This will be the second of two articles about tripods. Part one was an introduction to tripods. For part two I’ll be talking about the different types of tripods available, the tripods I personally own and I’ll share some tips for getting the most from your tripod investment. If you haven’t read part one be sure to check it out here.
In the first tripod article I talked about how keeping your camera steady helps you to capture images that look clearer and sharper. Keeping my camera steady is so important to me that if I know I have a shoot coming up where I can’t use a tripod I’ll stop drinking caffeinated beverages to help keep my hands steadier. That’s how serious I get about keeping my camera steady.
There are great ways to keep a camera steady (like sandbags, monopods and articulating arms) but for this article I’ll be concentrating only on tripods. In my next article I’ll talk about the tripods that I personally own and use on a daily basis.
Different types of tripods
There are numerous types, sizes and styles of tripods but I like to break them into three different groups. The first is the full-sized tripod, second is the travel-sized tripod and the final type is the table-top tripod. To me most photography tripods land on one of those groups. Here’s a look at a some of my personal tripods. On the left is a table-top tripod, the middle two tripods are travel-sized and the tripod on the right is full-sized.
Full size tripods
A full sized tripod is probably the most common tripod on the market. The legs of a full size tripod will retract to allow the tripod to take up less space for storage but it can still be pretty large when folded up. When the gear gets heavy a tripod with a lot of mass will be necessary to keep the camera steady. In a studio it’s common to see large heavy tripods used because they don’t need to be moved very far. It’s worth noting that some serious photographers will still carry a heavy tripod to a location because they’re looking to get the most stability they can get. Here’s a look at one of my personal full-sized tripods:
My current full-size tripod system is made by Manfrotto and I absolutely love using it when I’m out shooting landscapes. One of the things I love about it is how it extends tall enough to get the camera up to my eye level without having to extend the center column. Here’s a look at me setting up my camera on my Manfrotto tripod to capture a sunrise in the Shenandoah Mountains:
A travel sized tripod is designed to fold into a more compact size and be much lighter than a full sized tripod. For photographers who need to carry their tripod long distances or are traveling and their tripod needs to fit in their luggage. By being small and light it’s easy to bring along to your photography location. Unfortunately the loss of size and weight will usually be a trade-off for stability. Top level materials and design can allow for a small, light and very sturdy tripod but it will not come cheap. Here’s a look at my newest travel-sized tripod made by 3POD (I have a full review of this small tripod over on my photography blog here):
Table-top tripods are a specialty tripod designed to be used on an elevated surface to bring the camera to the desired height. They are much smaller than even a travel sized tripod and for some uses it’s a perfect solution for keeping a camera steady. Additionally, the small footprint of a table-top tripod can allow you to place a camera in places where a full-sized tripod can only dream of going. Table-top tripods are super useful tool if you’re shooting bracketed sets for creating HDR images. Another great use for table-top tripods is shooting macro photography (small precise movements can help you dial in perfect focus). Here’s a look at one of my small table-top tripods:
It’s important to choose a tripod that works for the type of photography you’ll be doing. Full-sized tripods are best in studios and when you’re photographing landscapes, for example. They’re the most stable so if you’re doing assignment photography they should always be your first choice.
If photography is more of a hobby then you should look into the portability of a travel-sized tripod. I say this because a heavy full-sized tripod might cause you to question bringing it along. When your tripod weighs close to 10 pounds (and you still have a camera body, lenses and accessories to carry) you might consider leaving your tripod behind. The best tripod will be the sturdiest one you brought. If you didn’t bring a tripod because it’s cumbersome then you’re doing yourself a disservice.
If you’re serious about your photography you’ve invested plenty in your equipment. Your camera body, lenses, flashes, printer (as well as inks and papers) and even the computer you process images on probably cost you a pretty penny. A good tripod is just as important and you should consider spending the appropriate amount of money based on everything else you’ve invested.
Some Tips for Getting the Most From Your Tripod
Your tripod is a tool you bought for keeping your camera steady because keeping your camera steady results in sharper images. While it might seem easy enough to use there are a few things I’ve found that can help any tripod perform at it’s best.
Tip #1: Be sure to invest in a good tripod system
While I’ll always say that most tripods are better than nothing it is important to match your tripod system to your camera system. If you’re using a heavy DSLR with a battery grip and you shoot f2.8 lenses then you need a system that can handle all that weight. It’s best to have more than you need so that if you ever upgrade your camera or lenses you won’t need to upgrade your tripod. It might cost a little more but a good tripod system is something that won’t need to be upgraded on a regular basis (if ever). When you’re shopping for a system be sure to make sure it can handle more than the weight of your camera with your heaviest lens and any accessories (like flashes) attached.
Tip #2: Don’t extend your tripod any more than necessary.
