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“As a nature photographer, I shoot 98 percent of my photos on a tripod. It’s a habit I grew into years ago and I can swear by the results. A tripod is the second most important piece of equipment you could ever use; the first most important piece of equipment is a good tripod.” – Kevin Moss.
To help drive my point home, I’ll tell you a little story. While out on a recent photo trip to the American southwest with my travel group, the Red Rock Five, I was shooting some scenes at Monument Valley, Utah. One scene was particularly difficult. I tried different angles, but our tour leader had a better idea—get as low as you can to obtain a better angle. It was a great shot, but I got lazy and thought I had enough light for a sharp photo, even at f/22, so I hand-held the shot so I didn’t have to reconfigure my tripod. Wrong! I noticed after I got the photo in Photoshop and zoomed in that parts of the frame were not focused to my taste.
Different Tripods for Different Folks.
When friends ask me what type of tripod for landscape photography they should get, I get stumped. That blank and confused look briefly appears on my face until I formulate an answer in my head. After composing myself, I break the rules and answer a question with a question: What type of shooting do you do? You see, I can recommend a number of different models of tripods, but the answer depends on what type of shooting people do, how physically fit they are (some of these three-legged wonders can weigh a lot), what type of camera equipment they haul, and finally, how much money they have to spend on one.
If you don’t have a tripod or you feel you need to upgrade the one you have, keep the following criteria in mind:
[blockquote style="style-3" icon="128247"]The type and weight of a camera greatly determines the tripod you can use. Nature photographers often take long hikes and prefer to carry the lightest tripod, but one that is sturdy enough to reduce any vibrations.[/blockquote]
If you’re shooting with a compact digital camera, you’re probably not going to need a 12-pound tripod; a lighter-weight tripod should do the trick. The Hakuba MAXi-343E weighs just 1.9 pounds and is easily strapped to your camera bag for those long hikes. If you’re using a lightweight camera, one of these sturdy, lightweight tripods should do the trick. I should know; I traveled across Wales and England with one this year, and it was a pleasure not to haul a 10-pound tripod along. I was shooting with lightweight cameras and lenses, and the Hakuba served me just fine.
The one determining factor that’s more important than most others is the amount of weight your tripod has to support. Although my Hakuba was great for a compact digital camera while traveling abroad, most of my shooting in the field is with digital SLRs and big, heavy pro-model zoom lenses. The combined weight of my digital camera and zoom lens exceeds five pounds, and I opt for my Manfrotto 3221WN Wilderness Tripod.
Another consideration in your decision is the material your tripod is made of. Metal is less expensive, but if you can, you should seriously investigate purchasing a carbon-fiber tripod. These carbon-fiber models are becoming very popular with nature photographers; they weight a lot less than metal and are a pleasure to take on extended hikes.
Be prepared to spend 50 percent more for carbon-fiber models though; they are more expensive, but to many of us they are well worth the price if our nature photography adventures take us on extended hikes.
I hate using that word—it sounds like I’m in advertising, which I’m not. However, one of the features you want in a tripod is versatility—the ability to not only extend the legs wider than the standard setting, but also to use interchangeable tripod heads. For shots where you need to get down low to the ground, you need a tripod with legs that can extend outward, allowing you to mount your camera only 12 inches or so off the ground. I’ve found this feature extremely valuable in the field. On some models, you can even reverse the tripod stem and mount the camera upside down.
It’s All in the Tripod Head
When you make a decision about a tripod, the next thing you’ll need is a tripod head. The same rules used when selecting a tripod hold true for selecting a tripod head. You’ll need to take into consideration the weight of the equipment you’ll be attaching to the head, the type of head that will best fit the type of shooting you’ll be doing out in the field, and of course, the price.
Basically, there are two types of tripod heads landscape photographers prefer:
Pan and tilt heads.
Pan and tilt heads are the most popular tripod heads used by photographers, and for most of your nature shooting, a pan and tilt model should serve you just fine. Pan and tilt heads allow you to move your camera vertically and left to right (for panning), and to flip your mounted camera to the vertical position for shooting in portrait mode.
Whatever tripod head you choose, make sure you purchase a quick-release model. A quick-release trip head lets you attach a plate to your camera’s tripod socket, which in turn is inserted into a slot on the tripod head, and then secured with an easy-to-use clamp you can tighten with your thumb. Quick-release heads let you attach plates to multiple cameras and lenses with tripod mounts, giving you a fast option for changing cameras or lenses without screwing in your camera to a tripod every time you want to use it.
I’ve had other nature photographers bug me because I’d often travel with only a pan and tilt head attached to my tripod. Finally, on a recent trip, I tried a ball head. I immediately fell in love with its versatility, and I can see why users of ball heads brag. They are fun to use and give you better flexibility for shooting wildlife or scenes where you have to point your lens high, toward the sky.
Manfrotto, Velbon, Slik, Giottos. Which One Should You Buy?
Out in the field, the Giottos and Manfrotto tripods, which both come without heads, are quite clearly in a different league to the Velbon and Slik ones – they feel more stable and rugged. Even so, the Slik and Velbon pods are both decent performers and stable enough for a light to medium DSLR with standard zoom.
The Slik is marginally taller than the Velbon and I like the addition of foam grips on its upper legs, offering a comfort grip. Also, the double-lock centre column on the Slik tripod is better than the Velbon’s single-lock centre column, and its load capacity is 1kg more. For a heavier DSLR/lens combo, I love the stability and the towering height of the Giottos. I also prefer its quick-release leg locks to the Manfrotto’s wing nuts. It is 300g heavier than the Manfrotto pod though, and the Manfrotto 804RC2 head is superb for the price.
Why is it so important to buy a tripod wisely?
First, with a strong wind blowing, a stable tripod will remain firmly rooted to the ground rather than gusting off down the mountain.
Second, you’ll learn to appreciate the rugged reliability of a decent tripod over cheap, shaky, shoddy ones.
Third, the extra cash laid down will bring you features such as a decent head, quick-release platform and quick-release legs, extra-low shooting positions, three-section legs for extra height, reversible centre-columns for low-level shooting and a host of other small design features that generally make life easier