Every now and then, we see questions being asked about tripods and tripod heads. There are many misconceptions surrounding these equipment and the fact that ill-informed and misleading advises are a pound a penny, I would like to take this opportunity to explain the types of tripods / tripod heads available and their usage and hopefully debunk a few myths in the process.
Usage of a tripod
A tripod is a piece of equipment that provides a stable platform for you to mount your camera so that you will have minimum contact with the camera when taking a photo. This is to prevent any movement or vibration to the entire setup the moment you release the camera’s shutter. For night or lowlight photography, the tripod is especially useful if circumstances allow their usage as the camera’s shutter will in most cases; activated for a prolonged period of time As such, the camera will be more susceptible to movement and vibration. There are also other tools and settings that can complement the tripod e.g. remote shutter release, camera’s timer and mirror lock up.
In some instances e.g. for architectural, landscape, macro, still life photography, multi-exposures etc, a tripod is not only useful in preventing movement or vibration. It helps the photographer to set up the composition of the photo. The tripod is an exceptional useful tool for setting out vertical and horizontal lines in architectural and landscape photography when coupled with the correct tripod head.
No doubt a tripod will definitely slow you down but this also means you have more time to design your photography composition and think about what you are photographing.
Types of tripod
Common materials used for fabrication of tripods are timber, metal and carbon fibre. Timber, being the least susceptible to vibration resonance is ideal but they can be very heavy to transport around. You don’t see timber tripods very often now. They are also not the cheapest tripod around. Metal (usually aluminium) tripods are very common in comparison and are relatively affordable. As with timber tripods, they too can be a pain to carry around. If price is your concern, this is your choice. Carbon fibre tripods offer reasonably sturdy support, and is relatively light in weight but heavy in price. Sometimes, you have to weigh them down to make them work effectively since they are lighter. However, they are fast catching up as a popular choice of support. Ideal for transportation, traveling, etc. There are of course, other form of camera supports available on the market such as the monopods, mini tripods, etc for different types of cameras and occasions. They cost anything from $30 to in excess of $2000.
Most of these tripods come in different configurations e.g. 3 segment legs, 4 segment legs, with or without centre column, etc. and they are selected based on a few criterias;-
Weight of your heaviest set up.
Know what kind of load you have and what kind of load your tripod can carry is of utmost importance. You don’t want to use chopsticks to support your camera and lenses as an unstable platform will cause more harm than good. Not only will you not enjoy the benefits of what a stable platform can provide, you also risk damaging your photographic equipment. Also, remember not to load the tripod and tripod head to their maximum capability. They usually won’t work as well if you do. A rough guide would be around 80% loading. Take note of this when selecting your tripod and tripod head.
You don’t want to a tripod that’s too low for your. Ideally, the height of your fully extended tripod should reach your chest to neck level. When you mount the camera onto the tripod (with the tripod head), the viewfinder should then be at your eye level. Some tripods come with an extendable centre column. I advise against using it if you can because it will heighten the setup’s centre of gravity, compromising its stability. Its not so much of a problem if the tripod is taller than you are because you can always adjust the legs to fit your height.
You ability to carry weight.
I’m not even going to deny it but tripods can be cumbersome to carry around so the old adage applies. Get the heaviest tripod you can afford to carry.
Types of tripod head and usage
Some common types of tripod head are the ballheads, 3-way pan tilt heads and gearheads.
Ballheads, as its name suggests is a ball attachment sitting in a receiving coupling. They can rotate in all directions and are ideal if you need to set your camera pointing in a particular direction fast. Some ballheads come with tension adjustment so you can make reasonably minor adjustments to the camera position. The more expensive models also come with panning capability. You won’t be able to perform minute adjustments though. They are really ideal for sports, animal and macro photography. Given the nature of the construction, they are some of the most compact tripod heads available.
3-way pan tilt heads provide better minute control compared to ballheads. They move in 3 axis, panning left / right, rotating left / right, tilting up / down, all of which can be done simultaneously. Each axis is controlled with a lockable handle or knob to lock the camera in place. Their drawback is that there tend to be slight movement induced by the user while locking each axis in place. They are also slow to work with and can be quite bulky to lug around. Good for landscapes and architectural works.
Gearheads operate on a series of gear movements to give you the most precise control over camera placement compared to the other types of tripod heads. As with pan tilt heads, they are also slow to work with. Adjustments are made separately to the 3 axis via knobs. Unlike the pan tilt heads, each axis is locked at all times so there won’t be any movement unless the knobs are turned. The need to house aseries of gears means that gearheads are bulky and heavy and they do not carry as much weight as the ballheads and pan tilt heads. These are expensive, ranging from $300 (Manfrotto 410) to $3000 (Arca Swiss C1). Must have for serious architectural works or where precise alignments of verticals and horizons are absolutely essential to you.
As usual, know your needs and select something that will fit your budget.
Image stabilization technology can replace tripods – Absolutely incorrect. IS, VR technology, etc has their limitations. Regardless of what technology can offer, its us who are holding the camera and there will be a limit of how long we can handhold a camera without inducing detectable motion blur in a photograph, with or without IS or VR. A common guide used for determining handholdable shutter speed is 1/lens focal length. If you are using a 200mm lens, the slowest shutter speed you are advised to use is around 1/200th second. Canon latest generation of IS technology claims to provide 4 stops of stabilizing capability. In theory, with that you can now shoot at a shutter speed as slow as 1/13th second with a 200mm lens. However; depending on individual, you might not (and you most probably will not) be able to produce a useable photo at all, especially if you are expecting big size prints out of it. I would not hesitate to advise you to follow the 1/lens focal length guide even with IS or VR technology. As you can then take better advantage of it to produce better photographs as compared to without any image stabilization. Ultimately, you have to find the comfort zone, be realistic and recognize your tolerance level where image quality is concerned.
Image stabilization technology can freeze moving objects. Again, incorrect. It doesn’t take much common sense to figure this out. How can something in your lens or camera influence the motion of a foreign object? Image stabilization works by compensating your movement in relation to the subject being photographed.
Finding an alternative bracing/support in place of tripod. This is a compromise which will not work all the time. How stable is the alternative support? How can you ensure it will provide the same amount of stability as what a tripod will provide? Even if this alternative support can fulfill the requirements of providing stable platform for your set up, you would most probably still be hindered in other areas. E.g. the location which is capable of providing stable support might not even be ideal for composing your photographs. If you loose the ability to select your point of view freely, then what’s the point of stabilizing your camera to begin with?
Ironically, the good o’ tripod actually makes you more mobile than ever!!