The Right Tripod

August 11, 2014

Look at these three landscape photos.  What do they have in common?

 

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"Smoke""Smoke"Tier Three:
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The title of this article probably gave it away: these photos were all taken using a tripod!

 

In this article, I'll go through my personal tripod journey, describe my tripod purchases, and hopefully show you how to buy the right tripod for your needs.

 

The sad secret of tripods is that you can only choose two of the following: low price, light weight, and sturdiness.  Below a certain price point (roughly $200 if you buy used), it's impossible to get a truly sturdy tripod at all, and more expensive tripods will still be much better.

 

My first tripod was a $40 off-brand plastic tripod, and it broke after one vacation.  It was never sturdy at all, it wasn't tall, and it was hard to position where I wanted it to go.  Ultimately, although it was better than no tripod at all, it was a waste of money.  

 

My second tripod was a $200 aluminum tripod with a $100 tripod head.  The tripod head was a bit hard to move, and the plate for my camera twisted off easily, but otherwise I didn't really have any complaints.

 

I upgraded the tripod head to a $250 geared head, which allows for very precise movements, and I sold the old head because it was getting hard to use.

 

Life was good until I realized that the head and tripod together weighed eight pounds.  This was fine for shooting around my house or near a car, but as any backpacker can tell you, eight pounds will begin to hurt on a hike, especially if your backpack is already full of camera gear, and the tripod is hanging far away from your back.  Almost all of my tripod use was from hiking, and I had to carry this massive tripod and geared head around with me everywhere.  So, I bought a much lighter tripod head (a ballhead) which was absolutely amazing, but it cost me $350 (and I bought it used)!  I also bought a very nice miniature tripod made out of wood, which I still have and absolutely love: the Berlebach mini-sized tripod.  It cost me about $170, and it weighs only 2.5 pounds with the ballhead attached.  Clearly, this is a much better hiking companion than my original eight-pound setup.  

 

Of course, though, there was an issue with this tripod as well; the maximum height (even with the ballhead attached) was a measly 17 inches.  Although this was not nearly as much of an issue as you may expect, I did think that I needed something more in the three-foot and up range to be able to use it in most situations I came across.  So, since I loved the miniature wooden tripod so much, I decided to buy a larger version of the tripod for $250.

 

Unfortunately, after my trip to Norway, I realized that this new wooden tripod was just not light enough for me to use comfortably, even though it was only a total of 5.3 pounds with the ballhead attached.  I had thought this would be better than my old metal tripod, but after trying an eight mile hike with this tripod hanging on a full backpack, my back and shoulders were much more sore than they should have been.  That, combined with the fact that the new wooden tripod was hard to use (the legs unlocked slowly and the tripod feet were poorly designed), led me to sell this tripod.  

 

Finally, finally, I bought the tripod that is perfect for my needs: the Really Right Stuff TQC-14 tripod, a carbon fiber tripod which weighs 3.5 pounds with my ballhead, is extremely easy to use, and will last me forever.  It's extremely sturdy, too, and reaches a bit more than four feet tall (perfect for my needs).  The only issue is that it cost $850.

 

So, do you want me to add up the total I spent on tripod equipment over the years?  At the moment I use the miniature wooden tripod, the carbon fiber tripod, and one ballhead.  These cost me a total of about $1350, and they are an amazing combination.  In total, though, I spent $2210 on tripod gear over the years because of all these wasted purchases.

 

Yes, I ultimately sold the old tripod equipment, but not without losing money in the process.

 

"Where no Plane Flies Softly""Where no Plane Flies Softly"Tier Three

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My suggestions for buying tripod equipment are as follows: If you take photos almost entirely in a studio, you can feel free to get whatever tripod you want above a certain price point (say, $400) without compromising on much of anything, simply because you can get a heavy aluminum or wooden tripod with a geared head (try the Manfrotto 410 head) that holds your camera steady.  However, if you see yourself bringing a tripod on any hikes, long or short, you need to look more into the $750 to $1000 range for a great tripod and head.  And if you’re taking the time to read about tripods online, you clearly want a great one.

 

Before I bought all of my different tripods, I heard that I would eventually spend at least $700 on tripods.  I didn’t have the budget at the time for such an expensive tripod, and I disregarded the advice because it seemed absolutely excessive.  As a result, I paid much more than $700 in the long run.

