Choosing a tripod can be an overwhelming experience, given how many different types and choices we are presented with. On one hand, a tripod is a very simple tool to keep our cameras steady when we use them in challenging light conditions. On the other hand, there are so many different variables that come into play when choosing a tripod: How tall should it be? How light should it be? How stable should it be? What kind of weight can it support? How much should I spend on a tripod? These are just some of the questions that might come up as you look into buying a new tripod.
Why Do You Need a Tripod?
So, what is the purpose of a tripod? You might need a tripod for some or all of the following reasons:
- To increase sharpness and depth of field in your images by keeping the camera still in low-light environments when using slow shutter speeds.
- To rest heavy camera gear such as long telephoto lenses on the tripod.
- To increase the quality of the images by keeping the camera ISO low.
- To allow more careful composition, while framing the shot exactly how you want it.
- To shoot HDR and panoramic shots that require exactly the same framing and precision.
- To photograph night-time objects such as the Moon, planets, stars, etc. as well as painting with light or using available light for landscape and architectural photography.
- To do self-portraits with a camera timer.
- To shoot extreme close-ups/macro (flowers, insects, etc).
- To hold various objects such as flashes, reflectors, etc.
- To shoot at difficult or impossible (hand-held) angles.
- To shoot vibration-free videos.
- To defend yourself 🙂 (just for a laugh)
Use of tripod for one main reason – landscape photography. Shooting sunrises and sunsets can be quite challenging, especially when the light conditions are far from ideal. Thanks to image stabilized lenses and now cameras with excellent built-in image stabilization, the use of a tripod for most types of photography is not necessary when shooting in daylight conditions. However, some photographers still prefer to use a tripod, as it allows them to keep the camera ISO as low as possible, which not only keeps the amount of noise in images to a minimum, but also provides the highest dynamic range the camera sensor can capture. In addition, a tripod can help in proper framing of a subject and allow to capture panoramic and HDR images. Lastly, there are situations where one must use a tripod in order to slow down and blur action, such as when photographing streams and waterfalls as shown in the image below. Therefore, if you are into landscape photography, a good tripod is a must-have tool in the field.
Tripod Components – What is a Tripod System?
A tripod system is generally comprised of the following parts:
- Legs – the obvious. Tripod legs are typically made of aluminum, basalt, steel or carbon fiber.
- Head – the part that holds a digital camera or a lens. There are many different types of heads, but the most popular types are ball-heads and pan-tilt heads.
- Centerpost/Center Column – a separate leg that runs through the middle, allowing to further raise the tripod head.
- Feet – good tripods allow changing tripod feet at the end of the legs for indoor and outdoor use.
The cheapest tripods have legs with an integrated non-replaceable head and feet and sometimes have a centerpost, while the top-of-the-line tripods have a modular tripod system that have replaceable feet and allow attaching a separate tripod head (the head is typically not included).
Disadvantages of Using a Tripod
Tripods are nice and can give you many options to get the highest quality image. However, there are also some disadvantages of using tripods, specifically:
- They are potentially heavy. Although there are lightweight carbon-fiber tripods out there, once you add a tripod head, the setup can become heavy.
- They are inconvenient. No matter how small and collapsible a tripod is, it still occupies space and is often inconvenient to carry around or travel with.
- They are difficult to use in crowded environments.
- They can be expensive. Good tripod systems can cost you more
- They can take time to set up, making you miss the best moment.
- You can easily damage your camera and lens if you do not know how to properly
- operate a tripod, or if the tripod system is cheap and unstable.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Tripod
You started your tripod shopping spree and have no idea where to start. What factors do you need to consider when purchasing a tripod? As I have pointed out above, purchasing a tripod can be an overwhelming experience, given how many different choices we are presented with from small and compact, to large and heavy. Let’s go through each factor and identify your needs:
The first thing I would look at is how much weight a tripod can support. Many photographers make the mistake of buying a tripod that can only support a few pounds and is not made for heavy camera equipment. What ends up happening is the obvious – at one point or another the whole thing collapses, destroying the camera and the lens. Always make sure that the tripod you want to buy can support at least 1.5 times more than the total weight of your camera and your heaviest lens. I say at least, because I prefer to keep it at around 2x more. Do not forget that you will at times apply pressure on your camera and sometimes even rest your hands on the setup if you are shooting with long lenses, which adds to the weight. You might also add a flash or a battery grip to your camera in the future, or potentially shoot with something heavier, so you have to keep all of that in mind.
