Tripods

| Just a Thought

In my last article I gave you a brief list of some of the post processing software thatis available today. My list was short, not because I couldnit find many applications, quite the opposite actually: My list was short because I just didnit have the time to go over every bit of post processing software there is - there is just too much stuff out there. What I tried to do was hit some of the biggies, and I think I did OK.

In this installment Iill go over another short list, this time Iill be looking at the accessories I believe any photographer should have at his or her disposal.

If you thought the world of post processing software is vast, wait until you take a peek at all of the accessories there are: tripods, camera bags, flashes, memory cards, specialty lenses, cleaning kits, reflectors, lights, timers, light meters, the list goes on and on. And there seems to be an endless variety of each type of accessory, too. Itis enough to make your brains go boom!

What Iill do here is recommend some of these types of products, and even suggest a particular brand or model, but these are only my suggestions. Remember that Iim new to digital photography, a veritable babe in the photography woods. I do have some experience, however, and the ear of a few pros. What Iim learning Iim passing on to you for your consideration.

Still, if you know of a better product, model, or process please let me and the other readers know about it.

I would also like to remind you that this series of articles are for those folks who are either thinking about stepping up to a DSLR, or have recently done so and may be wondering what else should you be doing. While pros are welcome to read along, Iim sure this stuff is old hat to you. Even so, if you are experienced and you find that Iive gotten something wrong please feel free to point it out.

OK, enough of that, letis get into it.

When I first started writing this segment I knew there was a lot of accessories to cover, but I thought I could hit the major points and make some suggestions in one very big article. Boy, was I wrong!

As I started digging into the many options available in each accessory category I found not just more to talk about, but more that I really needed to talk about if these articles are to be of any use to you. So, Iive decided to dedicate an entire article to each one of the accessory categories Iim going to list in a moment. That way I keep the information in nice bite-sized pieces that should be easier to digest: I see no need for all of us getting headaches trying to understand this stuff.

Regardless of your skill level, if you are even somewhat serious about shooting photos, then there is a set of accessories you must have and Iive listed what I believe that set should include. Understand that my list is not definitive, but these are the things that I take, or would take if I had the cash to buy everything I want, when I leave the house with camera in hand.

Must Haves

  • Tripod: I donit care what kind of camera you have or whether it sports the new anti-shake technologies, YOU WILL NEED A TRIPOD.

  • Camera Bag: A good camera bag is prime on my list because everything you own in photography will likely wind up in it, so it has to be something you can rely on not to break or allow the elements to seep in.

  • Memory: More than likely youive already bought an extra card. Trust me, you need more.

  • External Flash: The main difference between an amateur and a pro shot that uses flash is that the pro likely used an external flash unit for lighting. Built-in flashes light almost from the point where the photos are taken, which mean the subject is well lit, but uninteresting. Get an external flash.

  • Extra Lenses: Most camera come with what is called a kit lens. This lens is great for a majority of the shots youill likely take, but it wonit offer the versatility other lenses can provide, and versatility is key to getting great shots.

In this installment Iim going to look at tripods. Iill be pointing some of the features you should look for and mention some brands. So, on with the show.

Ever wonder why photos taken by pros always looks sharp while yours might look OK, but not nearly as crisp? In the shots the pros take you can see the pores in modelis skin, and the fine, nearly invisible hairs on a childis cheek, or the iris filaments in the eyes of a puppy. The photos you take, on the other hand, youire happy with if the head is not a big elongated blob.

One of the reasons for the difference is that the pros religiously use tripods, or some means of steadying the camera.

It seems like an impossible quandary. In all but the fastest shutter speeds, touching a camera while taking a picture will screw up the picture, but you have to touch the camera to take the picture.

No matter how steady we think we can hold a camera we canit hold it steady enough to get the clearest, sharpest photos. Thatis where a tripod comes in. Tripods support your camera and lens and provide a solid, hopefully unmoving base on which you can snap your shots.

True enough, for a large percentage of the photos you will take, hand holding your camera will suffice; the subject is far enough away, thereis plenty of light for higher shutter speeds and lower ISO settings, or you may not care that the fine details are not so sharp. But as you become more proficient in composition, as you learn to use your camera to its fullest potential, youill want every shot to be the absolute sharpest it can possibly be. Besides, sharper pix lets you enlarge more, allowing you to make a useful photos out of ones that you might have otherwise tossed.

