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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Buying a tripod

Now here's a photo that I have to admit I never, ever in my wildest dreams thought would ever get published! Just to the right hand side of the far left hand tripod leg is Mt Everest. At the bottom of the tripod is an el cheapo shoulder camera bag that I bought in Kathmandu and just survived a month walking in the Himalayas before I ditched it.

And the star of the show is my trusty Manfrotto tripod Model 190. (I had to just look at that because I had no idea of the model number!) Hanging down just above the camera bag you can see the blue strap that I've talked about before - the one I use to carry my tripod over my shoulder.

So what do you need to look for? The first thing is it has to be portable. You don't want something that's so heavy that you're not going to want to carry it, because as soon as it becomes more of a burden than it needs to be you'll leave it in the hotel room. But at the other end of the scale you don't want something that's so flimsy that every time you put your camera on it it wobbles. A good way to test the strength of a tripod is to put both hands on the tripod head and push down. If the legs bend or flex then forget it.

Once you have one that seems sturdy enough and not too heavy (carbon fibre tripods are expensive but highly recommended) you need to find one that is the right height. No one tripod works for all people. You need a tripod that, when you put your camera on top, the viewfinder is pretty much level with your eye while standing up. In other words you're not bending down to look through the camera. If your tripod is too short you'll wind up spending your whole day stooped forward and put your back out. I have a good friend who is over 2 metres tall and his tripod is taller than me!

Another thing you might want to think about is how low your tripod will go. If you're into photographing flowers and other plants low to the ground you'll want a tripod with legs that will bend out far enough to get you close to the ground. Often you'll find that those with leg supports (metal strips that run from the legs of the tripod to the middle column) don't let the legs open up very wide at all meaning the lowest you can go is the tripod at its minimum length. Some tripods let you attach your camera to the bottom part of the centre column which is a great way of getting low.

On top of the tripod you have the option of various heads. You can get three-way pan and tilt heads - which use three handles to control the various movements of the tripod head. You can also get ball heads which lock or loosen with a simple knob to allow you maximum flexibility. And you can also get a pistol grip head which works the same as a ball head but looks like a video game joystick.

I used to have a pan and tilt head but got sick of having to turn multiple knobs to lock the camera into position. I lost one of the knobs in India (if you're in Manali keep an eye out for it!) and swapped to a pistol grip head made by Manfrotto. I'm pretty happy with it, although if I had one gripe it's that it's awkward turning the camera vertically because the pistol grip head sticks out so far.

I don't really want to recommend any one particular brand but I've had my trusty Manfrotto tripod for nearly 15 years and it's been all round the world a number of times and never let me down. Manfrotto goes by the name of Bogen in the US. I also hear fantastic things about Gitzo tripods but personally don't have any experience with them. For the ultimate in flexibility a lot of nature photographers recommend Benbo tripods.

And that's about it for our mini tripod feature. I hope I've convinced you to rush out and buy one, or if you already have one to use it more often. I've said it before and I'll say it again - if there's any one accessory that can improve your photography a million percent it's a tripod.

Next time we'll return to our regular broadcast. :)


Kerry Heaney said...

Hi Paul,
Really like your blog. It's inspired me to buy a new camera and blog my food travels. See you in Shanghai.

Paul Dymond said...

Thanks Kerry,

I'm glad you're liking the blog, it means a lot coming from a fellow ASTW member. Good luck with your own blog and let me know when it's uip and running so I can link to it. Believe me when I say that once you start it becomes pretty addictive!

Unfortunately I'm not going to be able to make it to Shanghai as I'll be looking after my two little boys but I'm sure we'll catch up at an ASTW function down the line.



Kerry Heaney said...

Hi Paul,
My blog is http://eatdrinkandbekerry.blogspot.com