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If At First You Don't Succeed, Try, Tripod Again

In "The War of the Worlds," alien creatures shaped like tripods terrorized the planet. In the real world, bad tripods terrorize photographers everywhere. A tripod seems such a simple thing: it's easy to assume a cheaper model will do. Or at least it took me a few iterations to understand the value of a good tripod when I was first starting. Learn from my example.

My first tripod came from the camera store at the local shopping mall because that's where everyone from suburbia repurchased everything then. Think of it as the same thing as the internet but in physical form. You could get practically everything, all under one roof. There were franchised stores for everything, some were good, and some not so. Generally, mall camera stores fell into the latter category. But every aspiring photographer needed a tripod. I knew that because the commissioned salespeople repeatedly told me. I'd read it in a book, too, so I was eager to buy that day. Everybody got what they were after. Or at least I thought I had.

I can say that my first tripod was cheap. I can not say it represented money well spent. It was one of those typical ones in that it had three legs, but with a difference. Not only were they joined at the top; they also had cross supports near the bottom, presumably to help stabilize it. It was pretty rickety, regardless. To be generous, it might have sufficed for light-duty use. All I can say for sure is that it didn't work for what I had in mind. I owned an SLR. When starting out, I had read that in a book, too.

I hadn't wanted to spend a lot on a tripod after blowing my budget on everything else, but once I could afford to, I jumped back into the tripod market. This time, I went all the way with a Gitzo. Fool me once with a cheap tripod, but I needed a good one. Since then, I've been through a series of Gitzo models with only occasional forays into other options.

It was an aluminum Gtizo, bought before the rise of carbon fiber as a lighter-weight alternative. The aluminum legs were downright painful to touch in cold weather, but it was far better than my suburban mall special. Going all out on the legs, I tried to save money on the tripod head with a basic Bogen/Manfrotto ball head that would not lock down properly. Invariably, it would droop slightly as soon as I let go of the locking knob. Frustrating.

And while the legs themselves were solid (but cold), I soon learned they were too short to see through the viewfinder without stooping. And it's not just a matter of preventing sore back muscles, either. It's challenging to keep the horizon level if you compose with your head tilted while bending over. The entire world ends up looking crooked. The problem was most severe when I worked on a sloping hillside. The length of the downhill leg limited the camera height. For something so simple, it isn't easy to find a good tripod.

My first carbon fiber tripod was technically a surveyor's tripod, not one designed for photographers. But while it was tall enough and indeed more pleasant to hold in cold weather than aluminum, it was too big and bulky for use in the field. That thing was big. Thankfully, Gitzo started offering carbon fiber models soon after that. I like Gitzo tripods, but Really Right Stuff and others offer good ones as well. But there are far more bad tripods out there than good.

Think of a tripod as an investment. If you do some homework and buy a good one, it can last for many years. As camera technology improves, you may upgrade your camera, but buy your tripod for the long haul. A new camera should mount just fine on that tripod.

Your camera is only as good as your tripod. It can't take sharp images unless you can hold it still long enough for it to do its job. Hand holding at fast shutter speeds is fine for snapshots, but not under ambient light near twilight. You need a tripod to shoot at the golden hour.

And if you can't wrangle it into a usable position, you're making your job harder than it needs to be. A good tripod should have independently adjustable legs if you ever plan to shoot on uneven ground. Those legs need to lock solidly for them to have any chance of combining into a stable platform on top. Tripods with four segments to each leg can be convenient to pack, but those with three segments are more stable. Fewer joints mean less chance of flexing.

Make friends with your tripod. Buy a good one and take care of it. If you try to cut corners and end up with a cheap one that's not up to the job, you'll end up throwing good money after bad until you finally buy a good one.

Date posted: October 17, 2021


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My Quest for the Perfect Tripod Head
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Seven Tripod Mistakes to Avoid

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