Sturdy, Lightweight Tripods and the Search for Bigfoot
Carrying around a heavy tripod can be a pain. I think most of us would prefer to lighten our load and shave off a pound or two where possible. So what's the best option for finding a good and sturdy, lightweight tripod without going too far?
The longtime rule of thumb for getting sharp images is that it's safe to hand hold a camera at shutter speeds up to one over the focal length. Things get a bit more confusing in this era of smaller than full-frame digital sensors, but if we stick to the "better safe than sorry" philosophy the same rule can be applied regardless of the camera being used. If we go by this guideline then, we can safely hand hold a 200mm lens at up to 1/200 second shutter speed. That may well be possible with a low ISO setting in broad daylight if you have a steady hand. But in less optimal conditions you'll need a tripod to make sure the camera stays steady while the shutter is open.
I don't hesitate to hand hold an ultra-wide angle or fisheye lens. At such short focal lengths camera shake just isn't a concern. But anything more than this I'm going to be reach for my tripod before reaching for the shutter release button. No one would contest the premise that a camera securely mounted to a massively stable tripod is the best way to get sharp results when shooting with a long telephoto lens. Try as you might, no matter how steady your hand is, you simply can't hold a camera steady enough to avoid blurring with a long lens in low light. Remember that a long lens magnifies both the image and the camera shake blur.
Different types of photography pose different challenges. One of the things I like about landscape photography is that my subjects don't move very fast. Lighting conditions can vary dramatically from one minute to the next right as the sun crosses the horizon or during inclement weather, but that's still slow compared to the speed of many species of wildlife when on the move. Especially with digital, a missed shot of first light on a snow covered peak can be corrected by a follow-up shot if you notice the problem in time. A missed shot of a deer in a meadow is much less likely to afford the photographer a second chance. Deer move faster than mountains do.
Regardless, I think we can all benefit by having a healthy respect for a good tripod.
How would you approach the problem if every shot were a make or break situation? Suppose that instead of a deer in that meadow you happened upon Bigfoot, the mythical Sasquatch ape-man of the Northwest woods. Your fortune would be assured if you were the one to capture the definitive image that proved the existence of the fabled forest biped. On the flip side, you'd never forgive yourself if camera shake blurred the image.
The safest thing to do is to not take chances you don't have to. Even if you might be able to hand hold a shot, your camera is less likely to move when mounted to a tripod. And even if a lightweight tripod may suffice in some situations, you know your camera isn't going anywhere when mounted atop a sturdier one. Many photographers mistakenly believe they can get by with a lightweight tripod – one that is just sturdy enough to fit their needs. But it's hard to accurately predict what you'll need when the wind blows or you try to stretch the exposure time a bit more at twilight than you usually do.
My suggestion is to pay at least as much attention to getting a good tripod as you do to the purchase of your camera and lenses. There's really no substitute for a good tripod and once you have one it can serve you well for years to come. If taken care of, a good tripod can last a long time. You may buy a new camera body and retire your old one, but a good tripod will continue to work for both. Money invested in a good tripod is money well spent.
There are a lot of different materials used to make tripods these days from wood and aluminum to more exotic materials such as carbon fiber and basalt. Each type of material has a different characteristic strength to weight ratio. You can also alter a tripod's design to make it more rigid by using thicker material regardless of exactly what that material may be. Carbon fiber is generally regarded as the best material for tripods but can also cost more than other materials. Everything about building a tripod comes down to a tradeoff.
The bottom line is that there simply is no such thing as a sturdy, lightweight tripod. And I may be one day proven wrong, but I'm pretty sure there's no such thing as Bigfoot either. But some people continue to believe anyway.