When my mother would return from Greece and show us her pictures, I used to wince. Her shooting technique was terrible and the results equally so. I tried for years to show her how to get sharper pictures, but those of you with a Greek mother will nod your head knowingly when I say, you can’t teach an all-powerful Greek mother a thing if she thinks she knows better.
How could she have gotten better results? Well for one thing she needed to pay attention to her breathing and squeeze off the shot just like any shooter must and she could have leaned against a tree or a wall or someone’s handy shoulder but a good tripod would have been the best tool to get sharp and clear photographs for her and for you the reader too!
So what constitutes a good tripod? First of all they have three legs and are sturdily built. These legs can be extended and locked at various heights suited to the shot you will take. On top of the three legs there is some method of screwing down the camera securely and another method to allow the camera to move on an axis of 360 degrees and to tilt up and down at an angle. They are all the same in this regard, but how do you know a good one and how much do they cost? Ah, that is the question! I am often asked what is a good 50 dollar tripod and my answer is always the same…there isn’t one…do your research, decide on a brand and then buy the best one you can afford, but always staying close to the middle of the road model. No matter what brand of tripod or anything else for that matter, once you get to the middle models in cost, anything you pay for the higher priced models will be less and less cost effective. So brand A may have their super model running at 1200 dollars but their 600 or 700 dollar rig will do an excellent job. The rest of the cost is for cosmetics and niggling little things that you may or may not ever use or really need.
What are the good brands of tripods? There are dozens but here are some Gitzo, Manfrotto, Arca Swiss, Induro, Benro…and the list goes on. I am not going to try and recommend any one brand, but here are a few things to look for no matter what brand you choose:
-How much weight will it hold steadily…the manufacturer will give you a figure in his catalog. Just be sure that if you are going to be shooting with a huge 400mm lens hanging off your camera, that you have a tripod rated for that kind of weight.
-How much does the tripod itself weigh? Take that into consideration, since you have to lug it and your other equipment around.
-Will you want and aluminum or carbon fiber tripod? Aluminum is much heavier than carbon fiber, but also cheaper if money is a factor. Carbon fiber is much lighter and very strong, that’s why they build bicycle frames and golf club shafts from it. Remember, always buy the best you can afford and stick to the middle priced models…unless money is of little consequence to you then buy the most luxurious model that makes you happy.
My tripod is called a Flexpod since it is capable of moving to almost any angle one chooses as you might guess by looking. It is particularly good at getting captures close to the ground as when shooting flowers and bugs. This tripod is made not only of 8 layer carbon fiber of the most advanced weave available but any metal parts are made from magnesium to conserve weight.
– You will need a ball-head or a pan-head to screw onto the top of the tripod. These will allow you attach the camera and then move it easily at various angles up, down and all around. They will also let you move the camera from Landscape to the Portrait position. A ball-head is ideal for shooting stills and macro shots, while a pan-head is ideal for a video camera for shooting movies et al. It can be used for stills too but is not nearly as useful as a ball-head for that. A word of warning here…there are hundreds of models to choose from and it will make your head spin! However, the same advice applies as for tripods…firstly, make sure the model you pick fits the maximum weight of the camera/lens/flash combination you are likely to use and secondly buy the best one you can afford but when money becomes an issue buy the best middle of the road model and it will suffice for 99% of any kind of shooting.
This is a Pan-Head and is ideally used when making a video. Happily my still camera also makes very nice videos. You can see that there are control rods that can be used for panning up and down as well as completely 360 degrees when necessary. It can be used like a ball-head but does not have the same strength nor can it lock in the same way as a ball-head can. See the ball-head next.
Here is a ball-head attached to my Benro carbon fiber tripod. I bought their top-of-the-line model, in this case, the very best one I could afford. The strength of a ball-head has to do very much with the size of the ball that you can clearly see in this picture. That ball is huge at 2.56 inches. A light load ball might be an inch and a half. This rig is strong enough to hold a load of over 40 kg or 87 pounds. It has graduated locking knobs so you can accurately adjust to the load attached and keep the camera still and shake-free, yet it can be further adjusted by the smaller second knob that you see to the left of the ball, so the camera can be moved to a different angle and position simply by pushing with one finger. It still holds the camera load firmly wherever you move it . It is made from the highest grade of machined aluminum and magnesium. By the way, if you look closely, you can see the two large knobs that lock the ball-head to the top of the tripod. The ball-head is attached to a shaft that can move up and down for extra height and in the case of the Flexpod, it can be used like a microphone boom and swung this way and that, both high and low for extra flexibility. It can also be turned upside down, so that the camera can be made to hang upside down for a shot right at ground level.
Tripods and ball-heads are made in many different countries and China and Korea have the most models at the best prices. Despite past experiences, China and Korea make some excellent equipment but you must do your research to be sure you get the best quality items. Some people have patriotic needs when buying and wish to buy, for example Made in America. There are some very good tripods and heads of various kinds made in the USA. Just Google the sources and you will find them, but they tend to be more expensive by a third to a half…this is true also of the tripods/heads made in Switzerland and Italy.
No matter which brand you buy, all the manufacturers make very good to excellent models, but do your research, then buy the best one you can afford. When I started photography 60 odd years ago, I had few choices of tripods I could afford at all and later I bought several different cheap tripods all of which failed me in a variety of ways…they were poor value for the money. When I started digital photography, I was a little wiser and I bought a tripod, ball-head and a pan-head that was the best I could afford. It was Chinese, made by Benro and I have never been happier…the equipment is strong, well made, machined beautifully so that all movement is silky smooth but when locked down, stays absolutely still for the best results.How much are you likely to spend? I will answer that by giving you the approximate prices I paid and then you can judge. Let me say up front, that had I bought equipment from the high end tripods made in Switzerland, Italy or the USA I would have paid a third to a half again the prices you see below for similar or almost the exact same quality stuff. My tripod was $325 US dollars on e-bay, the ball-head was $235 on e-bay and the pan-head was $125 US dollars, also on e-bay. That is $900 US. I leave the cost of the same stuff from the high-end guys to your mathematical skills.
And here is the kicker, since I am a little on the ancient side and have bad knees, I find it hard getting up from a shot near the ground, so I use the tripod to hoist myself up and I am no lightweight. It handles me just fine. I love my tripod and it will last me for the rest of my shooting days and then it will serve my son or grandson for years to come beyond me. You choose the one that appeals to you and if you follow the tips here, you should be cranking out some great, sharp pictures with your camera.