Tripod Tips; Legs To Stand On

Tripods have been around for so many years that you can find some on sale for less than the cost of a medium pizza. All have three adjustable legs, a screw that attaches to the bottom of a camera, and some sort of mechanism that allows the user to point the lens steadily in the right direction without moving the whole contraption. That being said, is it smart to save a few bucks when shopping for a three-legged friend?

Trusting your D-SLR to a flimsy tripod is like handing a black chrome Leica to a 7-year-old who has just been eating buttered popcorn. Drop your camera on a concrete floor and get it over with.

Although tripods are universally acknowledged as the one and only accessory that has the potential to improve every single picture, people do not use them as often as they should. There are several reasons for this, and most can be traced to poor buying decisions. Despite their apparent simplicity, all tripods are not created equal. If you do not use a tripod often it could be because you own the
wrong one.

If a tripod is too heavy you’ll leave it at home. It doesn’t matter if that excess weight is due to safety-minded over-engineering of heavy-duty fittings or simply because the manufacturer saved a few bucks by using heavier materials. Tripods that are a pain to carry are left in the closet. The use of modern materials—including carbon fiber, magnesium, and specially blended alloys—allows tripod manufacturers to make products that are stronger than steel but lighter than aluminum.

Same holds true if the tripod is too difficult—or too slow—to set up. I once had a tripod that required a pair of pliers to adjust the legs. It wasn’t always that way—it worked right for the first few weeks but then became progressively worse. That’s the sort of obstacle that discourages people from using tripods. Look for leg locks that can be operated with one hand—and that lock and unlock securely but effortlessly.

Tripods that are too short are uncomfortable to use. If you’re 6 ft tall and like to use your camera at eye level, be sure to check the specification that’s labeled Maximum Height Extension in the Specs chart. This measurement includes the center column, so it’s not a true indication of the length of the legs. But it will tell you whether or not you need to bend down to peer into the camera’s viewfinder—or whether the tripod will elevate the camera to a convenient operating level. By the same token, if you plan to stuff your tripod in a suitcase or backpack, pay attention to how long it is when collapsed.

Tripod heads that are too loose (or too tight) or that are too cumbersome to fine-tune can cause insufferable frustration. Better tripods are sold with a smooth operating pan-and-tilt head, ball head, or sold with no head at all. Saving money by buying a tripod that has an all-in-one molded platform-type head with a single adjustment arm is poor economy. Opt instead for separate components: a set of legs and a ball head.

The clean and simple design of a high-quality ball head belies its sophistication. Even a basic ball head can move in more directions than any joint in the human body—and remain securely locked in place during a long exposure. If you want a tripod that’s more than just a set of pretty legs, pay a few dollars more for a good ball head—you’ll never regret it.

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