In today’s post, I will discuss tripods with an eye towards helping you find the one that best suits your needs. But first, why do you need a tripod?
If you want to move beyond simple snapshots, you’re starting to explore the various modes of your camera (see my post on Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO Setting). In that case, there will be many occasions where handheld shots will not produce crisp images. Any time the shutter speed is slow, say below 1/60 second, even in a wide angle shot, the camera will shake enough to cause some noticeable blur. The blurring will get worse for longer focal lengths. In addition, there are many situations and photographic techniques that require the camera to remain in exactly the same position for a series of exposures. Finally, when shooting with a wide open aperture to provide a shallow Depth of Field (DoF), archieving focus on the primary subject can be very difficult without a tripod. So, aside from the camera and lens, a tripod is probably the most important accessory to add to your equipment.
Although not as stable as a tripod, a monopod is also very useful. Because I carry a walking stick almost everywhere for balance, I often substitute a monopod to have my camera with me. This is especially useful if you have a GoPro, because you can take that just about anywhere.
I will attempt to be fairly general in this discussion, bud I’ll be using specific examples from my (growing) collection of tripods and monopods: Manfroto 679 monopod; Vanguard Alta Pro 263AT; AmazonBasics 60 inch; Dolica GX600B200 Proline; Joby GP3 GorillaPod SLR-Zoom.
It’s useful to consider the types of photography that you’ll be attempting when choosing a tripod. No tripod will fill every need, but if you concentrate on a specific category, such as landscapes, portraits, sports, or macro photography, your ideal tripod might be different for each. Having said this, I will recommend my choice for the best all-around tripod at the end of this post.
A solid tripod is usually fairly heavy, which adds stability. Newer materials such as carbon fiber are becoming more popular and therefore less expensive, but lighter means it’s easier to tip over. Most lighter tripods, regardless of construction, will have a hook attached to enable a weight to be hung under the tripod to add stability.
Wooden tripods are great, because they are stable and the wood dampens vibrations, but they are heavy! They might be a good choice for a dedicated portrait studio, or static video shooting, but most of us will not want a wooden tripod.
As I mentioned above, carbon fiber tripods are becoming popular for their strength and light weight, but they are still pretty expensive. Aluminum/magnesium tripods are the most common, and there is a large selection at various price points. They are sturdy, and are robust against adverse weather conditions.
Aside from the obvious fact that a tripod has three of them, the configuration of the legs is an important consideration. Traditionally, the three legs are connected to a spreader that limits the angle to which the legs can expand. This provides added stability, but also limits the versatility of the tripod. Many of the newer designs forego the spreader, allowing each leg to be adjusted independently, and at a variety of angles. This really helps, especially in situations where the ground is uneven. This also enables the tripods to support the camera very low to the ground.
The number of segments for each leg and the mechanism for securing them is also a consideration. Tripods typically have two, three or four leg segments. This provides the ability to position the camera at a range of heights, and also makes it compact enough for easy transport. The trade offs are compactness, stability and weight. More segments usually provide a smaller collapsed unit for transport, but the extra hardware adds weight. In addition, each segment slides inside the one above it, so the last segment must be quite small, which compromises stability.
The image at left shows my tripods at their fullest extent. Except for the Joby GorillaPod, they all reach to about 60 inches without the head, and the Vanguard provides the heighest perch at 63 inches. In each case, I have extended the central tower as well as extended all of the leg segments. The ball heads add a couple of inches.
The Amazon and Vanguard tripods have three leg segments, while the Dolica has four (the monopod has three). At full extension, only the Vangaurd still feels sturdy. The Dolica, with four leg segments and rather light build, is the least steady. I would hesitate to have my DSLR at this height on the Dolica unless I was very careful. Also, wind shake would be noticeable as would vibrations, such as someone walking by on anything but a very solid surface. Hanging a sandbag or other weight might help, but that could also compromise the very thin fourth segments.
Adjustments to the leg segments are made with either a twist-tensioner, or with handled clasps. This is really a matter of preference, but I personally like the clasps. They are easily adjusted, at least on the better models, and they are easier for me to handle in general.
The feet at the end of the tripod legs are important. Inexpensive tripods typically just have a “rubber” or plastic tip, although my Manfroto monopod has a fairly “cheap feeling” tip… My Amazon tripod has flat-bottomed, gimbaled tips, which allows then to adjust to uneven surfaces. The Dolica and Vanguard tripods both have rounded, grooved rubber tips that are on spiked screws. This enables the rubber tips to be retracted, exposing the spiked tips, which can dig into the ground, carpet or icy surface. This last feature is very handy.
Heads and Head Mounts
There are four basic types of tripod heads: fixed, pan-tilt, ball and gimbal. Fixed heads are almost never used, because there is no easy way to adjust the camera other than the tripod legs. Pan-tilt heads are very common on inexpensive tripods, such as my Amazon tripod. They allow panning left and right, and tilt forward and backwards. Most also allow flip from vertical to horizontal. These heads can be very useful for video, and in fact I have a high end pan-tilt fluid head for just that purpose. However, they aren’t as versatile for still photography.
