Concise guide to tripod selection for the serious landscape photographer

Gary Hart Photography: Electric Scribble, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim

Electric Scribble, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/6 second
F/9
ISO 200
Lightning Trigger LT-IV

Tripod axiom

There’s an axiom in photography (popularized by Thom Hogan): Photographers purchase three tripods: the first tripod is a flimsy, cheap aluminum/plastic monstrosity; next comes a sturdy but heavy “value” tripod; and finally, they spring for the tripod they should have purchased in the first place—a sturdy, light, expensive tripod that will serve them for decades. You’ll save yourself tons of money by biting the bullet and just starting with the tripod that you covet (and probably already know you’ll eventually end up with).

How tall?

Stooping, even just a few inches, may not seem like a big deal at first, but it gets old really fast. Your primary tripod should be tall enough to elevate your camera to eye level without extending the centerpost—it’s okay if the tripod has a centerpost, and to use it as a last resort when wind or long exposures aren’t a factor, but a centerpost adds weight and makes it impossible to lower your camera all the way to the ground. While not essential, even taller than eye level is better because extra height adds compositional flexibility, the ability to elevate above obstacles, and makes it easier to handle uneven terrain.

Your minimum tripod height (MTH) determines the shortest tripod you can use without stooping or raising the center post. But you don’t need a tripod that’s as tall as you are because you’ll be mounting a camera and head atop the tripod, and your eyes are probably not on top of your head.

Here are the steps for determining if a trip is tall enough for you:

1. Start with the tripod’s fully extended height (legs extended, center post down), easy to find in the manufacturer’s specifications
2. Add the height of your ball-head
3. Add the distance from the base of your camera to the viewfinder
4. Subtract 4 (or so) inches from your height, including shoes (unless you photograph barefoot), to account for the distance from the top of your head to your eyes.
 

Variables dictated by need and preference

  • Carbon fiber is lighter and and less prone to vibration than aluminum, but more expensive (see Tripod axiom above). Carbon fiber also doesn’t get as cold on those frigid winter mornings.
  • Three leg-section tripods are less work to set up and take down; four leg-section tripods collapse smaller. In theory, the more leg sections a tripod has, the more it’s prone to vibration (each junction is a point of weakness), but this isn’t a big factor with a good tripod.
  • And speaking of leg sections, you’ll need to choose between twist locks and flip locks. I find the flip locks a little easier when I’m fully extending and collapsing the tripod at the beginning and end of a shoot, but the twist locks easier for partial adjustments of the legs while I’m shooting. The flip locks can be noisy, and can catch on things.

Tripod head

For landscape photography, I strongly recommend a ball head (pivoting ball that can be controlled by loosening and tightening a single knob) rather than a pan/tilt (a lever for each axis of motion). And stay away from the pistol-grip ball heads—they don’t handle weight well.

Quick-release system 

You’ll definitely want some kind of quick-release mechanism that allows you to quickly attach/detach the camera to/from the head. The simplest kind is a metal plate (don’t even consider anything with plastic parts) that mounts to the camera’s tripod screw and matches a corresponding clamp on the head. The clamp might engage/disengage with a lever or twist-knob—get the lever kind.

The flat plates are okay, but the easiest, sturdiest quick-release system is the Arca-Swiss L-plate (the Arca-Swiss style is a standard offered by many quick-release manufacturers). An L-plate is a 90-degree (L-shaped) piece of machined aluminum; one axis mounts flush with the bottom of the camera body, attaching via the tripod mount screw, and the perpendicular axis hugs one side of the camera body (providing a quick-release plate on the bottom and side of the camera). The entire length of both plate axes are quick-mount rails that attach (with a lever or knob) to the corresponding mounting clamp on the tripod head. This rail setup is more secure and easier to mount/unmount than a conventional quick-release plate, making switching between horizontal and vertical orientation a simple mater of releasing the clamp, rotating the body, and re-securing the clamp (it takes longer to read the description than to execute it).

If you’re really serious about your photography, you’ll invest in an L-plate system—once you do, it’ll be hard to imagine how you lived without it. Because every camera model has its own dimensions and unique cable, control, memory card, and battery access points, the best L-plates (like Really Right Stuff) are custom-machined for the body (when you get a new camera, you’ll need a new L-plate).

