Tripod selection

Morning Light, Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Dome

Morning Light, Wildflowers and Upper Yosemite Fall from Sentinel Dome
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
1/50 second
F/16.0
ISO 400
105 mm

More than just a platform to eliminate camera shake, a sturdy tripod is an essential part of a landscape photographer’s creative success. Read why here: The Tripod Difference

A photography axiom (popularized by Thom Hogan) says that photographers purchase three tripods:

  1. The first tripod is a flimsy, cheap aluminum/plastic monstrosity
  2. Next comes a sturdy but heavy “value” tripod
  3. Finally, frustrated photographers spring for the tripod they should have purchased in the first place—a sturdy, light, expensive tripod that will serve them for decades.

In other words, 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).

Purchasing a tripod can be an expensive, daunting process, fraught with opportunities for error. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

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.

Every reputable tripod head manufacturer provides maximum weight guidelines for their heads. Unfortunately, there’s no industry-wide standard for measuring a head’s capacity, and some specifications seem to be more marketing driven than others. To be safe, when shopping for a head, determine the weight of the heaviest body/lens combination your head will be expected to hold and increase it by 50 percent before relying on the head manufacturer’s specifications.

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.

A few words about this image

Morning Light, Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Dome

 

Like so many of my images, this one was a process that would have been much more difficult without a tripod. My objective was to ensure sharpness in the sunlit rocks, wildflowers, and tree in the foreground, and to allow Yosemite Falls to recede into the background. Finding the right combination of subject distance, focal length, framing, focus point, and f-stop/shutter/ISO was a painstaking process that spanned multiple images. Being on a tripod allowed me to review and refine the previous image without completely recreating it each time (as I would have had to do if I’d been hand-holding).

Links

Making the case for using a tripod
Really Right Stuff

Photo Workshop Schedule


Using my Tripod to Build an Image

(Click, evaluate, refine, click…)

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

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