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Image stabilization (IS) is a terrific technology for better ensuring sharp photographs taken under less than desirable lighting conditions, especially when shooting with a slower aperture lens, which includes almost every kit zoom lens. While IS allows you to handhold your camera at shutter speeds three to four stops slower than normally possible, a tripod is still the preferred method for ensuring image sharpness, especially when shooting with longer focal length optics. It’s also worth noting that IS diminishes image sharpness to a small, but measureable degree in the process, so users beware.
There are a number of qualifiers that go into choosing a tripod, including:
Camera Weight How heavy is your camera, including the weight of your heaviest lens? If your goal is sharp pictures, the last thing you want is a spindly tripod that buckles under the weight of your camera, and most manufacturers list the maximum weight load in the tripod specs. Unless you’re purchasing a pre-packaged tripod and head, don’t forget to check the weight capacity of the tripod head while you’re at it.
For point and shoot and bridge-style cameras, you can get away with lighter-weight tripods, which are available in a number of variations including downright whimsical, but if you plan on shooting with a 70-200mm f/2.8 hanging off the end of your DSLR, you’re going to want a sturdier tripod. When it comes to tripods, the sturdier the better. Sturdiness and sharper pictures are why you’re buying one in the first place.
Maximum Height How high does the tripod extend and does it extend to (or close to) your eye level? If you would rather not have to bend over every time you want to look through your camera’s viewfinder, look for a tripod that will be tall enough when it’s extended.
Folded Height How small is the tripod when you fold it up? Will it fit into your carry-on luggage when you fly, or comfortably into your backpack’s tripod support straps? For frequent flyers and hikers this is an important item to consider.
Hardware Next to wobbly legs, there’s nothing worse for the well-being of your camera gear than knobs and levers that don’t lock down securely. When shopping for a tripod always check to see how well the legs, center column and head adjustments lock into place. And if you have to “choke” the hardware in order to lock things into place, chances are you’ll strip the gears and threads before the next change of seasons.
Remember: When it comes to sturdiness and structural integrity, the rule of thumb generally dictates that you get what you pay for.
Aluminum, Basalt or Carbon Fiber? Aluminum is cheaper, carbon fiber is lighter, basalt is somewhere in between and wood is traditionally for telescopes and view cameras. The vast majority of tripods are made of aluminum, which offers the best mix of stability, weight and cost to manufacture and sell.
A lighter, though costlier, alternative to aluminum is carbon fiber, which is typically about a third lighter and twice pricier than comparable aluminum tripods. As for stability, comparable aluminum and carbon-fiber tripods are typically neck and neck, though carbon fiber tripods tend to oscillate (vibrate) more in high winds or in response to other ambient vibrations.
Aside from the weight advantages of carbon fiber for travel photographers and hikers, it is far easier to handle and operate carbon fiber tripods in colder environments because carbon fiber does not conduct frigid temperatures the way metal does.
|Aluminum Alloy||Carbon Fiber|
The third choice is basalt, which is refined from volcanic rock. Because it is made of an aerated alloy, it is strong, light (though not as light as carbon fiber) and priced higher than aluminum but less than carbon fiber.
Something to keep in mind is that the thickness of the aluminum tubing used to manufacture the tripod bears heavily on the tripod’s stability, especially for multi-section tripods that extend to higher maximum heights. So if an ultra-light aluminum tripod opens up to a height “too good to be true,” chances are it is too good to be true.
Depending on the make and model, tripods can be purchased with or without tripod heads, which are available in two configurations–pan/tilt or ball head.
While you can mount your camera directly to the top plate (sans tripod head) of the tripod legs, doing so leaves you with little ability to aim your camera anywhere but straight ahead. Pan/tilt and ball heads perform the identical function, but also enable you to aim and securely position your camera and lens with more flexibility, but they do so slightly differently.
Pan/tilt heads have two to three separate controls for you to aim your camera up, down, left, right and 360° around and they can be adjusted and locked into place independently. Three-way pan/tilt heads feature hinged camera plates that allow you to tilt the camera 90° off the horizontal (landscape) position to enable vertical (portrait) shooting. Depending on the design and price range, some pan/tilt heads feature a separate locking mechanism at the base of the head for locking down the panning position.
When purchasing a pan/tilt head, make sure the handles are easily removable for safe storage when traveling (there’s nothing more bothersome than bent pan/tilt handles).
Though it takes a few extra moves to position a camera using a pan/tilt head, pan/tilt heads allow for more precise positioning of the camera by allowing you to make corrections on one axis without affecting the position of the camera on the other axes.
With ball heads, rather than having separate tilt controls for controlling vertical and horizontal movements, the threaded camera mounting plate sits atop a ball that is “cupped” into the base of the head. Unlike pan/tilt heads, ball heads allow you to position your camera to any position in a single action using single or dual locking mechanisms, depending on the design.
Click for illustration
Better ball heads allow you to adjust the torsion levels of the locking mechanism, which functions as a safety feature when shooting with heavier rigs, while allowing for finer positioning when locking the camera into place.
