STEADY ON! [An Introduction to Tripods]

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

Some Older Comments

  • jim giner March 9, 2010 06:41 am

    Has anyone got a recommendation for a tall tripod? I'm 6'1" tall and most tripods make me hunch down to see thru the viewfinder which is a pain in the back after just a few shots. I bought a monopod a couple of years ago without thinking about that factor and ever since I've had to bend over. Looking to upgrade to a longer tripod and get a ballhead too, but need something tall enough.

  • Crista June 15, 2009 07:02 pm

    I can tell you all whom to avoid:
    That would be the Targus Digital crap.
    Dont confuse them with Targus computer accesories as they are two different companies entirely.
    I have hadt two break in the exact same spot within one month each.
    The first one I took bak for a replacement to Target. (I LOVE Target)
    when the The second one broke I decided to contact Tragus Digital.
    That was a at least two months ago and I havnt heard not one reply from them.
    Nevermind the fact that they boast a six year warranty on the box and on an insert.
    Moral is:
    You indeed get what you pay for.

  • Alexis June 5, 2009 10:48 pm

    Hi - I've recently been assisting at weddings and I have one tomorrow. My lenses, both Nikon were only 3.5 to 5.6 so not very helpful in Churches where no flash is allowed. I have bought a Nikon 50mm F1.8D in the hope that this will be a lot better. Was this a good choice and will I still need a tripod for the ceremony do you think or is handheld likely to be OK ?

  • Mandy June 2, 2009 05:10 am

    Thanks for this article. I'm in the market for a new tripod, I have a cheap Hama Star tripod at the moment but I would like something more substantial. I like the sound of the Manfrotto tripod with ballhead - I'll look into it further...

  • peter k May 31, 2009 02:38 am

    Well, I have two tripods. For dayly use I take with me at all times a Joby Gorillapod with Cosmo ball head (with spirit level). Whenever I think it might help me, I take also a usual tripod - a cheap one (less than $100) with no name, I think a China made piece of sh..- and a wired remote control, and, at least till now, was enough. Anyway, there are a lot of moments when you descover that the Super Steady Shot and/or high ISO are not enough, and that a tripod is realy usefull.

  • Davey May 30, 2009 01:32 pm

    @Sandra--
    If your $50 tripod is working for you--You go girl! :) I'm with you!+

    I myself couldn't decide between a monopod or a tripod and found (for my sub $400 panasonic fz 18) a product by SunPack that has both a monopod and a tri-pod together for under $90. Are they top of the line? Absolutely not. Is it safe to keep my equipment from crashing to the ground? Yes. Does it keep everything steady... yes. for my lowly level of amateurish photography does it work... yes!

    Now, Sandra, your photography is better (I'm sure--I've got the shots to prove it). ;) but if it's working for you--rock it out!

    Do I have fun! Yes!

    Do I care that other folks have either dedicated their lives to photography and have it as a profession or are absolutely avid hobbyists and are willing to commit the resources to purchasing these amazingly lensed, dslr's. YES!

    I love the fact that people who need/want to have that really high quality stuff have folks who've tried it and can tell them what works and what doesn't.

    I want them to enjoy and be happy with what they are doing--and I genuinely enjoy hearing about their passion.

    But I know that I'm probably not ever going to end up doing this professionally or as ardently as most folks here. :)

    I'm ok with being Mr. 25th percentile!

    That's ok. I'm sure I don't have the top of the line model. I don't think it would hold up a typical 504mm lens. (But then I don't know if I could carry all that equipment with me either!)

    My point is that there are different levels of equipment out there for different needs, and that is wonderful. Viva La Difference...

    Besides, by hearing about how the gorillapods fall apart easily I've been able to skip that! :)

    Great Post!

  • Helen May 29, 2009 09:50 pm

    I think you need to decide what you want to use your tripod for, if its for landscapes and involves trekking - then it has to be light, and sturdy. If you are just going to be out in the garden shooting birds , flowers etc, weight isnt such a big factor. We have an ancient aluminium velbon, that was my Dads, its not comfortable to carry, its so angular ! This has a pan and tilt head
    We also have a Slik pro 714CF II, I like it quite a lot, the head on it which is a Slik AF2100 probably weighs more than the tripod, but we can take the head off and share the load !
    I decided I just had to have carbon fibre, and looked at all the manufacturers versions. If I had lots of money I would have probably bought a Gitzo. The Slik varies considerably in price, some places were £100 or higher more, whereas we found it for less, and only paid £150, shop around folks, and happy shooting- oh and yes, do check the weight the tripod can carry as others have said, I found a lot of retailers got the weight wrong, and went each time to the manufacturers site to verify the details

  • Johnny Styx May 29, 2009 06:53 pm

    To get rid of even more camera shake don't forget to set your camera to mirror lock-up, that way the mirror will lock on the first depression and the shutter will open on the second. If you have a cheaper tripod this willimprove your shots even more!

