Equipment, May 2016

The Tripod

With the advent of Image Stabilization, Vibration Resistance or whatever each manufacturer calls it’s “shake-proof” lenses, we see way too many photographers shunning tripods for landscape shooting and doing a lot of hand-holding. Let’s state a fact: if you want to maximize sharpness, if you want a “tack-sharp” image, if you want the cleanest image with the lowest possible noise, nothing will give you those results better than a solid platform - which your hands aren’t. As an extra benefit, tripods slow the image-making process down; gives us time to look, think, to compose – and that’s a good thing. Finally, the tripod is an absolute "must" for long exposures or for blended images.

So, let’s talk about tripods: In a photographer’s lifetime, one may go through several camera bodies and lenses and even change manufacturers. The one piece of equipment that should rarely be changed is the tripod - if one makes the right choice(s) to begin with. Many new to photography know “I should have a tripod” and buy what is usually an inexpensive skinny, flimsy, light tripod. Now, one might be fortunate enough to attend an ANPW event and really learn about buying a tripod and make corrections. Others (the “unwashed”) may go through several tripods, spending a lot of money before “seeing the light”. A good tripod isn’t cheap. Neither is going through several tripods until you make a “good” choice. So, spend $1000 now or make several purchases that total $1000 or more.

What are the criteria for selecting a tripod? First, we should buy something that’s going to last. So that means solid and durable. Second (for the sake of our backs and necks) we select a tripod that, with camera mounted, places the camera eyepiece close to eye level. Third, the tripod must be capable of handling the largest load we anticipate placing on it. When calculating that load use your heaviest anticipated camera-lens combination plus the weight of the tripod head. Don’t have that big glass but thinking about a purchase soon? Consider its weight in your calculation. But, don’t forget that your tripod head also has a load rating. As a guide, Really Right Stuff uses camera-lens combination examples to help in deciding on a tripod head.

Be conservative; a general recommendation is that the tripod load rating should be three times the weight that you impose on it. So, if your load of camera, lens and head equals 12 pounds, you’re looking at a tripod capable of handling at least 36 pounds.

How about center posts? A center post limits how close we can get to ground level and raising the post makes the tripod unstable especially in wind. And, one is limited to around 8 pounds of gear plus head combo. But, I understand that smaller tripods can make air travel easier because they fit in checked luggage and several high quality small tripods do have center posts. If you’re considering a center-post tripod, we recommend you not have to raise the post more than two inches to get the camera eyepiece to your eye level.

But wait, there’s another option. With today’s technology - and for just a little more money – slightly heavier and more stable tripods (with no center post) that collapse to lengths that won’t challenge your luggage are available so look around. For example, Really Right Stuff Series 2 tripods have a load rating of 40 pounds and they’re available in three and four leg configurations. Likewise, the 50-pound rated Series 3 also comes in three and four leg options. The four-leg models collapse to very transportable lengths although, depending on the length of the luggage, you may have to remove the head. I often travel with the Series 2 or 3 with the head removed.

In the past, all the above meant “heavy”. Today, with materials like carbon fiber and basalt, we have tripods that satisfy our needs for support and stability and are easy to carry as well. On the flip side, they’re costly. But, do it right and it may be the last tripod you buy or, at least, one you’ll have for a very long time.

Which tripod manufacturers and features do we like? I have tripods by Really Right Stuff and have owned Gitzo’s, and liked them. I find, however, that RRS tripods have a slightly thicker wall and are, pound for pound, a better choice. I prefer twist locks to lever locks and do like the ability to get really low to the ground. For long hikes, I might choose a center-post tripod but my go-to tripods are either RRS Series 2 or 3.


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