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Friday
Jan212011

How to Select Tripods and Monopods for your Digital Camera and Save Some Money!

Whether you own a point and shoot camera or a dSLR, at some point your are going to need to use a tripod or monopod in your photography. Even more, the introduction of video capabilities to still cameras adds another reason to own and use a tripod and/or monopod suitable to your type of shoot. Not every type of shooting situation requires big, expensive tripods. In fact, with some creativity and by following a few helpful tips, you can save a lot of money.

The reality of selecting a tripod that suits your needs while saving money is that it requires a little bit of work on your part. I know...some readers would rather opt for the latest Costco special but I hope you'll second guess a purchase like that after reading this article. In fact, if that statement spoke to you, this article stands to really benefit you.

One other thing...there are environments where camera shake is a very real concern and where tripods are inappropriate or disallowed. For example, museums, sports games, your local zoo, and other public places often prohibit tripods to protect the other guests from potentially tripping on the legs, causing an accident. In this case monopods and/or gorillapods are a great, typically allowed, tool to use as a substitute. The last segment of this article covers these two tools as well as other improvisations.

I. What Should I Look for in a Tripod?
II. Why Use a Tripod?
III. How to Avoid Camera Shake
IV. Tripod Anatomy
   A) Tripod Heads
   B) Tripod Legs
   C) Tripod Feet
V. Monopods
VI. Mini Tripods and Gorillapods
VII. Creative Alternatives

What should I look for in a tripod?
Here are 6 things that you ought to consider when selecting your tripod:

1) What is the weight capacity for both the tripod head and legs? Big weight capacities are important for those photographers shooting with dSLR cameras or video cameras due to their considerable weight. Your camera and lens manufacturer posts weight information by model on their website.

However, if you use a point and shoot camera or a bridge camera, you should know that an expensive tripod with a huge weight capacity may over serve your needs. You may have a tripod already picked out for yourself that has a weight capacity far higher than the actual weight of your camera (& lens, etc.). This additional weight capacity usually comes at a premium.

2) Uses - Photography, videography, panning, macro, wildlife, sports, portraits, and studio work all present unique needs. While some tripods offer features suitable for several shooting scenarios, it's important to evaluate your own shooting needs and to seek the tripod that suits your unique shooting environments best.



3) Your budget is an important factor in determing what kind of tripod to use. However, I'd like to encourage you to think differently about this. Instead of going into a decision with your mind already made up about how much you're going to spend, what if you went in a bit more open-minded?

The approach that I use in making purchases like these is to first get a better understanding of my shooting needs. Then I try to understand what tools exist in the marketplace that could potentially meet my needs regardless of price. Finally, I narrow down the list of tools that will meet my needs according to a price-range that I'm comfortable with. Sometimes this price is well above what I originally intended to spend.

In this case, I determine how long I'm willing to wait before I buy it. If it's a relatively short while, I'll simply save up for it until I can purchase it and I'll rent it until then. This way, I end up collecting a set of high quality tools that I can use for years to come instead of spending less money on something that might not meet all of my needs.

4) The number of controls - Some gadgets are loaded with all kinds of buttons, gears, swivels, wheels, pins, etc. and for gear junkies this can have a very interesting gear lust affect. Contrary to the popular mantra "Bigger is Better", more buttons doesn't necessarily imply higher quality or a "better" tripod. More controls can be distracting from the point of it all... getting the photo.

5) The weight of the tripod unit as a whole is important to consider especially if you plan to board a plane with it or take it hiking with you. The other application where weight can become a factor is in difficult weather. Heavier tripods are going to offer additional stability in heavy winds should that be an environment that you find yourself shooting in.

6) Do I need a new model or can I buy one used? Also, will last year's model work or do I need the latest and greatest? Sometimes buying used can be a very smart decision. Why not let somebody else help you buy your tripod? Check out our article titled, "Best Places to Buy and Sell Camera Gear" to learn more about buying used gear.

lens rental

Let's talk a little about one of the problems that tripods and monopods solve.

The biggest and most common problem is camera shake!

Here's a practical application:
When I'm shooting landscapes, I need to be able to shoot at a setting that provides me with very good front to back sharpness, so I set my shooting mode either to Manual or to Aperture Priority. Then I set the f-stop to f/22, which on the lens that I use most frequently is the smallest I can go. This shrinks the aperture to a very small opening which reduces the amount of light that can get to my camera's sensor. In essence, it makes for a very dark image. To make matters worse, I like to shoot landscapes at sunrise and/or sunset when there is already less light.

