Petteri's Pontifications
My musings about photography, mostly.
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Tripods 101

Tripods 101

I 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 also be pretty pricey -- five hundred bucks for three legs and a screw? Gittoutahere. 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'm not going to 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.

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.

What to look for in a legset?

The most obvious legset feature is material. More important in practice are features and usability. How quick is it to set up and take down? How much can it be adjusted? How much weight can it take? Can it be easily weighed down? How bulky and heavy is it?

Materials

Legsets are usually made of aluminum, composite (carbon-fiber or fiberglass), or wood. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Aluminum is the most common material by far, and for a good reason -- it's relatively inexpensive, very strong and sturdy for its weight, and can take hard knocks without failing (hey, they make mountain bike frames out of it, and the frames weigh less than many tripods). It comes in two flavors: extruded and rolled. Extruded tubes have no seams and are stiffer per weight unit than rolled tubes, which do have a seam in them. The downside is that metals transmit vibrations very effectively -- an aluminum tripod will not damp, for example, vibration caused by traffic as well as a composite or wood one. Aluminum tripods are also unpleasant to use in extreme cold.

Carbon-fiber and fiberglass (that Gitzo calls "basalt") are even sturdier per weight unit than aluminum, and damp vibrations better. They're also repairable -- crack one badly enough to delaminate it, and you can fix it with some epoxy. On the other hand, aluminum can shrug off cracks that will delaminate a composite tube... but if you do dent it badly enough to affect, for example, retracting the legs, you're out of luck. The main disadvantage of carbon fiber is that it's rather expensive compared to aluminum. Personally, I don't really think it's worth the extra cost -- when considering portability, bulk is more important than weight: a carbon-fiber tripod that's the same size as an aluminum one but weighs, say, 250 grams less isn't in practice any more portable. But if the cost and features were the same (or almost), I would certainly pick the carbon-fiber legset over the aluminum one.

Wood is the best of the bunch when it comes to damping vibrations. Folks with spotting scopes swear by it, and wooden tripods are still preferred for scientific and precision measurement uses such as theodolites. Wooden tripods also have pretty insane load-bearing capacities compared to similar aluminum or composite ones -- the lightest 155 cm Berlebach can take more weight than a midrange 135 cm Manfrotto. Unfortunately, compared to the other materials, wood is very heavy -- heavy enough that weight does enter the portability equation. It also deforms with humidity, which may cause problems in use. For this reason, the wooden tripod has become something of a niche product. Berlebach does make some very nice ones -- and they're very reasonably priced for the stability and quality they offer. If weight isn't a concern, wooden tripods are definitely worth a close look. Besides, you can't beat the street cred.

Three tripods, three sets of trade-offs. From left to right, a bargain-basement light travel tripod, a solid midrange travel tripod, and a heavy-duty full-size professional tripod.

Vital statistics

The four most important "vital statistics" of a legset are, in descending order of importance, load-bearing capacity, maximum height, height collapsed, and weight. Some of these are mutually exclusive -- for example, the taller the tripod, the lower the load-bearing capacity and/or the greater the bulk. If you want something that's comfortable to work with when standing up, you'll need a maximum height of 135 cm or so, not including the head, and preferably more. The load-bearing capacity should be well over the weight of your normal gear: treat that number like the maximum RPM on your car engine -- yes, you can rev it up that high, but you wouldn't want to keep it there all the time. The height collapsed is the most important statistic affecting easy portability -- something that collapses to, say, 35 cm is enormously more portable than something that collapses to 65 cm. The combination of height collapsed and weight is the bulk of the tripod, and of these, weight is the less important. However, a legset that pushes two kg or so becomes significantly encumbering even if it collapses to a pretty small size, while a legset that weighs less than one kg is very portable. These should be the numbers you're looking at when you're narrowing down your shortlist. Remember the trade-offs: height for load-bearing capacity and bulk, or vice versa.

