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The Tripod

June 15, 2010 - Dave Hecei

If you are getting serious about photography then there is a good chance you have, or want, an SLR. An SLR is more than just a camera it is a system. This includes a camera body, lenses, electronic flash, plus a bag or case to carry it all. Another important addition to any SLR outfit is a good tripod.

I am an avid nature photographer. I like to shoot all types of outdoor scenes. It could be a waterfall, a sunset, flowers, bugs, birds, deer, etc, almost anything. I have even shot comets, stars, moon, and planets in the night sky. Not one lens can do this all, which is why an SLR is so great. When I shoot landscapes I usually have my wide-angle lens. When shooting birds and mammals it’s time for a big telephoto. When shooting bugs and flowers, that’s my macro lens. For each of these ‘shoots’ my camera is most likely mounted on a tripod.

A tripod is an integral part of my nature photography. Any time I want to shoot with a big lens or a macro lens, my camera is on my tripod. When I am shooting landscapes I will likely use a tripod. Shooting with your camera on a tripod does several things, some important. One thing that it will do is slow you down. You might think that is bad, but the way I shoot I want to slow down a bit and take a close look at what I am shooting. The other thing it does is help me create sharp images and to help me keep horizons straight.

When shooting a landscape, I force myself to look at the whole scene. The tendency when shooting is to look at the main subject or to look at the central image area. It is important to check out all four corners and look for unwanted ‘stuff’. This could be junk, trash, an area that is too bright or dark, etc. Also, if you are shooting a landscape, you want to eliminate everything except what is necessary to make a good photo. If you have too much dead space to one side, or at the top or bottom, get rid of it. Move the camera or zoom the lens, whatever works best.

Once the camera is mounted on the tripod, you can set it up to frame the scene you want to shoot. Having the camera on a tripod allows you to move around without moving the camera. There is another piece to go along with the tripod, a cable release. This can be either a mechanical or electronic type. Most modern SLRs have a cable release accessory. DSLRs usually have a corded electronic one, but some do have wireless infrared ones. Older manual-focus SLRs usually have a threaded shutter release that can accept a cheaper mechanical type cable release. The cable release is there so that you can fire the shutter without physically touching the camera, thus causing it to move and causing the picture to be blurry.

(TIP: if you don’t have a cable release handy and you don’t need to time a shot you can use the self-timer feature on your camera. This is a feature that allows you to set the camera and delay the firing of the shutter by 10 seconds. Most modern DSLRs and autofocus film SLRs will have a 2 second self timer. This allows you to fire the shutter with less delay and allows the camera to come to rest and preventing camera motion blur.)

Buying a good tripod doesn’t have to be too stressful. Over the years I have only owned two tripods and they were both made by Bogen (now usually called Manfrotto). I have no problem recommending Bogen tripods. They are reasonably priced, very well made, and should last a lifetime, if taken care of. Other makers I would recommend are – Giottos, Gitzo (expensive but nice), Slik, and Induro. The only ones I have regularly used are Bogen/Manfrotto and Giottos.

Many tripods are sold as a unit. The tripods I have mentioned are usually sold as separate pieces – the legs and the head. This might be a bit more confusing, but it is a better way. There are almost as many types of heads as there are legs when it comes to tripods. Most nature photographers agree that a ball head is much more useful than the standard 3-way pan head. You’ve seen them with three handles sticking out in each direction. One is to pan left and right, one for up and down, and one for turning the camera for vertical shots. If you want to set up your camera quickly and move it to the proper position, having all these handles can get confusing.

A ball head works the same way, but usually has only two control knobs. One for rotating and one to for free movement. Once you have the camera in the position you want, just lock down the one knob and it’s set. On a good ball head, and tripod, once you lock it down there should be no movement.

Since my tripod is a bit old, the model number won’t be much use. It is the Bogen 3221 black legs with a 3055 heavy duty ball head. The closest model that is available today is the Manfrotto 055XB. The ball head is something that is best tried out at a store. You will want to try one with something attached to it so you can try out the control knobs and check out its movements.

A new tripod and head will likely run you at least $200. If I were to replace mine today it would likely be closer to $400. If this sounds a bit high, it isn’t. Remember that this is something that you will likely have for a long time, much longer than your latest camera body. Just think of it as another lens purchase. A good lens will cost you a lot more than $200.


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