My tripods

I use two Really Right Stuff tripods: the larger RRS TVC-24L is my primary tripod; I also use a smaller, lighter RRS TQC-14 when I fly or hike. My TVC-24L has a RRS BH-55 (purchased when I was a DSLR shooter but overkill for my Sony mirrorless system— I’d probably get a BH-40 if I had to do it now); my TQC-14 has a BH-30. I’m about 5’ 9” and without the centerpost extended the TQC-14 is just a little shorter than ideal (I need to extend my centerpost a few inches to get my camera to eye level), but it’s a justifiable compromise when weight and/or storage length is a factor. All of my camera bodies and tripod heads are outfitted with RRS Arca Swiss type L-plates and corresponding clamps.

Links

Making the case for using a tripod
Really Right Stuff


Gary Hart Photography: Electric Scribble, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim

Electric Scribble, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim

About this image

Electric Scribble, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim

The best nature images reveal aspects of the world that the human eye misses. For example, though lightning strikes so fast that it’s already a memory before the brain can process them, the camera’s ability to freeze an instant in time preserves magic moments like this that otherwise would be lost forever.

Lightning’s speed makes photographing it  without a tripod virtually impossible: in daylight, it requires a lightning sensor that mounts atop the pre-composed camera and waits for lightning to fire; at night it can be captured with a manual shutter press, but at exposures far too long for hand-holding.

On this afternoon on the North Rim last month, Don Smith and I had our workshop group set up to photograph a series of active thunderstorms skirting the South Rim about 15 miles away from our vantage point on the Grand Canyon Lodge viewing deck. The deck was packed with people enjoying the show. In crowded locations like this I particularly appreciate the height of the RRS 24L, which gave me the flexibility to elevate above heads and other obstacles. The 24L’s sturdiness gave me peace of mind that my camera would remain stable despite all the heavy footsteps nearby.

Virtually all of the strikes were vertical, cloud-to-ground strokes directly across the canyon. But already having a pretty good selection of images like that, my camera was set up (on my tripod, Lightning Trigger ready for action) to favor the composition I wanted rather than in the direction of the most lightning activity.

Most of my lightning captures this afternoon were recorded relatively close to my memory, albeit with much more intricate detail than my eyes saw. This cloud-to-cloud strike, the only lightning I captured with this composition, followed a far too circuitous path for my eye/brain to register, but it was etched forever in pixels by my sensor. Better still, the resulting 42 megapixel raw file gives me the luxury of much closer scrutiny than you get with this 800 pixel jpeg. Magnifying the full file to 100 percent, I’m able to infer that what I have here is only a portion of a rather tangled mess of electricity that skipped in and out of clouds, appearing, disappearing, and doubling back on itself like a tangled thread—all in the blink of an eye.

Photo Workshop Schedule


A gallery of frozen moments in nature

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

4 Comments on “Concise guide to tripod selection for the serious landscape photographer

  1. Gary,

    since I’ve been following you for longer than a year, but I’ve never commented so far, let me first congratulate you for your portfolio and thank you for the very inspirational posts.

    I definitely second the tripod axiom: I bought my Gitzo 1325 carbon fibre sixteen years ago – at the time it was the most expensive piece of equipment I owned – and it’s still here doing its job. It’s the only piece of equipment that survived, as I first switched from Minolta to Nikon and, very recently, from Nikon to Sony.

    I also own a Kirk Enterprises BH-3 head that served me very well. The heaviest lens I used was the Nikkor AF-S 300 f/4 D – also for landscape shots – and the ball head was very good as it didn’t “droop” the lens elevation when, after composing, I removed my hands. Things are very different now with the Sigma 150-600mm C (I suppose it’s basically the same size and weight as your Tamron): the lens, zoomed out, extends a lot, the tripod foot is positioned very backward and the a6000 doesn’t balance well. So I can’t really compose with that head. The beanbag on my car, indeed, works very well, except in the case I have to use a very high elevation angle (e.g. from the bottom of a narrow valley up to the mountains top). Other times my car can’t just follow me along a narrow path, so the tripod can’t be replaced.

    I was guessing whether a gymbal head would work in a better way. Or perhaps do I just need a larger ball head? Which is the ball in your set that you use with the 150-600mm lens? I suppose you don’t experience any drooping otherwise you’d have mentioned it.

    Thanks.

    • Thanks, Fabrizio. I use the RRS BH-55 most of the time with my Tamron 150-600 with no problems. If I’m really careful, I can use the RRS BH-30 with the lens mounted on the tripod, but it’s less than ideal.

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