Gadget Bag: Sharpness Is Easy

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

Sharpness Is EasyWe've said it before and we'll say it again: If you're looking to improve your photography, the single most useful tool you can use is a tripod. As photo gear goes, tripods fall somewhere between a sandbag and lens-cleaning tissue on the "cool equipment" scale. Compared to exotic optics, advanced filters and new Ubertech SLRs, what's less sexy than three sticks connected to a hinged plate? And yet the tripod remains the device that's most likely to have an immediate, positive impact on your imagery.

Why do tripods have that kind of power? First, there's the obvious: A tripod will steady your camera and enable you to get a much sharper photograph than you can get by handholding. Even if you think of yourself as being steady of hand, you can't beat the stability of a solidly grounded tripod.

And that goes for any shutter speed you select. We all know the minimum-handholding rule (the reciprocal of your focal length becomes the minimum shutter speed you can handhold, e.g., with a 300mm lens you need a shutter speed of 1/300 sec. or faster), but that rule is really more of a guideline and only applies to bare-minimum image quality. You'd still get a sharper photograph with a 300mm lens if you mounted the camera on a tripod and shot at 1/300 sec. than you would if you handheld at that same speed. The minimum-handholding rule is not a tripod-equivalent rule.

The second reason a tripod improves your images is it forces you to slow down. One of the best features of an SLR camera is its compact design. You can move and shoot with lightning speed, composing on the fly, and if you have an 8 GB memory card, you almost never have to stop to change cards or download images. Conversely, those advantages can also hinder your photography. Slowing down to look through the viewfinder forces you to be a good editor. If you have to set up a tripod, mount your camera and then adjust the camera and tripod to finesse your composition, you'll tend to look carefully at the shot. Slowing down can be a good thing.

So if all of the above is true, why do so few of us actually use tripods? It's like dental floss—we know we should use it, but somehow it just doesn't happen. The moment we realize that we should have pulled out the sticks is usually when we're critiquing the images.

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.

Giottos (HP Marketing Corp.)
(800) 735-4373
Gitzo (Bogen Imaging)
(201) 818-9500
Manfrotto (Bogen Imaging)
(201) 818-9500
SLIK (THK Photo Products)
(800) 421-1141

The Gitzo G1197 is part of the new basalt lineup of tripods. If you ever took an earth science class, you may recollect that basalt is a type of volcanic rock. Using this age-old material in a new way makes the legs extremely lightweight, quick-dampening and resistant to heat and humidity changes. If you've ever struggled with the legs of an aluminum tripod in the heat of summer, you'll immediately understand the benefits
of basalt. While stronger than aluminum, the legs are 20 percent lighter.

To manufacture the G1197, Gitzo melts pulverized basalt in a furnace with temperatures over 2,700 degrees F. The legs are extruded, combined with other materials and formed into nonrotating tubes. The new Anti-Leg-Rotation system makes the legs fast to extend and collapse while locking securely at the prescribed length. The G1197 is ideally suited to a light D-SLR. If you have a heavier model or you routinely use big lenses, there are other basalt models that will accommodate you. The G1197 weighs 2.8 pounds, extends to 46.5 inches and has a load capacity of 8.8 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $334.

If you've never heard of magfiber, you're not alone; until Manfrotto introduced its new line of tripods, we hadn't either. The term refers to the use of carbon fiber in the legs, and magnesium and resin in the lever-locking mechanisms. The Manfrotto 055MF3 supports up to 15 pounds, extends up to 5.5 feet and has a minimum usable height of 4.3 inches. Using the system designed and patented for the 3021PRO series, the 055MF3 has four leg-angle settings, and the center column converts to a lateral arm for specialized shooting situations. The leg sections feature nonrotating, three-faced tubes. Leg angles are adjusted via a pushbutton system. Estimated Street Price: $299.

Also a member of the carbon-fiber club, the Slik PRO 613 CF is a good choice for a D-SLR setup. The tripod weighs a mere 1.5 pounds (without a head) and folds down to 16.3 inches. If you're apt to leave your tripod in the truck because it's just too heavy and bulky, this model puts an end to that excuse. Twist-lock legs keep them positioned properly, and an overall capacity of 6.6 pounds gives you freedom to mount your camera and a fairly heavy lens without sacrificing stability. Like all carbon-fiber models, the PRO 613 CF is rigid and dampens vibration in an instant. If you're apt to shoot low to the ground, the tripod can go as low as four inches, and the multiangle leg-lock system allows you to easily position the legs independently. Estimated Street Price: $265.


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