Tripods 101

TripodI don’t like tripods. That means I don’t want to spend any more money on them than I have to, but I still want something that doesn’t completely drive me up the wall for the times I really need one. Luckily I also use light gear and don’t do telephoto (much), which means that I wouldn’t even get any benefit from the real heavy hitters. I’ve made a few mistakes along the way, but have learned something in the process. If you’re as confused as I was, read on…

Tripods are annoying. They’re big, clunky, restrict your movement, slow you down, are hard to fit in the bag, and have comparatively little widget appeal, at least compared to cameras and lenses. They can be pretty pricey — five hundred bucks for three legs and a screw?


Yet there are times when they’re indispensable — they make it possible to get pictures that would otherwise by impossible, and dramatically improve the quality of other pictures that would be possible to get. Moreover, if you’re a hasty kind of shooter who would benefit from a bit more thought in composing and creating the image, being forced to slow down can actually help the creative process. I have this on good authority: my friend Ed who shoots incredible landscapes thinks so, and I can’t argue with his results.

First off, let’s get a few basic facts straight.

1. Any tripod is much better than no tripod.

If you don’t have a tripod at all and have spent all your money on cameras and lenses, go borrow twenty bucks from someone and buy something like a Slik Compact.

I used one for years, and it got me a quite a few pictures that I still feel are among the best I’ve taken.Yes, it’s flimsy, slow to set up and take down, fiddly to attach and remove the camera, and not exactly precise to control. But it does hold the camera steady (if it’s not too windy) and will allow you to point it where you want it pointed, and despite the abuse I’ve hurled at it, it hasn’t actually broken down (although one of the legs isn’t quite straight anymore.)That’s the function of a tripod, and it performs that function.

So if you don’t own a tripod, that twenty bucks will probably expand your photographic opportunities more than anything you bought since the camera.

2. The difference between a great tripod and a cheap tripod is much smaller than a cheap tripod and no tripod.

There are tripods that cost a hundred times more than that Slik Compact. However, they are not a hundred times better. They are indispensable for certain specific uses (such as shooting with very heavy, very long telephoto lenses) but otherwise they don’t really expand your photographic possibilities that much more. However, what they do do, is make your life easier.

You don’t have to go that much up from the bare-bones bargain-basement tripod to get something that’s sturdier (meaning you can exhale while shooting), quicker to set up and take down, taller for the same weight (or nearly), and otherwise nicer. So you will probably want something a bit nicer than the bargain-basement one somewhere along the line.

3. Some things are mutually exclusive.

Everybody wants tall, light, and sturdy. News flash: you can’t get it. Tall and sturdy means heavy. Tall and light means flimsy. Light and sturdy means short.

By spending much more on exotic materials, you can push the envelope just a little bit, but the fundamental equation doesn’t change. Decide what’s most important for you, and pick two out of three; then spend as much as you feel like spending on nudging up the third.

4. A light, flimsy tripod with you is miles better than a big, heavy tripod at home.

I have a reasonably nice “professional” tripod, which I very rarely use because it’s too big to lug around on foot, and only barely fits into a fairly large suitcase.

Knowing what I know now, I might as well not have bought it; the light ones I have get the job done almost as well and they’re with me a lot more. So if you’re not sure of what you want, go for the smallest and lightest tripod that could possibly work. You can always add a heavy one later if you need it — and you will almost certainly use the light one as well.

Saint Maries la Mer

The sanctuary at Saintes-Maries-la-Mer. A fifteen-second exposure.

There’s no way I could have gotten this picture without a tripod, and there’s no way I could have gotten anything bigger than my little Slik Compact in here. Even so, I had to wait fifteen minutes until the place was clear enough to shoot, and I only got one shot.

A tripod consists of two components: the legset and the head. On many tripods, especially the cheap ones and the light ones, the two are integrated into a single unit — this saves both money and weight at the cost of versatility.
Each has its set of possible features and characteristics — load-bearing capacity, adjustability, materials quality, accessories, and so on. Actual tripods are compromises between different, sometimes opposing requirements and price.

A bicycle wheel builder once told me that he gets two kinds of customers — one kind that wants the wheels feather-light but bombproof, and another kind that wants them bombproof but feather-light. Tripods are like that. The most expensive thing is getting something that’s both feather-light and bombproof (sturdy, for tripods). If you can relax one of the constraints a little, you’ll be able to get something that performs just as well for a lot less money.

Features like adjustability and materials quality are comparatively cheap compared to the bombproof-and-feather-light equation, and can be worth paying for. There’s an enormous, even bewildering amount of possible combinations of features available.

Picking the right tripod is just like picking the right camera — finding the compromise that fits your wallet the best and cramps your style the least.

Reprinted under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

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