This article continues from a discourse of why a tripod is the most underrated piece of photographic equipment.
There is a lot of obsession online over whether camera and lens A is better than camera and lens B – forgetting entirely that the creative vision and shot discipline of the photographer using the equipment is not just a great equaliser, but can very well turn the tables entirely. Tripods and heads are one of the very few areas in which this is not actually true – i.e. better equipment is better equipment and there are no equalisers – and are almost completely ignored. No amount of creativity or technique can make up for a poor tripod, but poor technique can certainly spoil a good tripod.
- Use the self timer (and mirror lockup, for a DSLR)
- Shoot at base ISO and optimal apertures
- Spread the legs fully; use the thickest sections first
- Avoid using the column
- Lock everything down tight
- Make sure the system is level to avoid accidents
- Look for level, firm ground
- Use an L bracket and/or lens foot to mount the system at the center of gravity
- Trigger the shutter by hand
- Work at maximum extension of the column
- Don’t spread the legs fully
- Forget to tighten things
- Work on an incline or with a severe imbalance
- Not pay attention to surroundings or ground (working on a beach and ignoring subsiding sand and waves are a number one mistake)
- Using a tripod and head that is too light for the hardware
- Not using an L bracket
Ignore whatever load ratings a manufacturer gives; divide them by ten to be conservative. You’re never going to put 30kg of camera and head on your tripod legs, but at the same time there’s a definite difference between how a 3kg camera performs on a 30kg-rated tripod and a 10kg-rated one. (You’ll be extremely frustrated with the latter.) It’s also important to know that there are no free lunches: light weight, low cost, high rigidity/stability, height – pick any three. And in some cases, even if you pay a fortune, you’re not going to be able to get a 1kg tripod and head combo that can reliably support a medium format camera for long exposures at eye level. It simply isn’t physically possible. In general, you should pick the most you’re willing to carry for extended periods; otherwise you’re not going to use it, and that defeats the point. (If it’s light and crap you’re also not going to use it, which similarly…defeats the point). Cost should also be taken into consideration, of course, but at the same time, you don’t want to be continually upgrading. That said, legs and head are available separately, and you can of course buy the best of one, and upgrade the other later. Both are equally important, but I think the legs are somewhat more critical.
A good tripod should hit all of the technical considerations as well as the ergonomic ones. The latter is much easier to describe, actually: there shouldn’t be any pinch points, knobs or levers that are difficult to operate or whose tension is difficult to modulate; it should be able to go to eye height or slightly more so you don’t have to bend over and get a sore back and neck. Bear in mind that there are also situations in which a very tall tripod can be useful – for instance, if you’re standing on the side of a hill, your downhill leg is going to have to be very much longer than your uphill one if you’re going to be stable. And on top of that, the camera still has to be at eye height (ideally). Or you may need the height to clear some foreground obstacles. One final note: there should be absolutely no way you can confuse the camera release with any of the other controls; this can result in expensive accidents!
On the technical front, we must go back to the initial objective of a tripod to understand what to look for. It is a device that is meant to hold a camera at a specific height and orientation without moving or transmitting vibration either from the camera’s shutter/mirror through the structure and back again, or from the ground upwards. It has to therefore attenuate vibrations in both directions. It also has to be easy to set and lock the orientation and height of the camera precisely, and stable once locked. It also shouldn’t move unexpectedly or in an uncontrolled manner, irrespective of the weight of the equipment on top of it. These are actually conflicting requirements, if you think about it.
What it means is that you need a set of legs that is light and rigid (to prevent any change in absolute position) but with some compliance in the longitudinal direction to avoid transmission of vibration. Carbon fiber works best for this, but the direction and pattern of the weave makes an enormous amount of difference to rigidity and damping; I once owned a cheap Chinese tripod that had 45mm diameter carbon legs, but would bend quite easily; my Gitzo 1542’s lower legs are about 10mm thick, but impossible to bend at all. You also want to minimise the number of sections – every join will reduce rigidity. Unless you have absolutely no choice, or your leg sections are that fat or individual sections are that long that it no longer matters (e.g. a Gitzo 5562 6-section). The more joins, the more of a pain it is to erect and collapse, too. In short: measure your usual suitcase, and this will probably be your limitation.
The head is a little tricker, not just because there are a few different types. Whichever type, a L bracket is important: firstly, because it allows for quick release, but secondly, because it allows for easy change of orientation to vertical without having to adjust the height of the tripod, and without running the risk of overbalancing. Ideally, you want one that has a pin or groove to prevent the camera twisting on the tripod mount.
Ballheads are easy to position, and can be stable if they’re large enough in diameter (small ones will tend to droop/creep after locking, visibly affecting framing if you’re using a long focal length or heavy or macro lens). However, they’re not so easy to position precisely, and are poor for stitching because the nodal point of rotation is too high. You also need to be careful about weight and centre of gravity, because it’s very easy to shift something a little too far and overbalance the whole thing. The only ballheads I personally like are the Arca-Swiss P0 and P1; these are large diameter balls (but small overall sized heads) where the ball is mounted to the tripod legs, and the camera portion is a cup that locks around the ball, bringing the centre of rotation much closer to the nodal point (and with the attendant benefits for weight balance, too). Avoid joystick-type heads as they are even more difficult to position precisely, and less stable.
Three way heads (sometimes known as pan heads) allow control of movement in individual axes. I’d go with one that’s geared for precision of positioning, preferably one that moves all of the axes about the same nodal point. I’m a fan of the Arca-Swiss C1 Cube, which isn’t cheap, but honestly, impossible to live without once you’ve used it for any duration. There is no easier or more precise way to control your composition and camera positioning. Manfrotto also makes the 410 and 405 for those on a budget who still need gearing, but it’s important to note that movement in one axis will affect the others, so positioning is going to be an iterative series of movements with these heads.
Finally, we have specialist types like gimbal heads; these are useful for longer lenses to allow quick and easy movement about the centre of gravity of the whole lens-camera combination. They’re generally for situations in which the camera and lens need to be moved fluidly, e.g. for tracking shots of sport or wildlife, though they can of course also be locked into position. I personally prefer a monopod for these kinds of situations though, because it’s just much easier to physically change position quickly and work in tighter confines. It’s also worth mentioning other devices like macro rails, which are useful for setting a magnification then moving the camera in small increments to frame, or for focus stacking or very precise lateral/vertical/longitudinal movements; I use a pair of these plus a geared column on a Gitzo 5562 for product and macro work for six axes of geared/precise positioning.
I wish I could say that there was a way to do stability properly on the cheap; unfortunately, there isn’t. It’s one of the few areas of photography where the hardware really does matter, and the skill of the photographer cannot make up for deficits. But bearing that in mind, here are my list of recommendations for hardware – I use or have used all of these at one time or another. MT
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