If there is one pieces of equipment photographers most often call “optional” it’s a tripod. Yet I believe that there is no camera accessory more important to own. A camera mounted on a tripod has several advantages that can’t be matched by technology or technique.
Tripods can do more for image quality than any other accessory. Tripods keep cameras rock steady during the moment of exposure. Have you ever marveled at a magazine picture so detailed it seems that you could walk right into it? Have you seen a portrait so crisp that you can count the hairs of the subject’s eyelashes? The difference between shooting hand held and on a tripod is in the fine details.
All of the image stabilization technology and camera handling technique in the world cannot hold a camera as completely still as a tripod. And having the camera locked down and unmoving is what allows the photographer to capture fine detail in the final image.
Photographers need tripods and many don’t have a clear idea of how to begin selecting one. There are two characteristics that are a good place to start when selecting the right tripod: the ability to support the weight of the camera and the tripod head style.
When we are concerned about supporting the weight of a camera we are looking at two distinct parts of the tripod. The legs must be able to support the camera’s weight without bowing or shaking and the tripod’s head has to have locks that can securely hold the camera in any desired position.
The selected tripod should be able to hold the photographer’s camera and heaviest lens rigidly locked at any point along the head’s range of movement. A tripod head that allows a camera and lens to drift will eventually find a tip-over point and there goes the whole rig falling to the ground.
The area of interest that the photographer works in will have a significant impact on the type of tripod and head that should be selected. While most inexpensive tripods come with permanently attached pan heads moderate to top-end models allow the photographer to choose the type of head to complete the outfit.
Pan heads tend to have a single long handle that protrudes from the back of the tripod head. By twisting the handle to loosen the camera platform the camera can be aimed toward the sky or toward the ground. A pan head is preferred by those who shoot movies or video because the long handle allows for easy, smooth control while panning from side to side.
However a pan head often doesn’t manage landscape to portrait camera tilts very well, they lack a strong enough lock to hold the camera in a mid position between horizontal and vertical. Pan heads also have difficulty in pointing the camera straight up, the long handle prevents this.
Photographers who don’t need to follow action often prefer ball heads. A ball head can have one or more locks that allow the ball and socket of the head to move freely in roughly hemispherical arcs. Ball heads provide a means to have almost unlimited control over the position of the camera. One benefit of the large range of motion is when positioning the camera exactly level on uneven ground. Ball heads in general will support more camera and lens weight without drifting.
The Three-way Pan Head is much like the pan head mentioned above. However with a three-way there are three mid-length control handles or levers. A three-way head tends to sit higher above the tripod body to permit greater movement of the camera platform. A three-way head offers the capabilities of the pan head with more rigid locks and finer control of the tilt feature. Three-way pan heads have been studio favorites for years.
Three–way and ball type tripod heads are most commonly found on moderate to high-end tripods. Pan heads as mentioned earlier are often found on lower cost tripods but there are high-end options that are favored by videographers. I would like to stress that there is no wrong tripod head, the choice of one style over another is solely based on how the photographer shoots.
A third consideration is operating height. For extended use, such as covering a sporting event, a tripod that is too short can be a literal pain in the back. However photographers that want to pack into the woods will appreciate the most compact tripod they can find. In general we should judge the operating height of a tripod without extending the center column. The more the center column is extended the less stable the tripod becomes.
One of the last major factors is the material that the tripod is made from. Outside of exotics, aluminum is the single most common material in tripod construction, second is plastic. The ratio of aluminum to plastic affects the weight, price and stability of the tripod.
Another group of materials used in tripods are the exotics. Carbon fiber and even basalt have been engineered for use in tripod leg construction. These materials offer high rigidity and strength while creating a lower weight tripod. Exotic tripods will still rely on aluminum, plastic and other materials to create the entire package but they can offer up to a 30% weight savings compared to an aluminum tripod of equal capability.
Selecting a tripod and head is all about feature trade-offs, expense and shooting style. Be careful with the feature compromises though, a low priced, compact and light weight tripod that isn’t stable when your camera and lens are mounted is always too expensive.
In conclusion: Tripods are a necessary accessory for any photographer. It is important to select one that can support the weight of your camera and heaviest lens without creeping. Tripod heads come in several configurations, moderate to more expensive tripods will allow the photographer to mix and match legs and heads to select their own combination. The materials used in tripod construction have a direct bearing on three key factors: cost, weight and stability. Don’t make a purchase decision without considering all three factors.