  • Tim A. May 29, 2009 02:20 am

    @Sandra

    I agree with you that there are some nice tripods out there at around $50. And in my opinion, those are just fine for a high end point and shoot or even at Canon XTi with a kit lens (I had one too). But as you get better and better gear, it just gets heavier and heavier. And the cheaper ones...they start to suffer in stability. Sure, the carbon fiber ones are light too but they are very very sturdy. The aluminum and other cheap ones tend to have weak joints just overall can't handle the weight.

    The standard answer is, do you want a $50 tripod responsible for holding up $3000+ worth of gear over jagged rocks....

    Even a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L is pretty heavy. Move on to the 70-200 f/2.8L and we're talking around 3.2lbs just for the lens. Slap that on a 50D or a 5D MkII and it's a pretty heavy combination that you're going to try to mount onto your $50 tripod...

    So yeah...depending on your gear, I think there is nothing wrong with a cheaper brand. I used that with my XTi and a light wide angle lens or a prime for years. Served me well too. But as soon as I started investing in lenses breaking the $1000 barrier and getting heavier and heavier...well...my new Gitzo is far far far more stable and gives me a peace of mind that I won't turn around to see the tripod slowly falling over onto a hard surface with my camera and lens...

  • Paviwpg May 29, 2009 12:16 am

    I'm a beginner photographer and I just recently purchased a tripod that I am very happy with. It is a lower end tripod but good enough for my purpose and budget. The one I got is HAKUBA S4500 TRIPOD W/QR 3-WAY HEAD and it cost me $45 CAD at Henrys.com. It does a great job supporting my SONY Alpha 200 even with a 300 Zoom Lens.

  • aykut May 28, 2009 09:50 pm

    Do you think these two sets are the good choise below for max 400USD total;
    tripod: 190xProB or 055xProB
    head: 482RC2, 322RC2

    and if you know any, what can the alternatives be?

  • Gene May 28, 2009 02:16 pm

    So what would be a good usable tripod at a reasonable price?

  • Ken Klassy May 28, 2009 06:42 am

    An additional point to consider when choosing a tripod is the environment you are taking it into. Granted most people may not need to consider it all that much. However, I work in an environment that can push the temps down to -70 ambient. Aluminum (or aluminium for you Kiwis) gets real cold, shrinks and can burn (yes burn) your hands when extremely cold. When shooting one day at -75 I lifted up my tripod to move it and the legs fell off right out of the clamps. This season I am using a Carbon Fiber composite. There are still metal pieces to consider.

    The Ball joint is also very important as grease freezes. Down here we disassemble them and remove the grease completely. There are some lubricants that do not freeze as easily.

  • Aimee Greeblemonkey May 28, 2009 04:21 am

    I have to say, I am really bummed with my gorillapod. Fell apart REALLY quickly.

  • Sandra May 28, 2009 04:03 am

    ok, "stupid question" time:

    I have a great tripod. Rock steady, pan and tilt, easily adjustable legs, not too heavy, and I have achieved wonderful results with it. But it's a "lesser brand" and cost me about $50 U.S. new.

    Why should I spend hundreds of dollars on a tripod/head combination when what I have works great? I can think of so many other ways to spend the difference in price.

  • Fin C May 28, 2009 03:37 am

    Simply invest in a good tripod, you won't regret it. Try a combination like the Manfrotto 055XPROB legs and 322RC2 grip ball head. Don't buy a cheap, wobbly one - you may as well hand-hold your camera.