I also believe the detail is really what makes a photo interesting. Stopping a baseball in flight is far more intriguing if you can see the stitching on the ball as it hurls through the air, and kids are somehow cuter if you can see the spot of grape jelly on their cheeks.

Since many of the more interesting photo opportunities donit present themselves when the light is just right, you need a tripod to at least eliminate blurs caused by camera shake.


This coulda been a contender...if only I had a tripod.

What about the new cameras with anti-shake technologies? Wonit they eliminate the need for a tripod?

Up to a point, yes. Remember that it is anti-SHAKE not anti-blur technology. If your two-year old moves while the shutter is open (entirely expected) then anti-shake wonit help you, but a tripod set up for fast panning might. However, it should be noted that if you are choosing between cameras that have anti-shake technology and those that donit, Iid lean towards the former: Anti-shake will improve the bulk of your photos in terms of sharpness and clarity in many situations, especially low light where you would otherwise bump up the ISO setting to compensate for poor lighting, or when using big focal length lenses.

Tripods will help with panoramas and close-ups/macros. They are needed for telephoto lens support and when shooting ultra wide-angle shots, and of course, any low-light shot will improve when a tripod is used.

OK, so you are sold on why you need a tripod. Now you want to know which tripod you should get.

First, you should know what a good tripod looks like. I thought I knew, and I was very wrong.

The photo below is of the tripod I currently own and itis just a basic model, but it has all the features youill likely need.


Iill describe each part and explain its function:

  • Head: This is the part that your camera or lens attaches to. Youill likely be used to tripods with heads that are integrated. Iid steer clear of those. The head should be removable. There are many different types of heads, each to suit a specific type of photography. As beginners, we should concentrate on either the pan and tilt, like the one shown, or the ball head. Both are multipurpose and relatively inexpensive.

    Also note that thereis a locking plate on top of the pan and tilt head. The plate detaches to let you remove the camera easily so that you can adjust the tripod without damaging your equipment.

  • Column: The column adjusts the height of your camera. There are 2 types of adjustment mechanisms: a tension adjust and a rack & pinion or crank adjust. Youill likely find the crank adjust columns on cheaper tripods. Avoid them, especially on the cheaper models.

    On more expensive tripods the crank adjust columns are better built, but I prefer the tension adjust for its ease of use. Columns should also be reversible so you can hang you camera upside down for low close-up shots. The column should be able to separate into two pieces - called a split column - to accommodate low leg angles.

  • Legs: Note that these legs connect to the column only at the top of the tripod, as oppose to other models that also have a connection lower on the column. If you look on the top of each leg where it connects to the column youill find an odd looking cam that can be rotated. This design allows you to splay the legs so you can set your camera very low to the ground and at a variety of angles. (This is where the split column can come in handy.)

    The legs will sport one of two types of locking devices: tension or twist-lock, or a clamp lock. Either works well, but I prefer the twist-lock because I feel they are harder to break. The more expensive models will have legs made of lightweight materials like titanium or carbon fiber while on the lower priced model the legs will be made of aluminum, which is just fine for beginners.

  • Feet: The feet should be adjustable and have rubber pads as well as spikes for sure footing in rough terrain.

As with everything else, which tripod you wind up with will largely depend on what you need and can afford. For instance, if you do a lot of hiking about to catch Bambi in the wild then, youid be interested in a lightweight model. If you do a lot of sports photography then, youill want a heftier tripod to support big telephoto lenses.

Since we are DSLR newbies a basic tripod is more than adequate, and here are some basic things to look for when picking one:

  • Sturdiness: It should go without saying that your tripod should be structurally sound, but youid be surprised by the junk youill find out there. Even if the device looks sturdy, it may not be: clamps that keep the legs locked into place may be cheaply made or of poor materials, the design may be substandard, or the tripod may not be handled roughly. For these reasons alone you should stick to well known brands. Also pay attention to how much weight a tripod is rated to handle. You donit want one designed to support heavy video equipment, but you should steer clear of those made for point and shoots, too.

    Look for a tripod that will hold between 5 and 15 pounds. Keep in mind that even modern telephoto lenses are weighty.