Features

The main features of a legset are build, adjustability and ease of setup and take-down. I like the flip-locks on my Manfrotto legsets a lot. I can unlock them with one motion, shake the leg to extend it, then click them back into place in a matter of seconds. The other common type of lock is the twist-lock: you rotate a locking ring to unlock and lock the legs. They take more motions to manipulate, but on the other hand they never become loose through use (since you can always tighten them a bit more.) Personally, I'll take the flip-locks every time.

A flip-lock flipped open.

When shopping for a legset, consider:

  • How well is it built? Does everything fit together nicely, or are there creaks, squeaks, and slop? How do the casting seams look? Are the tubes extruded or rolled (that is, do they have a seam in them?) Is the center column circular or angled? How do the locks and clamps feel -- sloppy and flimsy or positive and tight? Build isn't all cosmetics on a tripod, since "tight" build correlates directly to sturdiness -- the main functional requirement of a tripod. At any given price point, I would prefer sturdy build over lots of features.
  • To how many angles can you lock the legs? Most cheap and/or light tripods only lock at one position. On better and/or bigger tripods you can angle the legs in different ways. This means that you can get closer to the ground, and it's a lot quicker to set up on uneven ground or at otherwise strange angles.
  • Is the center column removable? If so, what can you do with it? A tripod with a removable center column can get very close to the ground. If you can take the center column out and attach it horizontally to the head, it'll double as a "macro boom." Can come in quite handy.
  • Any other nifty features? Some legsets come with a built-in spirit level. Personally I've never really needed it, but I have it on good authority that some people actually use them. Others have a nice little hook where you can hang your camera bag -- a great way to add stability to a light but strong tripod.

Ball-head or pan-head?

Tripod heads come (mostly) in two flavors: ball-head and pan-head. A ball-head is basically a metal ball in a vise with the plate that holds the camera sticking out of it. You tighten the vise with a lever or other similar mechanism to lock it in place, and loosen it to move the camera. A pan-head has two hinges, on the horizontal and vertical axes, and a handle that allows you to rotate and tilt it. Twist the handle to tighten the vertical (and sometimes the horizontal) hinge. The advantage of a ballhead is that you can control the camera from the camera -- it doesn't get in the way of pointing it freely anywhere the ball can rotate. On the other hand, a pan head will allow you to, well, pan -- rotate the camera horizontally while keeping the vertical axis in place. The latter feature is particularly important when shooting video, which is why you'll rarely find ballheads on tripods intended for camcorders or motion picture cameras. However, most still photographers seem to prefer ballheads. Personally, I feel it's six of one, half-dozen of the other -- I don't find it any easier or more difficult to work with either. However, if you want to add a monopod to your collection as well, a pan head won't work well with it at all -- so even if you don't know which you like better, a ballhead has the advantage of working well on both.

A small ballhead. It's actually a bit too small for the big tripod, but I originally bought it for my monopod, which it fits quite well. Notice the groove that allows you to drop it easily into portrait position.

Features

Both types of heads have similar vital statistics. Like tripods, they're designed for a specific load-bearing capacity -- again, pick one that comfortably exceeds the weight of your gear, but don't overdo it or you'll get a big and bulky head. Build quality is at least as important with heads as with legsets -- perhaps more, since you'll be manipulating the head controls as you shoot, while you can pretty much forget the legset once you've set it up. There's a rather a large variety of different types of controls for heads -- from pretty nice "pistol grip" type solutions that lock the head in place when you're not doing anything, and have to be gripped to unlock it, to your basic twist-a-lever-to-lock-and-unlock sort of thing. Some things to look for:

