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:
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. While there’s no one-size-fits-all option, there are things you should know as you search for your tripod life-partner.
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. 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
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 beware of the pistol-grip ball heads—they may seem cool, but I’ve found that 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.
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 complementary clamp on the head. The clamp might engage/disengage with a lever or twist-knob—I prefer the lever kind because they’re easier, but I have a friend who will never use one again after accidentally jettisoning his camera after the lever caught on something.
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), forming an L shape. 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 makes 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). Another advantage of an L-plate is that whether your camera is oriented horizontal or vertical, the camera is always over the tripod’s center of gravity (more stable), and stays at more or less the same height.
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 those from Really Right Stuff) are custom-machined for the body (when you get a new camera, you’ll need a new L-plate).
I use two Really Right Stuff tripods: as of summer 2022, my primary tripod is a Really Right Stuff Ascent with the integrated head. It’s as close to a perfect tripod for my needs as any tripod I’ve ever used or seen, and is the first tripod to check every box for me: It’s super light, sturdy enough for my heaviest body/telephoto combo, compact enough to fit in a small suitcase, and tall enough to use sans centerpost without stooping (I’m 5′ 9″). (As you might expect, the Ascent is also far beyond the budget of many photographers.)
My second tripod is the RRS TVC-24L with a RRS BH-55. Since getting the Ascent, I only use this tripod if I’m driving to a shoot, won’t be hiking, and plan to shoot extreme telephoto. The Ascent can handle the extreme telephoto, but the 24L’s weight and sturdiness is even better.
A few words about this image
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). And using a tripod without a centerpost enabled me to drop all the way down to the flowers’ level.
(Click, evaluate, refine, click…)
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