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Manfrotto’s Magic Arm lets you place your lens right where you want it and get sharp shots from perspectives that otherwise would be difficult to achieve.
Tripods are one of those basic parts of nature photography that we often take for granted, yet a quality tripod is a key part of any outdoor photographer’s toolkit. A good tripod will make even the most inexpensive lens outperform the most expensive handheld lens, and such a tripod will make every lens work at its best. Photographers have a lot of excellent tripod choices on the market today. I recently had the chance to take three very different tripods into the field and see what they meant to my workflow. There are definitely other good tripods on the market, but my back isn’t strong enough to take all of them into the field!
With that in mind, this article isn’t intended to be a roundup or buyer’s guide of all the brands and models available, but rather a field guide to the various ways that a tripod can be put to use and how tripods can be made more nimble or adaptable to the terrain by making use of their inherent dexterity or with the addition of supportive accessories. A tripod is a sizable piece of gear to carry to a location, but adding an accessory or two may not add much to overall weight, while adding greatly to the types of photographs that you can make.
Affordable, Light And Practical The Adorama Flashpoint F1328 is an affordable, heavy-duty carbon-fiber tripod. Carbon fiber is a great way for the outdoor photographer to go because of its weight. Yes, you’ll spend a little more for such a tripod, but it’s a worthwhile investment. It’s fun to watch participants in my workshops who use heavier, metal tripods pick up a fellow student’s carbon-fiber model. Their eyes widen and almost always I hear “Wow!”
That’s exactly what one would do with this tripod. It’s good-sized, ready to support any camera and lens, and someone who didn’t know would think it would be heavy. But the Flashpoint F1328 weighs just four pounds, making it a comfortable trail companion. It extends to 63 inches, easy to use by even tall photographers, yet its four-section legs collapse the tripod to a carrying size of under two feet. That’s also a very packable size for travel. In addition, the legs can be splayed to allow a very low camera height as needed.
When extended, the tripod is solid and rigid. Large, knurled rings make it easy to set up. I also like the fact that the legs don’t turn as these rings are loosened or tightened, which makes it easy to set up and take down as you can loosen all the rings at once and extend the legs, then tighten. Or you can loosen all and collapse the legs, then tighten all at once. For anyone who has used a tripod with knurled locking rings that have rotating legs, you know what a great feature this is.
Adorama’s Flashpoint F1328 carbon-fiber tripod is very light, yet can support about 24 pounds of camera and lens. Switch from rubber pads to ground spikes when you need to dig into the terrain for extra stability. The center column includes a hook for hanging weight and can be separated for low-to-the-ground shooting.
The lightweight FPTH3 magnesium-alloy head that comes with the Flashpoint F1328 balances the tripod nicely, weighing only one pound, and works fine for standard photography. It comes with a standard-size quick-release plate and includes multi-tensioning knobs and a base numbered for panoramic shooting. Estimated Street Price: $299.95 (legs only); $74.95 (F-3 Ballhead). Flexible Shooting In Tough Terrain
The Giottos MT8361 carbon-fiber tripod takes a unique approach to camera support. This unit allows you to extend the center column out of the center tripod tube and then angle that column as a side arm to put the camera into supported positions that would otherwise be difficult to do. Setting up among a lot of rocks for a close-up, for example, is easy because you can change the angles of the legs as needed to adapt to conditions, plus you then can position the camera easily with the center column/side arm.
I could have used this tripod earlier this year when I was trying to photograph some amazing lichens on rocks in Morro Bay, California. My back hurt from trying to get in position, and my tripod never did give me a satisfactory angle for the camera. Yet I had to use a tripod because the light and a small ƒ-stop meant a long exposure. With both its flexible center column position and adaptable legs, the MT8361 has a remarkable capability for dealing solidly with any challenge the terrain may provide.
The tripod is lightweight at five pounds and has three-section legs. Collapsed, it’s 27 inches, while fully extended it reaches 64 inches. While all the contortions this camera could go through make it look complicated, I found it easy to use after a couple of setups. You just have to get used to how the center column controls work, which are compactly collected at the top of the tripod center column tube.
The center column supports a camera and moderate-sized lens well (I wouldn’t try it with a heavy telephoto), though you’ll need a cable release or use the self-timer to minimize vibrations. The tripod does an amazing job in supporting a camera so far from the legs. Estimated Street Price: $365.
Manfrotto’s Magic Arm kit is ideal for easy camera positioning—one lever locks three pivot points. It can support about eight pounds.
Systems Support Magic Manfrotto makes a whole array of excellent tripods, from carbon fiber to lightweight metal, but one thing that makes their product line especially interesting is the ability to add all sorts of attachments to tripods for special purposes that can make nature photography easier. Owning a Manfrotto is buying into a vast system of camera support products. This is particularly important in the outdoors, where nature often places subjects in inconvenient ways, and the right accessories can help overcome nature’s obstacles. I worked with the well-designed 303SPH panoramic head, the Macro Flash Bracket 3278B and a variety of attachments that help get the camera into low and unique positions. It’s nice to know that tripod work can be made so adaptable.
The Macro Flash Bracket 3278B from Manfrotto lets you position your flash right where you need it.
The panoramic head is a precision piece of gear. It’s designed to set up your camera so it rotates around the nodal point of the lens as you shoot multiple shots across a scene to create a panoramic image. This helps make those shots line up and match without problems of details not lining up. The head also rotates the camera up and down for verticals or to create a very wide shot built up from multiple images shot across and vertically over a scene. This leads to very large image files that allow huge panoramic prints with extreme detail.
The arms and grip attachments allow you to put a camera close to the ground and into places that would be awkward to do otherwise. It can be difficult to handhold a camera in a group of flowers and keep the shots consistent, for example. The arms and grip attachments work well to keep your camera in position, which can be a huge benefit when you’re awkwardly lying on the ground trying to frame a close-up.
The arms have to deal with the weight of a camera away from the tripod, so you’ll need to put your camera bag or other weight on the tripod. The shorter the support is away from the tripod, though, the more stable it is for longer exposures.
The flash bracket allows you to position flash for close-ups while the camera is on a tripod (it can be handheld, too). Estimated Street Price: $578 (model 303SPH panoramic head); $49 (Macro Flash Bracket 3278B).
When choosing a tripod and accessories, remember that your ends justify the means in terms of weight—tripod weight and the weight it will support—and the tripod’s adaptability to your style and subject matter. Learn to adapt your camera support to the shot you want.
Giottos (HP Marketing Corp.)
Manfrotto (Bogen Imaging)