Day of the Tripods
By Tamia Nelson
July 10, 2012
Are you a serious photographer, as well as a paddler? Do you often carry a tripod? If the answer to my first question is yes, then it's a good bet that you'll answer yes to the second, as well. Of course, few paddlers start out by stowing tripods in their boats. A tripod is another thing to pack and carry, after all, and it's a real challenge to find a place to put a large tripod in a small kayak. Yet most of us end up burdened with one sooner or later. Why? Well, the clue comes in that little word "serious." If you're happy to record your trips on your cell phone, a tripod is just dead weight. But if you'll be shooting subjects that require long exposures in low light (star‑trail photos or light painting, for instance), if you're into macrophotography, or if you're thinking about experimenting with high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, you'll need a tripod. Ditto if panoramic landscapes, panned action shots, or self‑portraits are on your agenda. (Does all this wonkishness leave you scratching your head? Then check out my "Backcountry Photography" series. You'll find the explanations there.)
OK. You've decided you're ready to graduate from shutterbug to serious photographer. You need a tripod. But …
Which One Is the Right One for You?
A little background helps. A tripod is simply a support for a camera. There's always some shaking going on when you cradle your camera in your hands, even when you have a solid stance. That's because you're a living, breathing human being. You can hold your breath, of course, but you can't stop your heart from beating — why would you want to? — and the tiny tremor from a beating heart has blurred many a shot. A tripod removes the human element from the equation. It doesn't need to breathe, and it has no heart. It also has three legs (it's a tripod, right?), the most stable support possible. Two legs are too few. Bipods can't stand on their own. And four legs are too many. On any surface that isn't perfectly level, wobble is almost inevitable. But three legs? They're just right. You still have to squeeeeze the shutter gently, of course (or use a cable release), and you might need to lock up the mirror of a single‑lens reflex (SLR) for some shots, but once your camera's on a tripod, half the battle of the blur is won.
Let's look at some examples. Here are three tripods, poised for inaction on a riverside rock:
The boonie hat provides scale, though you'll have to look close to see it. Woodland camo works pretty well, even on rock. If you're a numbers person, however, you'll also want to know that the Slik is about two feet high (as set up in the photo), the Cullmann stands 18 inches tall, and the little Pentax struggles to reach seven. Now let's name the parts:
Most of these labels are pretty straightforward, but the add‑on mount on the Cullmann may need some explaining. It allows me to clamp a small helmet cam to the column for unattended time‑lapse videos. And since it doesn't get in the way when I use the tripod for my digital SLR, I leave it in place.
What — besides the obvious differences in size — distinguishes the tripods? Well, the Cullmann has a ball head, and the legs are secured with twist locks, as is the central column. The Slik, on the other hand, has a pan‑tilt head and flip locks on the telescoping legs, while the central column is raised and lowered with a crank‑operated rack‑and‑pinion, supplemented by a locking collar. The Pentax is the odd man out in this trio of tripods. It originally supported a spotting scope, but it works equally well as a lightweight photographic tripod. It has a ball head like the Cullmann, but unlike the Cullmann, the already short legs don't collapse. Instead, they rotate round a central post, making a compact, if somewhat ungainly, package.
Here's how the tripods look when collapsed for travel:
The little Pentax is my tripod of last resort. It really needs a bench to be at its best — the scope for which it was designed saw most use spotting targets at a range — and benches are rare finds in the backcountry. It's also hard‑pressed to support a digital SLR with a long, heavy telephoto zoom.
It works well with small point‑and‑shoot cameras, though, and it's a lot better than having no tripod at all. Benches may be few and far between once you leave the range, but there are plenty of fallen trees and boulders in Canoe Country. So the Pentax tripod still earns its keep.
Larger tripods are more versatile, of course. But this versatility comes at a price. Finding room inside my getaway pack for the Slik tripod is a challenge:
Get the picture? It's more than a challenge, actually. It's mission impossible. But the Cullmann just squeezes in, and the Pentax is small enough to slip into a side pocket. Even in a boat, the big Slik can be a nuisance, though owners of 20‑foot freighters won't have a problem. The watertight compartments in a touring kayak are much less accommodating, however. So when you shop for a tripod, it's a good idea to try it on for size, making sure you can stow it in both pack and boat — before you seal the deal.
