The lack of image sharpness is a common problem for the amateur photographer. The most significant way to improve image sharpness is to use a tripod. Other equipment/techniques such as a cable release or mirror lock-up help to fine tune the improvement gained through the use of a tripod.
There are occasions when a tripod is difficult to use. Working in cramped quarters makes it difficult to fully extend the tripod legs. Spontaneous photographers lose their moment when they have to take time to set up a tripod. Some places ban the use of tripods. One of my favorite locations in Seattle, a Japanese garden, does that. The paths are narrow in the garden and setting up a tripod means that other people will not venture down that path because the tripod blocks their travel. The tripod helps me photograph the garden, but it interferes with others enjoying the garden. Other techniques/equipment to improve sharpness, such as a flash, bean bags, clamps, straps and monopods, are available to use in many situations where a tripod can not be used.
Many people recognize the value of a tripod, but get overwhelmed by the wide variety that is available at their local store. Often they are at the mercy of the salesman who ends up selling them something that does not work very well in the field. This article discusses three important features to consider when purchasing a tripod: weight, height, and ease of use in the field.
Remember Rule #1, a heavier tripod provides more stability than a lighter tripod in all situations. A good rule is to purchase the heaviest tripod you are willing to carry the typical distance that you photograph away from your vehicle. For me, that distance is one mile each way. When I photograph farther than a mile from my car, I use a lighter tripod. I can steady the lighter tripod by hanging my camera backpack from the center column, if needed. Hanging the pack on the tripod all the time really restricts my movement when I photograph.
If your tripod is too heavy, it will be left in the car; one that is too light will not be able to handle your camera system in other than perfect conditions. The best weight is a personal choice. No one can tell you what it should be. However, Optech’s makes a weight reduction tripod strap. Using the strap makes it feel like you are carrying one-half of the tripod’s actual weight. This is a great piece of equipment if you need to get a heavier tripod due to your height or some other factor.
Most tripods are made of wood, aluminum alloys or carbon fiber/magnesium. Wood tripods are excellent for their ability to reduce vibration. They are much more efficient in doing that than any other material. The downside to a wood tripod is the weight. A wood tripod will significantly outweigh a tripod of the same size in any other material.
Tripods made from high strength aluminum alloys are probably the most popular type of tripod. They provide a very good cost/value ratio for photographers. Tripods are rated by the maximum load they can support. Be sure to calculate the weight of the tripod head, camera, and lens when determining this figure. Most amateur photographers will probably be able to use a tripod supporting 11 pounds of equipment. These tripods generally weight between 3.5 to 4.5 pounds (be sure to add at least a pound for the tripod head, which stays on the tripod when the camera is removed). This is probably a good weight for most amateur photographers.
The lightest tripods available now are the carbon fiber/magnesium tripods, and the new basalt tripods by Gitzo. Comparing these tripods to the aluminum brands makes the aluminum tripods feel like a ton of bricks. The carbon fiber/magnesium/basalt tripods are generally about 30% lighter than comparable aluminum tripods without a loss of strength or rigidity. However, the cost of one of these tripods is high. It can be so high that it makes the aluminum tripods feel lighter. A carbon fiber tripod can cost as much as a good amateur grade lens. The one I would need for my 6’6” height now sells for just over $1,000. There is no doubt that they are easier to carry, especially some distance from your vehicle. However, for many photographers it is hard to justify the cost.
One OF the key features to consider when purchasing a tripod is the height. The combination of the tripod, tripod head, and camera should allow you the viewfinder to beat your eye level when you are standing straight up. If the tripod is too short, you may experience some back pains from constantly bending over to photograph. Very soon you will associate the back pain with the tripod and leave the tripod at home when you go photographing.
The proper height should be achieved without extending the center column. Extending the center column makes the tripod less stable. In essence, you have a monopod sitting on a tripod. For maximum stability, keep the center column lowered. Raise it for exceptions when needed, not on a regular basis.
Tripod companies produce long, medium, and short center columns. Some companies, such as Gitzo, are producing tripods without a center column. If you do a lot of macro work, you may want to purchase a short center column which enables you to get closer to the ground. Another feature that is helpful for macro photographers is a tripod that allows you to insert the center column horizontally. This feature enables you to get very close to ground level when you spread out the tripod legs.
One other consideration associated with tripod height is the number of leg sections. A tripod with three legs sections is easier to set up in the field, but will normally have a longer closed height. A four-section tripod normally will be shorter when it is closed. This may be important when you are traveling by plane and need to pack the tripod in your luggage.
EASE OF USE:
Using your tripod fully extended to your height for every shot will soon lead to boring photos. Try changing the height of your camera to get a different perspective on our world. Changing your angle of view requires changing the height of the tripod. This can be a very frustrating experience. There appears to be some rule of photography that allows only tow of the three tripod legs to be adjusted to the same height. Somehow that third leg never really matches the other two. You can eliminate a lot of the frustration by doing a little planning before you purchase your tripod.
Some tripods have connecting rods between each of the legs. In theory, this enables the tripod to be more stable. These tripods are really designed for video work rather than still photography in the field. In the field this type of tripod creates challenges when you have to lower or raise your tripod. Fieldwork is much easier if all of the legs of your tripod swing out close to a perpendicular angle.
When you want to lower the tripod, simply swing out each of the legs rather than try to adjust the length of each leg section. Swinging the legs out is much faster than adjusting the leg height. When you are on uneven ground (e.g. the slope of a hill), swinging out one leg is a fast way to attain stability. Occasionally I have swung out one of the legs to place it against a large rock or wall to provide tripod stability.
When purchasing a tripod, do a test drive. Bring your camera gear to the store and try the various tripods discussed in this article. The ergonomics of the tripod are also important. Some tripods feel better than others. For example, some companies use levers to adjust the legs; other companies use knobs. Find out which one works better for you. Your personal choice is the determining factor in the decisions you will need to make when purchasing a tripod.
by Jim Altengarten