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More wag. Less Bark.
Tripod Tips...what to buy.
Sure seems like a there are a lot of questions about tripods lately.
A quick look through the archives will yield a lot of really good information
on specific brands.
Let's start with a truth. A weak head on a strong tripod makes the package
So what's in a tripod? What makes one 'better' than another?
Let's start with what I think is the most important piece, the head.
You can pay anywhere from USD$30 upwards of USD$500 for a tripod head.
For the most part, heads come in two varieties. Ball and Pan/Tilt. The difference
between the two is in the way the head moves. There are other heads but these
are the two most common.
A ball head is infinitely adjustable within the head. Usually a slot or two
allow you to quickly switch from portrait to landscape. A ball head takes
a little getting used to as you adjust it with one knob, moving the camera
with the other hand. Once you get the hang of it, works great. Ball heads
come in a variety of configurations including pistol grips.
The other type of head is a pan & tilt. Pan and tilt allows you to pan (move
left to right) and tilt (move up and down) using two distinct controls. For
still cameras, it's not necessary to use a fluid head. However, if you're a
cinematographer, a fluid head makes panning smooth as a baby's behind.
Usually, the adjustment is simple. Loosen either axis and adjust as required.
A third type of tripod head is the gimbaled head. This head is useful for
handling heavy lenses. Anywhere from 400mm on up. By carefully
distributing the weight during setup, the combination becomes "weightless"
and very easy to move. Used by wildlife photographers, these run anywhere
from USD$200 upwards of USD$600.
The next installment. Legs.
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A good set of Legs will take you places...
Legs are the heart of a good tripod. They hold the weight of your camera and
lens. Too light and the camera shakes like a rag doll. Too heavy and you'll
probably not want to carry it when you really should.
What's important when selecting a great set of legs is finding something that's
a compromise between weight, stability, cost and size.
Cost? Expect to spend anywhere from USD$20 upwards of USD$700.
Don't forget this in addition to the cost of a head. When you consider
cost, consider the cost of purchasing something you will replace later.
If you think you might want something better later, wait and save your
money for the better equipment. Remember too that you get what you
I'd say finding the right height tripod factors right up towards the top of my
list. Finding the right height, one that allows you to use the least amount
of column adjustment is a necessity. The higher the camera is on the column,
the more unstable it becomes. Making it shorter is easy--just lower the legs
a bit. But the only way to make it taller is column height.
The next factor is weight. Carbon fiber, Aluminum and steel are all common
materials used in the construction process. Carbon fiber followed by
aluminum and steel are lightest to heaviest.
Some other things you might also want to consider are the locking and
adjustment mechanisms used for the legs, column height adjustments
Stability depends on build quality. If a tripod is poorly built, it's
not going to provide a stable platform for your equipment. Note the
weight of your heaviest gear and factor that into your decision.
Common locking mechanisms include a click type lock found on Bogen
models and the twist lock found on Gitzo's. Column height is usually
done using a twist lock although you can find some less expensive
models with a geared track. A useful accessory found on some columns
is a hook--this hook can be used to weight the tripod in a stiff breeze or
for added stability. Speaking of accessories. You can find small trays
that fit between the legs to hold "stuff" as well as foam covers for the
upper part of the legs--this last item is useful if you plan on using your
tripod in cold weather.
While carbon fiber is the lightest material, it's also the most costly and
most easily damaged of all three materials commonly used in construction.
Steel is rarely used in the construction of tripods. This leaves Aluminum
as the most commonly used material. It's light weight and durability are
just what most folks will need.
If you travel, a feature that's a real help packing is legs that fold onto
themselves. What this gives you is a set of legs with the least amount
of length which should mean easiest to pack...hopefully.
Finally, check out the feet. You can get spiked feet or standard rubber
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Hey! What about a Monopod? You left those out!
Glad you asked that!
A monopod is a tripod with one leg. In it's simplest form at least.
I'm a monopod user. On a bright day, a monopod is nearly perfect. And for
anywhere between USD$40 and USD$300, you can have a great tool for
use shooting sports or to help you steady a medium to long lens on the
days you don't want to carry a tripod and all the extra gear.
The most popular materials are aluminum and carbon fiber. You can
find pods with twist or click lock mechanisms for adjusting the height.
Where the most controversy lies is the question "do I need a head?". The
answer is generally no. If you were to add a head it would of the tilt/swivel
Why no head? Most will use a pod in situations where speed is of the essence
and adjusting a head would just take too long. The advantage of a head is
the ability to tilt the lens but you can do that without a head by moving the
foot around or lowering the height to tilt down. To tilt up, raise the pod so
the camera is above the eye, lean back and shoot away.
Some monopods offer a extra set of "legs" that make it free standing.
While it seems like a good idea, these extra legs just add a little weight
and truthfully, they do not make the monopod stable.
A monopod is a versatile piece of equipment but you really don't need to
spend a lot of money. USD$50 or is usually enough.
More wag. Less Bark.
A quick word about materials
Carbon fiber, Aluminum and steel are all materials used in the construction
of monopods or tripods. You might find steel in a cheap knock-off tripod
leaving carbon or aluminum as the two primary materials used in construction.
Steel is a heavy material. Dragging that around all day isn't too appealing.
In order of cost, it's probably steel, aluminum and carbon fiber as least to
most expensive. Of course they're listed heaviest to lightest too.
Carbon fiber (and similar materials) have the benefit of being lightweight
making it easy to carry in the field or to travel with. Carbon's strength
comes from layered cloth that's been bonded making it as strong or
stronger than steel. In cold weather, carbon is cool to the touch and
definitely easier to hang onto than metal. The one serious disadvantage
to carbon fiber sharp objects. Cuts or abrasions can lead to failure of the
material so you need to be cautious with carbon and be sure not to let
the material rub against abrasive materials.
Aluminum is light in weight, strong and inexpensive. It's rugged and can
be carried without too much trouble. Much of what you'll find in tripods or
monopods is aluminum. Not too much else to say here--good value,
strong & lightweight.
I cannot over emphasize the need to get the best set of legs that you can
afford. A strong tripod and quality head are important components in your
kit. Really, when you add a significant amount of weight to a tripod, you don't
want it and the ten grand on top to hit the deck.
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