 

If your budget does not allow for a $700 tripod, my recommendation is that you buy an off-brand tripod under $100 from Best Buy or a similar store.  Depending on how you use your tripod, this may be enough.  You might even realize that you can’t stand carrying a tripod in the first place, even though the cheap tripods from Best Buy are very light weight.  However, if you use that cheap tripod often enough that it breaks (and eventually it will), you’ll know that you’re the type of person who wants a better tripod.  Replace the broken tripod with another cheap one, and continue until you have saved enough money for a top-notch, carbon fiber tripod.  

 

A cheap tripod is a hundred times better than no tripod at all, and an expensive tripod is ten times better than a cheap one.  A middle-range tripod is clearly better than a cheap one, but not by as much as you may expect.  However, a great tripod head is well worth it, and it is easy to tell a $350 head from a $100 head when you are using it.

 

Now, though this advice isn’t necessarily true of other camera equipment, you always get what you pay for with tripods.  There is no easy way out of paying for a good tripod.  Knock-off copies of expensive brands, tripods of unusual materials (i.e., wood and basalt), and cheap tripod heads are almost always a bad investment in one way or another.  (Granted, my personal miniature tripod is made of wood, but a full-sized wooden tripod always compromises in weight and ease of use, and this is coming from a guy who special ordered from Germany the “Berlebach Report 703” tripod, the lightest-weight medium-sized wooden tripod that exists.)  

 

It is, however, possible to buy tripods used and save perhaps 25% off of retail price.  This is a great deal because, so long as the tripod is not broken, there is no reason to avoid a used tripod.  With cameras and lenses, a used version may be well-worn or deteriorating mechanically, but even a dinged-up tripod and head should function exactly the same as a new version. 

 

The last thing I have to say is that, when it comes to tripods, there is one specification which people care about too much, in my opinion: tripod height.  Other than for people who have difficulty bending over, I personally see no reason why a tripod needs to reach your eye level.  Almost all cameras today have great screens on the back, meaning that you don’t even need to look through the viewfinder if the camera is at an awkward height.  More importantly, having a shorter tripod makes it smaller and lighter than its taller counterparts.  Personally, it hurts me much more to carry a heavy tripod on my back than it does to bend over to take photos. 

 

Some people argue that a tall tripod is essential for positioning the camera at the height you wish, but I’d suggest differently.  I believe that, unless you need to shoot over something unusually tall, a tall tripod is simply not needed.  Even my miniature, 17-inch tall tripod is usually tall enough for what I need to do.  More often than not, a lower angle is the best angle for a dynamic photo anyway.  I would propose that very few people need a tripod to be more than four feet tall, and most would be fine with one even shorter than that.

 

In fact, if a four-foot tall tripod is too short, chances are good that a six-foot tripod would be too short as well.  Think; there are very few situations in which a four-foot tripod would be blocked by, say, a tall fence or hedge, and a six-foot tripod would be tall enough.  And yet, a six-foot tripod with four sections would need to be at least six inches longer when folded (24 extra inches divided by four sections), or itself would need to have a fifth section, which would be extremely thin and unstable.  

 

In addition, the six-foot tripod would weigh about 1.5x what the four-foot tripod weighs.  Personally, I find that a three-pound tripod (not counting the tripod head) is about my maximum weight for comfort on long hikes, so a 4.5-pound tripod would simply be too heavy to carry along (and I know this from experience; I sold my 4.2-pound tripod because it weighed me down).  Then, I have to ask myself: would I rather lose out on a few photos where four feet is not quite tall enough, or would I rather not be able to bring my tripod onto hikes in the first place?  This is a legitimate situation; after feeling the pain of an eight-mile hike with my 4.2-pound tripod in Norway (with a 1.0-pound head attached), I simply refused to bring it on any later hikes.  

 

Of course, if you don’t need a lightweight tripod because you’re not hiking with it, by all means buy as tall of a tripod as you want.  But for most people, I’d argue that it is worth bending over to take pictures if it saves you weight and space during a hike.

 

In the end, I believe that you could follow one of two paths: You could keep incrementally upgrading your support equipment until you get your perfect tripod, losing money each time.  Or, you could do the right thing the first time and buy your "final tripod" as soon as you can afford it, spending as little as possible along the way.  Eventually, you will do one or the other.  If I could start over again, I know what I would do.  

 

"Lightning off the Coast""Lightning off the Coast"Tier Four:
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