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Tripods, Monopods and Other Stabilization Devices

-- Features and Peculiarities --

by Al Olson

If your goal is to create crisp, sharp photographs it is important to use the tripod whenever possible. Even at faster shutter speeds there is motion blur from the hand-held camera that will show up in enlargements. In addition, framing the subject with the camera on the tripod causes the photographer to slow down and become more careful with the composition. When doing extended exposures in night or low light situations or when attempting special effects such as with moving water, tripods are a necessity.

© 2005 a.c.olson -- Tripod Selections

Tripods come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and designs. There is also a variety of tripod heads available to suit different photographic situations as well as the shooting preferences of the photographer. The photographer should consider the following criteria when selecting a tripod:

1. Sturdiness
Sturdiness in both the tripod and tripod head are the most important criteria when selecting a tripod. Wind, mirror bounce, or movement induced when the photographer presses the shutter will cause the camera to vibrate. The sturdier tripods and heads are better at damping these vibrations.

2. Weight
Carrying a lot of heavy camera gear can be exhausting, especially if it is for anything beyond a short distance. Sturdy tripods can very heavy. There are a number of materials that reduce weight but retain the sturdiness, such as aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, and wood. The titanium and carbon fiber tripods can be quite expensive (although Smith Victor just introduced a carbon fiber one for slightly more than $200). Wood tripods are excellent for sturdiness, vibration damping, and lighter weights, but are probably available only in the used market.

3. Tripod and Monopod Heads

There are a large variety of heads to fit tripods and monopods. Most modern heads use a quick release plate to enable the camera to be mounted and removed with ease. The design of the quick release plate differs between the manufacturers and usually between models offered by a single manufacturer. The different styles of tripod heads include:

  1. Ball heads that come in a variety of sizes from very small to very large. The head is usually adjusted to the desired position and then fastened by a locking lever. Most fine art photographers favor the large ball heads.
  2. Ball heads with micro adjusting screws to fine-tune the composition when performing close-up photography.
  3. Pan heads can be tilted both vertically and laterally and locked into position by tightening the pan head grips.
  4. Semi-pan heads that can only be adjusted on one of these axes with a single pan head grip.
  5. Pistol grip heads that are medium sized balls with a lever lock that unlocks the head when it is squeezed and locks the head when it is released. This head is very good for doing action and nature photography.
  6. Wimberly heads that are a special ball head.
  7. Rail heads for performing macro and close-up photography

Most of the more expensive heads also include one or two spirit levels to assist the photographer in leveling the camera level with the horizon. Because of the unevenness of the padding materials on the camera body and on the quick release plate, it is seldom that the spirit level can be used for precise positioning. Best approach is to buy a spirit level that clips into the hot shoe to determine if the camera is level.

4. Mounting Screws
It should be noted that there are two different screws that are used to mount tripods to tripod heads and to mount tripods/heads to camera bodies. Most tripods have a 3/8” mounting screw that mates with most tripod heads, making it easy to exchange tripod heads between tripods. Most tripod heads have a 1/4” screw to mate the head or the quick release plate to the camera body. Some cameras sold in Europe will have a 3/8” tripod socket. Some tripods will have only a 1/4” mounting screw that can be attached directly to the camera without a head. There are also a few tripod heads that mount to the tripod with a 1/4” screw.

5. Center Post
The center post should only be extended as a matter of necessity when there is not enough extension in the legs. Because it is only secured at one point, it acts as a moment arm and is susceptible to vibration the more it is extended.

Many tripods have a capability for mounting the camera beneath the tripod. They either provide a mounting screw on the bottom of the center post or allow the center post to be removed and inverted. This is very handy, for example, when photographing wild flowers and other low-to–the-ground subjects.

6. Tripod Feet
Most modern tripods are sold these days with rubber feet that work well both indoors and outdoors. Many of the earlier tripods also have metal spikes that can be exposed when the rubber foot is screwed up into the tripod leg. These spikes can do a lot of damage to quality flooring (this may be one of the reasons a lot of places do not allow tripods) and they can become inadvertently exposed through normal tripod handling. Some dish-like devices are also available to attach to the feet to prevent your tripod from sinking into snow or loose sand.

