Tripod Top Tips
Sage advice from the editor...
Before buying, test the stability by fully extending the legs and pressing down from above. Then hold on to the top of the legs and make twisting and back-and-forth movements to see how much the legs wobble.
If you plan to carry one on hikes, try to spend a bit more on a carbon fibre model.
Keep a small support such as a tabletop tripod in your bag for emergencies. It's amazing how useful they can be.
Don't buy cheap, flimsy tripods. It'sa false economy - you'll only end up spending more in the long run.
With tripods, the less plastic there is, the better. Avoid plastic heads especially as they cannot take much weight and will break or wear out quicker.
If you want a tripod with legs you can manipulate or extend beyond 45 degrees, check the leg angle adjustments.
Anatomy of a Tripod
Tripods can be used indifferent configurations, such as with the centre column tilted or legs splayed beyond 45 degrees
All tripods have three legs, but there the similarities end. Most tripods are made from aluminium, but thickness and strength varies greatly. Very light aluminium tripods are likely to be flimsy, and are best avoided. On the other hand the better quality ones can be quite heavy. Carbon fibre legs provide the best weight/stability ratio, shaving about a third off the weight while offering greater rigidity, although they cost at least double the price of comparable aluminium legs. Still, if you're going to be carrying your tripod around a lot, this premium may be worth it.
Most decent tripods enable the legs to be opened out at a range of angles right up to 90¡. This makes it easier to set the tripod up on uneven ground, or to splay the legs wide for low-level shooting. With Benbo tripods all the legs can be simultaneously set to any angle via a single lock.
Most tripods feature telescopic leg sections that extend into either three or four sections. Three sections means there's less locking and unlocking of each leg to be done, but with four sections the tripod can collapse to a smaller size, making it easier to carry, and to pack into a suitcase for travelling.
Most leg sections must be unlocked to be extended and then locked again before use. There are two main types. The most popular is the quick-release lever (right) which is the speediest to operate. Twist-action leg locks are slower to use and more prone to slippage, but there are no chunky attachments that stick out. Premium twist locks, like those on Gitzo tripods, don't suffer from this so much, but cost a lot more. The Manfrotto Neotec tripod bypasses leg locks altogether in favour of a clutch-based push-pull action, though at the cost of extra weight and expense.
Some tripods come with foam leg covers, or 'leg-warmers'. While by
no means an essential feature they do make the tripod more comfortable to hold and carry, especially in very cold weather when the metal can be, quite literally, freezing.
Most tripods come with rubber feet, but if you often shoot in muddy fields you may prefer spikes for a firmer grip. Some tripods offer both, with rubber feet that screw up to reveal spikes.
The centre column enables the camera to be raised higher once the legs are fully extended, but at the cost of stability. On some tripods the centre column can be made to turn horizontally like a boom arm, making it easier to point the camera directly downwards towards the ground. Some centre columns feature a hook on the bottom to hang your camera bag for extra stability. Tripods designed to support heavy cameras or lenses may come with a geared centre column that can be wound up and down. These are often combined with leg braces for greater stability, though at the cost of leg extension.
Quick release Plates
Most tripods provide a quick-release plate on top of the head that comes off the tripod and screws
into the bottom of your camera. By attaching the plate before you go (or leaving it permanently attached to your camera) you can fit your camera to the tripod almost instantly, by sliding and locking the plate into the holder on the top of the head. This speeds up the set-up time and ensures that you never miss a shot.
Get a Head
There are two main types of tripod head, the most popular for stills photography being the ball head or 3-way pan and tilt head. Here are the pros and cons of each.
£30 to £350
Ball heads represent the fastest way to adjust your camera's position. Typically, you undo one lock and the head can be adjusted in every direction then re-locked to that position. Advanced ball heads also employ controls that allow the biting point of the locking mechanism to be finely tuned. Hydrostatic ball heads employ a reservoir of liquid, usually oil, instead of a clamp or pin as a locking mechanism. The benefit of this approach is that the tripod will not wear out as quickly, or move when the lock is tightened. Alternatively, Manfrotto and Slik both manufacture tripod heads featuring a sprung grip-lock - the grip is essentially connected to a ball head, with comparable movement to a standard ball head unit. The disadvantage of grip heads is both increased weight and bulk.
3-way pan & tilt heads
£80 to £850
With 3-way heads, each plane of movement (horizontal rotation or ‘panning', vertical up/down
movement and sideways rotation, for portrait orientation of the camera or levelling the horizon) has its own lock, enabling movement in a single plane only. This is useful for, say, landscapes and architecture where you want to level the horizon but still enable sideways panning and/or up and down movement. However, it slows things down for subjects such as portraits where you may well want to adjust all the angles simultaneously.
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