  • How does it lock and unlock? A head with a single control to lock both axes is, in my opinion, preferable to one that has separate controls for different axes. While the latter does allow more control, it's a lot more fiddly to use, and since you'll have your hand on the head anyway when pointing the camera, you'll be quite well in control even if both axes are free. A spring-loaded pistol grip is the fastest and easiest in actual use -- just squeeze to unlock, release to lock... unless you want to pan, in which case it becomes pretty fiddly. On a pan head, look for a nice, chunky control lever that locks both axes with a single twist.
  • How easy is it to get to portrait orientation? A ballhead should have a groove in the vise that lets you drop the ball sideways (or some even cleverer system) -- otherwise you can't really get to portrait orientation at all. A panhead that allows you to flip the camera plate sideways is much preferable to one where you have to rotate the camera 90 degrees and tilt the head to get to portrait format.
  • How does it lock to the legset? Not an issue with integrated tripods, obviously, but it is with separate heads. Some sort of locking mechanism is highly desirable: if it just screws onto the legset, you might accidentally unscrew it when panning, which is annoying. My ballhead lacks this feature (although my tripod has it), and I miss it.
  • Does it have a quick release plate? I love quick release plates. It makes all the difference in getting the camera on and off the tripod. However, if you have a strong propensity to misplace little things like that, a regular head where you screw the camera on every time may be the better solution -- I got yelled at once for recommending a QR system to someone by a pro who had driven 100 km to a shoot only to discover he had left his QR plates home. I keep mine either on the camera or on the 'pod, and haven't lost or forgotten any yet, but your mileage may vary.

A pan head, flipped into portrait orientation. It's controlled with the single, fat lever -- twist it to lock both axes. The little Slik has one control for each axis, which makes it a quite a bit more fiddly to use.

Quick-release or not?

As stated above, I love quick-release plates. I'm pretty mobile, so I want to get the camera on and off the pod as quickly and easily as possible. With a QR plate, click, it's on, and click, it's off. No screwing around, as Chef would say. Unfortunately that's not the whole story.

A camera on the travel 'pod, with a quick-release plate. Handy.

The annoying thing about QR plates is that if you don't have it, your tripod is unusable. There's no way of getting the camera on without it. Moreover, they come in a bewildering variety of types: most of the time, different heads from the same manufacturer will have different plates. If you have several cameras, you should get plates for each of them; otherwise you will risk forgetting the plate on the other camera just when you need it. They're also not very pretty and may have issues of their own when attaching them to specific cameras: to get around them, you would have to go with custom-made plates for specific lenses or cameras from an outfit like Really Right Stuff, which means you'll have to get a compatible ArcaSwiss head, which means spending some pret-ty serious money -- a RRS quick-release plate for my camera costs about as much as an entire perfectly decent travel tripod! I didn't think it worth the cost to go this far -- I'm pretty happy with my basic Manfrotto QR plates, warts and all. So while they are extremely handy, they're certainly not without their problems. But when shopping for a tripod with a QR plate, take a peek underneath -- some you can attach by twisting with your fingers, but for others you need a coin. Little things, but they can make a difference.

Two QR plates from the same manufacturer. The one to the left can be attached by twisting the loop with your fingers; the one to the right needs a coin. It's prettier, but not as practical.

But do consider the question of quick-release plates first -- if you feel that you can keep track of them, I highly recommend them, but if not, a regular head is safer though less convenient.

Integrated or separate?

Most "professional" full-size tripods come as separate legsets and ballheads. The obvious advantage is that you can get the best fit for your needs -- in fact, it's the only option if you want to use something really fancy like one of those Really Right Stuff heads and QR plates or a Wimberley Sidekick for a heavy super-telephoto. Conversely, you can also share a single head across several legsets or even between a tripod and a monopod. However, the versatility does come at a cost -- separate legsets and heads are more complex and usually bigger and heavier than comparable integrated sets. So if you do a wide range of different types of photography, and see yourself using different types of heads for different situations, or switching between a full-size tripod and a monopod, buying them separately has its advantages.

On the other hand, an integrated 'pod is usually cheaper than a legset+head at any given quality point. They're also a hair lighter, simpler, and less fiddly, and of course you'll never have to keep track of the legs and head separately. If you only intend to buy one tripod and don't use a huge variety of different sized and weighted lenses and cameras, an integrated 'pod is probably the better choice. Or, of course, you can combine both.

I have an integrated travel tripod (two, actually), but share a ballhead between a full-size 'pod and monopod. Had there been a travel legset easily available at the price point and features I wanted, I would probably have picked it rather than the integrated one I actually have, but when balancing different constraints against each other, I dropped that requirement. It would be nice if both heads took the same QR plate, though...

