TRIPODS AND HEADS
UPDATE, December 11, 2010: The updated version of this page has moved here.
A good tripod might be your most valuable photographic accessory. After a camera and lenses, a good tripod is probably one of your most important purchases.
Tripods are a nuisance to carry, take time to set up, and can be a pain to mount a camera on without a good quick release system (especially in semi-darkness), but they are often worth the trouble. Tripods make some photos easy that are otherwise difficult or impossible. Do you want to take lightning pictures on a dark night? Simply put your camera on a tripod, point it at the storm, focus, lock open the shutter and wait. Want to take fireworks pictures? Use the same procedure. Do you want to take 3, 6 or 12 minute long photos of moonlit landscapes? Not a problem. As long as your subject isn't moving and you can see it, you can take a picture of it if you have a tripod. One of the most important assets of a tripod is that the whole range of shutter speeds is possible as long as your subject isn't moving.
Tripods slow you down. Sometimes this is a good thing. Photos composed in a camera on a tripod are often more carefully composed. Merely asking "Is this photo worth setting up my tripod?" may eliminate some pictures not worth taking in the first place.
Taking photographs with a graduated neutral density filter is much more difficult without a tripod. The use of other filters which require critical alignment are made much easier when your camera is mounted on a tripod.
1. Sturdy. A flimsy, unstable tripod is a pain. Get one that is well built. Don't get one that is so heavy you won't use it.
2. Interchangeable heads. If you want to try a different head tomorrow, or next year, you will want to be able to change heads without replacing the whole tripod. Get a tripod with a 3/8 stud on top.
3. Convenient height without raising the center post. The more you raise the center post, the less stable the tripod is, especially in the wind. Get a tripod that is close to your viewing level without extending the center post. If you are backpacking, size and weight may over rule this height consideration, but for all other use, you want a tripod that is tall enough.
4. Wide spreading legs. Get a tripod that lets you get close to the ground. This means legs that spread wide apart and an optional short center-post, or a center-post that comes apart in the middle.
5. Optional short center-post or a center-post that comes apart. See 4.
Video head are great for video photography so you can pan with the action and never need to turn the camera on its side. They are not the best choice for still photography. There are two very good options for still photography, 3-Way (or 3D) heads, and ball heads.
3-Way (3D) Heads
These heads have three separate knobs to control the three directions a camera moves: left-right, up-down, and horizontal-vertical. They allow very precise alignment of a camera for static subjects. Loosening one control allows careful realignment of the camera in one direction without changing the others. They are great for architectural, scenic, landscape, cityscape and close-up photography.
Ball heads have a ball and socket joint with a control knob that tightens the socket. When loose, the camera can be moved in any direction, tightened and everything locks up. These are best for quick realignment of the camera. They are a favorite of nature photographers that specialize in wildlife.
These recommendations are based on tripods and heads that I have used.
The most commonly used tripods by professionals are made by Manfrotto and Gitzo. Both are imported into the in the U.S. by Bogen Imaging. (Manfrotto tripods used to be called Bogen-Manfrotto tripods in the US., and before that, simply Bogen.) They have always been manufactured by Manfrotto and imported by Bogen.
Both tripod systems are very well made. The Gitzos are high priced, making Manfrotto the tripod of choice for many photographers.
For all around general use, I like the Manfrotto Model 3021 series and the lighter weight Model 3001. One or the other of these tripods would serve you well for many years. The 3021 is taller, heavier, and sturdier. If you think it is too heavy for you, the 3001 is the lightest weight tripod I recommend. I have used my 3021 to shoot hundreds of rolls of film and it is still going strong. This is my favorite medium weight, medium cost tripod and I recommend it highly. Both models get close to the ground. The 3001 will cost about $70 and the 3021 will cost about $100 from a reliable mail order dealer.
If money is no object and a sturdy but light weight tripod is what you want, Gitzo has come out with a line of tripods made of carbon-fiber. I recommend the Gitzo 1228 Mountaineer. It provides about the same size, support and sturdiness of a Bogen-Manfrotto 3021 but shaves off almost half the weight. This will set you back close to $600 which should give you pause to think before you buy.
My two favorite 3-Way tripods heads are the Manfrotto Model 3025 and Manfrotto Model 3028. Both operate the same way. The 3028 has a larger base plate to mount the camera on and has long levers instead of knobs. One of these will cost you somewhere in the $25-$30 range.
My favorite low cost (under $100) ball head is the Slik Pro Ballhead 800. It has three control knobs. The main control knob controls movement of the ball and socket joint. The tension knob sets the tension on the joint when the large knob is loosened. A third knob allows panoramic movement (left and right) without loosening the main control knob. This ball head has a quick release system built in. A thick, round plate screws onto the bottom of your camera or large lens. This plate drops into the tripod head and lock firmly into place. It works well provided the round plate is screwed tightly to the bottom of your camera. If it isn't, the camera will slowly rotate when you turn it to vertical.
After five years of heavy use, the Slik Pro-Ball 800 began to creep in long time exposures. I was ready to make the switch to an Arca-Swiss release system or I would have bought another one. .
My new favorite, medium-price ($100-$300) ball head is the BH-3 from Kirk Enterprises. It is compact, weighs 19 ounces, sturdy, uses the Arca-Swiss style of quick release. It will easily support an SLR or DLSR with a 70-200 f/2.8, 300 f/4, or 100-400 zoom lens attached. It has a main control know, a tension control know, and a panorama base control knob so you can rotate the ball head left and right without loosening the main control knob. It is a great ball head. It will set you back around $260.
If you are looking for a good way to get close to the ground when using a tripod with metal legs, try the Bogen Super Clamp.
Copyright © Jim Doty, Jr. All rights reserved.