For many photographers, tripods are the photo tool you love to hate. Choosing a tripod that’s right for your style of photography may help change that. But first, bear with me for just a few minutes while I give you some tips for serious improvement of your photography.
An Ode to Three Legs
In my lectures and field workshops, I consistently promote the use of tripods, not only for specific techniques but also as a general rule. You say you have image stabilization that corrects for four f-stops. You are known for steady hands and revel in your ability to be quick and mobile because you don’t use a tripod. That was me in the early years of my career…until I co-led some workshops with professional nature photographer John Shaw.
For those who don’t know John, he is the author of six books and eight e-books on nature photography, is a Nikon “Legend Behind the Lens” (2002), and has received both the Outstanding Photographer Award (1997) and the Lifetime Achievement Award (2019) from the North American Nature Photography Association. His words of photographic wisdom are worth hearing.
Back in the day, I was amused by the stout tripod that John almost always used while we were photographing side-by-side in Yellowstone and Alaska. But when I compared my image take with his, there was an overwhelming difference: His images showed consistent sharpness where mine often fell short. He told me that the difference was the tripod, and when I followed his lead, the results made a believer out of me. I have been a faithful user and promoter of tripod use ever since, and so should you.
There are several types and many manufacturers of tripods. I actually have four, and they each have a place depending on the photography that I’m doing. Just to complicate the issue (or to make it even better), a variety of tripod heads are available to facilitate camera stability and adjustment. You can start at a reasonable price point for basic gear, and as you get more involved with outdoor photography, consider upgrading and adding new tools for specific techniques and equipment.
Why Use A Tripod?
Nearly every photographic technique will benefit from tripod use, and some are nearly impossible without it. Long exposures, such as for night-sky, sunrise or sunset, or when slowing the action of flowing water, are virtually impossible without a tripod. Vibration or camera movement is magnified when long lenses and tele-extenders are in use, and a tripod mitigates these effects. Multiple-capture techniques that expand depth of field and tonal quality, such as focus stacking and HDR, typically require a tripod for consistent framing. A tripod maintains the horizontal or vertical line of panoramas. Time lapse and video capture (which is now also a tool for still photography via frame grabs) truly demand a stable platform, without which viewers are likely to become nauseous. Yes, it really is that serious.
Choosing A Tripod System
Every tripod needs to meet certain standards to be useful. The most important is rigidity. Even a lightweight tripod can support a medium telephoto lens if the legs are rigid. To test this, place your hand on the top of the extended tripod legs and try to stir the platform; if there is movement or bending, the legs aren’t rigid.
Tripods can be made from lightweight metal or carbon fiber. Metal is a bit heavier and costs less but will sap heat from your hands in cold weather. Carbon fiber is a bit lighter, resistant to corrosion, better in the cold and costs more, but it can fracture if you close a car door on it. There are four basic sizes: lightweight traveling or backpacker models; medium weight all-purpose versions that come in numerous configurations; medium-weight heavy-duty tripods for long-lens advocates; and super-heavy tripods for rare specialties (or masochists).
Tripod heads come in several configurations, including the old standby three-handle version, the ballhead, the gimbal and the video fluid head. Each of these is available in many variations, as they are continually being re-invented. My preference for many decades has been a quality ballhead because its single knob for activation and locking offers quick, smooth and reliable positioning of the camera. Gimbal heads are great for following moving subjects with long lenses, and video fluid heads are a must for stable video capture.
So, as with all your photographic gear, tripods and heads should be chosen based on intended use and cost. Let’s talk about specific options.
Going Light: Contrary to what you might have heard, you do not need a tripod that can’t be moved without a forklift. If you are a frequent traveler or backpacker, look for tripods that are light and rigid, even when extended to standing height. These can be strapped to a backpack or easily packed in luggage. Do not get a cheap unit with channeled legs, as it will not be sufficiently stable when extended. Top your tripod with a quality light or medium-weight ballhead, and your images from the Appalachian Trail will all be sharp. Typical specs: Tripods in this category weigh around 2 pounds and can support about 20 pounds of gear.
Heading to Europe or Asia? This same tripod will easily pack into luggage or attach to a backpack carry-on. Long exposures in the low light of a castle, temple or church cannot be accomplished hand-held, but you’ll be ready for those conditions, as well as for panoramic landscapes, video, garden macro and time lapse. If you’re doing street photography, just leave your tripod attached to the pack on your back.