So, in summary -- when shopping for a tripod, decide whether you want something big and heavy but versatile or light and compact but more restricting, prefer a ballhead or a panhead, want a quick-release plate or not, and prefer an integrated pod or a separate legset and head. Then set your budget and try to find the best fit. You will probably need to give up something from your ideal requirements; if so, let it be something less than critical.

The three tripods extended to full height. The midrange travel 'pod that was about the same size collapsed as the bargain-basement one becomes quite a bit taller -- plus a lot sturdier and easier to use. The full-size one isn't as much sturdier as the travel 'pod as you might think: the extra weight mostly translates to more height rather than more sturdiness. The Slik is so small that it's rather uncomfortable to work with it. The small Manfrotto is tolerable, while the big one is quite comfortable even for extended shoots.

Tripod tips and tricks

If you have a very big, heavy tripod and a very small, light camera, there's no particular trick to using it. Just put the camera on it and shoot as usual; the tripod will make sure that your pictures come out un-shaken. Mostly. However, if you're like most people and have to give up some sturdiness to get some lightness, a few simple techniques will help a lot -- with them, you can get the same pictures from a cheap wobbly bit o' junk as a big, heavy Berlebach. Most of the time anyway.

Thick bits first, center column last, and keep it low

If you have the option of standing the 'pod on something like a low wall rather than extending it to full height, take it.When you extend it, extend the thick bits first and the narrowest bits last, and only raise the center column if you absolutely have to. The lower you leave it, the sturdier it will be.

Don't touch the camera when it shoots

Even a flimsy tripod will settle down fine and produce a steady image if it's not too windy and there's not too much vibration transmitted from the ground. All you need to do is give it a bit of time. If you have a remote release, use it. If not, use the self-timer. If you have an SLR, use mirror lock-up -- a flimsy tripod will amplify shake from mirror slap. The main thing is that there's nothing disturbing the camera when the shutter trips. So when shooting landscapes, architecture, or anything else where split-second timing isn't critical, find out a way to shoot without touching the camera when the shutter trips.

Another nifty thing to do with a tripod: bracket and merge. This frame is a combination of two exposures, so I could get detail on the wall with the street light.

Learn to track

Tripods aren't only for low-light or small-aperture landscapes. They work great for moving subjects in good light too. Even if you're well past the 1/f "rule" in your shutter speed, a tripod will get sharper results more consistently. If you're shooting portraits in a (semi-) controlled environment, a tripod can come in very handy. Or if you're shooting a track and field or motorsports event. In that case, you need to learn to track while on the tripod -- find the right tension on the ballhead or pan head that the camera will stay put when you don't move it, but will allow you to point freely when you want to. This is easier with a ballhead since you can grip the camera normally; the tripod will just very effectively stabilize it, even if you leave the tension quite low.

Hint: If you're using a big, long lens, put your hand on top of the lens near the front rather than under it. This will steady it better and give you more control when pointing it around. You can even grab it by the top of the hood with your fingers curled around the edge (on most large telephotos they won't show in the picture), if the hood is a nicely fixed bayonet type.

Heavy lens? Use the tripod collar

Most telephoto lenses make the camera seriously nose-heavy. This will almost cancel out the tripod's stabilizing effect -- vibration will take a long time to be damped, and anything transmitted through the legs will cause a visible wobble. The solution is to use a tripod collar on your lens and put that on the camera plate. Some lenses come with a collar pre-installed, but at least Canon makes you buy them separately on a quite a few lenses, at pretty extortionate prices (ka-ching!). But if you use such lenses off a tripod at all, a collar is just about as indispensable as that other ka-ching accessory, the lens hood. So bite the bullet and get one.

On the move? Lack of space? Consider a monopod

A monopod is not a substitute for a tripod. It's more like low-tech image stabilization -- it will improve hand-holdability by a couple of stops. Monopods are light, compact, and don't get in the way. If you're shooting an event or in a crowd, a monopod may be just what you need. However, to be used effectively, a monopod really needs a ballhead -- without one, all it'll do is help carry the weight of the lens, but will seriously restrict your movement. It takes a bit of practice to use a monopod effectively: search the Net for good technique tips and tutorials.

