Friday, December 30, 2011

Tripod Buying Guide: Part 1

Tripods are a tool that can come in very handy for photographers, but there are a lot of different options on the market right now. How do you pick the tripod that will fit your budget and needs? At first that seems like an easy matter to determine, just pick a dollar figure and go from there. Buying a tripod may not be that simple, because there are a few important factors to consider when you set your budget for buying a tripod. First of all, you do not want to put your expensive equipment on a cheap $50-80 tripod. That may save you some cash right now, but you might end up regretting it, especially when you see your $500-$1000 camera crashing to the ground. Also remember to have room in your budget for a head that will hold your gear (heads will be covered in part 2). I wont be recommending any brands, but I will mention the tripods I have.

Load Capacity:

The first thing you have to think about is how much weight the tripod has to be able carry. If you own a compact camera, a interchangeable lens compact (ILC) or entry level DSLR most tripods between $150-200 should be more than up to the task in this regard, as long as you are using kit lenses. You also have to consider the weight of the lenses that you will be using with your camera. A heavy F2.8 telephoto lens will require a high end tripod, whether it is mounted on a D3100/T3i or a D3s/1Ds MkIV. A general rule is to buy a tripod that can handle at least twice the weight of the gear you own, or intend to own in the near future. You don't want to be buying a new tripod every time you upgrade your gear. You are better off getting the best tripod you can right from the start.

The weight ratings from the manufacture are based on use with the equipment centred directly over the middle of the legs. That is great if you only ever shoot horizontal frames or use L brackets (a type of Arca-Swiss quick release plate), but what happens when you set your gear off centre, like in the picture above?  If the tripod can just barely handle the weight of your gear centred over the legs, it might not be able to handle it off centre. 

To summarize, keep in mind the weight of your camera(s), heaviest lens(es) and the tripod head when you are choosing the legs you will buy.

Aluminum (Al) or Carbon Fibre (CF):

After you figure out how much weight the tripod has to carry you need to choose whether you want aluminum or carbon fibre legs. Some brands will offer basalt based legs, but the price is so close to carbon fibre there isn't much point, unless you need a tripod with more weight to it (for shooting in windy conditions). Being non-conductive CF tripods are warm to the touch in cold weather, which makes them much easier to work with under said conditions. Aluminium legs will draw the warmth from your hands, forcing you to wear gloves even when it isn't below freezing.  In addition aluminum tripods tend to be heavier, which is not ideal for long hikes or walks. There is no point in having a tripod if you don't want to carry it with you!

Beyond the weight differences between carbon fibre and aluminum, you have to consider the legs ability to absorb vibration. Most high end carbon fibre tripods, such as modern Gitzo CF tripods, can absorb vibration within 1-3 seconds of impact, while even some of the best aluminum tripods take 7-10 seconds. That might not sound important, but I'll give you a scenario where it could be.

One night you are out getting shots during a once in a life time trip to Rome, but it is windy. The wind comes in short gusts, every 10-15 seconds, no problem you think, my tripod will hold my gear just fine. You shoot for a while and realize that all of your shots are a little blurry, even though you've been using mirror lockup and a cable release. You take your camera bag and put it onto the tripod to weigh it down more, hoping that will make it more stable. After a few shots you realize that adding the extra weight doesn't make much of a difference, the wind just catches on the bag and only makes matters worse. 

From that scenario you can start to see why having a tripod that can absorb vibration quickly can be important. Of course there are ways to improve the situation, such as keeping the legs in the shortest position and shielding it from the wind with your body. I'm not trying to say that you must have a CF tripod to get good shots, but it can help, just as a mid-range to high end DSLR can help you get better images due to features they have over entry level models.

Generally speaking, carbon fibre tripods have higher load capacities, while at the same time weighting less. For example, the Gitzo GT3531S is a CF tripod that can carry 18KG, while only weighing 1.7KG itself (following the rule from the load capacity section, it can hold up to 9KG of gear off centre safely).  An aluminum tripod such as the popular Manfrotto 055XPROB, weights 2.4KG, but can only carry 7KG (based on rule from load capacity section it can hold 3.5KG off centre safely).

Finally you want to pick a tripod that will be the right height. If the tripod is too short you'll be leaning over your gear a lot, which isn't overly comfortable (or good for your back). You want to pick a tripod, and head, combination that allows you to stand up straight when the legs are fully extended (not including the centre column). You want to avoid using the centre column to achieve the right height, otherwise you are basically using a monopod mounted on a tripod.

Guide Summery and recommendations:

When buying a tripod there are a few important things to consider, the weight of your gear, how much the tripod can hold safely off centre, the material the legs are made of and the height of the legs when they are fully extended. Make sure that you buy a tripod that can handle what you have now, but also keep in mind the type of gear you want to use in the future. You do not want to be buying a new tripod every time you buy heavier equipment, it is not a cost effective way of doing things.

Carbon fibre tripods tend to be lighter, and nicer to use in cold conditions. One downside of a CF tripod is the cost, even the cheapest models are over $300, and that is just for the legs. For example, the Gitzo GT3531S mentioned earlier costs over $700 Cdn, while the aluminum Manfrotto 055XPROB legs can be had for $229 Cdn or less. Both of these tripods can be found for lower prices, if you are willing to wait for sales, I ordered my Gitzo GT3531S for $623.99 and the Manfrotto 055XPROB will be around $199 when it is on sale.

Unless you are truly on a tight budget, or don't need a tripod with a high load capacity, I would recommend buying a good carbon fibre tripod right from the start. I started with the mentioned 055XPROB, which is good enough in most situations, but suffers from many of the short comings of aluminum tripods I mentioned in this guide, which is why I used it as an example. With consumer grade gear, the Manfrotto is good enough, but once you start shooting with higher end equipment, just good enough isn't. I'll be comparing the 055XPROB to the Gitzo GT3531S in my review of the latter.

Like any other major purchase it is nice if you can try out your gear first, but you'll often find that unless you can get to a major retail dealer the high end tripods, like Gitzo models, have to be ordered in.

I hope you've found this guide helpful so far, in part 2 I'll be covering tripod heads, which are often purchased separately from the legs. There are some tripod and head kits, but you want to know whether or not the head included in the kit can handle the weight of your gear.