  • Adaptability: Unless you intend to shoot all of your photos in a studio under pristine conditions, youire going to need a tripod that can be adapted to suit different environments. As mentioned, you want a tripod with a removable head, a split column, removable head plate, and extendable legs. Make sure that these features are easy to use and secure once set. Look for tripods with the widest range of height adjustment.

  • Portability: No one wants to carry around a large, clumsy tripod, and if you donit have a tripod handy youill likely get a poorer quality shot. Since we are beginners we wonit be choosing the pricier lightweight models, but we should still look for models that setup and take-down quickly. The head and handles should fold close to the body when not in use. Legs should collapse and fold together.

  • Price: If youive got deep pockets, more power to you. (I can still be adopted.) You can buy the best tripod available, which can cost you well over $500. Those of us with shallower pockets will need to look for devices between $50 and $150. Lucky for us there are plenty of good quality tripods in this range.

There are several major tripod makers whose products are well worth your money. Manfrotto makes a headless 190 model that sells for about $100, and a ball head for another $40. Gitzo and Slik make models in a bit higher price range, but all should serve your needs nicely. You can also find models from these manufacturers with heads included for about $100 to $200 in many camera shops.


Nice tripod shot! Green Heron taken with a 150mm zoom from about 30 feet.

However, while poking around in a local mall recently I happened to stop into a Ritz Camera store. I donit normally go into Ritz - just a personal preference - but I was curious to see what they had.

There were several inexpensive tripods on display, most I overlooked and wouldnit recommend to anyone, but one caught my eye: the Quantaray QSX-Digi Pro 8500. This model is made by Sunpak, a brand youill find in many Best Buy and Circuit City stores, and not a brand I would normally endorse. In fact, my last tripod was a Sunpak and it was not a good device, to put it mildly. (The tripod actually bit me! Bad tripod! Bad!)

The Digi Pro 8500, however, is different for all of the right reasons. It has a removable pan and tilt head, reversible split-column, tension column adjust, twist-lock leg extensions, rubber feet with retractable spikes, sturdy aluminum construction, and a removable head plate. The legs can be easily splayed, it can support up to 11 pounds, its height can be adjusted from a minimum of about 14-inches to almost 62-inches, and the whole thing folds up nice and neat. I was amazed to find that this tripod only set me back about $60!

I bought it and thus far itis been a real solid performer. It is not a lightweight, and the mechanisms arenit as smooth as youid expect from higher priced models, but this 8500 gets the job done and at half the price.

Check it out.

I should also mention that there are a variety of specialized tripod-esque devices on the market: Monopods (single-leg camera support), tabletop tripods, and camera supports that grip or cling to a variety of surfaces. Some of these items are more gimmick than useful, and the ones that are useful are only so for a limit set of circumstances. A good tripod should work in 99 percent of your camera support situations and that, in my opinion, is where you should spend your money.

I do, however, have a tabletop tripod that I use for shooting stuff that I review. Be mindful that a good tabletop tripod should be sturdy, yet compact, and should set up and take-down easily, and should have a ball-type head. Iid expect to pay about $20 for a good table-top tripod, but before buying make sure you play with it first.

One last thing I should mention: Even when using a tripod, if you want the sharpest possible shot, you should try not to touch the camera when the photo is being taken. (This is where anti-shake technology comes in handy.)? Itis not so tough to accomplish this seemingly impossible feat.

If you donit have a remote shutter release you can set a short shutter release delay I have mine set for 2 seconds. Now I can set up my shot as usual, but when I click the shutter fully I have 2 seconds to get my hands off the camera. My camera is on my tripod, of course.

Works like a charm.


Another tripod moment

Another vibration reducer is mirror-lockup. This is where you lock the mirror into place before the shutter releases. On many DSLRs you can set the camera to lock the mirror up a preset time before the shutter snaps. For instance, on my Olympus E-500 thereis a feature called Anti-Shock. Turning on this feature will lock the mirror up, exposing the shutter for a prescribed time before the shutter is released.

Lotis of info, I know, but there is even more available. Manfrotto has an excellent article on how to use a tripod which I highly recommend. It is actually a bit more detailed for what we need, but the article will serve as a good reference as we advance photographically speaking.

You can also find good tripod how-to articles at DigicamGuides and All Things Photography.

OK, thatis it for now. Next time Iim going to look at camera bags and tell you why just any old bag wonit do.

Until next time, go shoot a tree.

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