5 Steps to Buying a Tripod

Esther BeatonPhotography Equipment

So many of my students avoid tripods. Sure, they bring them to the workshops, but then they diligently avoid using them until I just about take a leg off and beat them with it. The reason they don’t want to use them is because they’ve brought along a tripod that is painful to use. You know the ones; they are the small, standard ones blocking the entrance in a camera store and which the salesmen try to sell you. They are often slow, unwieldy, impractical and basically, just don’t work.  Most people buy tripods for only one reason, to hold the camera steady during slow exposures. Ahhh, if they only knew. There are many more reasons than that. Here are the most important ones. You can:
• compose critically – no uninvited bits creeping into the edges of your composition
• free your hands to operate other controls, like flash units, reflectors, filters, etc.
• walk away, come back and you don’t have to compose the scene or make adjustments all over again.
• take the weight off your arms and shoulders when working with heavy lenses, especially for long periods
• set your camera in difficult positions, such as worm’s eye view or in front of an obstacle.
The difference between fun, joy enthusiasm and great pictures vs struggle, frustration, despair and bad pictures is a good tripod. Here are 5 critical areas to examine when selecting the right tripod for your needs.
1. The Legs
There should be as few leg segments as possible. This makes it quicker to set up and to adjust the height during shooting and also makes the tripod more stable. Of course longer legs means your tripod won’t pack down into as small a space or into a case.
Are the legs sand, water and mud proof? When extended, how far do the legs splay out? The further apart, and wider the base of the triangle, the more stable. If the tripod is placed on irregular ground, can you easily bring the head back into the level position?
Do the legs have knobs which are quick to release and adjust? Or do they have flip locks which pinch your fingers? Rubber knurls don’t stick out like knobs but they are harder to loosen / tighten, and they eventually start to slip.
2. The Center Column
Does the tripod have one? This makes it easy to adjust the height of your camera without having to undo all three legs. It should travel up and down smoothly and quickly. Occasionally you need to get the camera to ground level. You should be able to either remove the column so you can splay the legs flat, or else be able to attach the camera to the bottom of the column. One manufacturer, Benbo, allows you to tilt and turn the center column, as well as the legs, in all directions – really handy in rough terrain.
3. The Head 
Can you remove the head? It’s good to be able to change heads if you have different ones for different purposes. Pan-and-tilt heads are really slow to use; they’re not for nature, sports or people photography at all. Ball-and-socket heads are quick to use; just loosening one knob allows free movement in all directions.
Most photography requires a ball and socket head. About the only situation you’ll find the pan and tilt head useful is in landscape work or studio still lifes.
If you do go for the ball head, is the movement ultra smooth? Can the friction be adjusted so you can pan the ball very slowly without the camera/ lens assembly flopping off balance?
Can you add a quick release fitting? This is essential for quick action photography, like birds. In fact, it’s just handy to have all the time.
4. Height and Weight
How high will it go when all parts are extended? About 2 metres (6 feet) is a good height. Some will go to 8 feet and then you’ll need to carry a stool or step ladder.
How low will it go? Ground level is optimum. This means the centre column has to be removed or be folded upwards as in a Benbo.
The material should preferably be aluminum or other non-corrosive metal. Same for the fittings. Titanium or carbon fibre are great but more than double the price. Are the tubes quite thick or are they thin? Thick ones will not dent but do increase the weight a bit. Usually the heavier the tripod the more stable, but keep it in proportion to your camera/lens weight. Generally speaking, the heavier your equipment, the more tripod you want to put underneath it.you add a quick release fitting? This is essential for quick action photography, like birds. In fact, it’s just handy to have all the time.
5. The Test
Finally, after you’ll visually checked out a few possible tripods, you should do an in-store test. With the camera and lens mounted, and legs fully extended, look through the viewfinder, and gently tap the lens. How much vibration do you see? When a long lens is mounted, you will see some vibration. The important point is, which tripod and head assembly gives you the least. Test it also with your longest / heaviest lens in a vertical position.
Hopefully, you’ll have a new take on tripods. They are not cumbersome once you get serious about the quality of your photography. Just the opposite, they can be quite freeing. I would rather go to a place where I know some good action is happening, some feeding shorebirds maybe, set my heavy lens on a tripod and just relax. I hope you too find yourself becoming one with the nature around you, knowing those birds will settle down and eventually let you do some image-making magic. When the action starts happening you’ll be alert and ready to capture it. 
Please note, this article is Copyright Esther Beaton. You may not copy it or use it without my written permission. However, I encourage you to share it by using a Share button below.