I always recommend buying a tripod that matches your height, so that you do not have to bend to look into the viewfinder. Once you put your camera on a tripod, the viewfinder should be at your eye level. It is OK if it goes higher than your eye level, because you can always adjust the legs to be shorter. However, if it is much below your eye level, you will find yourself bending all the time, which can be a tiring experience, especially when you are waiting for some kind of action and need to constantly look through the viewfinder.
If you are buying a tripod with an attached head, you want the tip of the head to be on your jaw level. If you are buying a modular tripod with a separate head, make sure that the legs end approximately on your shoulder level.
Another factor to consider is tripod height when it is folded for easier travel. Do you need it to fit in your carry-on luggage? Mine barely does diagonally, with feet removed, and I take it with me everywhere I go.
Tripod Weight and Construction
Weight is a significant factor when choosing a tripod. You do not want your tripod to be too heavy, because you will find yourself leaving it at home, rather than taking it with you on the road. The lightest tripods are made of carbon-fiber material, which is extremely durable, stable and does not rust. While carbon-fiber is the best material for a tripod, it unfortunately comes at a high price tag.
The next best construction material is aluminum, which is heavier than carbon fiber. Most cheaper tripods are made of aluminum today. You can also find tripods made of stainless steel, but those are generally used for video equipment and are too heavy for regular use.
In terms of total weight, try to keep the tripod legs without the head under 5 pounds. Generally, carbon fiber legs are between 3 and 4 pounds (but can be lighter or heavier depending on what they are made for), while aluminum legs can be between 5 and 6 pounds and heavier, depending on the size and how much weight they can support. Basalt lava legs are somewhere in-between both in terms of weight and cost.
Tripod legs generally come in two forms – tubular and non-tubular. All carbon-fiber legs come in tubular form and have a threaded twist-lock system to secure the legs, while aluminum, basalt and steel tripods might come in different shapes with a flip-lock. Depending on the maximum height of the tripod, there might be between 3 and 5 sections on tripod legs. The more sections, the higher the tripod and generally a little less stable.
Some advanced tripods will allow you to replace tripod feet for different conditions and situations – they just unscrew on the bottom of the tripod legs. There are different types of tripod feet for indoors (rubber or plastic) and outdoors use (metal spikes). Unless you are planning to shoot in icy, rainy/slippery conditions, the standard rubber feet that come with your tripod should work just fine.
Some tripods come with a centerpost – a single leg in the middle of the tripod that allows you to increase or decrease the height of the camera by simply moving the centerpost in upward or downward direction. Although some photographers find it convenient and nice to have, I strongly advice against having a centerpost on a tripod. A centerpost defeats the whole purpose of a tripod – it is essentially the same thing as having a monopod on top of a tripod. It might not be as pronounced if you are only shooting with a wide-angle lens, but once you set up a long telephoto lens, you will quickly understand that using a centerpost will cause too much vibration. If you still want to get a centerpost for whatever reason, make sure that it can fully decline to the same level as where the tripod legs meet. The centerpost should never wobble at its lowest level.
A tripod head is the most essential part of the tripod system. It is responsible for securely holding camera equipment and controlling camera movement. A modular tripod system does not come with a head and you have to buy it separately. When choosing a tripod head, always make sure that it can support at least the same amount of weight your tripod legs can.
There are three types of heads commonly available:
- Pan-Tilt Head – either with a single handle for horizontal movement or dual handles for both horizontal and vertical movement. This is the most common type of head that is typically built into cheaper tripods.
