Talking about support systems for photography equipment may not be the most exciting topic in photography, but there is still a lot to know about tripods. In this article, photographer Adam Welch explains the finer points of choosing the right tripod for your specific needs and the basics of tripod anatomy.
Tripods are delightfully simple beasts conceptually. Three retractable (usually) legs offer three points of contact with the floor and then end at the top where, hopefully, your camera will be securely mounted. This is all deceptively simple and leaves a lot of room for different types of feet, made from many different materials with equally different locking mechanisms.
Let’s take a look at some of the common tripod options you may come across when choosing the right model for you.
Tripod materials range from oddly archaic to strangely spacey. Fortunately, in most cases, you can make your choice based on three simple principles. Your tripod can be:
The catch is that you only get two points when choosing a tripod. And you have to be honest with yourself about what you need most from him.
- Wood and Steel
Yes, there are also tripods made from “old world” materials such as wood and steel. Many of them are vintage.
If weight doesn’t bother you, keep in mind that a heavier tripod is better than a lighter one. If you’re doing mostly static studio work, don’t forget the wooden or steel tripods.
Most tripods made of plastic are small tabletop tripods for blogging, for example.
As a construction material for tall tripods, plastic is not ideal. It is often not strong enough to support the camera support system and will flex under load. It is recommended that you avoid a large tripod with all-plastic legs.
In the world of tripods, aluminum is the main workhorse. It has an excellent strength-to-weight ratio, is relatively low in price (dropping lower all the time) and provides a good, healthy compromise between leg stiffness, compactness and weight.
For the past couple of decades, aluminum has been the preferred tripod material when it comes to camera support systems. However, over the past ten years, modern science has allowed manufacturers to add a new material to their arsenal, in which aluminum is hardly used as a material for manufacturing.
- Carbon fibre
This material is lightweight, durable and extremely corrosion resistant, making it an excellent choice for tripods.
Carbon fiber is actually stiffer than aluminum at 181Gpa and 69Gpa, respectively. This means the carbon fiber tripod leg flexes less than the same diameter aluminum leg. This is obviously good.
Of course, there are several types of carbon fibers and each one has its own characteristics.
Going back to our Big Three principles, carbon fiber tripods are strong and lightweight, and often not cheap. You will have to pay twice as much for a carbon fiber tripod compared to an aluminum one.
However, this price gap is rapidly closing as more and more manufacturers begin to supply carbon tripods to the market. In most cases, the advantages of a strong and stable tripod outweigh some of the disadvantages of carrying and are often worth the investment.
Titanium has excellent tensile strength and corrosion resistance. However, oddly enough, titanium is not the main material for the legs and tripod parts. It wears less in relation to other parts, and the strength-to-weight ratio is not as good as some carbon fiber materials.
To ensure portability, tripods usually have folding or telescopic sections, the vast majority of which are the latter. This means that the leg sections have some kind of locking mechanism. In general, you can find two main types of leg locks.
- Flip locks (folding)
The flip locks are exactly what the name suggests, the locking mechanism lifts up to release the tripod leg section and drops down to lock it in place.
These locks make it quick and easy to set up your tripod. Flip locks can be made of various materials and, accordingly, vary in strength.
- Twist locks
It seems that twist locks are gradually becoming a more common method of securing tripod legs. Like their flip-lock cousin, the twist-on leg lock does not work as you might expect. Simply twist in one direction to unlock and in the opposite direction to secure.
Twist locks are generally less likely to fail due to dirt and sand when compared to swing locks. However, not all twist locks are created equal. Some need to be tightly twisted to lock or loosen the mechanism, resulting in slower retracting during deployment.
Tripod legs come in different shapes and sizes and are another important consideration when choosing. In most cases, the tips of the tripod legs are made of rubber or rubberized plastic.
The shape and characteristics of the tripod legs give them a certain amount of ability to stay firm in various conditions. The more tips of the tripod legs, the more “float” will be. This means that the load will be distributed over a wider surface area. The higher this buoyancy a tripod has, the less likely it is to sink in softer soil materials such as sand and mud.
These species are great for sandy environments. If you know you will be using your tripod in a wide variety of outdoor conditions (this is for landscape painters), it would be a good idea to make sure the tripod legs are equipped with a spike system.
The leg spikes are your best friend when shooting in icy winters or on slippery rock. However, they are also your worst enemy when shooting indoors and pose a threat to wedding venues. If you are a photographer who shoots both outdoors and indoors, make sure the spikes on the tripod legs are retracted or removed.
It’s also worth noting that many major tripod manufacturers offer interchangeable leg tips for their products.
The center column allows the photographer to increase the height of the tripod by extending the legs as far as possible.
The center columns add amazing versatility to the tripod’s capabilities simply because they allow for quick and personalized height adjustment. At the same time, the center columns also introduce a point of movement into the platform. The debate about whether the use of the center column interferes with the overall quality of the photographs is still pending.
Center pillars can add tremendous flexibility to the photographer’s ability, and also cause several problems. No matter how cliché it sounds, the choice of whether you need a center column or not is entirely up to you.
Fortunately, the decision is becoming less and less important as many tripod manufacturers now offer detachable center columns for a wide variety of their tripod ranges.