Do I really need a tripod?

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:
• stable
• 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.

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16 comments on “Do I really need a tripod?

  1. Nev says:

    Thank For the info Helen, so points there I would not have considered

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  2. Great article, Helen. I’m about to pick up my new toy next week when I’m in the US!

    For the skeptics: I have had many conversations and email exchanges with Helen and Phil about tripods, what type to buy and was fortunate to recently be able to see their tripod setups, play a bit with them and see how good they are. It almost made me buy all the gadgets at once, but I figured it was nice to leave something on my wish list…

    Yes, it is a big investment to buy something that good, but for me it is akin to outdoor gear; unknowingly you can spend a lot of money on mediocre stuff that “will do”, when often it is worthwhile to save up and buy the real thing and therefore buy only once. At the end of the day you get what you pay for.

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  3. Helen McF says:

    Thanks for the endorsement, Sheila. I hope you have fun with your new toy!

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  4. Murray Foote says:

    The other side of this is the appropriateness of hand holding at a particular ISO and focal length. In the film days, the inverse of focal length was said to be appropriate (eg 1/100sec for 100mm lens) but these days a faster shutter speed is likely to be more appropriate and my rule of thumb is three stops less.

    “There really is no way around needing a tripod if you want to shoot scenic shots.
    • using bracketing for exposure stacking, focus stacking or HDR
    • for stitching into panoramas”

    This is true if you have close background objects in your composition but not so much otherwise.

    I once was caught with a 105mm lens, a monopod, an unexpected view of Iguazu Falls and only 15 minutes before leaving for a plane. So I tried a 156-shot composite including exposure stacking for HDR, focus bracketing and multi-row panorama, relatively hand-held though with a monopod. To my surprise it worked though some of the water-to-water panorama joins were tricky. Last image on this thread: http://murrayfoote.com/2011/05/14/18th-april-iguazu-falls/ (clicking it to zoom in with zoom.it probably no longer works).

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  5. Darrell Wood says:

    Hi, Thanks for the article.

    I am looking at robust and flexible Tripod Head (all angles). I used to have an Arca Swiss B1 but sold it many years since then I have used a Manfronto and more recently a Gitzo Magnesium head (expensive and not good). I have narrowed it to .

    1. RRS BH-55 LR: Full-sized ballhead with B2 AS II clamp
    2 RRS BH-55 PCPRO: Full-sized ballhead with PC-PRO clamp
    3. Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 sp with Quick Release
    4. Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 dp Ball Head with Quick Release

    What do people have any what are their experiences with these if they have them .

    DW

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    • Helen McF says:

      Thanks for the comment, Darrell. Phil and I have RRS tripods and will be bringing them along to the next Workshop night to be held on April 21st. I suggest that you come along to that night for a hands-on look at some of the above and a discussion of the various options. Generally the RRS BH 55 is considered one of the best heads in the world but it is also important to consider what tripod you attach it to and how you mount it. Best explained when you are looking at the gear.

      Helen

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      • Darrell Wood says:

        Thanks. which models do you two have. is yours number 1 or 2 of the my list above. Do you know also fits the Kirk camera L plates which I use attached the camera all the time. Kind Regards

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    • Murray Foote says:

      I also have an RRS tripod. I have an Arca Swiss Z1 head and also recently bought an Arcatech head. The advantage of the Acratech is that is it somewhat lighter, easier to clean and you can invert it to make a panoramic head. The Acratech might not support quite as heavy a lens as the Z1 – for example a 600mm f4 might be pushing it but a 300mm f2.8 (3kg from memory) would be fine.

      There are some traps for the unwary here. RRS and some other (mainly American) manufacturers have diverged from the original Arca-Swiss standard for clamps. RRS lever clamps have no adjustment and are therefore better used only with RRS rails, l-brackets etc (no doubt a deliberate choice on the part of RRS). Your Kirk L-Plates are probably OK but might not be. Acratech lever clamps also have a screw adjustment so can fit any Arca-Swiss L-Plate, also useful if you later get a macro rail or a panorama rail. They are very well constructed. Arca-Swiss (brand) lever clamps are also adjustable but this is more fiddly and the adjusting screw can sometimes become loose.