- Ball-Head – compared to pan-tilt heads, ball-heads only have one control that loosens or tightens the grip. They are very flexible and allow very smooth operation while keeping the camera/lens securely tightened.
- Gimbal Head – a specialized head for long and heavy 300mm+ lenses. Compared to pan-tilt heads and ball-heads, gimbal heads perfectly balance the camera and heavy lens and are best suited for fast-action photography. They are extremely easy to use in any direction and do not require tightening the head every time the camera/lens moves.
Every modern camera comes with a thread on its bottom that allows you to attach it to a tripod or a monopod (heavy lenses also come with a similar thread on the tripod collar). This threaded system makes it extremely inconvenient to attach cameras and lenses on tripods, because you have to either rotate the camera or the tripod to attach them together. To make it easier and more convenient for photographers, manufacturers came up with a great solution – to attach a small removable plate on the camera or lens, which then can be tightly secured on the tripod head.
Cheaper tripods come with a simple plastic plate that can be attached on any camera or lens, while some of the more expensive tripod heads come with a more durable plate. The best quick-release system, however, is the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System. It has more or less become a standard among manufacturers and it has proven to be a very effective solution for quick and easy operation. Compared to plastic plates, the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System is made of very strong aluminum and allows attaching the camera/lens on a tripod without the need to rotate anything. A quick-release plate is permanently attached to a camera or lens, which then easily slides into a quick-release clamp (pictured below). The locking mechanism is simple, yet super tight for a vibration-free operation.
A heavy tripod does not always mean that it is stable. There are plenty of tripod systems out there that are heavy and durable, yet lack the much-needed stability when used in various weather conditions. When a tripod is fully set up, it has to withstand not only wind, but also occasional bumps and knocks that might happen in the field. You always need to make sure that your camera and lens balance on a tripod rather than lean towards one direction, because you might end up damaging your equipment if the head is not fully tightened or if the front outweighs the back and everything falls on the ground.
Which Tripod Should you Buy?
Now that you are familiar with all the criteria for selecting the right tripod, you are probably wondering which tripod you should buy for your photography needs. Since I have numerously gone through the experience of shopping for tripods and have seen others do the same, let me tell you what many photographers end up doing. They first look for the cheapest tripod available that will be good enough to hold their first camera, since they have no idea if they really need it or do not know how often they would be using it. The tripod would cost between $75 and $150 for the legs and the head, which is a good price for a simple tool. Next, they purchase a longer and heavier lens and add more weight to the setup. All of a sudden, they find that the cheap tripod is not good enough and they need something more durable and stable. After making the first mistake, they suddenly realize that they need to do more research and they spend countless hours reading about tripods on different websites and forums. Despite all recommendations from the pros, they are not willing to invest on a top-of-the-line tripod with a good ball-head, so they end up getting a popular tripod system with a separate head. Seems like a great investment and the tripod seems to be much better than the previous one. After a year or two, they realize that their last purchase was not that good, because the tripod is too heavy and hard to use, especially for traveling. They realize that they should have listened to the pros in the beginning and bought a solid tripod system. Does this sound familiar? It certainly does for me, because I went through a similar experience and wasted too much effort and money.
Some Good Tripods for you
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With the instant gratification of a digital camera LCD, we have forgotten what photography used to be like – the inability to see what you’re shooting.
Leica had recently released a $6,000 digital camera without a screen that keeps the element of surprise for you, until you download it to your computer. Now, there is a new camera, Le Myope, that not only won’t show you your own images, but instead, will show you someone else’s photos.
Designed by Parisian artist and engineer, Salade Tomate Oignon (or Salad Tomato Onion, in French), the camera, described as “short sighted,” reads the photo that you just took and, using an algorithm, displays a similar photo that someone else took. The photo from a stranger is pulled from Google and could be a shot of a similar item, from the same place, or some other vague interpretation of what a similar photo might be!