Ball heads are probably the most popular for photography. These have a panning base, usually marked with angle tick marks to enable easy stitching for panorama shots. There is also a ball release knob that loosens the ball clutch to enable the camera to achieve angles over at least 90 degrees of the viewing hemisphere. They also have a cut-out on one side that enables the camera to be oriented at 90 degrees for vertical (portrait), and thus 180 degrees of the viewing hemisphere.
The image to the above shows my tripod ball heads. From left to right are: (a) small head I use for my GoPro, usually mounted to my monopod; (b) the Vanguard SBH 100 head that came with my Vanguard; (c) the Optica head; (d) and the Joby head. While tripods usually come with a head, you can get just the legs and use the appropriate head for your application. The Vanguard head is by far my favorite, because it has a damped ball joint. The keeps the camera from just flopping over when the ball tension knob is released. This head also has big knobs, which makes them much easier to adjust. Unfortunately, it’s pretty heavy, and overpowers my Dolica.
These heads are all 3/8 mounted (see images on right). This is a bigger thread than the 1/4 20 that screws into your camera. However, there are adapters if needed. The thicker thread is important for heavier heads such as fluid head or a gimbal head. I won’t discuss gimbal heads here, because: I don’t have one; and they are typically used for very longline, and heavy, telephoto lens uses. Here’s a brief introduction to gimbal heads in photography.
Another aspect of the heads and mounts is the presence (or absence) of locking screws. A careful look at the mounts will reveal that only the Vanguard mount (see panel b) has locking screws. These are hex head screws that are tightened after the head is attached. They wedge into the grooves on the bottom of the head (see the image of the Vanguard head). While it’s not a big deal for ball heads, I have found it crucial for my fluid video head and would also be important for heavier cameras on any head. Because the fluid head has significant resistance for smooth panning, the screws are crucial to keep the head from unscrewing from the tripod mount. Keep this in mind if you ever plan to use a fluid head.
The center tower provides additional height to the tripod. it can also provide an additional degree of freedom in some models.
The Amazon tripod has a tower that is adjusted vertically by a crank mechanism. This is pretty handy, and helps ensure that there are no sharp drops when the securing knob is released. However, it also means that the tower cannot be removed, inverted or placed at a non-vertical angle. Both the Dolica and Vanguard tripods allow you to remove the tower to enable the tripod to be lower to the ground, and to invert the tower. This is very useful for getting low shots and for many macro applications.
I also find that the heft of the tower is important. In addition to the locking screws on the Vanguard, it also has a very sturdy tower. It’s the only tripod in my collection that can handle my fluid head without feeling like it will break.
In my post about photography of small objects for documenting collections or for online sales, I mentioned that my current tripod had a limitation that made it difficult to get the shot I wanted. To solve this, I purchased the Vangapuard, which has a tower that not only inverts, like the Optica, but also allows other angles. This turns out to be very important for shooting table work, where you want to place the camera high above the objects, but the tripod needs to be positioned offset from the camera. This is also important for many macro applications.
The image at right shows the Dolica and Vanguard tripods in t heir lowest configuration. The tower has been removed from the Dolica and the Vanguard tower is pulled out and angled. Both tripods. Enable the camera to be held level at about 4-5 inches above the ground. Again, the Vanguard is more versatile, and would allow a wide angle shot the avoids the legs being in the image.
Which Tripod Is For You?
That’s a tough question to answer. As you see, I have four, plus a monopod. As I said earlier, it depends on what you do most in photography. While a cheap tripod, like the Amazon, will work, you’ll likely find too many situations where it will get in the way. I actually bought the Amazon for mounting my Digital Audio redcorder and shotgun mics. it’s perfect for that. it’s also very handy for holding off-camera strobes and LED cinima lights. it’s so handy and so inexpensive, that I’m considering another one eventually. But it’s not ideal for mounting a camera for photography.
A tripod like the Vanguard will cover almost all msituations, but it’s fairly expensive (~$200, including the ball head), it’s pretty heavy (~6lbs), and it’s pretty big even when fully collapsed. The Joby Gorilla is really cool, and enables you to secure your camera to objects. But it’s not big enough for many uses.
A tripod like the Dolica is probably the perfect solution for most situations. It’s light (~4lbs), has a good range of adjustments, and comes with a good ball head. It collapses to a small enought package that it will fit in a carrying bag. It’s fairly inexpensive (~$55), and it comes with a very well made case.
A Mystery… Can you help?
Finally, I’d like to show you a handy little tripod that I’ve had for over 35 years! I don’t remember where I got it, but probably it’s was Kurt’s Camera Corral in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As shown right, this little gadget is about 6 inches, but extends to about 10 inches. It has a 1/4 20 thread in the base, so it can act as a ball head. Best of all, it has tripod legs that fold up inside for transport. I love this thing, but have never seen another one like it. If any of you can identify it, I would love to hear from you!
Well, that’s it for today. I hope this helps in your quest for a tripod. Let me know about your experiences.