There’s no piece of gear that will do more to help you get sharp photos than a tripod. It really is just that simple. A tripod can also be the best composition coach you’ve ever had outside of a workshop in the field. It’s one of the lowest-tech pieces of gear in the modern photographer’s arsenal, but it’s also one of the strongest. If all that sounds like a lot of hyperbole and maybe even nonsense, read on as we explain.
The great early photographers used large-format cameras and films with ASA ratings in the double digits. One of Ansel Adams’ favorite films was said to be the Kodak Panatomic-X. It had an ISO of 32. Compared to the Sony A7s with a maximum ISO of 409,600, you can get a sense of how much light-gathering technology has changed since Adams focused his 8×10 view camera at Half Dome.
The low ASA and ISO ratings, as well as the large formats, made for very long exposures. There was no way around that if one wanted to maintain depth of field. For these photographers, a tripod wasn’t optional—it was an absolute necessity that was as much a part of the overall camera setup as the lens. Also, the early landscape photographers didn’t only have to pay attention to the light—they had to pay attention to the wind. Yes, a breeze that’s refreshing on the face meant blurs in the image from elements like swaying tree branches or bushes. And a large-format view camera is like a sail that shakes and shudders in the wind.
New film emulsions and camera technology brought the prospect of handholding within reach. Image stabilization—in-camera and in-lens—is an incredible advancement that enables photographers to push the limits. And of course, as we mentioned, high-ISO technology lets us maintain usable shutter speeds and depth of field in lower light.
So with all of these advancements, it might seem that the tripod has simply become obsolete for most nature photographers. To be sure, having the ability to move around and explore a scene quickly unleashes creativity, but it can be a two-edged sword. The fast-paced “got it…move on” approach isn’t necessarily the best approach. One reason we continue to be advocates for tripods is for the way they get us to slow down, consider the composition, watch the scene evolve in the changing light and wait for the right moment. The other reason we continue to be pro-tripod is because as good as the latest technology is and as steady as our hands might be, there’s still going to be some tiny amount of camera shake. The question is, how much is acceptable? For absolute maximum image quality, anchoring your gear on a sturdy tripod just can’t be beat.
Fortunately, working with a tripod doesn’t have to be painful. Carbon fiber has made the experience of carrying and using one much easier than it was for the likes of Ansel Adams. The weight of a carbon-fiber tripod is considerably less than a wooden model made for the same-size camera setup. Despite being lighter, the carbon-fiber models are just as sturdy and dampen out fast. In a breeze, you use your hand on one of the legs or hang your camera bag from the center to lower the center of gravity and add some more stability. Here are some popular models for landscape photographers to consider. We’re spotlighting four- and five-leg section tripods that can carry at least 22 pounds.
The Benro A2580F weighs just over three pounds and has a maximum capacity of 26.4 pounds. Maximum height is 55.51 inches. The legs are made of four sections that collapse down to 19.88 inches, and they can be splayed out independently. You lock the legs into place with flip locks. The A2580F has a grooved, rapid center column to give you some added height if needed, and it can be inverted to allow you to work at ground level. The tripod comes with spiked-steel and runner feet, and there’s a closed-cell foam sleeve on one of the legs for firm grip and comfortable carrying. A built-in bubble level helps keep horizon lines straight. Estimated Street Price: $127. Contact: www.benrousa.com
Flashpoint F-1428 Carbon Fiber Tripod
The Flashpoint F-1428 Carbon Fiber Tripod is a five-section tripod with a maximum load of 26 pounds. With the legs and center column fully extended, it goes up to 72 inches. The five leg sections close down to 24 inches. Legs are locked into place with double grip-twist locks. Retractable spiked feet keep the tripod firmly anchored on a variety of surfaces. The F-1428 weighs 5.72 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $329. Contact: www.adorama.com
Giottos Classic 8214 Carbon Fiber YTL Silk Road
The Giottos Classic 8214 Carbon Fiber YTL Silk Road tripod has four leg sections that extend to a maximum height of 73.2 inches and collapses down to 21.3 inches. The center column is Y-shaped, which allows the legs to fold closer together and results in a more compact overall package. Giottos says it also helps prevent torsion when extended. The center column can be inverted for working as close as 7.1 inches from the ground. The legs are locked in place by lever locks, and they can be splayed with three lockable positions. Maximum load is 22 pounds, and the tripod weighs 3.3 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $419. Contact: www.giottosusa.com
Gitzo GT1542 Mountaineer Series 1
The Gitzo GT1542 Mountaineer Series 1 carbon fiber-tripod supports up to 22 pounds and weighs 2.8 pounds. Gitzo uses “Carbon eXact” tubing in the tripod’s construction. This makes the GT1542 stronger and more rigid than the previous GT1541 model. The four section legs extend to a maximum height of 51.1 inches (62.6 is the maximum with the center column extended). The collapsed length is 21.3 inches. Legs lock in place with Gitzo’s venerable twist locks, and with the independently adjustable legs fully splayed, the minimum height is 5.9 inches. Estimated Street Price: $759. Contact: www.gitzo.us
Induro Carbon 8X CT214
The Induro Carbon 8X CT214 tripod can carry 26.4 pounds and weighs 3.3 pounds. The four leg sections extend to 52.6 inches, and with the center column fully extended, maximum height is 61.2 inches. Fully collapsed, the CT214 is 20.9 inches long. The legs are independently spreadable with three position stops. The center column is grooved, and it can be inverted for low-angle shooting. The legs lock in position via twist locks, and interchangeable rubber and spiked-steel feet are included. Estimated Street Price: $392. Contact: www.indurogear.com
Manfrotto MT057C4-G 057 Carbon Fiber
The Manfrotto MT057C4-G 057 Carbon Fiber tripod has, without a doubt, the name most reminiscent of a World War II-era Enigma code transmission. Manfrotto product names have always been a bit of a mystery to decipher. What’s plain, however, is that this tripod is a good option for a landscape shooter. It extends to a maximum height of 80.7 inches and has a geared center column. The four leg sections have lever locks, and they compress down to 26.2 inches. The maximum load capacity is 26.5 pounds, and the tripod weighs 8.2 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $899. Contact: www.manfrotto.us
Really Right Stuff TQC-14
Billed as their “ultimate traveling tripod” the Really Right Stuff TQC-14 has a maximum load capacity of 25 pounds, and it weighs just 2.7 pounds. It can achieve a maximum height of 59 inches with the center column extended. The four leg sections are held in place with twist locks. When collapsed, the TQC-14 is 17.7 inches. Really Right Stuff designed this tripod to match up with their BH-30 ballhead, but it can handle other heads,as well. The legs are independently adjustable. Estimated Street Price: $850. Contact: www.reallyrightstuff.com
Slik Pro 924 CF 4-Section Carbon Fiber
The Slik Pro 924 CF 4-Section Carbon Fiber tripod weighs 5.1 pounds, and it can support up to 26.5 pounds. The four leg sections extend to 57.9 inches, and the maximum height with the geared center column extended is 70.5 inches. The legs are held in place with twist locks, and each can spread independently. Folded, the Pro 924 CF is 21.8 inches. Estimated Street Price: $599. Contact: www.kenkotokinausa.com
Sirui ET-2204 Carbon Fiber
The only tripod with a built-in head is the Sirui ET-2204 Carbon Fiber model. It comes with an E-20 ballhead, and it can support 26.5 pounds. The Sirui extends to 57 inches, and the four section legs are held in place with flip locks. Collapsed, the Sirui measures 17 inches, and the legs spread independently. The integral ballhead has a quick-release plate. Estimated Street Price: $379. Contact: Sirui www.argraph.com