November 28, 2014
Many of my students hate their tripods. For good reason: their tripods are often flimsy, prone to breaking, and so short that the center post must be extended to get the camera to eye level, which makes them shakier still. In many cases, these students exhausted most of their photo budget buying good cameras and lenses. With only a little money left over, they purchased the cheapest tripod they could find, which meant that they really aren’t getting the full benefit of their investment in their camera and lenses. These students fail to realize that a good tripod is easily as important as a good lens – and may cost just as much. If you hate your tripod, and would like to upgrade, read on for some tips on selecting a three-legged companion you’ll love.
First, a hard truth: all tripods are either too heavy or too flimsy. There are no super-light, super-sturdy tripods.
Next, a caution: don’t go overboard. A quality tripod is required to produce the sharpest possible images, but if the tripod you buy is so big and heavy that you leave it behind in the trunk of your car whenever you go out to shoot, then you’ve bought the wrong tripod.
At the higher end of the market, tripod legs and heads are normally sold separately. Here’s what to look for in tripod legs.
If possible, get a set of legs that extend higher than your head without raising the center post. You’ll need that extra leg length when setting up on a steep slope. The leg on the downhill side of the tripod must extend longer than your height to position the camera at eye level. The ability to position the camera close to the ground is just as important as the ability to place it high. Buy tripod legs that can be splayed out so you can position the camera near ground level. Avoid tripod legs with center posts, which restrict your ability to place the camera low. Center posts can also cause other problems. Extending the center post makes the camera wobble in the wind like a flower atop its stalk.
Carbon-fiber legs are light but expensive. Aluminum works just fine, at the cost of more weight. Tripods with three leg sections are a bit sturdier and set up faster than tripods with four leg sections, but don’t pack down as small. If you travel with your gear by air, look for a tripod that will fit inside your suitcase or carry-on bag.
Now let’s take a look at tripod heads. Your first choice is between a three-way pan/tilt head and a ballhead. I prefer ballheads because they’re faster to use and lighter for the amount of support they provide. Loosen one knob, and you can re-position the camera with complete freedom.
Inexpensive tripod heads come with quick-release plates that bolt to the bottom of the camera with a single bolt. The major disadvantage of this design is that the quick-release plate can easily rotate in relation to the camera body. The plate is constantly trying to unscrew itself from the camera. This can happen if you pan the camera left or right without loosening the pan lock on the tripod head. It’s virtually guaranteed to happen when you shoot a vertical, particularly with a long lens. The nose-heavy camera/lens combination tends to rotate in relation to the plate until the lens is pointing straight down. The only way to really beat that problem is to buy a custom-fitted camera plate for your specific camera body from Really Right Stuff, Kirk Enterprises, or Acratech. These camera plates are designed to cup the bottom of the camera so that they cannot rotate in relation to the camera. The plates have a dovetail that fits into the dovetail clamp on the tripod head. The best plates are built to the Arca-Swiss standard, which means they fit the dovetail clamps on Arca-Swiss style heads.
An even better solution than a custom straight plate is a custom L-plate (also called an L-bracket), so called because it has a dovetail running along both the bottom and the side of the camera body. Like good straight plates, good L-plates are built to the Arca-Swiss standard and are fitted to your camera body so they can’t twist loose. To switch the camera from horizontal to vertical orientation, you release the bottom dovetail from the tripod head’s clamp and position the side dovetail in the clamp instead. You no longer need to tilt the tripod head onto its side to shoot a vertical. A number of companies now make tripod heads that are Arca-Swiss compatible, but not all of these companies offer custom plates that won’t rotate against the bottom of the camera. Whether you buy a straight plate or a L-plate, be sure it’s custom-fitted to your camera.
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