The bottom line? No tripod is good at everything. If it's big and heavy, it will be awkward to carry and store. But if it's light and compact, it won't offer the same support as a heavyweight. You'll have to decide what your priorities are. The relevant variables include:
- Load capacity
- Size, both collapsed and extended
And the first of these is arguably the most important. If a tripod can't carry the load you intend to put on it, it can't do its most important job: keeping your camera steady throughout long exposures. In other words, you need to …
Match Your Tripod to Your Camera and Lenses
Catalog copy will often tell you a tripod's nominal load capacity. But don't get out your postal scale right away. A little common sense will eliminate obviously unsuitable matches. Compact, tabletop tripods like my little Pentax work well with light, point‑and‑shoot cameras. And given these camera's other limitations, a small tripod may be all you need. You're not restricted to tabletops, either. In addition to making use of any handy log or boulder, you can now find compact tripods with bendy legs, some of which are capable of clinging, Gumby‑like, to almost anything they can be wrapped around — like a tree branch, for instance.
But as handy as they are, compact tripods aren't of much use if your camera is a big SLR and your lenses run long (and heavy). Such a combination demands heavy‑duty support:
The left photo shows my digital SLR and a longish telephoto zoom mounted on the Slik, with the tripod's legs at full extension. In the right‑hand shot, you see the smaller (and lighter) Cullmann supporting the same camera, though it's now paired with a wide‑angle lens. But this time the tripod's legs have been collapsed.
Make no mistake: The Cullmann's somewhat spindly legs will support the camera and lens, even at full extension. Still, the lighter tripod doesn't offer the same rock‑solid security that the heavier Slik does. Which is why the Cullmann gets relegated to my second string. It's my tripod of choice for trips where weight and bulk loom large, and photography isn't the first order of business. I also take care to keep hold of my camera's neck strap whenever it's mounted on the Cullmann, especially on windy days and uneven ground. Come to think of, that's not a bad idea with any tripod.
So far, we've been looking at legs. But good legs aren't everything. Where tripods are concerned, the most important consideration is often …
What's in the Head
The head of a tripod is the critical link between supporting legs and camera. Heads can be either integral (fixed forever in place) or removable. A removable head can be swapped out — replaced with another head, even another of a different type. An integral head can't. Generally speaking, cheaper tripods have integral heads. (My Cullmann and Pentax tripods both do, for instance.) So if you opt for cheap and cheerful, rather than costly and cumbersome, it's important that you have the type of head you want from the get‑go. There are two principal types: pan‑tilt heads and ball heads. There are other kinds, as well, including gimbal heads and equatorial mounts, but these are costly specialist items. Few paddlers will want (or need) them.
Let's take a closer look at the two most common types:
The Pan‑Tilt Head This does what the name implies. It swivels from side to side (pans) and moves up and down (tilts). The motions are entirely independent of one another. For example, my Slik will pan or tilt even when the other axis is locked in position:
Pan‑tilt heads are well‑suited to action shots, particularly those where you plan to use deliberate blur to impart a sense of movement. They also make it easy to stitch together several exposures in order to create a sweeping panorama. Better tripods — my Slik is one — permit you to rotate and lock the mounting plate that supports the camera, too. This allows you to switch easily between landscape and portrait formats without having to remount the camera between shots.
But while the pan‑tilt head is the clear winner in the versatility stakes, it's a fussy and temperamental beast, and the rather herky‑jerky motion needed to frame a shot doesn't come easily to some photographers. Luckily, they have an alternative:
The Ball Head Better yet, many of these are models of elegant simplicity — just a mounting plate attached to a ball joint:
And as I've already mentioned, my Pentax and Cullmann tripods both have such simple ball heads, either of which can be locked in place with the turn of a screw. The sophisticated ball heads found on some professional gear are more complicated, however, incorporating features that allow panning. Many even have bubble levels to use when framing a shot, helping you ensure that the horizon always lies flat. (NB Some pan‑tilt heads also incorporate bubble levels.)
