21 March 2016

Things to Consider when Selecting Your New Tripod

Art Model Christina, ©2016 Terrell Neasley

I get asked on a regular basis about choice of camera...Nikon or Canon? Mirrorless or DSLR? Can a micro four-thirds system compete with larger sensors? Do I need to be full-frame? These are questions I tend to address on my blog quite often, but I haven't paid the same attention to tripods, so maybe its a good time to get into that now.

I have time allotted to tripods during my One-on-One photography course right before I get into night time photography. I also cover this material just about every day I work at B&C Camera, which isn't much nowadays. I've elected to reduce my time there to concentrate on my own photo business. Somehow, I still end up there more than the time I actually clock in. Hanging out at camera stores and all that gear can be addictive.

Art Model Christina, ©2016 Terrell Neasley

Anyhoo, in selecting a tripod budget is the primary concern with most people. Too often, amateur photogs are willing to spend $1500 to $3000 on a good camera, but are totally content to put it on a $30 set of legs. Personally, I'm not letting them do it. You can go cheap with a lot of things, but a tripod ain't one. You don't have to get all Gitzo, but finding the cheapest Sunpak on Amazon is NOT the right answer.

Load Capacity
Next factor? Consider two things: the weight of what you're going to put on it and whether or not you'll be traveling (carrying on your back or flying with a carry-on) with the tripod or not. I've got 3 or 4 tripods and 2 of them are my work horses depending on what I'm doing. I have a heavy duty Manfrotto for the majority of my work, but I also have a Promaster XC525 series for travel when I need to hike or fly with smaller by sturdy support.

Art Model Christina, ©2016 Terrell Neasley

If you are not having to carry your tripod around on your back or in luggage, then you can stand to get something sturdy and durable. I'd say a good target budget can get you a good kit (legs and head) for under $300, and likely around $200. Look up the weight specifications on your camera and the heaviest lens you have. Consider a good system that can handle at least triple that weight. You never want your support system to be straining. And you want to consider the possibility you may rent a heavier camera and lens in the future for a special project. Both my tripods have a max load of 22 or more pounds. In addition to all that, think about how tall the tripod extends up to. The taller you are, the more consideration you'll need to give to how much you want to have to bend over to see through your viewfinder.

Tripod Head
Next, consider the head. Ball heads are most commonly used, but pan/tilt heads can be less costly. Feel out what's most comfortable and natural in your hands. You also need to think about what quick release plate your tripod uses. I have had plenty of people coming in asking if we have quick release plates for their tripods for a lesser known economy brand. Unfortunately, those guys can thrown their tripods away. Get a tripod that has either a standard Manfrotto quick release system or one that utilizes the Arca-Swiss style. Vacation anywhere in the country and realize you forgot your quick release plate, you can visit just about any camera store and you can get replacements. That's not true of the proprietary brands. They usually have a plastic plate made strictly for its own head and if you lose it, you can either contact the manufacturer or trash it. A good head simply can't be taken seriously enough. In fact, you can get two different ones for different reasons. Get a ball head for your primary photo work, but you can do a fluid head for video.

Art Model Christina, ©2016 Terrell Neasley

Tripod Legs
Sturdy support is the main consideration here. Everything else is convenience. Do the legs wobble at all? Do they look and feel like they'll hold up for years to come? Do they spread out a full 90 degrees and lay flat? Consider which locking mechanism you prefer. Tripods will either come with twist type or clamps to lock the legs in place. Do they feel like cheap plastic? They'll have to hold up to repeated locking and unlocking. What are the legs made of. I prefer carbon fiber legs, but expect to pay likely twice what the aluminum legs run. (HA! I said "Legs Run"!) They are lighter than aluminum and stronger, but the main reason for my choice is that they look better. I confess that. Carbon Fiber will also not get as uncomfortable to hold in cold environments as aluminum does. Good legs are hard to beat.

Art Model Christina, ©2016 Terrell Neasley

Everything here is mainly convenience, although you can make an argument for some pros or serious enthusiasts that some of these features are necessary requirements.

Many of the good ball heads come with three separate controls for locking the ball head, adjusting the tension/friction for the ball head when its not locked in place, as well as locking your panning position. The tension control is good thing to have, especially if you have a heavy camera system. This way the ball can be adjusted so that when you unlock the ball head, it doesn't suddenly tilt forward. Economical ball heads might eliminate this feature all together.

Tripods might also come with built-in levels, sometimes as many as 3, which can be handy. However my main feature I look for is a quick release plate assembly with a Double Locking mechanism. For me, this is absolutely essential. I don't want to bump or snag my camera and unlock the quick release accidentally and then watch as my takes a spill. A double locking mechanism require two actions to unlock the plate. So ask for this, dare I say, insist upon it!

Lastly, the center-post or neck of a tripod can be a feature. Most tripods allow you to use the center neck to adjust the height and raise the camera. I personally do not use this feature and will traditionally keep it locked in the lowest position. I don't like raising my camera up and thereby alter the center of gravity. I like it balanced and stabilized. However, on my main Manfrotto system, the center posts can be adjusted to lay horizontally. This has proven to be a true added benefit in this feature when I do macro photography. Some center posts have a hook on the bottom to attach a weight of some sort for more stability. There are also reversible center posts that hang your camera upside down. Other tripods like the Gitzo Ocean Traveler can withstand sea salt with its anti-corrosion feature, but it'll also run you north of $1100. Some might have spiked feet or padded ones depending on the surface you'll be shooting on.

Art Model Christina, ©2016 Terrell Neasley

So while there's lots to consider, its basically getting the fundamentals down and then choosing specific features that may benefit you. Here are a few extra tips. Make sure you have the lens pointed out over a tripod leg for stability. Use a cable release connected to your camera as well as the mirror lock-up feature on your camera for those long exposures to help eliminate blur. If the situation you wish to shoot in forbids tripod use, consider a good monopod. My Promaster XC525 has one leg that's detachable to act as a monopod. Got questions, thoughts, gripes? Leave'em in the comments.

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