Monday, August 17, 2009

How to Choose a Tripod

Last week I discussed the benefits of using a tripod. Of course, first and foremost the job of a tripod is to hold your camera/lens steady. If your choice of tripod can’t do that one thing, in my opinion, you’ve wasted your money purchasing it.

Choosing a tripod is very personal because it needs to be sized to your height, handle your camera/lens/ancillary mounted equipment weight, and the length (focal length) of the longest lens you will use with it. I think it’s obvious how your height and the camera’s weight come into play, but perhaps not why the length (focal length) of the lens is important.

Travel Tripod with Ball Head and Arca Swiss style clampLens length is important for two reasons. First, the longer the focal length of the lens, the higher the magnification. The more magnification the lens provides, the more any shake or vibration of the lens will cause your photograph to be blurred. Second, the longer the focal length of the lens, the longer the lens will generally be. The weight of the lens extending well past the central axis of the tripod will torque the tripod legs while the tripod is supporting the camera/lens.

A tripod holding a lens with high magnification, and torqued must have sufficient structural strength to prevent image blurring due to movement cause by outside forces such as ground vibration, wind, the camera’s mechanical actions, or human touch.

When we are talking about tripods, we are really talking about 4 distinct pieces which make up the total tripod.
  1. Tripod legs which support everything else.
  2. Tripod head which permits the camera/lens to be moved to compose the photograph.
  3. Tripod head clamp which is used to attach the camera or lens to the tripod head. ¹,²
  4. Camera or lens plate, which is held directly by the tripod head clamp. ¹,²
¹ It is possible to screw the camera or possibly the lens directly to the tripod head, though this does not permit the quick attachment or disattachment of the camera or lens from the tripod/tripod head which I believe is important.

² When using longer lens with a camera you generally attach the lens directly to the tripod head, rather than the camera.

Use the following criteria when choosing a tripod:
  • Height: Ideally the height of your tripod’s platform holding your camera should be at least as high as your eye level with the legs open at their smallest setting angle. Outside you often need one or two legs set at a level lower than where you are standing which makes the tripod feels shorter than it is. Therefore it’s better to have a little extra leg length than not. Remember that the head atop your legs on which the camera/lens will sit will add some inches to the height of the tripod’s legs. This is especially important for travelers as it can reduce the leg length you need for your tripod, which can reduce its weight. Plus, in my opinion you don't want to use the center column to bring your viewfinder to eye level. (If at all possible you shouldn’t use the center column as when up it adds instability to the tripod.
  • Center Column: Many quality tripods have a reversible and removable center column which can help you get a low angle, macro, and close to the ground shot. Some swear the capability to set the center column horizontally is great, but I’ve never thought much of it. There are both smooth and geared columns. I prefer smooth.
  • Leg Spread: The best tripod legs are unbraced with independent multiple angle positioning to work on uneven terrain, and allow the tripod to get low to the ground for such shots as macros of flowers and insects.
  • Leg Composition: Carbon-fiber offers the greatest weight to stability ratio, and is easier to hold in cold weather than aluminum. Unfortunately, carbon-fiber comes at a cost, a significantly higher cost. If you can afford it, you won't regret purchasing carbon-fiber tripod legs. Carbon-fiber can make your tripod legs truly “travel light,” yet strong.
  • Weight: If you’re carrying around a tripod while you’re on your feet all day, your tripod can’t be light enough. My travel tripod (legs) weighs 3 lbs. It’s ball head, with clamp weighs another 18 oz. The legs are carbon-fiber.
  • Folded Size: Ordinarily, most people don’t care about the length of a tripod when folded, but this is very important for travel tripods. You want it to fit in your airplane carry-on if at all possible, otherwise you’ll have to pack it in your checked luggage. My travel tripod closes to just 16.75 inches.
  • Leg Diameter: You need a diameter which enables the tripod to carry the necessary weight, and resist torque, to be a solid and steady platform for your camera/lens. Many tripods, while being able to withstand the weight, can’t resist the torque, and so still shake and vibrate when used.
  • Head: In my opinion, for most still photography, the best and most versatile head to use is ball head, but there are many brands and choices. To help narrow your choices down next week in my third and final article of the series I will tell you which brands I prefer.
  • Clamp: There is no better clamp to attach your camera/lens to your ball head than the Arca-Swiss style clamp. It allows quick attachment and detachment, and provides a solid, secure base for your camera/lens. I use one myself, with a quick-release lever.
  • Camera/Lens Plate: There are two basic styles of plates which bolt to your camera, to attach it to an Arca-Swiss style clamp; straight, and “L.” I prefer the “L” plate for my camera, as it allows me to quickly switch between horizontal and vertical orientation, and keeps the weight of the camera/lens directly over the central axis of the head, maintaining maximum stability. A flat plate requires the camera be flopped to the side, placing the camera/lens weight to the side of the head instead of over it.
Travel Tripod folding for packing in carry-onI’ve now discussed the benefits of using a tripod, and the general criteria you should use to compare potential tripod choices, to find one which meets your needs.