I like to kick the monopod back a bit, so that it rests against my left thigh and the bridge of my right foot, with the camera pulled to my face. I can move almost as freely as hand-holding, but it's a lot steadier. There are other techniques; look them up, try them out, and pick the one that works for you.

There's a super-compact alternative to a monopod: cord with a loop on one end, attached to a quick-release plate. Put the camera on the plate, put your shoe through the loop, and pull it so it's taut. It will have a similar stabilizing effect as a monopod, although not quite as effective and somewhat more fiddly -- but unlike a monopod, it'll fit in the side pocket of your camera bag. Your QR plate will have to have something to tie the cord on, though.

Monopods aren't just for telephoto. I shot this with a 14 mm lens on full-frame, using a monopod for support. Despite the insane hand-holdability of a lens this wide, I doubt I could have managed the 1/4 s shutter speed I needed for it.

Where to carry it?

Some travel tripods come with a shoulder bag of sorts. Mine did. However, I just find it easiest to clamp the shoulder strap of my camera bag between the tripod legs. That leaves the 'pod hanging on the rear of the bag without getting in the way, and is very easy to grab and use.

Which one to buy, how much to pay?

Tripods come at all prices, starting from a few tens of euros and going up to several thousand. Anything under about a hundred euros/dollars is pretty cheap. Anything over about three hundred is pretty pricey. And anything pushing a grand had better be the best thing since color film. In general, you can expect to get a solid, professionally built but no-frills tripod for between 100 and 300 euros/dollars. Past 300, the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in -- I certainly wouldn't recommend anyone spend that much on their first tripod, unless they knew exactly why they needed the capability -- and even so, I would recommend they at least take a look at the alternatives. For example, you don't need to spend hundreds upon hundreds of dollars on a heavy-duty tripod -- if you're willing to flex the weight requirement. Those Berlebachs, for example, will take 18 kg at a price point where a Manfrotto or Gitzo takes eight.

Some 'pods have nifty little features like the spirit level on this Manfrotto. I don't think I've ever actually used it in real-life, though. But it pays to pay attention -- for example, this 055 comes in two versions that are priced rather close together, but the "Pro" version is a fair bit more versatile -- and I've actually used its features like using the center column as a macro boom. If you have to choose between a flimsy tripod with lots of features and a sturdy one with few, pick the sturdy one -- but if you find you can get some nice extras for not too much more, go for it. They can make a big difference in usability.

Which one to buy? Well, the Nikon and Canon of tripods are Manfrotto (Bogen in the US) and Gitzo. You can't go badly wrong with either. A bit below them in the market are Velbon, Giottos and Slik; they're cheap and not bad, so if you're on a budget they're worth a look -- but do check what the big two are offering near that price point too. (Slik also makes some pricey and pretty good higher-end 'pods, while Velbon has some budget carbon-fibers, if you're in love with that material.) Cullmann makes a range of 'pods including some cute specialty stuff, such as micro-pods for very small cameras (in my opinion pretty useless, as a beanbag will do the same for less, plus you can eat the beans if you get hungry). Berlebach makes those rather nice, very retro wooden 'pods -- if maximal stability, load-bearing, and vibration-damping are your primary concerns, take a look. And then there are a whole bunch of others, some high-end niche products and some bargain-basement cheap ones, all of which are better than no tripod at all. Avoid the ones that are obviously off the scale -- a carbon-fiber 'pod for less than a hundred euros/dollars probably has something weird about it, while anything past 600 or so will have some very expensive and specific feature that you'll know if you need, but otherwise you won't.

Other than that, it's a matter of deciding where your priorities are and what you're giving up, and then keeping those in mind while shopping -- this is not one of those problems you can solve just by throwing money at it; the most expensive may not be what you need. I would suggest starting with the smallest that could get the job done, and adding a full-size heavy-duty one later, if you decide you need it. Luckily tripods (well, normal ones anyway) aren't awfully expensive, so even the mistakes don't cost that much. Unless you go straight for the Really Right Stuff, in which case you'll either get the tripod of your life -- or a very expensive living room ornament.

Finnish spring landscape. Shot off the big tripod.