Here's what sets ball heads apart: While pan‑tilt heads permit motion in only two planes, ball heads impose no such limitation. You can point your camera in any direction that suits your fancy, with just one quick motion. (You could say that ball heads are point‑and‑shoot tripods.) Of course, this freedom comes at a price. Locking a ball head is a fussy business, and the less well‑engineered heads aren't strong enough to hold a heavy camera without some slippage. Which means that framing a shot can be a time‑consuming and uncertain business. To address this problem, modern ball head tripods often use a pistol‑grip locking mechanism rather than a screw lock. The pistol‑grip lock is undoubtedly faster, but its size bulks up the ball head until it's as big as its pan‑tilt counterpart. Since one of the ball head's strong points is its compact size, this isn't exactly a good thing.
We've discussed weight limits and types of head, but I've said nothing yet about the critical juncture between camera and tripod. Let's put that right. Here are two approaches:
The left‑hand photo shows the mounting plate on my Slik tripod. The photo on the right shows the Cullmann. The Slik's mounting plate incorporates an ingenious quick‑release post. The post screws into the socket in the bottom of the camera body. (The rubber band in the picture was cut from a discarded bicycle inner tube. It's an improvised add‑on, used to minimize the likelihood that I'll lose the detached post when moving around in the field.) A lever locks the post (and the camera) securely to the plate for a shot, while also allowing its speedy removal. Other manufacturers accomplish the same thing with quick‑release plates. In these, the plate, rather than the post, stays with the camera.
The Cullmann's round mounting plate dispenses with this quick‑release feature, however, requiring that you screw it directly to your camera. The plate is much smaller, too, so there's less contact area between tripod and camera body. The upshot? It takes longer to attach (or remove) a camera, and the connection between camera and tripod is less solid.
Heads of both types can be had with quick‑release couplers, but these invariable cost more than those without such refinements. Is a quick‑release worth the added cost? I think so, but you may not. And there are other matters to consider when choosing a tripod, as well. Here are some:
- Will the fully extended tripod be high enough so you don't have to stoop to frame a shot? And how stable is it when it's at its limit? (Some tripods develop a shaking palsy at full extension.)
- Are the tripod legs fitted with braces? Braces help damp the shakes, but they can also prevent you from splaying a single leg out independently, limiting your options in tricky terrain.
- Can you hang an auxiliary weight from the central column? Some professional‑grade tripods have a hook or eye for just that purpose, and it's worth looking for if you'll be shooting in gusty winds with a heavy camera and lens.
- Is the tripod robust? Will it stand up to the hard knocks of backcountry life? Not all tripods will. Some are more at home in the studio than on a riverbank.
- Are the feet tipped with rubber or are they spiked? Spikes are good on soft ground, but they skid on rock. Better tripods offer both options.
- Can you reverse the center column to get your camera close to a ground‑level subject? This feature is a boon for serious macrophotographers.
- How easy is it to set up the tripod for a quick shot? Most twist locks I've seen are slow to engage, hard to adjust, and easy to overtighten. Flip locks, on the other hand, are quick and sure. They're also easier to keep clean, a vital matter in sandy environments.
- Can the tripod be made small enough to fit easily in your boat? In a pack? As I noted at the start, this is often the first and most important consideration for paddlers.
Where do you turn for answers to these questions? Check the manufacturers' specification sheets, by all means. And visit their websites. But neither is a substitute for first‑hand knowledge. If a friend owns a tripod of the type you're considering, ask him to let you put it through its paces. Or if this isn't possible, search the Web for reviews. Price is one index of quality, but it's not the only one. Good tripods can be had at a reasonable cost, and almost any tripod is better than none at all. If you're ready to make the move from shutterbug to serious photographer, you'll find no better ally.
Sooner or later, every paddler who's serious about photography will want a tripod for her camera. But paddlers make demands on their gear that are unknown to studio photographers. And there's more to a tripod than meets the eye. That said, if you've followed along this far, you'll be able to read between the lines of the ad copy. So go ahead: Get the tripod that's best for you. After all, when you know you won't be coming back another time, each and every shot has to count. That's when every day is the day of the tripods.
Still not convinced? Think a tripod is just too much trouble to lug around on the off‑chance that a good shot will come your way? Or maybe the cost is simply too high. OK. What would you say to a 67 percent discount? It's not hard to arrange. You don't even need to have an uncle in the business. Just go from three legs down to one. Get a monopod, instead. And I'll have more to say about these in another article. Stay tuned.
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Plus an article from my own website:
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