Friday, 30 March 2012

Choosing a good tripod

As I just bought a new tripod today so I thought I would share with you a few tips on what to consider when choosing a tripod.

You may have spent a significant amount of cash on buying the latest and greatest camera and the thought of spending another few hundred bucks on a few aluminum sticks to hold your camera for you may not be foremost on your mind.  And yet, the tripod is possibly just as critical for taking great pictures as your camera (but remember, great photography isn't so much about the equipment you use, as it is about how you use it).

Hand-holding your camera may be fine if you are taking a quick snap in the middle of the day with the sun in shinning furiously, but in order to ensure absolute sharpness you really do need to have a good sturdy tripod to make sure that you don't risk your masterpiece being spoilt by shaking hands.  Taking great, noise-free pictures at night or in low-light conditions and relying on your steady hands for the long exposures is merely wishful thinking (even if your camera does boast high ISO speeds the noise levels often make the pictures unusable).

Without a good tripod you may be limiting yourself to taking a run of the mill photograph when you could avail yourself to a host of techniques to really make your pictures POP.  Deliberately slowing down your shutter speed when taking pictures of rivers or waterfalls to allow for a milky flowing effect is simply not possible without a tripod.  They are also invaluable when taking panoramic shots or pictures for HDR processing to make sure that everything is perfectly aligned.

Anyway, here's a few things I considered when looking at tripods to buy.

Height
I really wanted a tripod that would bring the camera up to my eye level without my having to extend the center column.  Center columns always feel a little flimsy to me, and when extended fully I am almost certain that they introduce as much shake to the camera as my own hands.

Release
Surprisingly there are still a lot of tripods around that do not offer a quick release mechanism and require that the camera be screwed on directly to the tripod, which means that you waste a lot of time screwing and unscrewing.  Imagine, what chaos ensues as you try to whisk the camera around to take a shot of a bird in flight just behind you.  You end up wrestling with what seems like an octopus as you struggle to get its limbs under control.
So a quick-release mount is a must.  Basically, you just attach a plate to the bottom of your camera and pretty much just forget about it. The plate locks into place on the tripod head, and you can connect and disconnect from the tripod with a quick flick of your finger.
Weight Rating
Your tripod has to be able to handle whatever you stick on top of it.  Try and get a tripod with a weight rating double that of the "package" you are planning to use.  If your camera together with the lens weighs 2kg, then make sure that the tripod has a rating of at least 4kg.  My first tripod was a wimp.  I basically bought it with my first digital camera (a Canon G2, gosh I am old).  When I tried sticking a DSLR with a decent lens on it, the head really could not handle it and the front of the lens would painfully embark on a journey to point to the ground.  Seriously, trying to take a tack sharp picture under such conditions basically amounted to the same thing as defying gravity.  A losing battle.

Head
This is where your camera is going to sit and the part you are most often going to adjust to make sure your camera is exactly where you want it to make sure you get the composition required for your masterpiece.  You basically have 2 choices:
  • Ball and socket:  These allow a lot of flexibility in moving your camera around and are very smooth.
  • Pan and tilt:  These really help to lock the camera into position and are generally cheaper. I do have to say that they are not quite as fluid to move around.
In the end it comes down to personal preference.  I got a pan and tilt, mostly because that is what I am used to.

Leg Locks
Basically these count for a lot, because you don't want to waste too much precious time fiddling around with collapsing and extending legs to get the height you want.  I personally like flip locking or quick release system because I feel that is just faster compared to twist action legs which I suspect are more prone to slippage.  Also, I like it that I can cast a quick glance to make sure that everything is well in place with the flip-locking system rather than repeatedly twisting the legs to make sure they are not going to slip (call me paranoid if you want, I guess I am a little after all).  Test the stability in the shop before buying, by extending the legs and pressing down from above. Make twisting and back-and-forth movements to see how much the legs wobble.

Center Column As I mentioned above, it is best to avoid using the center column to increase the height of the tripod to avoid any risk of instability.  But I really did want to get a tripod that would allow me to deploy the center column horizontally like a boom for macro shots or to take pictures of stuff from above.

Conclusion
When looking at the prices I realized that buying a good tripod can amount to a significant investment.  But it is also obvious to me that a good tripod is possibly going to last me a good ten years.  After all, there isn't much that is going to change as to how a tripod works or what functionality it offers.  The material used to manufacture tripods may change so that they become lighter.  And from experience, I have realized that scrimping on some 20-50 bucks is not really worth it, if the picture I take ends up blurred.  So a final word of advise:  Don't buy cheap, flimsy tripods. It's a false economy.

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