Instruction and code to build your own Short-Sighted Camera based on a Raspberry Pi and Google similar images:
Yes! A flexible sheet that turns any surface into a camera.
We’ve seen flexible screens, capable of being rolled up like a newspaper, but we’re yet to see a flexible camera. That is, until a team from Columbia University’s Computer Vision Lab revealed its latest project: a sheet of lenses that can wrap around any object like a skin, turning that object into a camera.
Researchers Daniel Sims, Yonghao Yue, and Shree K. Nayar created the flexible sheet with an array of embedded lenses which adapt to how the sheet is bent. Aside from the potential to turn everyday objects into makeshift 360-degree cameras, the project could eventually lead to small, credit-card sized handheld cameras that can zoom in and out just by being bent.
In creating the innovative prototype, the Columbia University team had to overcome a major problem. Using an array of lenses with fixed focal length, where each lens focuses light on a pixel, meant that when the sheet is bent, gaps formed between the individual lenses, resulting in photos with artefacts.
To resolve this issue, the team designed a flexible silicon sheet which includes embedded lenses that can adapt their focal length when bent.
As the video explains: “The Columbia team designed and fabricated a flexible lens array that adapts its optical properties when the sheet camera is bent. This optical adaptation enables the sheet camera to produce high quality images over a wide range of sheet deformations.”
Although the current concept produces low-res images, the design demonstrates the potential for large-format flexible cameras capable of capturing high dynamic range images. The Columbia team will now be working on a high-res version of their innovative design.
‘Cameras That See around Corners’ are closer than you might think, with bouncing photons that let cameras see beyond the line of sight.
If cameras could see around corners, they could warn drivers of danger waiting around the bend, help firefighters search burning buildings and enable surgeons to see hard-to-reach areas inside the body.
A few years ago researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab figured out how to build such a camera, but it was an expensive early prototype.
The device used a laser pulse to bounce light from a wall or door onto a stationary object in the next room. A $500,000 camera then recorded the light that bounced back, and software recorded the arrival time of individual photons, calculated distances and reconstructed the unseen object. Since then, the M.I.T. team has improved the technology significantly.
Now it can record moving objects beyond the line of sight, and instead of a laser and a $500,000 camera, an LED and a $100 Microsoft Kinect sensor will do.
Our recent poll suggested we share the lens they used most often. It made for exciting mix with a rich and diverse mix of focal lengths and apertures, but almost exclusively included Canon- and Nikon-mount optics. Here we present our survey results
1. Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR
This lens popped up a few times in the list of most often used optics and it’s not really a surprise as it’s a good all-rounder for anyone using a Nikon DX (APS-C) format SLR. At the 18mm end it produces a focal length equivalent to 27mm on full-frame, providing decent wide-angle coverage for landscapes and interiors. And at the telephoto end it reaches the equivalent of 157.5mm, which is useful for framing more distant objects and pleasing portraits.
Get it here: http://bit.ly/1DGZJJh
This lens is frequently bought with the Canon 5D Mark III, so it’s not really astonishing to see it here. It’s another good ‘all-purpose’ optic and benefits from image stabilisation as well as a moderately fast constant maximum aperture, both of which are useful when light levels fall.
Get it here: http://bit.ly/1J5MRyB
3. Canon, Nikon and Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8
The Canon and Nikon mount versions of this fast, full-frame lens also appeared in the ‘Desired’ list, but they were more common in the ‘most used’ list. All three have high quality optics giving a versatile focal length range and the constant f/2.8 aperture allows shutter speed to be kept pretty high when light levels fall, as well as enabling backgrounds to be blurred.
4. Canon and Nikon 70-200mm f/4
These lenses often partner the 24-70mm f/2.8, adding a little further reach for tight framing of distant subjects. At f/4 the maximum aperture isn’t as wide as the f/2.8 version, but the lenses are lighter and more affordable, and image quality is very high.
