Some Truths About Tripods

After over forty years as a photographer, I’ve learned a few truths about tripods and I want to share them with you.

  1. A tripod is an incredible asset for the aspiring and serious photographer
  2. A tripod will sit in the closet if it is difficult to manipulate
  3. A tripod that is heavy or cumbersome never sees the light of day
  4. A tripod that is unstable and shakes will eventually learn to fly resulting in a devastating crash landing

There are more truths about tripods as you might imagine, but those four are enough to be going on with. So let’s look at these “truths” and discuss them for a bit.

That a tripod is an asset is a given. Great tripods take away the challenge of camera shake. They provide a firm compositional platform so you can spend more time thinking about the story your image is going to tell and setting up the image just right.

They remove a lot of concerns about shutter speed, aperture and ISO, affording you the flexibility to make the decisions in the exposure triangle and in lens choice by reducing the constraints created by dim light, long focal length, the need for massive depth of field and the need to allow for motion blur.

Using a tripod well, WILL help you make better photographs. Certainly there are shooting situations where a tripod isn’t as rich an asset and where one can be a real pain, but those situations almost never outweigh the situations where using one will make a positive difference. So, if you then conclude that any aspiring or serious photographer should have a great tripod, you’d be correct.

Tripods are really just a three-legged construct. We sometimes think of the tripod as the whole thing, and that’s wrong. Think of the tripod as two fundamental pieces, the leg set and the head. The leg set is what provides the stability, the head is where you manipulate the camera. Heads and leg sets have weight ratings. They aren’t there for marketing purposes only, they matter enormously, so be sure that your kit has the capacity for your largest lens and camera combination plus some buffer.

Tripod heads come in three basic flavours, Ball, Pan/Tilt and Gimbal. At the risk of over-simplifying (but not really), here’s how you decide.

Ball Head – best for still photography offering the widest positioning options with the fewest number of knobs and dials. Very fast and when well built, very stable. Often very difficult to lock in a specific XYZ movement axis making them less suitable for video or applications with independent axis controls.

Pan/Tilt Head – best for video. Allows the creator to lock down a specific movement axis while moving another for smooth pans, smooth tilts or a combination thereof. Usually equipped with control arms that allow for very smooth movements. Some are fluid damped for extra smoothness. Usually, they have three independent controls making them slow and cumbersome for still photography.

Gimbal Head – used most often with very long lenses to create better balance and to offset body / lens weighting. Often have damping and only work directly in two axes, meaning changing the camera from horizontal mode to vertical orientation means taking the camera off and changing fittings. The best way to handle a 500mm lens or longer for bird and wildlife photography.

Leg sets come in three flavours as well. Wood, metal and carbon fibre. See points 3 and 4 at the beginning of the article. Wood is pretty and some folks think it’s very old school. It’s also very heavy. Metal is less expensive than alternatives, but still heavy if there will be any real stability. Both do a fairly poor job of controlling the transmission of vibrations.

As a result of being cumbersome, both spend more time in the dark in a closet than being used. In today’s world, the person who will really benefit from a tripod wants and needs carbon fibre leg sets. This construction used to be priced in the stratosphere, but competition, engineering ingenuity, and improved manufacturing have changed the rules of the game.

Carbon Fibre is lightweight. You can carry a Carbon Fibre tripod all day long without getting exhausted. Carbon Fibre is torsionally stable. It flexes but doesn’t break or bend. Carbon fibre damps vibration. If you are shooting in a scenario where there is ground vibration, a carbon fibre leg set will pass a lot less vibration to the camera platform than either wood or metal. Carbon Fibre is tough. A small carbon fibre leg set can hold with stability much more weight than alternative materials.

Tripod leg sets have two major locking mechanisms. They are the lever lock and the twist lock. Choose the one that suits your needs best. For stills, I always choose twist locks. I find them very fast and very precise, plus they do not collect mud or dirt, they don’t rust when I plant the legs in a fast moving stream and they don’t catch on tree branches or cables or my clothes. Lever locks are still popular because they are quick to lock and unlock and may have variable tension controls.

More important to consider are the leg angle options. A tripod leg set that has only one leg angle option won’t let you get as low to the ground, or be as stable on uneven terrain as a set with different locking angles. Yes, this option incurs more cost but is worth every extra nickel (cannot use the word penny any longer).

A final bit of advice. Buy the leg sets long enough so you or the lucky recipient of your gift of a tripod rarely if ever needs to use a centre column. I don’t use centre columns at all, they reduce stability, but most tripods have them. So use the centre column sparingly and you end up with sharper images. Yes, that will mean a larger tripod and a bit more weight but better images are the primary drivers. Any photographer’s goal is to buy their last tripod first, not to fill the closet with a collection of “not quite right”.

And about that flight and crash scenario… After carrying an ostensibly tough and stable tripod down a steep incline to set up a camera in a pool just upstream of a waterfall and making a number of images thinking I had everything properly set, every one of the final images on the film (yes film, I have “tenure”) had sufficient micro shake to make the images unusable. The water was not running fast in the pool, but enough vibration was transmitted by the power of the falls to ruin the shots. That tripod had a terrible gravity-related accident. Years later, I made images in the same place using a carbon fibre tripod with a much heavier camera. No problems. Carbon fibre rules!

Until next time, peace.

Ross Chevalier

Ross has been a photographer for over four decades and is a professional photographer, videographer and imaging educator.

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Ross Chevalier
Ross has been a photographer for over four decades. He has worked as an apprentice, been a professional photographer and a photographic educator. He is an amateur videographer and offers mentoring programs.

Ross Chevalier

Ross has been a photographer for over four decades. He has worked as an apprentice, been a professional photographer and a photographic educator. He is an amateur videographer and offers mentoring programs.