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Monday, May 1, 2006

Gadget Bag: Sharpness Is Easy

Tripods are indispensable, and new, exotic materials and construction make them better, lighter and stronger than ever

And like the dentist saying that flossing daily could have prevented this cavity, at that point it's too late. The old knocks on using a tripod were that they were heavy and cumbersome and a pain to pull out and carry. While those criticisms may have been accurate, there's a new breed of tripods that are all about taking the weight and hassle out and leaving the stability in. The materials of choice are shifting from wood, aluminum and fiberglass to components that sound as if they're from the space program rather than camera equipment. Carbon fiber, magfiber, basalt, magnesium alloys and advanced composites these are the materials that are setting the trends in tripod design today.

Years ago, when told that a new tripod was lightweight, there was immediate suspicion that it would also be less stable. After all, it was weight that gave a tripod its resistance to motion. Newton's first law of motion says that an object in motion tends to stay in motion while an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Therefore, the more mass an object has, the more force it requires to be moved from a state of rest. New materials don't defy Newtonian physics, but they seem to because, although lighter, tripods made from these materials are more stable than their wood or aluminum counterparts. It all comes down to the ability of the material to dampen vibrations—how well does the tripod stay still? Carbon fiber and newer materials like magfiber and basalt all dampen vibrations in a manner that's superior to either wood or aluminum. Less vibration equals a sharper photograph.

Technobabble and the writing of Sir Isaac Newton are all well and good, but what's the practical upshot for you as a photographer? Tripods constructed with the newer materials weigh a fraction of their aluminum cousins, and compared to wood, the differences are even more extreme. You get a lighter camera support with legs that can extend farther, and the overall package is more stable. In technical parlance, that's called a "win-win-win."

Carbon fiber is naturally rigid, very strong and extremely stable. The Giottos MT 8180 is an example of how this revolutionary material is incorporated into a tripod, making it compact and lightweight without compromising stability. The MT 8180 collapses to 23.3 inches and weighs less than 1.3 pounds. The four leg sections extend to a maximum height of just less than six feet, and maximum capacity is about 5.5 pounds. Your D-SLR and a moderate lens will be well supported by the MT 8180. Estimated Street Price: $310.


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