While it may not be possible to blur a background to quite the same extent at f/4 as at f/2.8, the improvement in the quality of images taken at high sensitivity from modern cameras means this lens is very useful in low light.
Get them here:
Canon IS USM Lens: http://bit.ly/1ISTC0l
Canon L USM Lens: http://bit.ly/1DH0oKC
Nikon VR Lens: http://bit.ly/1HBmjxV
It’s a popular lens because on a full frame camera 50mm produces an angle of view that’s roughly the same as our eyes and the large maximum aperture enables fast shutter speeds earning the lens the ‘nifty fifty’ moniker. Meanwhile on an APS-C format camera it makes a super portrait lens with a focal length equivalent of around 75mm.
6. Sigma 17-50mm f2.8 EX DC OS HSM
Available in Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sigma and Sony fit this lens is designed for use on APS-C format SLRs and offers a step-up in quality from the common 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens (which was mentioned a few times in this list).
The focal length equates to around 26-75mm on a full-frame camera so it’s a go stand-in for the 24-70mm f/2.8 that popular on this larger format.
At f/2.8 the constant maximum aperture is wider than ‘standard’ kit lenses enabling faster shutter speeds and greater control over depth of field. Helpfully, Sigma’s stabilisation system is also built-in to reduce the impact of camera shake.
One of the main stumbling points for new photographers is the seemingly random series of numbers that we have come to know as the f-stop scale or aperture scale. Things start out innocently enough f/1, f/1.4 (just add 0.4 every time, right?), but things get ugly quickly — f/2, f/2.8, f/4. Why would anyone invent such an arbitrary scale?
For answer, we must go back to the second century BC. It was during this period when a Greek astronomer named Hipparchus developed the first system for organizing stars by their apparent brightness. He ranked stars on a scale from 1 to 6 based on the brightness he observed. Centuries later, when astronomers developed methods to quantify the actual brightness of each star, they noticed something strange. A category one star was not six times brighter than a category six star — it was 100 times brighter. Every step on the apparent brightness scale yielded an actual brightness increase of 2.5x.
It turns out that the human eye is not very good at picking out small differences in brightness. In order to see a difference, we must change the brightness a LOT — like two and a half times its original value. What Hipparchus discovered, by accident, was the logarithmic nature of human perception. Somewhere within us, we are hardwired to perceive level changes only when they are many times less than or greater than the next level. The visual advantage we gain from this is dynamic range. It has been estimated that the human eye can effectively process 10 f/stops of light levels — an extraordinary range which certainly exceeds any film or sensor invented so far. If the human eye could distinguish small linear increments of brightness, there would be no way to maintain the same wide dynamic range.
The logarithmic nature of human perception was known as early as the 1800s and was eventually summarized by German psychologists as the Weber-Fechner law. The law has implications that apply to many altered human processes — vision, hearing, and mental processing. Modern psychologists believe that before children are taught the linear number scale (1,2,3…), their natural tendency is to think in terms of a logarithmic scale (2,4,8,16). For a particularly mind blowing description of this, just listen to this Radiolab podcast, which describes an entire tribe in the Amazon who uses a logarithmic number scale for everyday life. Ask them for a number half way between 1 and 9 and they will say 3.
Which brings us back to f/stops. At the same time psychologists were musing about the logarithmic human perceptions, early photographers were quantifying the optical principles of early cameras. Fairly early on, it was determined that the area of the aperture hole needed to vary by a factor of 2x in order to yield perceptibly brighter or darker photographs from one f/stop to the next. The figure below shows the progression of aperture areas going from largest to smallest. For each progression, the area is divided in half until we get to the smallest aperture which is 1/32nd the size of the original one. The diameter of each of these apertures is proportional to the square root of the aperture area. Thus, by taking the square root of the aperture areas, we see some familiar numbers — 1, 1.4, 2, etc. there you have it!
The f-stop numbering scheme may seem awkward and awkward, but it is a necessary consequence of our human biology. Hipparchus would be proud of us