Understanding tripods
February 29, 2008 6:58 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn more about tripods. Whenever I visit a camera store or a store site, or Manfrotto's site, I'm bewildered, and I'd rather not be. Instead of asking for recommendations based on my criteria (as in previous questions here and here), I'd like to understand tripods (and heads) as a category so that I can figure out for myself what I need for whatever it is I have in mind, whether it's my digital SLR, a MiniDV video camera, or even a small apochromatic refractor or spotting scope. Are there any resources online, or any books, that I can start with?
posted by mcwetboy to Shopping (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Philip Greenspun (who else) did an early guide to tripods (circa 1992!) and another longer one on photo.net that's still basically valid.

The key thing to think about is that you don't want to use the center column at all if you can help it. Lots of people buy a smaller tripod for the lighter weight or cheaper cost and then end up using the center column to extend, which basically negates most of the benefit of the tripod itself. So if you are tall (like I am) you ought to buy a big tripod that extends to your eye-level (if you need that) without extending the center column. That and ball heads are your friend. Tilt-swivel heads are a PITA after using a nice ball head like an Arca-Swiss B1.

I have no idea what to recommend for video.
posted by gen at 7:10 AM on February 29, 2008

Ball heads vs tilt/swivel or geared heads are totally a matter of personal choice, it all depends on what you're doing. For exact work (like architectural photography), I find my geared head to be far superior to the ball head I work with often.
posted by jedrek at 7:26 AM on February 29, 2008

What are you going to use it for?

I'm only asking because I think a lot of photographers think they need a tripod, and often I find it more a hindirance than a help. Most dlrs are doing pretty well up to ISO 1000...above that and you start to lose something, at least in the last batch of cameras (I have a 5D, and above 1000 I feel like I'm losing a little bit of quality if I'm making a large print).

Anyway, for doing a lot of outdoor photography, a tripod is totally not needed. If you are shooting during the day you'll be able to close down to f16 at 1/400 at ISO 400. Which is pretty fast and sharp.

Tripods tend to come into their own at dusk...and definitely post dusk. And for doing interiors at small apertures.

Point of this is, I'm a stickler for sharp photos but I rarely take my tripod out of the bag. I use it for doing architecutural stuff around dusk, and some still life stuff. I think for many circumstances, people use tripods because the associate it with they style of photography they are doing. For instance, people with DSLRs use tripods for doing landscape shooting, but the reason that A. Adams and Weston and those dudes were using one is because they had big heavy view cameras to hold up. With a dslr up until sundown, you don't really need it.

I have a piece of crap Manfrotto that I bought a while ago. I hate it, and maybe if I had a better one I'd feel differently. But it's fine for when I need it.
posted by sully75 at 7:32 AM on February 29, 2008

Enough night and low-light photography that ISO 1600 and an f/1.4 prime lens aren't enough, sully75, and my current inexpensive/light tripod is not sufficient to every task -- but my question was deliberately open-ended: I want to get enough of a handle on the subject that I can figure out the answer if I come up with a new, tripod-requiring use. Or be able to figure out if/when I don't need one, as you suggest. Links and general theory, rather than specific recommendations.
posted by mcwetboy at 7:44 AM on February 29, 2008

It depends to a large extent on what you want to do - I have numerous tripods (because I'm old, and I have acquired stuff over the years) ranging from nice little mini-tripods that are fairly sturdy but fold up to be about 8-10" long, to a big thing I lug around in the back of my car because I have no better place to use it. My primary use for a tripod these days is to set up a self-timer shot with a wide-angle lens when we do a group photo of the extended family. All you really need is something that can hold the tripod in a light wind (and then shoot at a high shutter speed), but I generally use my heaviest Velbon for this purpose. I also enjoy doing stuff long long exposures at night in a snowstorm; cliche crap like that, and a heavy tripod is good for that. You can probably pick up something pretty cheap on e-bay, or at a yard sale (which is where my stuff will probably end up some day).
posted by thomas144 at 7:54 AM on February 29, 2008

Here is a ton of info on tripods for photography. For other uses, you may find that the needs are different enough to justify a different type of tripod, especially as far a what type of head you need. I have a nice-sized carbon fiber tripod with a ball head for photography; it wasn't cheap but it is light and if it is cold out the carbon fiber does not freeze your hands. You will definitely use it more with a quick release of some sort; I also put a universal quick release plate on my spotting scope and it works pretty well with the camera tripod.
posted by TedW at 8:10 AM on February 29, 2008


well, monopods are really sweet in that they are super maneuverable, I've definitely enjoyed the old one I have. I don't know how slow you'd want to shoot with one, I'm guessing a 50mm lens at 1 second would be fine, maybe even 2 seconds. I'm not sure. But they are very useful. I hate how a tripod slows you down. I know for a lot of people that's a nice part, for me, not so much. Monopods are a little faster and you can be looking through the viewfinder a little more easily while you are composing. I tend to shoot a lot of views of the same thing, so moving fast is a priority for me.
posted by sully75 at 8:14 AM on February 29, 2008

For video/film, the main thing I look for is a fluid head. When you're capturing motion, you need something steady, but at the same time, you'll be moving the frame around (while people see your work on screen). It's a matter of preference for me, so if you can, bring your camera, set it up, and try to do a pan across the store. Notice the start and stop of motion--you don't want a big jerky movement to start out your pan. You'll also want to see if you can adjust how quickly the head moves--mine can tighten a bit to slow down movement, depending on what I'll need.

Another nice feature is a quick release plate, that you keep attached to your camera, and just locks into place on the tripod with a lever or some other device. On the same note, quick locks for the legs are good, so you can quickly adjust the height of your tripod to get the right shot without having to loosen and tighten each leg. For video, you'll most likely be working with people, so the quicker you can get set up, the happier everyone will be.

And then, you'll need a level and a ball head on the tripod, so you can make sure you're parallel to the ground. You're more likely to be using heights in between the leg stops, so trying to figure out equal lengths of all three legs isn't something you want to do with a tired crew waiting. Plus, a crooked tripod is a lot more visible in video.

I guess this stuff also holds true if you're taking still photos of moving things, i.e., a building will let you set up as long as you want, but not that hummingbird.

Then, there's always the string trick:

posted by jsmith77 at 8:19 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

There is no tripod that is going to work best for all situations. You really have to prioritize your needs based on size/weight of camera, stability, size, and portability. I used a big Bogen for many years which worked well for a big 400mm lens and medium large format cameras. It's also a bitch to carry around for use with my digital point and shoot. For the little digital I have a tiny tripod.
posted by JJ86 at 8:23 AM on February 29, 2008

Second nod to the fluid head with Video. It gives you a smooth pan (vs. abrupt start/end.) Monopods are a nogo with video.
posted by filmgeek at 1:13 PM on February 29, 2008

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