.  If you are in the market for a tripod, read on.

The Tripod Itself

According to The Urban Dictionary, a Tripod is:
  • Three close friends that have known each other for a long time and have such a unique bond that they form a group. These friends are elite to all other people to the point where people bow to them. This friendship is considered to be the highest honor.
  • A Scottish myth of three wild girls so finely in tune with one another that they evolved into one fierce being. The legend goes that they walk the streets of Glasgow under cover of darkness, hunting for parties and unsuspecting victims on whom they bestow their unbelievable chat.

The definition for this blog is "a three-legged stand that supports a camera, telescope or other object that needs to be kept steady."

There are hundreds of tripods for sale at hundreds of online and offline stores.  It's not practical for me to recommend "the best tripod".  There are several websites that rate various models of tripods and tripod heads.   Rather than do my own rating, I'll give you some key criteria to consider when selecting one for your next photographic journey.

Tripod Criteria

Strength/Stability/Load Capacity - The definition of a tripod is that it needs to hold the camera steady. Don't get one that cannot hold your camera and lens without shaking, vibrating, sagging or collapsing.   A tripod has a weight rating or load capacity.  Look for one with a rating higher than the combined weight of your camera and heaviest lens.

Weight - not to be confused with the weight rating.  Think about how you are going to use the tripod and how much you are willing to carry.  What the tripod is made of has a big impact on its weight. Aluminum is light but not very strong.  A strong aluminum tripod is probably going to be heavy. Carbon fiber is both strong and lightweight, but more expensive than aluminum.  In the end, you want a tripod you are willing to carry around.

Maximum Height - you want a tripod that extends to your eye level or higher.  Wait, what?  Why would you want a tripod that puts the camera above your head?   It is because you may be using the tripod on a hill, on the edge of a stream or other situation where one leg extends below your feet.  In those conditions, your tripod will be effectively shorter.  

Many tripods use a center post to make them taller.  The more you extend these center posts, the less stable your camera will be.  My tripod works this way and is fine in most situations.  

Minimum Height - A tripod is a necessity for photographing flowers and other close-up subjects near the ground.  You want a tripod that can place the camera as close to the ground as possible. Most do this by spreading the legs out until they are almost flat. If the tripod has a center post it should be removable.  

Another way to get the camera as low as possible is to mount it upside down on the bottom of the center post.

My tripod will do this and I have used it once.  That should tell you how impractical it is.

Material - the material used in the tripod is the single biggest factor impacting the stability and weight. Most low-cost tripods are made of aluminum. If cost is more important than strength and stability, then you might want an aluminum model.  If stability and strength are more important you may want to buy one made of carbon fiber.  Of course, with great strength comes great cost (sorry Spiderman).  If you use a tripod under cold conditions, you will find the carbon fiber does not feel nearly as cold as aluminum.

Collapsed Size - this is how long the tripod is when completely collapsed.  This is important when traveling by plane.  You will probably want to put your tripod in your checked luggage.  Look for a model that is small enough to fit in your bags. Adorama has a list of five tripods that they consider to be good for travelers.  Remember, Adorama is a camera store and their objective is to sell you one of these tripods.

Independent Legs - if your tripod will always be used on a flat floor in a studio, having legs that move independently may not be important.  If you're like me, you will be using your tripod in places where the ground is nothing like a flat floor.   You may find yourself on the side of a hill or on the edge of a stream.  The least expensive tripods will have bars that tie the legs to a center column and will be difficult to use under these conditions.  
Legs Tied Together
Legs Move Independently
Look for a tripod with independent legs like in the second photo.

Tripod Head 

The tripod head is the part of the tripod where the camera is attached. Some less expensive tripods will come with an integrated head.  Others let you pick the head to go on your tripod.  Some criteria for picking the tripod head include:

Weight Rating - As with the tripod, the tripod head has its own weight rating or load capacity.  Look for one with a rating higher than the combined weight of your camera and heaviest lens.

Weight - The head may be as heavy as the tripod itself.  

Type of Head - tripod heads come in a few basic designs - ball heads, pan/tilt heads, pistol grips and gimbal heads.  

Ball Head
I have always used ball heads because I find they are easy to position the camera in most any position. You maneuver the camera to where you want it and tighten the head by turning one or more knobs. If your head is not strong enough for your camera then you will find the camera moves or sags after you tighten the ball.  This can be very frustrating.

Pan/tilt heads are often the least expensive model and are sometimes built in to inexpensive tripods. They have one or more levers to move the camera. 

Pistol Grips are similar to ball heads except instead of tightening a knob to lock the head in position, you squeeze the pistol grip to move the ball head and release the grip to lock the head in place.  This can be easier to use than the ball head, but I find the grip sticks out and gets in the way.  Plus, it adds weight.

Geared Heads are perfect for those situations where you need exact adjustments in the camera position.  They have three knobs to adjust the three axis.  There is no need to lock them down because once in position, they don't move.  They have a lever that releases the gears for large/quick adjustments.   These are useful for landscapes and artictural photography.

Gimbal Heads are great for large heavy camera and lens combinations. They themselves are large and heavy and often expensive.  
If you are going to use the tripod for video, you may want a head that delivers smooth pans and tilts. A fluid head will allow you to move your camera while videoing without jerky motions.

Those are what I consider key criteria for picking out a tripod.  If you want to shop online, I suggest my three favorite online camera stores

Some common tripod and head brands to look for include Manfroto (what I use), Giottos, Induro, Vanguard, Slik, Benro, and Really Right Stuff (if you have lots of money).  

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