I’ve found that tripods with more extendable sections suffer from more weak points. A three section tripod leg will usually be sturdier than a five section tripod. Most tripods have a center column that raises the camera higher than you can achieve with just the legs. While it’s convenient to have your tripod up at eye level it’s noticeably less sturdy to extend the center column of a tripod. As the parts of the tripod get smaller (thinner legs, for example) it becomes even worse. Sometimes extending a tripod fully doesn’t matter but if you’re up in the mountains photographing in windy conditions than it makes a huge difference.
My big Manfrotto has a really sturdy center column but I still try to avoid using it. Lucky for me the big Manfrotto is more than tall enough for me to use without having to raise the center column. My smaller tripods are noticeably less steady with the center columns extended (especially my 3Pod tripod that has two extendable center column sections). Instead of raising the center column up to my eye height I’ll just bend over a bit to compose my shot then stand up straight to trigger my camera.
Tip #3: Try not to touch your camera at the moment of shutter release
It might not seem like much but the act of pressing your shutter release button actually introduces a little bit of vibration to your camera. Seasoned professionals are super light on their shutter release button and I make a habit of rolling my finger across the button instead of pressing. Being gentle helps but there’s no substitute for not touching the camera at all.
The easiest way to work “hands free” is to use the delayed timer feature that’s built into most cameras. The idea behind the feature is to set your camera up, set a delay, press the shutter release button and then get in front of the camera for the shot. 10 seconds is a normal amount of delay but some cameras have shorter options. I recommend placing your camera on a tripod to frame your shot, setting the delay, press the release button and then standing back to let the camera do it’s thing. With less sturdy tripods you’ll see a difference immediately.
Tip #4: Trigger Your camera with a remote control
Not every camera offers remote triggering but if yours does then it’s something you really need to try. My camera can be triggered remotely three different ways (IR remote, wired shutter release and by a computer when connected by USB). The idea is the same as using the 10 second delay but without having to wait. Using a remote trigger is also a handy way to capture bracketed sets (for HDR images, for example) or super long exposure shots longer than 30 seconds (when the remote is equipped with a shutter lock button and your camera shutter speed is set to “bulb”).
A wired shutter release (also called a “cable release”) runs between $30 and $50 and I use mine all the time. They’re small and light enough to always keep one in my camera bag and the difference using one can make is huge. Here’s a look at three different ways I trigger my camera without touching my camera – on the left is a radio trigger with an adapter cable for remote shutter release (designed for Sony DSLRs), in the center is a Sony IR remote control and on the right is a wired shutter release (designed for Sony DSLRs):
There are other great ways to remotely trigger your camera such as from inside software like Lightroom (if your camera is connected by a USB cable), timer devices (also called: “intervalometers”) and there are even systems that let you trigger your camera from a smart phone (like the very cool TriggerTrap). Be sure to check your owners manual to see if your camera is compatible with a remote triggering system before you buy one.
Some DSLR cameras include a shutter release mode called: “mirror lock-up” which can raise the mirror before you’re ready to take your shot. This mode helps eliminate one of the possible sources of vibration that can contribute to a blurry image. Using a tripod, a remote shutter release and “mirror lock-up” mode can really help you get the maximum clarity in your final image.
Tip #5: Take good care of your Tripod
This sounds pretty obvious but I’m adding it anyway. A lot of Tripods don’t come with a bag but it’s an important accessory to help protect your investment. Also, If you have to bring your tripod to a shoot than a bag makes your tripod easier to carry. Some manufacturers sell bags that are designed to work with their tripods perfectly. There are plenty of companies that sell bags for tripods and I’ve been testing out a line of inexpensive tripod/lightstand bags from B&H that cost between $10-$20. The brand is “Ruggard” and I hope to write up a full review of them soon.
There’s plenty of room in my tripod bags for accessories so I keep a few towels in there to clean up my tripods when I use them in places like on beaches or in muddy water. I like to keep a few terry cloth towels in a 1 gallon ziploc bag inside my tripod case at all times.
I also keep a screwdriver, a Manfrotto tripod tool and some allen wrenches in my bag to keep everything properly tightened.
Tip #6: Make your Tripod as solid as possible
You might think that you can’t make your tripod more solid but that’s not the case. Because tripods can be folded up for portability there’s a lot of moving parts that can become loose over time. I check all of the screws, nuts and bolts on my tripods at least four times a year and I tighten things up to make sure my tripod is alway rock solid.
A tripod with a lot of mass provides a significantly more solid mount for your camera. It’s like having a really deep and solid foundation for your home. A super dense tripod will eliminate all of the vibrations that can shake your camera (and any camera shake will make your final images soft).