To compensate for the lack of light available through the aperture, either the shutterspeed will need to be slowed down to allow more light through to the sensor and/or the ISO level will need to be increased to bolster the camera's sensitivity to light thereby collecting more of it. Since increasing the ISO typically increases noise in the image, I like to slow the shutter down instead. With a slower shutter speed, I have to be careful to avoid camera shake. If I'm shooting in Automatic Mode, the camera will assess the shooting scenario and make the best selection of f-stop, shutterspeed and ISO for me so I prefer never to use Automatic Mode.

Here's a good rule of thumb in avoiding camera shake:

Make sure that the shutterspeed is at least as fast as the focal length of your lens.
Shooting with a 100mm lens? Your shutterspeed should be at least 1/100 of a second.

In the scenario I described above, I wouldn't be able to shoot hand-held due to the inevitable camera shake so I use a tripod to steady the camera. Tripods work just as well for point and shoot cameras as they do for dSLRs and I'm seeing more and more point and shoot cameras on tripods lately especially in low-light landscape photography scenarios.

Tripod Anatomy

Tripods can be purchased as a whole unit or each piece can be purchased à la carte and assembled by the photographer. While purchasing a tripod whole can provide some financial incentive, using the à la carte method provides the photographer greater options. It's important to know that neither is "The Right Way". They both work fine and suit different shooting needs. Let's take a look at the anatomy of a tripod.

Tripod Head
The head is where the camera is mounted to the tripod. There are several different types of heads available: ball heads, pan-tilt heads, gimbal heads, and panoramic heads. Choosing a tripod head is both about personal style/preference and shooting needs or environment. Tripod heads come with only one detachable part which is the quick release plate. While some heads use a different application of this device, their use is universal. It is what connects the camera to the head. Let's take a brief look at each head type.


Go West by mwichary on Flickr Creative Commons Adapted for Use on
Sensory Escape Images Blog

Ball Heads - offer quick adjustment with a single lock and move on a ball swivel. They're a simple head really but one of the more pricey designs which resemble a ball and socket joint. These heads are easy to setup and adjust, and make it quick to recompose images. One of the downsides is they can be a bit challenging and more time-consuming to level. These heads are preferable for general use photography except where cost prohibits in which case a pan-tilt is the likely substitute. These are also the preferred head by many pro photographers. However, if shooting with a telephoto or super telephoto lens, you will find your camera to be tricky to balance on this type of head. Most resort to using a gimbal head in this case.

Pan-Tilt Heads - also a good multi-purpose head, has two separate axes which make it possible to lock one plane of movement before adjusting the other plane. This makes leveling a little easier. The handles twist to lock the axes. There are both two and three way pan-tilt heads available.

Gimbal Heads - I just rented a gimbal head recently for some wildlife photography that I was doing in New Mexico and when I returned home I immediately added this to my shopping list. This lens is built for big heavy telephoto and super-telephoto lenses. The point of a gimbal head is to focus on the center of gravity between your camera and lens. These are built big and sturdy and accordingly also come at a steeper price. If you're not shooting with a large lens, pass on this one as it will be far more than you need.

Panoramic Heads - allow photographers the ability to shoot a series of images on a very precise axis of rotation without the parallax that typically occurs. In essence, it helps control distortion not uncommon to shooting panoramas. These are a specialized head that are less frequently used.

If you're a visual person, take a peak at the links below to help connect the uses with the images of each head type. B&H; Photo is one of my favorite vendors and I get a lot of useful information from their site including user reviews which I value quite highly. These heads are not necessarily provided as recommendations but rather to assist you in learning more about this topic. Next time you're at an event and spot a photographer using a tripod, see if you can identify what type of head they're using and don't be afraid to ask questions. Most photographers love talking gear.

Ball Head

Pan-Tilt Head

Gimbal Head

Panoramic Head


Legs

If I had to pick two things to look for in tripod legs, they'd be the weight (not weight capacity) and sturdiness. On prior shoots I've found myself in windy conditions with less sturdy tripod legs that rattled and moved with the wind virtually nullifying any benefit gained by using them. The reason weight is important to me is because I like to travel with my gear and a super heavy tripod doesn't help me to that end. These two needs together result in a sturdy but light-weight tripod that are known to be features of carbon fiber tripods.