Medium All-Purpose: These tripods fit into a large suitcase, so there’s no excuse to travel without one. It can be tempting to choose a unit with four leg sections because they are shorter when collapsed, but the more connections, the greater the chance of loss of rigidity. For this reason, I prefer the three-section systems. A quality medium tripod, used properly, can handle a 500mm telephoto—and while you can pack the tripod in a checked bag, I recommend that you, or your non-photographer traveling partner, carry the lens onto the plane. Typical specs: These models support approximately 35 pounds of gear and weigh between 3 to 4 pounds (without the head) depending on the material.
Medium Heavy Duty: Let’s say you are a wildlife photographer packing a 500mm or 600mm telephoto. You even use 1.4x and 2x tele-extenders on occasion, and you photograph in difficult conditions. You need this level of tripod, especially if you are working on unstable surfaces such as sand, streambeds or gravel or in breezy weather. And pushing a tripod into deep snow can spread the legs and put undue stress on the center casing, possibly fracturing it. (I’ve had it happen.) Typical specs: Designed for use with longer, heavier lenses, these weigh about 5 pounds without the head and can support between 40 and 55 pounds.
Heavy Dudes: I don’t use these, even when I shoot at 800mm and 1600mm. These are intended for the folks with large format (like 8 x 10) and large video cameras, and even they are using much lighter cameras these days. Chances are that if you have one of these heavy leg sets, you won’t use it. Typical specs: Able to support about 80 pounds, the legs can weigh 6 or more pounds depending on the material, without the head.
Ballheads. We don’t see much of the three-handle tripod heads any more. Most tripod kits are sold with a ballhead—today’s norm. Ballheads come in many configurations, quality and sizes. Get one that will handle the heaviest weight you plan to place on the tripod. If you are interested in using longer lenses, such as a 100-400mm zoom, choose a more robust head; a small ballhead will not hold the weight, and the lens will “creep” when you want to lock in on a subject. For general outdoor and nature photography, a medium-sized ballhead is a good idea, and a larger one will be more reliable with heavier cameras and lenses. I have several Really Right Stuff BH-55 units that are, in my opinion, the best all-purpose ballheads money can buy—and they are made in the U.S. by great people. Just sayin’.
Gimbal heads. This is the tool of choice for wildlife photographers. A gimbal head balances the camera and long lens to allow the photographer to smoothly follow a fast-moving subject. For a long time, one company had the market on gimbals, but now there are many options. I recently purchased one that has a fluid movement on both the vertical and horizontal axis for even tracking; it works well for video capture, where the smoothness is absolutely necessary.
Video fluid heads. With the great video capabilities of today’s DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, we all are, or should be, shooting more action. The tripod bases I’ve mentioned here all pretty much fit the bill for basic video capture, but standard ballheads and gimbals come up short if you plan on doing any pans. Even an expensive ballhead that is the best at what it does for stills will be jerky in the video pan department. The inexpensive answer here is to do a lot of video clips that don’t pan, and create some movement in post-capture processing. But if you want to follow action, a head with a fluid base that moves very smoothly is needed. Fluid video heads are available at a range of prices, with the least expensive being designed for lighter camera and lens combinations.
Leveling Bases. Medium and medium-heavy tripods are often used for multiple-image panoramas, and one of the first steps in setting up for a panorama is to level the tripod base and then the camera and lens. You can move this leg and that leg until you get the setup level, but by then the lighting has probably changed. Or, if you’re doing video that needs a consistent pan movement, the subject has left. The leveling base, an accessory originally made for the pro video crowd, provides a leveling function between the tripod base and the head, and I’ve added it to all my tripods because I do both panoramas and video. Some manufacturers, such as Gitzo and Really Right Stuff (RRS), make leveling bases dedicated to specific tripods. RRS also makes a Universal Leveling Base that threads onto any 3/8 screw at the top of any tripod; the tripod head then attaches to the leveling base. I checked online and found a lot of options in leveling bases, so do some research to find the best option for your photography.
See? Tripods Are Fun!
Well, tripods may not exactly be fun to use, but they are in many ways the secret to photographic satisfaction, and now I’ve shared that secret with you. So do the research, choose the tools that fit your style and your budget, and get out there. If you get better and sharper images from now on, you can thank me—or better yet, thank John Shaw.