If you have a super light tripod sometimes you can add some mass by hanging something from it. I use sandbags to keep my tripod rock solid (especially when it gets windy) but if I don’t have one I’ll hang my gear bag on my tripod. Keeping an empty sandbag in your camera bag is a great way to keep the weight down if you’re on a long walk or hike. With an empty sandbag you can fill the bag when you arrive at your destination and you need extra weight, then empty it when you’re done for the walk back home. Here’s a look at my travel-size tripod with a sandbag attached (tripods like my 3POD are equipped with a hook designed for attaching a sandbag):
Tip #7: Get even longer exposures with Neutral Density Lens Filters
For years photographers have taken advantage of lens filters to create unique images. Filters range in size and type and there are a number of looks that can only be achieved when you use them. In long exposure photography the Neutral Density filter (or ND filter) is a dark color neutral filter that prevents light from passing through. The exposure sensor in the camera, with less light available, sets a longer shutter speed to compensate. This results in a long shutter speed when using a larger aperture setting. With a 3 stop ND filter you can get long shutter speeds at f8 (where your lens is at its sharpest) instead of requiring f22 for the same shutter speed. Additionally you can get properly exposed shots at f22 using a shutter speed that would normally create an unusable image.
Here’s a look at one of my ND filter sets. This is a TIFFEN 49mm Neutral density filter set with a two stop, three stop and a four stop ND filter (and a handy carry case):
Bonus hint: Make your tripod easy to find in the dark with reflective tape
If you’re photographing sunrises or night scenes (especially star) shots I highly recommend looking into buying some reflective tape. Long story short – if you’re out in the dark and you set up your tripod (which is almost always black) you might walk away from it for one reason or another. When I’m shooting start trails, for example, I don’t need to stand next to my tripod for 10 minutes, 15 minutes or even 30 minutes. But if I walk away it might be difficult to find your equipment when you return. A little reflective tape anywhere on your tripod is super visible with a small flashlight and that’s a lot better than running into your camera in the middle of a long exposure. Reflective tape is easy to find and super cheap (under $10 for a roll on amazon). And reflective tape is available in multiple colors – great for identifying your gear if you go out shooting in a large group.
There are a few strong recommendations I can make when it comes to tripods. The first is brand names. I’ve worked in photography and design for a long time and being in those industries exposed me to a wide range of tripods from numerous manufacturers. The best I’ve ever used have been from Really Right Stuff, Gitzo, Manfrotto, three legged thing and Feisol. If you ask me those are the best designed and built tripods I’ve used. These are not the only top teir brands – they’re the top brands I’ve used personally. There are plenty of great tripods I’ve never used.
A good second tier of tripods include the house brands available from B&H Photo and Adorama. Obin, Flashpoint and 3Pod branded tripods are well built but considerably cheaper than some of the first tier brands.
If table-top tripods are your thing then I highly recommend looking in to the flexible tripods from Joby. I own a few and they’re totally different from just about anything else out there. If maximum steadiness is important than look into the table-top tripods from Manfrotto, Obin, Giottos, 3pod and MeFOTO.
For construction material the heavy aluminum tripods are always a good choice for the price. If you don’t need to carry it far then get the least number of leg extensions possible. A good three section leg will usually be sturdier than a four, five or (gasp) six section leg. Less sections also means quicker setup.
If weight is important then you should look into carbon fiber. A carbon fiber tripod will typically weigh about a third of what an identical aluminum tripod does without giving up much in the way of sturdiness. There’s a huge difference between a tripod that weighs 9 pounds and one that weighs three pounds when you’ll be carrying it a long distance. Carbon fiber construction is awesome but it comes at a price. But don’t forget – when it comes to the quality of your images (and the added stress on you physically) you’ll always get what you pay for.
If you’re using one of the new mirror-less cameras (like the Sony NEX series) then you don’t need to use the biggest and heaviest tripod available – even though it can’t hurt. If you’re in an environment that isn’t windy and you’re using a timer or a remote shutter release then a travel-sized tripod (that can extend to a height of 6 feet) may be more than enough tripod for the camera system you’re using.
Tripod heads are a subject that could easily take up an entire article. I’ve traditionally used ball heads but there are other choices including: pan/tilt heads (great if you’re shooting video as well as still photographs), gimbal heads (a good choice when your lens gets really large and heavy) and geared heads (awesome if you need to make very precise adjustments). The type of head you need will depend on the type of photography you’re going to be doing but, in general, you can’t go wrong with a good quality ball head.
Keeping your camera steady is one of the best ways to get the sharpest images possible and using a very sturdy tripod is one of the best ways I know to keep a camera perfectly still. I’ve owned plenty over the years and the system I’ve settled on for my everyday use has been an essential part of my photography kit. If you don’t own a tripod (or a tripod system) yet I strongly urge you to look into getting one. Even a $100 investment in a basic tripod can help you achieve sharper images than hand-holding (especially as the shutter speed slows down). A $300-$400 investment in a tripod can do more to help your shots look sharper than spending thousands of dollars for an expensive camera or an exotic lens. An investment of $500 or more ensures a tripod that not only performs but will last for generations. If you own an expensive camera with exotic lenses a really good tripod can help you get the most from your camera investment.