Next week, I’ll discuss real world examples of tripods and tripod heads, clamps, plates, and explain how to use the criteria to choose a travel tripod. I’ll warn you up front, choosing a travel tripod, at this time, requires compromises, especially if you want to use a long lens on your camera.


Jim said...

I was up a 6am this morning, as I knew that's when you usually publish your weekly main article in your blog.

After last week's tripod article I was really looking forward to today's about what criteria to use to choose a tripod. The article is great.

Now I'm going to have to get up early next Monday for the last of your series.

I'm going to take an Amazon River Cruise in October, then we'll be off to several cities in South America and I want to take a travel tripod with me.

Rob said...

For the first time I understand why a tripod rated to easily take the weight of my Nikon D300 with 80-400 lens just doesn't cut it.

I'm well under the weight limit of the tripod, but now I understand it's the length of the lens which is making the difference. The legs aren't strong enough to resist the torque stress from the 400mm length of the lens, which is causing the legs to flex. Clearly, I need legs with more stiffness, so I guess they need to have a larger diameter.

I'll be reading again next week to see your real world recommendations. I love to take night shots, and a tripod is essential for that.

Sharon said...

OK, so I bought a travel tripod because it was lightweight. It's sitting in my closet now because it doesn't hold my camera steady.

Why didn't you write a column like this last year when I needed it? (LOL)

I'm looking forward to next week's article so I can go out and get a tripod that will work.

This is one of the top 3 photography blogs on the Internet. I love to travel, and I love to take photos while away. Your blog is perfect for me. Thanks.

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Sharon,

What do you mean, one of the 3 top photography blogs? I'm not the best one? (LOL)

Hey, thanks very much for your very kind words.



Tom said...

So I take it that you don't think leg bracing on tripods is worthwhile? Can you explain?

I got one with bracing figuring it would help keep my camera steady, with the tripod's light weight.

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Tom,

Yes, I don't think leg bracing is particularly worthwhile. Leg bracing has been used on tripods to ostensibly strengthen them and make the shafts more stable.

More often than not, the bracing is in the wrong spot to strengthen the legs against torque, and as far as carrying weight, they help very little.

One thing the braces definitely do is prevent photographers from setting the legs at independent angles to handle difficult terrain.

The lightweight aluminum tripods which many think will work great for traveling since they are so easily carried, really aren't helped by the bracing. They are so light weight that slightest breeze or just clicking the camera will make them vibrate, and they'll creep under the weight of a even a modest telephoto lens.

Unfortunately, I've not seen a super-light tripod, braced or not, which can hold a DSLR stable under typical shooting conditions. In fact, most won't even hold a Point and Shoot stable enough for long exposure photos.

I recommend to people to not buy a tripod unless it will actually do its job. If it won't, even if it costs only $50-$100 the purchaser has overpaid for it. It's not worth the expense.

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