Saturday, April 5, 2014

Not all tripods are created equal

(Reposted) I’ve often told my students that sometimes a cheap tripod is better than no tripod at all, but I’m starting to rethink that philosophy.  A few years back a well-meaning lady friend bought me lightweight tripod from Aldi as a gift.  From memory, I think it retailed for around $25 at the time.  It is lightweight and easy to carry and came in a neat little sleeve with a carry strap.  I have used it a few times, mostly indoors or on still days and I always thought it was adequate with my small Olympus C-750 bridge camera. 

On a night outing with a combination of gusty winds and now a much heavier E-30 SLR proved just how futile using such a toy can be.  Below are two crops from shots I took from St Kilda pier.  The first is with the camera on my cheap Aldi tripod and the second taken when Peter kindly loaned me the use of his much sturdier Velbon tripod for a few minutes.  Neither shot may be particularly noteworthy from an artistic point but I post them to show you the difference a good tripod can make.  Pay particular attention to the lights on the city buildings in the background.

With an exposure time of 2 seconds, the shot is suffering badly from camera shake as the lightweight tripod couldn’t cope with the difficult conditions.
On the much more robust tripod, and with an exposure time of 1.3 seconds, the second shot is considerably sharper.

I do have a slightly better tripod that I purchased some 30 years ago and have carried with me since my 35mm film SLR days.  While not incredibly expensive, it is much more solid than the one I took with me that Thursday night.  I think in future, I will stick to this one for any future outdoor endeavours.

What to look for when buying a tripod.

A Manfrotto 7301
If you are considering buying a tripod, I strongly urge you to think carefully about where you plan to use it.  A good tripod will be probably weigh in at several kilograms and will be a noticeable bundle to carry.  You cannot expect to get a solid platform that won’t wobble or shake without it having some substance about it. On the other hand, if money is no object and you plan to do a lot of hiking there is the option of spending considerably more on a lightweight carbon fibre model.

If you plan any kind of slow-shutter photography or if you are fond of ultra telephoto lenses, spend the money and get a well-made and sturdy unit.  Try several models in the camera shop.  Set them up and use your hand to test just how much movement or give they have when you push against them. If the tripod flexes badly with a light push, you can be sure it will be next to useless in all but the most kind of conditions.

In professional and enthusiast circles, the tripod and head are often sold separately.  You can choose just what height you need and what kind of head will suit your purpose.
The Joby Gorillapod
For a compact camera, a small table top tripod or “Gorillapod” may be adequate, but these rely on you finding something to rest it on.  A picnic table, fence or the roof of a car are some common examples of improvised mounts.

Lastly, there is always the option of a monopod.  As the name suggests, a monopod has only one leg instead of three.  In cramped conditions or when you don’t want to carry the weight of tripod, a monopod will offer some degree of stability.  Monopods are mostly used to assist with daylight shots using telephoto lenses.  They are not a substitute for a tripod when shooting at night.
For a good introductory article on tripods, try the following Wikipedia link.

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