A tripod is an important piece of gear for all photographers, but even more so for those who are hooked on shooting long exposure photography at the blue hour like myself (I primarily shoot waterfront cityscapes). Those photos require exposures lasting for minutes with a use of neutral density (ND) filter. Therefore, a sturdy tripod is absolutely essential to keep photos sharp.
Get a Best Tripod Within Your Budget
This article is not your ultimate tripod buying guide (dPS already has an excellent article on that here), but let me mention a few brief pointers first.
First of all, unlike your camera body, a tripod isn’t something you will upgrade very often. In fact, a good one could last a lifetime, so it’s advisable to get the best possible tripod within your budget. Here are a few other things to look out for when choosing your tripod.
The maximum load capacity of your tripod should be at least twice or preferably three times the maximum weight of your camera body and biggest lens combined. For example, my trusty Manfrotto MT190CXPRO3 Carbon Fiber Tripod supports up to 7kg, which is more than sufficient for my Nikon D610 (850g) and Nikon 18-35mm (f/3.5-4.5) (385g) combined (1.25kg).
Your tripod head also has a maximum load capacity, and it should at least match that of your tripod. If your tripod supports up to 7kg, but the head only supports up to 5kg, then the load capacity of the entire tripod system is to be 5kg, as the maximum load comes from the weaker component. For your information, I own the SIRUI K-20X Ballhead, which supports a whopping 25kg.
Decent tripods are commonly made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Both are equally good, but carbon fiber tripods are lighter yet more resistant to vibration (hence they are also pricier, too). My Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Tripod weighs 1.6kg (3.5 lbs.) while its aluminum counterpart the Manfrotto MT190XPRO3 weighs 2kg (4.5 lbs.), with all the other specs being pretty much identical).
Tripod Leg Sections:
While 3-section legs provide a more stable platform, tripods with 4-section legs have a shorter closed (folded up for transportation) length and make it easier to pack into a suitcase when traveling. For example, closed length for my 3-section leg Manfrotto MT190CXPRO3 Carbon Fiber Tripod is 61 cm (24 inches), but its 4-section counterpart the Manfrotto MT190CXPRO4 is only 52 cm (20.5 inches).
If you ask me, I recommend choosing nothing but 3-section tripod legs. I personally won’t compromise stability for convenience. That said, my tripod still fits into my check-in luggage (after taking out the center column). Before purchasing, I even tested it by bringing my luggage to the camera shop!
Tall Isn’t Always Cool
Having a good tripod is one thing, but using it correct way is another. I see way too many photographers fully extending tripod legs even when it’s not necessary. The rule of thumb is that the higher the tripod legs are extended, the less stable it gets, leaving more prone to high winds and undermining your chance of taking sharp photos. The photo below (at Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, with an altitude of 552m) is a good example.
Instead of fully extending the tripod legs (and even the center column, which is a big NO-NO) to position the camera above the railing, I put the lens through the bars and kept the tripod as low as needed to minimize the risk of vibration.
Actually, I learned this from a previous mistake. I shot at this exact location the previous year but screwed up the opportunity by setting up the tripod too tall (over the railing by extending the center column) in high winds, and none of the photos came out sharp.
Long Exposure Photographers’ Worst Nightmare
Let’s say you’re shooting waterfront cityscapes at blue hour with a few minutes of long exposure at a tourist-centric area (places like Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, The Bund in Shanghai, etc.) on your holiday. It may be your once-in-a-lifetime trip, and the weather is clear and perfect.
Such places are always crowded especially at sunset and dusk times with herds of tourists flocking to take snaps, selfies, and groupies. Extending all the tripod legs inevitably takes more space on the ground, which has a huge risk of someone accidentally kicking it during long exposure and ruining your potentially epic shot. This is long exposure photographers’ worst nightmare (and happened to me once).
To avoid such a nightmare, I’m also using a sort of a tripod alternative that helps stabilize my camera setup. A clamp tripod like the Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp without Stud comes in handy at places with high winds or at crowded city shooting locations where you feel worried about someone accidentally kicking your tripod legs.
It’s not that you can use a clamp tripod anywhere you want, as it needs a railing or something that it can be clamped onto. But where possible, this setup can be rock solid (with a load capacity of 15kg) and the resulting long exposure photos are appreciably sharper than those shot using a regular tripod.
To mount a DSLR on a Super Clamp, first, plug a separately-sold Manfrotto 208HEX 3/8-Inch Camera Mounting Platform Adapter (or a cheaper alternative Manfrotto 037 Reversible Short Stud) into a Super Clamp socket and secure it with the double lock system. Then mount a tripod head with DSLR on the mounting platform adapter, just like you do with your regular tripod.
I hope these tips help you avoid making the same mistakes I did. Don’t blindly follow the mantra that says, “Extend your tripod and place the viewfinder at your eye level” (you’ve probably heard about that before!).
There’s nothing wrong with setting up your tripod low and bending down. This increases your chance of capturing sharp long exposure photos in high winds and also prevents your tripod legs from getting accidentally kicked.
If you have any other tips or experiences to share, please do so in the comments below.