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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Holiday Buyer's Guide

A look at some of the gear that’s available for the nature photographer on your gift list

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Benro TRCB269
If you’re a regular OP reader, you know that we’re big fans of tripods. Image-stabilizing technology is amazing, but nothing beats the complete steadiness of a solid tripod with a good head on it. If you want to find a gift for the nature photographer in your life that’s guaranteed to make an improvement in his or her photography, a good tripod and head are it. The good news is that there are so many good tripods and heads being made, you have a lot of choices. Rather than try to describe each and every possibility here, we’ll describe various design attributes and materials.

Manfrotto 055CX3
The most common construction materials for tripods today are wood, aluminum and carbon fiber. Each has advantages and disadvantages. There are a few tripods being made with even more exotic elements like titanium and basalt. Wooden tripods provide excellent vibration-damping and are comfortable to handle in both cold weather and hot, but they’re relatively heavy. Aluminum tripods are relatively inexpensive and sturdy. Tripods made of carbon fiber and other exotic materials cost more, but are very light as well as sturdy.

Flashpoint F-1328

Berlebach BE8043

Induro Adventure Series 1

Slik Pro 714

Giottos MT-9370

Gitzo GT-0541

If you want a more compact tripod, you’ll want to select one that has more leg sections that collapse to a smaller overall size. For example, a three-section tripod that goes up to 60 inches will be about 20 inches when you’re carrying it. You can find a unit that goes up to the same 60 inches in a tripod with four or five leg sections that might fold down to a little over 12 inches. The trade-off is that all things being equal, more leg sections are less stable at full extension than fewer leg sections. Decide what matters most, choose a model that can easily handle your maximum camera and lens load and you’ll be fine. A quick word about center columns. Some tripods have center columns that can extend the maximum height of a tripod considerably. While they’re handy, the center column reduces the overall stability of the camera as they’re raised to full extension. When you’re making a buying decision, try to get a unit that has legs that will extend to your anticipated maximum height without having to use the center column.

While max height is obviously critical, minimum height is also a factor. Having a tripod that allows the legs to splay out to get you close to the ground is ideal. Some tripods let you invert the center column to get right to ground level, and that’s a use of the extendable center column that we like very much at OP. When you use the column inverted, it’s still quite stable compared to using it to increase the max height. A shoulder pod such as the BushHawk is great for steadying a long lens when photographing wildlife. You basically hold the unit like a rifle, with two-hand (plus shoulder) support.

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