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Sticks – Tripod 101

Camera and telescopic lens on a tripod
Tripods are not optional in many situations - photo by Roland Tanglao

There’s one rule for tripods:  Big or small, cheap or expensive, the tripod you have with you is better than the best tripod you have in the closet at home.

After that it gets tricky.  Picking your sticks will depend on a number factors:  Your budget, weight of the equipment you’re putting on top, and whether you’re shooting still pictures, video or some combination.

For many professional level tripods today the base (sticks) and head are sold separately.  This is preferred as different applications can benefit from a different type tripod head.  Instead of buying a whole new tripod, you can just swap out the heads and go.

Types of Mounts

It’s probably a good idea to review the options and some of the pros and cons of each.

Ball Head

The name kind of gives this one away.  Ball heads are the simplest type of tripod head consisting of a large rotating ball with a camera mount on top.  The ball rests in a clamping device that locks the ball in the desired position.



Pros:  Small and light.  Camera can be positioned at almost any angle.  Pan and tilt in a single mechanism.

Cons:  Not suitable for video work or for tracking motion.  Leveling can be a challenge.

Gimble Head

Gimble heads are used primarily with long telephoto lenses.  The lens actually “hangs” on a free swinging arm on a base that pivots.  Most big lenses have a tripod mount at the lens pivot point, so the lens is mounted to the tripod and the camera hangs off the back.  Gimble heads provide a weightless feel to the lens and allows the photographer to pan and move a large telephoto lens as if were smaller glass without putting excessive stress on the mount point with the camera.



Pros:  Great for tracking action.  Full range of motion.

Cons: Hard to move in a hurry (think football game sidelines).  Can be difficult at extreme angles.  Bad choice for video.

Fluid Heads

A fluid has a tracker arm and is really meant for video cameras, but they work just fine for still cameras as well but are typically heavier to tote around.  Another limitation still photographers should be aware of is fluid heads are designed to pan slowly on purpose.  If you’re trying to follow fast action, get a gimble head.  But fluid heads have an extra control arm that can be handy in some situations.

Pros: Smooth tracking. Has a pan arm.  Most good models fitted with quick release plate.

Cons: Tracking speed intentionally slow.  Sometimes limited range of motion.



The Legs

You’ll need legs to go with the head and here you have two basic choices: Aluminum and carbon composite, with an almost infinite number of variations.

Take a look at the options you have at B&H Photo:


My best advice: Get the lightest and strongest tripod you can afford.  My video tripod is a war weapon.  You have to be strong to hulk that bruiser around all day.  Do yourself and your back a favor and invest in carbon fiber.

Another factor to consider, I don’t like twist-style leg locks.  They’re slow.  And for some reason, this is not the fault of the locks, I always get confused on which way to turn them.  I know, I know. Righty tighty, lefty loosey.  But I have to stop and think about the direction.  Quick release leg locks are a lot faster.

Consider also that most of the time you’ll be setting up a tripod in poor light.  I Velcro a $2 disposable flashlight to my tripod legs so I can see the bubble levels when I’m working in the dark or poor lighting.

There you have it.  I can sum it up tripods in three words: Light, strong, fast.  Get a good one and it will last you for years.  And your back will thank you for the investment in carbon composite. Trust me on that.

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