Given that our theme for April is “Collecting the data: Composition and Capture” and we will be talking about the nuts and bolts of getting the best image capture at the April Activity Night, Workshop Night and at the Merimbula weekend, I thought it pertinent to start the ball rolling with some thoughts about tripods. At the April Activity night, Phil McFadden will be talking about tripods in some detail, and at the following Workshop you will have an opportunity to experiment with various tripods and learn how to set up your tripod.
There are several articles on the internet that discuss the pros and cons of tripod use and some will claim that, with the image stabilisation (vibration reduction) capability in camera equipment today, you can capture adequate images hand-held. This is true to some extent: with the emphasis on the “adequate”. If you want to capture images that are really sharp then a tripod is often a prerequisite.
There really is no way around needing a tripod if you want to shoot scenic shots.
• in low light using a low ISO to minimise noise
• using bracketing for exposure stacking, focus stacking or HDR
• for stitching into panoramas
• with longer time exposures using neutral density filters, for example to capture softly textured flowing water.
A tripod is also useful for macro photography as placement of the camera is often critical. It is also useful to support telephoto lenses that just get too heavy to hand-hold after a while. There are instances when a monopod will be just as useful as a tripod, or even more useful, for example when working with a telephoto lens at sporting events or for wildlife. Sometimes a beanbag is your support of choice if you are shooting wildlife from an appropriately configured vehicle..
Given that you have decided you want to be able to capture good landscape shots and you have decided that you need a tripod, how do you proceed?
My advice is that you should aim to buy the very best tripod that you can afford. Many of us have been down the road of buying a cheap tripod, and then a slightly better one and so on until we have ended up with a decent tripod. The money “saved” on the cheaper tripods was completely wasted. If you are photographing landscapes regularly you will probably use your tripod more than any other piece of equipment, so it makes sense to have one that will deliver good results..
A tripod should have the following characteristics: It should be:
• robust but light
• pack fairly small but not too small
• be easy to set up and take down
• be comfortable to use.
Stability: A tripod that waves in the breeze will take pictures that show camera shake and blur. A tripod should have fat legs – if they are thinner than your thumb they are probably not robust enough. A tripod should not have a centre column. These may be convenient in some instances, but are not stable. There is a reason that a tripod has three legs.
Robust and light: Most good tripods are made from carbon fibre. This is not essential, but a tripod made from other materials will often be really heavy, and even if you are not into hiking, you may still want to walk some distance to the best shot for a landscape.
Pack small. Tripods legs will usually have three sections that collapse. In those that have four sections, the thinnest legs are often thinner than your thumb. See above. That being said, my Really Right Stuff tripod has four sections, but it is beautifully made and exceptionally strong.
Easy to set up and take down. Most tripods consist of legs and a head. The head of choice is usually a ball head, but it has to be a good one or it will not be sufficiently robust. Your selection of head will depend to some extent on the weight of your camera, but again this is not an area where you should compromise. When using a tripod you should never leave the camera set up on the tripod. Never. Even to walk back to your camera bag 2 metres away. This is when accidents happen. It is not pretty when a camera/lens/tripod setup crashes into rocks or into the river beside you. Therefore a setup where you have a quick release for attaching and detaching your camera to the head quickly and easily is essential. It is also useful to choose a setup where the head of your tripod can be attached to the legs using a quick release system. Another feature to consider is the use of L-brackets on your camera. These do add to price and weight, but they make the world of difference to the ease of setup and are particularly useful when you want to mount your camera vertically (as you do when shooting for a panorama).
Comfortable to use. Several of the features mentioned above will also influence how user-friendly your tripod is. However, one feature often neglected is height. If you are going to be in the field shooting for hours, you do not want to be hunched over a tiny tripod. On the other hand, if you are in a howling gale on a beach, you will want to be crouched in a sheltered position with your camera as low as possible. It therefore makes sense to choose a tripod that can extend to a height that allows you to look through your mounted camera without bending over. At the same time, you want to be able to set up your tripod so it is rock solid close to the ground.
There are lots of tripod manufacturers out there and many retailers who will happily recommend a tripod that you will later regret. If you are planning to purchase a tripod in the near future, please come along to the April Activity and Workshop nights for a hands-on demonstration of some of the points I have raised here. Even after the Workshop, if you would like some advice about what to purchase, there are several members who would be happy to help so that you do not fall into some of the more common pitfalls.