  • Mike P May 28, 2009 01:39 am

    I just picked up an Induro carbon tripod - c413 (http://www.indurogear.com/main/). It was seriously less expensive (40%) than Gitzo and about 90% of what a Gitzo delivers. Referencing the earlier comment by Pasha, this one actually did go to Antarctica (sadly not with me) and a solid review convinced me to buy (the reviews on the site are great - http://www.luminous-landscape.com/reviews/accessories/indiro413.shtml) Because it's carbon fiber it's very light to carry around - the flip side being that it feels too light (compared to my Manfrotto aluminums) when the camera is mounted ready for a shot. Again, this is my first, and hopefully last, carbon tripod so I'm still getting used to the difference in the weight I'm expecting when I nudge it. I have found that the weight hook (provided at the bottom of the center pole) holding my camera bag provides me with the extra on-location weight and piece of mind that I seem to need.

  • Martin May 28, 2009 12:25 am

    Don't fool yourself with a tripod with a head that is too light or too unsteady for the camera it has to hold... I've used the HAMA one some while ago and the camera shutter made the tripod vibrate...
    My advise: follow the instructions of the manufacturer on the maximum weight of the camera.

    The combination I mentioned before cost me €200 and it is value for money!

  • Jeremy May 27, 2009 11:56 pm

    This is a good introductory article that explains the need for a tripod. I'm just a little past that, however, and am trying to decide which tripod fit my needs. I just can't seem to sift through the myriad of choices and options to figure out what is best for me. Most of the articles on tripods either stop short of actually suggesting specific products or they jump all the way to the high end and say that you're just wasting money by not buying a Gitzo right off the bat. Neither of those extremes, unfortunately, provides useful guidance for someone like me.

    My needs are as follows:
    I have a decent, crop frame DSLR and I will only ever use consumer grade zooms (such as a 70-300 or a 18-270). How much that weighs, I have no idea. I know I won't ever use a heavy professional zoom, if I do, I'll buy a new tripod. I only want one tripod. One for home and vacation use. Light is important (I enjoy an occasional day hike), but so is steadiness. I'm willing to pay a few bucks for a decent tripod, say up to $250--including the head. I'm looking for the best value in a relatively light tripod with the most features for the money.

    Suggestions?

  • Joopajoo May 27, 2009 11:49 pm

    I`m using Gitzo 1158 Carbon legs and Gitzo G1277M head with Nikon D90 and 18-200, 50mm etc. lenses. What a great combo, weighs about 2kg, really sturdy and Gitzo head is smooth enough for even video on D90!!! Got it with affordable price since its "last years model". Check out those when youre out buying a tripod, Gitzo is such a good brand that those older models are really a bargain!!!! Its better to buy a good one straight away, than many not so good ones that wont do the job and last in use...

  • Andreas May 27, 2009 11:33 pm

    Don't forget to use a remote shutter trigger to get even sharper images

  • Gene Simon May 27, 2009 11:06 pm

    I am looking for a relatively light and relatively inexpensive tripod for my heavy Nikon D300/18-200mm. Any suggestions?

  • Elme May 27, 2009 11:03 pm

    Thanks for the article! It comes at a great time as I am just shopping for my first tripod. Currently looking at a Hama Star. Any good? From your article and what I've read elsewhere, it seems like a good option for starting out.

  • Kang May 27, 2009 05:01 pm

    I am still awaiting the big summer sales to get a tripod, but I usually shoot handheld in a restaurant so a tripod is abit lost on me. Probably need to mention about Tripod heads too, so many varieties and varitations... and prices.

  • Martin May 27, 2009 02:45 pm

    I use a Manfrotto 055XPROB with a 486RC2 ballhead.... Excellent combination. It's very stable with my dSLR. Adjustments in a wide range are possible with this tripod because you can also use it for close to the ground objects in macro photography (10cm/4in). The ballhead means maximum flexibility as well...

  • Josekin May 27, 2009 10:47 am

    How about Benro? Are they good? I hear they are a very good Chinese knock off version of Gitzo...?

  • Steve May 27, 2009 09:50 am

    Just wondering what others are using for the D90. There is so much out there and I don't want to end up buying one only to find out it doesn't suite my needs. Any suggestions?

  • Pasha May 27, 2009 09:36 am

    Great article. I have a Joby tripod. It works well, gives much better result than hand held shots. But it doesn't work in all cases. Right now I am looking for some bigger tripods. Most of the suggestions out there on net actually are the most priced ones (I know they will work even if you take them to south pole or on Everest). Can you suggest something affordable tripod legs + ballhead combination.

    Thanks

  • Peter May 27, 2009 08:34 am

    Excellent article....thank you for the images...very helpful...