Tripods – just the mention of the work starts a debate amongst photographers. Some love them, some hate them and most just tolerate them. It all depends what you photograph to whether you should use them or not. From observing workshop or day course participants, I feel they just need to get to know their tripod more, so at the time of making an image when the light, action and framing all come together at the correct time, they are not wrestling with the tripod and head.
The other problem with tripods is the disease of buying a tripod that fits in with your current equipment and not one that will fit your future needs and equipment purchases. I should know as currently I have five of the things knocking about the office, of which one has been used the most over the last ten years as it finally covered all my photographic and now video needs. It isn’t cheap, but has survived a lot of use, extreme weather and travelled across a few continents with me, so money well spent in my opinion. I should have done it sooner and saved myself the cost of all the others. In my defence, I still use the others now with a multiple camera set up for video and time-lapse photography, but they were gathering dust for a while.
The next problem is the weight. There will always be a trade off between weight and stability. Too light and the tripod is unstable, too heavy and you will never carry it. This also raises the issue of carbon fibre tripods – lighter they may be, but do they justify the extra hundreds of pounds they cost. Careful comparison of weight shows that often only a few hundred grammes are saved compared to the metal version. Money well spent? I don’t think so. I’m not against carbon fibre tripods, I own two of them and one is my main tripod, but it is only at the much thicker leg section sizes that significant savings in weight are made.
Once you have got the tripod legs, then the problem of the tripod head starts – 3 way pan and tilt, ball head, action head, gimbal head, video head and any cross breeds in-between. I must admit that I have a bit of a weakness for tripod heads and with at least three video heads, two gimbal, two ball heads and a 3 way pan and tilt head, I have a few to choose from. Having used them all, my go to head is a ball head for all round photography, gimbal or video head for long lens work and the 3 way pan and tilt for studio based work.
When I started, I hated ball heads. I found it very difficult to make the adjustment I wanted without upsetting the overall composition. I moved on to 3 way pan and tilt heads, which worked well for landscape photography. My favourite was the Manfrotto Magnesium 3 way head – light, small locking knobs and able to take a reasonable weight. I used it for medium format and the occasional 5×4 camera session. Slowly I drifted back to ball heads, partly due to adopting the arcs swiss quick release system – no 3 way pan and tilt heads had the system fitted. Nowadays I still feel that the ball head works well for most photographic needs, unless a specialist head is needed for large pro telephoto lenses for example.
So why own all the heads I do? Basically I have a heavy and light version of each. That way I can work out the best kit for my needs and fit into any weight restrictions when travelling without restricting my choices of what type of head I can take.
So what should you look out for when getting a tripod? Here is my two pennies worth:
- Buy a tripod stronger than you think you need – don’t go by trying to get the lightest option possible.
- Try and get one that is close to your eye level without having to raise the centre column – ideally you should get a tripod without a centre column – it gets lower to the ground. The extra height of the column extended is unstable. Getting the tripod at eye level stops you having to stoop for some photographs.
- Check to see how low it can go – can you change the centre column to a shorter version if you want to?
- I have never reversed or tilted a centre column, even for macro photography – do you need it and how stable is it with all your camera gear hanging of the end of it?
- Leg locks – doesn’t matter if it is twist or lever locking, both work well – just try adjusting them in a pair of winter gloves to make sure you can lock and unlock the leg sections.
- Get a proper ball head, not one of the action grips. If you are doing landscape only, then a 3 way pan and tilt is okay – but I bet I can compose a photograph quicker with my ball head!
- Get a quick release system – the Arca swiss is the best and now becoming the most popular. One day Manfrotto may adopt it as well. Until they do avoid their heads – the quick release plates twist too easily on camera bodies, just buy the tripod legs and add another head to it.
- Don’t waste your money and buy a tripod bag – mine hasn’t left the office since the year I bought it from Jessops 20 years ago!
- If your tripod head has only one long handle on it, it is a video head and useless for taking vertical photographs. Get a new head!
- Last and not least – use the tripod, don’t make excuses that it is too heavy, bulky, fiddly etc. No point in buying it otherwise.
So who makes the best tripods and heads? I don’t think there is an outstanding make. My go to tripod is a Gitzo, three are Manfrotto and my light weight one is made by Induro. Looking at workshop ?and day course participants, there are some good ones from Giotto and Redsnapper, who offer great value. Calument have some own branded ones which seem quite good as well.
As for heads, I have one Kirk ball head – still going strong after 15 years, a light weight FLM ball head, Manfrotto ?3 way pan and tilt plus two video heads, a Giotto lightweight video head and a Wimberely Gimbal head plus Sidekick to go with a ball head. Other makes to consider are Benro, Induro, Really Right Stuff and Acratech. It is the same as tripods – invest wisely, don’t buy cheap and hopefully it will last you a long time.
Finally if you do loose some parts or brake the tripod see if you can get it repaired first. I recently repaired two tripods for less than ?20.00. One needed a new locking screw and the other a whole new leg lock. Check out UK based?Manfrotto Spares for spare parts for both Gitzo and Manfrotto tripods. It will be cheaper than buying a new one!