      So I suggest also considering an Acratech head. I can bring it along to the workshop night to show you if you like.

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      • darrell says:

        Thanks for response. If you could bring along as you suggest that would be helpful. I think some are also bring RRS heads and that will all enable me to decide much better. Will help avoid costly mistake. Thanks.

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      • Darrell Wood says:

        Murray. Can I ask a favour. Would be really good on the workshop night to also bring along what bags you can. I am trying to decide between these as a alternative to Think Tank Shape shifter and better protection/storage when I have car. Ideally it carries all my stuff.

        Ruck Sack.

        1. http://www.guragear.com/bataflae/ 32L

        2. http://www.mindshiftgear.com/products/rotation180-professional

        3. One other I cannot remember name for. Distributor is in North Sydney
        4. Think-tank acceleration

        Roller Bags:

        1. http://www.thinktankphoto.com/products/airport-international-v2-roller-camera-bag.aspx

        2. http://www.pelican.com/cases_detail/Case/1510/

        3. http://www.thinktankphoto.com/products/airport-airstream-roller-camera-bag.aspx

        4. http://www.thinktankphoto.com/products/airport-takeoff-roller-camera-bag.aspx

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      • Murray Foote says:

        OK. I have the following:
        1. GuraGear Kiboko 30L (precursor to Bataflae) – I use for my Nikon system
        2. MindshiftGear 180 Pro – I use for my Fujifilm system
        3. ThinkTank International V1. I bought it for international use but too heavy for that. Great in back f the car and where you can wheel it in. Not a backpack. I suspect perhaps a better option than a Pelican case though not cheap.
        4. LowePro Vertex 200AW – Replaced by Kiboko. Good pack but Kiboko is lighter.

        Do you want to see the Vertex as well or just the first three?

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      • Darrell Wood says:

        Murray et al

        Would a Fluid Head (e.g. Miller, or RRS) be suitable as a replacement for a Ball and or Gimbal head to cover both Video and Stills. This would avoid having to carry both, one for stills and the other for Video.

        Thanks in advance.

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      • Murray Foote says:

        I don’t know. I’ve never used one. One of the people at the Hawaii Surfing Photography Workshop used one with a 400mm or 600mm lens. Perhaps they are therefore a subsitute for gimbal heads. My impression is that they are much bigger and probably heavier than ball heads and if that is so, you might want a ball head as well for when you want to go walking or traveling internationally with no serious video intentions.

        I found this quote in a birding forum thread: “Gimbal heads are excellent for large spotting scopes and telephoto lenses, but they are expensive. Ball heads are excellent for photography, but dreadful for video. Fluid heads are excellent for video and spotting scopes…you can take photos as well, but you often don’t have the freedom to flip the camera from landscape view to portrait view.”

        If you need a fluid head for video perhaps you should get one first and see how it compares to ball heads such as the ones I and Helen or Phil will bring along next Tuesday.

        Gimbal heads. I have a Wimberly Sidekick and I could bring that along if you want with my 300mm f2.8. That’s not so suitable for say a 600mm lens which really requires a full gimbal head. What lens are you contemplating using a gimbal with?

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  6. Darrell Wood says:

    First 3 would be great. Thanks. Apart from storage and transport I am also trying to find a bag I can work out of.

    Thanks again and see you at the evening.

    Darrell Wood

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  7. Helen McF says:

    Just to clarify – the hands-on session is at the Workshop night on 21 April. Next Tuesday, 14 April, at the Activity Night Phil and I will be talking about how to approach landscape photography and the elements of composition. We will be showing some of our own images and talking about where we were and what we were thinking about when we made the images. So we will be talking about some fundamental concepts as well as how to set up gear.

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