Tripods Are Not Optional
Ian Robert Knight
Travel Photographer, Canada
I remember when I bought my first tripod. It was heavy, cumbersome and awkward. But it fundamentally changed the way I approached photography. No longer was I held hostage to high ISO’s or super wide apertures. With a tripod, I could take my time, using long exposures and small apertures. The luxury I was afforded by using a tripod was one of relaxation and regained time. At that point, I knew that tripods are not optional.
Tripods have come a long way since I bought my first model, oh-so-many years ago. Back then (let’s say the 80’s), tripods were either made of wood, aluminum or plastic. Most serious photographers would buy the aluminum version, and weight-conscious backpackers would buy the plastic ones. Wooden ones were typically used for large view cameras or video. And they weighed a ton.
Unfortunately, the aluminum tripods also weighed a ton. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but in comparison to today’s models, they sure did. Aluminum was the lightest metal available then, or at least the lightest durable metal. But science and technology has moved on since then, and most popular tripods are now made with Carbon Fibre. And thank goodness for that.
No More Excuses
Carbon fibre tripods have essentially eliminated the excuse of not wanting to carry a tripod because they are too heavy. If you use a carbon fibre tripod, not only is it super durable, but it is super light and much easier to carry for long periods of time. You’ll appreciate that if you’re trekking for hours up a mountainside to capture epic scenic photos.
I am not going to get into which brand is better than other brands. Besides, I am not that familiar with all the brands out there anyway. I can name drop a few brands that are worth your attention, but that won’t work in every market. But what I can tell you is what to look for in a tripod, based on my totally unscientific been-there-done-that opinion. I am using images I lifted from the Manfrotto website, but it doesn’t mean I am endorsing them, although that’s what I’ve been using for decades. So here goes:
If you use a carbon fibre tripod, not only is it super durable, but it is super light and much easier to carry for long periods of time.
First, understand that carbon fibre tripods are more expensive than other types, mostly because the material is expensive to make. But I think if you buy one of the other types first, you’ll end up buying a carbon fibre model eventually. So why not just start with it? Second, understand that most tripods are sold as legs-only, and don’t come with the ‘tripod head’, which are sold separately, and the subject of a whole ‘nother blog post.
Tripods come in various sizes. The popular trend now is what they call “travel tripods” which are designed to fold into crazy positions so you can pack them into small spaces. While I applaud this concept, don’t make that the most important design factor, at the expense of stability or functionality. My tripod, which isn’t a travel tripod, fits just fine into my medium-size suitcase if I remove the head.
Look Ma! No Head!
How Do You Like Your Legs?
One of the features that tend to divide the photography world is leg locks. You either like the twist type, or you like the clip type. There is no middle ground. It’s like choosing between political parties or dogs and cats. Everyone has a preference, and you will too. I prefer clip locks, but that’s just me. I think clip locks are quicker to operate since you don’t have to twist-twist-twist-twist to tighten the leg. You just open + close, and you’re done. But that’s your call – you can pick the twisty type if you prefer. I wouldn’t.
Clip type leg locks
Twist type leg locks
Another thing to consider is the maximum and minimum heights you can work with. Some models will allow you to reach heights of more than 7 feet, but for most people that’s unneeded. Just make sure your tripod will reach your eye height without extending the central neck. You may not always have it this high, but it’s good if it can get there when you need it to.
Most people think that tripods are meant to stand up tall, but they should also be able to get low to the ground too. This is particularly helpful if you shoot macro images of flowers and bugs and such. Well-designed tripods will allow you to extend the legs outwards, so you can get down super low. I think that’s pretty handy.
Another thing to keep in mind is the number of ‘sections’ the tripod has. What this means is that some tripods have legs that extend with 4 sections, and some extend with 3 sections. The advantage of 4 sections is that the tripod will collapse into a smaller unit when it’s all shut down. But the advantage of 3 sections is less opening, and a little bit sturdier.
So what do you use a tripod for? Image sharpness, basically. When you have a tripod under your camera, you’ll absolutely get sharper images. While this may seem obvious, it’s surprising how often I see photographers finding all sorts of excuses to avoid using a tripod. Sure it may slow you down, because there are added steps involved before you get your photograph, but the time spent on preparing your setup will pay off in the long run. Basically, if you want the best photos possible, especially when shooting landscapes, then tripods are not optional. They are essential.
Ian Robert Knight Photography
Ian is a professional photographer, specializing in travel editorial and street photography. Find out more about Ian's background and experiences in the bio page here.
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