7. Tripod Section Locks
There are several different styles of locks to hold the leg sections in place. One style is a twist lock that you untwist to loosen and twist to tighten. It is not possible to tell by observation if all the leg sections are locked securely. The other lock styles are levers. One style opens and closes in the direction of the leg. Another lever style twists perpendicular to the leg. Both of these styles are undesirable because it is easy to snag the levers on things when you are carrying the tripod. Most of the professionals prefer the third lever type that opens and closes in a direction perpendicular to the leg, but when it is closed it is wrapped around the leg so that it does not protrude.

Many tripods also have adjustments or détentes that allow the user to change the angle of the legs. Some tripods have braces that can be adjusted by loosening and tightening screws. Others have several fixed détentes that can be selected through the adjustment of a catch. It is important to ensure that the legs are firmly locked so that the tripod will not collapse.

8. Compactness (for traveling)
It is difficult to find tripods that will fit into your luggage when traveling. These post-9/11 days it is much easier to put your tripod into a suitcase to bring it aboard as a carry-on, although I have seen some photographer’s come aboard with their tripods. A compact tripod is seldom as sturdy as one that is larger. It usually has 4-leg sections instead of 3 to make it shorter when not extended. The tripod head can be removed to make it even shorter if need be. A compact tripod is also lighter for taking it on long hikes. This is a compromise that we are sometimes willing to make.

9. Monopods
Monopods are handy for a number of reasons. Sometimes you may be allowed to use a monopod where tripods are not allowed. It is much easier to do a pan shot with a monopod than with a tripod. Monopods reduce the camera movement only on one axis, but they also aid the photographer, who would otherwise be supporting the weight of the camera and lens, by eliminating the shake while he is trying to compose, frame, and expose his image.

10. Window Brackets
These are small devices that screw into the tripod socket of the camera and clamp onto the partially raised window of the car. They are handy for doing wildlife photography where you do not want to spook the game by getting out of your car. They are also handy for doing extended exposures of lightening storms while remaining inside the shielding provided by the metal car body.

11. Beanbags/Camera Bags
Beanbags or camera bags can be used to rest your camera when you are without a tripod. Because the beanbag can be deformed to fit the orientation of the camera they are handy when using other objects for support, such as the roof of a car, a railing, picnic table, etc. Travel photographers like to carry a bag with a zipper in it so they can fill it with beans bought in the market at their destination. It is also possible to use a zip-lock bag with beans, sand, or other deformable material. Camera bags, while not as easy to deform and adapt, still make a nice stable platform when you have nothing else available.

12. Image Stabilized/Vibration Reduction Lenses
Image Stabilized (Canon), Vibration Reduction (Nikon) lenses, and others by manufacturers such as Sigma, are useful when there is no tripod available. Their use can improve the sharpness at shutter speeds 4 times (2 EV) longer and some manufacturers claim 8 times (3 EV) longer, depending on the focal length of the lens. These lenses are especially useful in the longer focal lengths.

13. Manufacturers

The following is an brief list of the more commonly known manufacturers:

  1. Gitzo (variety of tripods and heads) high end
  2. Bogen/Manfrotto (variety of tripods and heads) high end
  3. Slik (variety of tripods and heads) affordable
  4. Velbon (variety of tripods and heads) affordable
  5. Sunpak (variety of tripods and heads) affordable
  6. Smith Victor (carbon fiber at $200) affordable
  7. Benbo
  8. Hakuba

14. Tips

  1. When not extending the legs to their full length, extend the thickest sections fully and partially extend the thinnest sections. This makes the legs stiffer.
  2. Hang your camera bag or other weight from the center post to give it additional stability.
  3. Extend the legs wider for greater stability.
  4. Use a cable or remote device to activate the shutter and eliminate any motion or vibration induced by the photographer.
  5. Metal legs become very cold in winter weather. Foam water-pipe insulation from your local hardware store can be used on the legs to prevent frostbitten fingers.
  6. Use the tripod as a monopod when you are in situations where you cannot extend all the legs.
  7. Use the tripod as a bipod for situations where you cannot extend all the legs.
  8. Brace a monopod or bipod against a railing or nearby post for additional stability.
  9. Use the monopod for performing pan shots.
  10. For situations such as zoos or Fourth of July celebrations where there are crowds that will be tripping over your tripod legs, use your tripod as a monopod or bipod.
  11. Select a tripod that is designed to support the weight of your camera plus lens.

Technical Guides

Tripod Guide
Multiple Exposure Guide
Infrared Guide
Existing-Light Guide

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Al Olson
(970) 731-9801

© 2005-2007 a.c.olson