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STEADY ON! [An Introduction to Tripods]

Manfrotto tripod.jpgYou’ve just done it. You get home with the gear you’ve just bought. It’s a shiny new digital SLR. You’re in digital heaven.

You wanted to get serious about digital photography and the only way you believed was to get a reflex digital that takes interchangeable lenses, has a big fat, resolution-full CCD and not only looks like a pro camera but has the controls like one.

Serious amateur photographers and ambitious semi pros all crave a dSLR and it’s true, because this level of equipment demands great skill in its use and brings with it a high potential of success in image making. But the kit you bought is only the beginning.

Steady

Most of the new crop of dSLRs feature image stabilizing, either built into the body or the lens. This will help in most handheld shooting situations but if you want to move into the more demanding areas, such as carefully shot portraits, macro subjects, long lens action — even landscapes — a set of legs is a big help.

Although every digital camera offers a range of ISO sensitivity settings, the higher figures — like ISO 1600 and more — are useful in catching low light shots but a higher setting brings with it the likelihood of increased noise in the image.

I personally like to shoot most daylight shots at ISO 200 and at this figure can usually get A3 prints with almost nil noise in the picture. If I’m using ISO 200 and working outside, capturing landscapes, especially with the lens set to a longer focal length I lug a tripod along, not only to access a lower ISO setting but because the final image will be that much sharper. It’s a pain, but the difference between camera-steady shots and handheld is startling. The less movement at the camera end, the sharper your images will be.

There is a wide variety of tripods. The heavier the tripod the less chance of vibration. A cross-braced design that links the central column and the legs adds to the steadiness factor. A tripod with fewer leg sections adds to the general steadiness.

Velbon tripod.jpg

Check out the height that suits you, with generally those higher than 1.5 metres a good start. Take a good look at the feet: rubber feet will generally make a stable connection with the ground; they also don’t slip on — or damage — hard surfaces like polished floors; a rising/falling central column makes precise shot lineup much easier; look carefully at the method used to adjust leg height — some models are a real pain.

Gitzo carbon fibre tripod.jpg

If you’re into bush photography, take a careful look at the weight and size. A day or days hiking with a bulky and heavy tripod is a burden you don’t need. Maybe you should consider a carbon fibre tripod; they’re pricey but they’re much lighter; tripods made with titanium and/or magnesium are also light and not quite as expensive as carbon fibre.

So you’ve got legs. Most tripods are sold with a head attached but you may prefer to go for a higher price level and select a tripod plus a separate head.

In tripod heads there are two ways to go: pan-and-tilt and ball-and-socket heads. The first gives you camera adjustment in three planes: tilt up or down; pan left or right; tilt left or right. Ball-and-socket heads afford adjustment in all directions.

My own preference is for pan-and-tilt heads; with these you can adjust one plane of movement at a time. A big help also is a spirit level that assures your shots are level. This type of head is also ideal for shooting panorama sections as it can be set up to maintain level ‘tween shots.

Tripods specifically designed for video shooting are not ideal for stills shooting as they mostly exclude any means to adjust lateral level.

Top brands are: Gitzo, Manfrotto, Slik, Sony, Velbon, Vivitar.

The tripod is older than photography itself but even with this venerable shooting aid, technology has moved on. If your needs are out of the ordinary, take a look at some of these off the wall approaches.

Ever heard of the Wimberley Plamp?

Resembling a snake, this gadget clamps to the tripod leg, at one end, and can hold an object at the other — at least 56 cm away — attached to a light clamp. The aim is to steady the subject; it would be ideal for in the field macro work or to hold a light reflector.

gorillapodSLR_1.jpg

Another device, out of left field, is the Joby Gorillapod. This is not unrelated in appearance to the Plamp. A tripod in concept, the three rubber-coated legs are flexible and can bend and rotate 360 degrees to form a shape which best suits your purpose. It could even be wrapped around a support.

Three models: weights vary from 46 grams to 240 grams and can support cameras from 275 grams to 3kg in weight.

Sunpak FlexPod Pro-Gripper.jpg

New on the scene is Sunpak’s Flexpod Gripper, with flexible legs to wrap around just about any suitable object and providing versatile mounting solution for your camera or flash. It has non-slip let segments to grip tight and won’t slip when properly wrapped around most dry surfaces.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Barrie Smith

Barrie Smith is an experienced writer/photographer currently published in Australian Macworld, Auscam and other magazines in Australia and overseas.

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