If you shoot with heavier cameras and/or lenses, pan/tilt heads are preferable to ball heads, which can be trickier to maneuver and position from a single axis point. In general, ball heads are quicker to use because all movements are performed singularly, and often with the turn of a single locking mechanism. The “limitations” of ball heads include the need to realign (or at the very least double-check the alignment) of both horizontal and vertical camera positioning each time you loosen and/or adjust the camera angle. Conversely, pan/tilt heads are aligned one axis at a time, making it unnecessary to double-check each camera axis every time you reposition the camera. And because pan/tilt adjustments are made one axis at a time, pan/tilt heads are more desirable if your needs include making precise, independent vertical and horizontal adjustments while you shoot.
What considerations should I have in mind when shopping for a tripod head?
Regardless of whether you’re shopping for a pan/tilt or ball head, keep the following in mind:
Load capacity Make sure the load capacity is sufficient to securely support your heaviest camera and lens (refer to the spec sheets). Unless your needs are weight and/or size sensitive, it’s never a bad idea to purchase a tripod head a step sturdier than your current needs to better ensure camera stability (and sharper pictures).
Regardless of what the specs say, if your camera and lens “drift” or shift position after you’ve locked the camera down, you should consider going to the next size up, or to an alternate choice.
Generally, if the tripod you plan on purchasing comes with a head, chances are the load capacity of the head is properly matched to the load capacity of the tripod. It never hurts to double-check specs.
Thread Size There are two standardized thread sizes used for camera mounts: ¼”-20 tpi (threads-per-inch) or 3/8” screw sizes. With the exception of heavier pro cameras and tripod collars on heavier lenses, which rely on 3/8” screw mounts, most consumer cameras use ¼”-20 screw threads.
The question of easier or better is best determined by what and where you plan on shooting, and to a lesser degree, the gear with which you plan on shooting. Standard threaded heads are more compact, but require extra time and effort to set up and break down in use. Quick-release (QR) mounts make the tripod head slightly bulkier, but are quicker and easier to use on the job. QR plates also guarantee that the camera (or lens) will be perfectly aligned to the head as soon as it clicks into place, unlike threaded mounts, which usually require additional positioning before you can start shooting.
Gimbal heads offer the control benefits of both pan/tilt and ball heads by allowing you to move and position your camera securely from a neutrally balanced nodal point, which enables you to fluidly maneuver your rig when shooting stills, and more so when shooting video with an HDSLR. In other words, a gimbal head will keep all axes level and squared—seamlessly.
Most tripods come with (or are available with) a center column, which in addition to the height adjustments enabled by raising and lowering the individual tripod legs, allows for additional single-action adjustment of camera height. Rapid columns rely on a single locking mechanism to raise or lower the camera head. As the name suggests, they’re quicker to use.
Geared center columns, on the other hand, use a rack-and-pinion system that requires the user to “crank” the camera to the desired height. The advantages of geared center columns is that―like pan/tilt heads―they enable more precise camera positioning and are preferable to use when shooting with heavier camera systems. Geared center columns are slightly costlier than rapid columns.
“Better” in this case depends on your particular needs. The 6-section tripod probably folds down considerably smaller than the 3-section tripod, which if you plan on traveling, is an important consideration. The flip side is that when fully extended, the 6-section tripod is most probably not as sturdy as the 3-section model, especially if you're using a heavier camera/lens combination.
Minipods and tablepods can come in very handy for small and larger cameras alike, especially if space and weight are concerns. If you have a minipod or tablepod in your bag or pocket it’s easy to make use of lampposts, large rocks, car roofs or any number of sturdy urban/wilderness “support objects” on which you can brace your camera when shooting on location. And yes, they work well on tables, too.
Along with doubling as reliable walking sticks when backpacking and hiking, monopods offer the stabilizing advantages of a tripod minus 2/3 the weight of a tripod. When shooting at professional sporting events and heavily trafficked, fast-paced environments such as the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange where tripods are banned for safety reasons, monopods are the only option for capturing sharp photographs, especially with longer lenses.
While camera heads can be used for shooting video, it’s far preferable to use a fluid head, which as the name suggests, enables more fluid panning and tilting, which for video is imperative. And while you can pan and tilt with a traditional camera head, the movements tend to be less fluid and often jerky.
For maximum stability when shooting in a studio environment with heavier camera rigs, one should consider a studio stand. With the exception of a few baseless models designed to be permanently bolted into the floor, heavy-duty, cast aluminum camera stands consist of a center column―anywhere from 6 to 12’ tall―and a base consisting of three to six splayed “legs,” usually with lockable wheels. Because of their weight and mass, camera stands all but eliminate camera shake, especially when used on concrete floors.
The camera is mounted crossbar-like onto an arm and head assembly that, depending on the design, is either fixed or adjustable. A second column-mounted tray is often used to hold meters, laptops, remotes and other related gear. On better stands, all of the components are pneumatically assisted and near-infinitely adjustable.