Words by Cheryl Surry
There’s one question that I am asked more than any other by fellow photographers. "Why do you always use a tripod?". The answer is simple, because it gives me the best quality result.
I know a lot of people find tripods cumbersome and prefer to work without them, but if you’re going to be using a long lens for wildlife then I’d thoroughly recommend getting one, and getting a good one Buying a lightweight tripod to support a heavy or long lens is a false economy.
So what features do you need to look for? The rest of this article will examine some of the common features of tripods, but will not address the choice of head
as this is a separate subject.
Well it used to be possible to say that all tripods have three legs, but even that does not hold true these days! There are some interesting new models with four. So if they mostly have three legs then there’s very little difference, right? Wrong.
Firstly there is the construction. The basic choice is between aluminium or carbon-fibre. The obvious difference that the material makes is in the weight of the finished item. For weight to stability ratio then carbon-fibre is the winner, but it will cost more. So you will need to consider how important weight is, and if you will be carrying the tripod a long way then you may decide that the extra expense is justifiable.
The leg construction will also dictate the maximum load for the tripod. It is vital to ensure that the tripod you purchase can support the weight of your heaviest lens and camera body that either you currently own or are likely to own. So if you hanker after a 500mm prime don’t buy a tripod now that will need replacing as soon as you buy the lens.
There are two main locking mechanisms on the market today, a lever type systems as found on most manfrotto tripods and a twist-lock mechanism as found on gitzo models.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each, with the common belief that the lever type offer quicker release and re-lock than the twist mechanism and are less prone to height slippage. So you may wonder why anyone would buy the twist-lock style. For me personally the answer to that is simple. I find the level type locks often difficult to release and re-set whereas I have no such problem with the twist-lock.
Tripods usually have 3 or 4 section legs, each brings advantages. 4-section tripods tend to have a smaller folded size, but the lowest section can often be flimsy due to the concentric nature of the legs when folded each much be successively a smaller diameter than the one above. 3-section legs will conversely tend to be less compact when folded.
You may think this was covered in the leg section paragraph, but here we are talking about the maximum and minimum working height, rather than the folded or carrying height.
It is important to check that the maximum height of the tripod is suitable to you as an individual. Some tripods have a centre column which is extendable, but this is at the cost of stability, and really not recommended for heavy lenses.
The minimum height is important in a number of aspects of photography, it will determine how close to ground level the tripod will go. For me this is vital in allowing shots with foreground blur where the subject is on the ground. It can also be important for macro shooters.
There are two types of centre column, and a third option of none at all. Tripods without a centre column will generally have a lower minimum height than those with because the column does not prevent the tripod going to almost ground level.
Geared columns are adjustable by a crank which allows some degree of accuracy in the adjustment applied. Smooth columns are adjusted by the user raising or lowering centrepost themselves and then locking the position.
Some centre columns can be reversed which is an advantage for macro workers who often need to work closer to the ground.
There is no substitute for testing the stability of a tripod with the actual gear that you want to use on it. Even better if you can rather than trying in store is to borrow the model you are interested in from a friend and try it in a real-world situation. That way you will really know if it suits your needs.
When asking for tripod advice remember the type of photography that you do mainly and compare that with the photography of the adviser. Whilst they may mean well and think they are saving you money by recommending the model that they have, remember their needs may be different to yours.
Important Factors to Consider:
You've read the article, now go take some fantastic images. You can then upload the pictures, plus any advice and suggestions you have into the dedicated Photo Month forum for everyone at ePHOTOzine to enjoy.
- Construction Material
- Number of Leg Sections
- Folded Height
- Maximum Height
- Minimum Height
- Locking Mechanism
- Centre Column - Geared, Smooth, Reversible
- Maximum Supported Weight