The tripod trail

I’ve never been a huge fan of tripods. I don’t mean to say that a good tripod is not an important piece of kit, especially if you concentrate on photography which requires low shutter speeds. I suppose I just don’t often find them necessary for the genres in which I tend to specialise. Plus, these days, with camera/lens stabilisation offering up to 6 stops stabilisation, a tripod is now an option rather than a necessity in many cases. But for the dedicated wildlife or landscape photographer, for example, the tripod is essential. As a matter of fact, I’ve now started to embrace these two genres more seriously and am excited at the prospect of this year’s photo safari to the Kruger National Park. So, when a student asked me recently to advise on what tripod she should buy, it spurred me on to go and do some research.

My tripod history

Having said that they are not a necessity, I do own several tripods and a couple of monopods. At the start of my professional career, I worked extensively in the theatre and used a substantial SLIK tripod; it had a pan-and-tilt head to support one DSLR with a wide zoom to capture the wide shots of the entire stage. For the detail shots, I used my second body and an 80/200 lens on a monopod, mounted via a revolving lens collar to enable me to take both portrait and landscape ratio shots.

I still own that SLIK tripod and the Manfrotto monopod but they have been joined by a lightweight Manfrotto tripod with a ball head and a Manfrotto monopod complete with a fluid pan-and-tilt head. I’ve swapped the original pan-and-tilt head on the SLIK for a more expensive fluid pan-and-tilt head and this is now my main video tripod. I use the new lighter weight Manfrotto with the ball head for stills work. The trusty old SLIK is very stable and fine for theatre and studio work but the weight means that it’s not suitable to go gadding about with. If I’m going to do more landscape and wildlife, I need to upgrade. So let’s have a look at what’s available.

The right tripod: so much to consider

As we all know, tripods come in many sizes. The big ones suit heavy equipment but are more cumbersome to carry around; hence the lightweight carbon fibre construction of the more expensive ones. The more substantial tripods are generally more stable and can carry a greater weight but the trade-off is that they can be a bit more awkward in small spaces. Some tripods allow you to hang a camera bag from the centre shaft to help stabilise things. On many, my SLIK included, the bottom half of the centre column can be unscrewed and removed to reduce the weight when carrying.

And, if you are lugging your tripod around, weight will be an important factor in your purchasing decision. So let’s include a nod to the materials used in the making of them. Carbon fibre is light in the hand but heavy on the wallet. Aluminium is heavier but cheaper. Basalt (made into a fibreglass material) is apparently somewhere in between, although I have no direct experience of it. There are others but the first two mentioned above are probably the most widely used. The lightness of the carbon fibre option means that you can have thicker, sturdier legs while still retaining the weight advantage over aluminium. This, in turn, means you get stability and that surely has to be a priority.

So if you’re thinking of getting out and about with your tripod, it’s not just weight that you have to think about. Consider physical size; how compact do you need the tripod to be when collapsed? Are you carrying it long distances? Are you taking it on a plane in your carry-on luggage? Five and six section legs will fold up smaller than those with just two sections - but at the expense of rigidity. More joints = more flexibility = greater risk of camera shake. We’re back to stability again. Without that, the tripod really isn’t doing its job.

In terms of height, with the camera on my old SLIK tripod, the viewfinder is comfortably at my eye level - without extending the centre column. This is important because the whole structure feels really planted. Again, that idea of stability. And you don’t want to be crouching over your camera. It’s not only uncomfortable but you also run the risk of leaning on or knocking your camera which will have consequences!

Something else to bear in mind when buying a tripod is the method used to clamp the extending legs. I have learnt about this from experience. Designs using a cam style lock click reassuringly into place at the height you choose. Those which use one or more rotating collars on each leg I personally find more fiddly, not least because it’s a two-handed job. Potentially still more off-putting, on the cheaper products, the legs may not hold. A lightweight compact tripod I bought from Amazon has an annoying habit of collapsing! Even if you pay a premium and get the best, this can still happen if your camera, lens and other equipment combined is too heavy for the tripod you choose.

Then we come on to the the choice of heads and plates


Pan and tilt

For video work, a fluid pan-and-tilt head is fantastic. My Manfrotto XPRO 4 section monopod has the pro MVMXPRO500 2-way fluid head which has the larger 501 plate designed for bigger camera rigs. It only offers tilt; panning is handled via the base of the monopod which also has 3 small legs. It is ideal for action videography. I also have a relatively inexpensive fluid head produced by Neewer now fitted to my old SLIK. Like the big Manfrotto, it tilts but doesn’t pan and uses what seems to be Neewer’s own version an Arca Swiss style plate.

For stills work, a non fluid pan-and-tilt head can give very precise and stable positioning, especially if it has geared adjustment.

Ball heads

For stills work, I find the ball heads very easy to use. My medium-sized Manfrotto 190XB has the 496RC2 head which works extremely well. The small Manfrotto RC2 plate has the advantage over the Arca Swiss of a one-handed mounting. Having said that, Arca Swiss plates win a counterpoint because you can buy one to mount the camera in either landscape or portrait mode. Manfrotto do make an RC2 type like this but it is rather clumsy when fitted to the camera. Obviously, with a ball head, you can rotate the camera through 90 degrees to achieve a portrait format but the lens will no longer be central to the legs. The potential for weight imbalance with a heavy camera and lens combination would strike fear into the heart of any photographer.

Gimbal heads

I have never owned or used one of these but they come highly recommended for wildlife photography. They allow very smooth tracking of action subjects but, by all accounts, they take a bit of getting used to. The more expensive ones are made of carbon fibre to reduce weight.

Apart from preventing camera movement, why else might you need a tripod?

You might need one if you want or need to do any of the following:

  1. Shoot a composited panorama
  2. Shoot multiple images for high dynamic range composites
  3. Take a series of time lapse photographs to produce an animation
  4. Take a series of photos to produce a composite image, such as when you are selectively including people in a crowd, or combining portions lit by daylight with those at dusk
  5. Shoot groups for example at a wedding where you may have to keep going backwards and forwards from camera to subject
  6. Whenever you need to have your camera set up in the right position well in advance of the shot, such as for a sporting event

Tips for using a tripod:

  • Make sure the tripod is stable when extended to your eye height
  • Extend the thicker legs first when setting the height - they will be more stable
  • Spread the legs as wide as possible for maximum stability
  • Set your tripod on a sturdy surface
  • Shield the tripod from wind if possible
  • Use the spikes on the bottom of the legs (if available) when on suitable ground
  • Avoid extending the centre column fully
  • The maximum support weight should be no less than 1.5 x the total weight of camera and lens

So what am I going to buy?

If money was no object, I would go for the Gitzo Mountaineer in carbon fibre but I doubt the budget will stretch to that. Instead, I will be seen lurking on the tripod manufacturers’ stands at the Photography Show next month, looking for that unbeatable show bargain!

My research has taken me all over the web and I now have a serious case of tripod envy. Did I say I wasn’t a huge fan? Well, I think I’m converted.

The banner was shot on my SLIK Pro 700DX at dawn on the Lincolnshire Wolds and is an HDR merge of 5 shots.