Go West by mwichary on Flickr Creative Commons Adapted for Use on
Sensory Escape Images Blog

Carbon fiber tripods dampen vibration very well and are up to 30% lighter than other metal tripods of similar sizes. Weight capacity is also very important and just as much so as for the head since the legs may need to hold up under heavy camera bodies and big telephoto lenses. Conversely, if shooting with a point and shoot or a smaller dSLR without telephoto lenses, a heavy weight capacity rating is only going to cost you more money than you need to spend.

Another important factor to consider is the number of leg sections. There can be between 3 and 5 sections generally and this has a bearing directly on how small it folds up and on stability. Thickness, or diameter, of legs also determines stability. Finally, height is a huge consideration. The height of tripod legs are measured two ways:
1) With center column extended
2) Without center column extended

Understanding the importance of these measurements is critical to taking sharp images. I would argue that the height without the center column extended is the key measurement to consider. My reasoning is that by extending the center column to increase the height of the legs, the overall stability of the tripod decreases. Therefore, I aim to avoid extending the center column completely. When I purchased my latest tripod, I made sure that it extended to a useable height without the center column extended so that I get the full benefit of tripod's stability.


Feet

The feet of the tripod most often come with the legs and so making a separate purchase for feet is not the norm. The important thing to know is that for most tripod feet, there are two settings. One is for indoors and the other for outdoors. The feet are typically designed so that a spike is exposed by screwing in the plastic/rubber feet. The spike offers increased traction on outdoor terrain. Forgetting to rethread the plastic/rubber feet can wreak havoc on carpet though so make it a point to do so immediately following an outdoor shoot.

The Whole Enchilada

After reading this far, is the thought of taking the à la carte approach to selecting a tripod a bit daunting? If so, you're not alone. Many photographers opt to purchase a tripod head and legs combo and manufacturers/distributers pair them up frequently. Take a look at an example of a Giottos model below for example:



Monopods

Earlier in the article I mentioned how tripods can sometimes be ill-suited for certain shooting environments. In fact, some institutions ban tripods altogether. These can include theme parks, museums, zoos, and other public places. Make a call before you venture out so that you can bring a tool suitable to the environment you'll be shooting in. While tripods can be found on the "prohibited" list of some destinations, monopods are often welcome.

A monopod has a head identical to and interchangeable with tripod heads, and only one leg. A slight modification to this design has recently emerged offering three small feet at the bottom of the leg that allow the monopod stand-alone stability. This design is picking up steam with videographers shooting with video-capable dSLR cameras. Monopods are lighter than tripods, take up less floor space, and are more maneuverable making them indispensable for sports and wildlife photographers in particular.

Monopods can also be used as walking sticks on long hikes when the camera has been removed. Essentially many of the rules that apply to tripod selection and usage also apply to monopods.

With Feet

Without Feet


Mini Tripods and Gorillapods

Mini tripods, or table-top tripods, are gaining a lot of respect among photographers for their travel-friendly size and lower cost. Mini tripods look like regular tripods that have been shrunk down to 5-8 inches tall. Don't let the size fool you though. These mini tripods pull their own weight quite well. They use the same heads as do monopods and tripods so you can save a few dollars by purchasing just the mini tripod legs and using your existing head. One variation of the standard mini tripod design is the gorillapod. The gorillapod comes with flexible legs that can be reshaped to suit almost any shooting surface. As for either design, due to their short size and smaller footprint, center of gravity issues are more pronounced and heavier bodies/lenses could tip over more easily so keep a close eye on them while shooting.

Mini "Tabletop"

Gorillapod


There are also other less expensive ways to improvise steadying your camera. On my recent visit to Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge, I placed a 5lb studio bean bag weight on a fence post and laid my camera on it for support. It worked quite well. Random objects tend to be useful as well.

A few years back I was doing some photography in the San Francisco area and I had left my quick release plate at the hotel by accident rendering my tripod useless. Instead of using my tripod, I set my camera on top of a brick wall on Yerba Buena Island and shot a long exposure of downtown San Francisco which has, ironically, become one of my best selling images to date. Brick walls and benches tend to be great substitutes in the absence of a good tripod.

Hopefully, you've found this article to be resourceful. If you have any questions, connect with me on Twitter or Facebook or leave a comment.

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