© Paul Mozell
The tripod is still one of the most essential, universal, and adaptable tools for photographers of all ability levels. The tripod may be the most overlooked accessory among photographers just starting out. This applies to users of small point-and-shoot models and bulkier DSLRs. The tripod helps you fix the position of your camera, make incremental adjustments to its position, communicate easily with portrait subjects, and create panoramic images. Although image stabilization technology in today’s cameras does make it easier to shoot at slower shutter speeds, the low-tech tripod is still essential.
A few ways to use a tripod to improve your…
Portraits — A tripod lets you take your eye away from the viewfinder and talk directly to your subjects. You can check to see if everyone in a group is looking at the camera, with eyes open, showing suitable facial expressions. You can more easily assess lighting, shadows, and distracting elements in the composition than with a hand-held camera. Sometimes I use an electronic cable release to trigger the shutter. This allows me to grab shots when the subject is most relaxed.
Architecture and Interiors — You can bracket exposures, make incremental changes in camera angle and focal length. Check for troublesome reflections from light sources, and find all sorts of junk that doesn’t belong in your photograph.
Nature, Wildlife & Landscapes — With a tripod you can shoot at slower shutter speeds with smaller f-stops and maximize depth of field. You can also stabilize heavy telephoto lenses, shoot macro compositions, and your keep hands free to hold accessories like portable strobes, rain covers, and reflectors. Shooting a wide open landscape? Use of a tripod is the surest way to ensure that the horizon is level.
Table-top and Product Photography — Success at selling your stuff on auction sites largely depends on the quality of your photographs. Don’t overlook the importance of being able to repeat set-ups, make adjustments, and dial in long exposures at low ISO settings to ensure optimal image quality.
Factors to consider when purchasing a tripod
Tripod legs and heads are often selected separately. Purchasing a kit that includes both may be less expensive than separate purchases, but it may not include the features that meet your needs.
Height — With your camera mounted on your tripod you should be able to stand erect without slouching over, while seeing comfortably through the viewfinder or LCD. With that said, you may end up compromising on height because you want a tripod is lighter in weight or more packable in luggage.
Weight and material — Most tripods are made of aluminum alloy, with steel or plastic clamps for adjusting leg length. Alloy is rigid and durable and reasonably light weight. Want the lightest most durable legs? Look at some carbon fiber tripods. You’ll save maybe 30% to 50% of the weight and gain some rigidity and vibration reduction. As someone who frequently shoots in cold weather I find that carbon fiber is easier to hold in my bare hands than aluminum. Carbon fiber tripods will cost you 50% to 100% more. You get what you pay for in this category. You can also go classic and get a wooden tripod. There are still a few manufacturers around, the last time I checked. Wooden tripods can be very quick to adjust for height, are light weight, and very easy to hold in cold weather. And there is something esthetically pleasing about using a wooden tripod with a view camera. Be like Ansel!
Design considerations — Less costly tripods often have horizontal struts or braces that stabilize the legs. These can be a nuisance because the angle of the legs cannot be adjusted individually. However, these struts are a common feature on heavy duty tripods intended for video or studio use, where rigidity is essential. The mid to high priced-tripods for still photography use materials and design features that provide rigidity without the struts.
Tripod leg lengths are adjustable by telescoping 3 or 4 sections. Some tripods fix the leg length with a twist-lock element, while others use a quick-release snap-lock arrangement. Both are good. The twisting type makes for a sleeker overall tripod design that is less likely to get snagged on clothing or branches while in the field, while the snap lock is somewhat faster to operate. I own and use both types.
Most tripods have a center column that allows you to change the height of the camera after setting the leg position. Usually the column is released with a twist-lock. Heavy-duty tripods sometimes have a cranked gear mechanism that raises and lowers the column. A disadvantage to a center column is that the higher the setting the more vibration you are likely to experience. This can be a serious issue on windy days while shooting long exposures. The other problem is that the column can get in the way if you want to lower the camera close to the ground, floor, or table-top. One solution is to get a tripod that does not use a center column. These are among the most costly tripods because the legs must be longer to achieve the same height. Another option is a column that be reversed, so you can position the camera between the legs, close to the ground. I frequently use this technique. The column can be removed on some current tripods, and then repositioned in a horizontal orientation. I own a tripod of this design but I’m concerned that complex joints required for this configuration are less durable and more likely to fail in the field. So far, no problems.
Nice smaller features include a hook at the bottom of the center column where you can hang a weight such as a camera bag for more stability. Also, a spirit level on the tripod to level the tripod and camera for panoramas and architectural photography.
I like to use a soft shell bag to carry the tripod. One canvas bag I’ve had from Domke has lasted over 20 years and is still going strong. Don’t get one that has a huge camera logo printed on it. Translation: “Steal Me.”
Most tripod heads fit into one of two categories. Ball heads have a ball and socket design that permits fast adjustment in all planes and angles. The better ones have knobs to adjust the angle, the tension on the ball (to keep heavy cameras and lenses from flopping over), and one to control rotation for panoramas. Pan and tilt heads are the most common and may cost less than ball heads. A pan head is easier to adjust in just one plane at a time. The disadvantages are that the main adjustment handle can get in your way, and they can get hung up on luggage, trees, and clothing. If you are going to use this head for light video applications, the pan head is the only way to go. A ball head barely works for video. Getting serious about DSLR video? You’ll want to look at “fluid” pan heads that have a smoother operation than a head that is friction controlled.
In my book it is pointless to get a tripod head that does not include a quick release.
My photographic life changed the day I discovered that I no longer had to insert a threaded bolt into the camera every time I wanted to set up a shot. Quick releases require a mounting plate semi-permanently affixed to your camera. I leave them on all the time. Note: these plates may or may not be compatible from one manufacturer to another. This may affect your purchasing decision. The Arca-Swiss design has been copied or adapted by a few other vendors.
Tripod heads can be heavy so definitely don’t buy more that you need to support the weight of your heaviest camera and lens.
A short list of tripod vendors
Manfrotto (formerly Bogen) is an Italian company with the largest line of tripods as well as lighting supports and studio equipment. Their tripods may not be the lightest but they are reasonably priced and durable. Spare parts are readily available from distributors or the factory.
Gitzo is a French firm and their superb no-frills, light weight tripods and heads are very popular among pros and serious enthusiasts. Gitzo is distributed in the USA by Manfrotto.
Kirk Enterprises is a USA firm that makes beautifully engineered heads and quick releases.
Really Right Stuff is another boutique USA firm that makes heads, tripods, and adapters for many photographic applications.
Induro is another maker of high quality equipment.
Sunpak, Slik, and Velbon are makers of popular budget priced tripods. But a low priced tripod is better than no tripod at all. I’ve got a scratched and battered Slik that I bought 25 years ago that still gets used from time to time. Get some legs under your camera today!