Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tripod-ology 101

Once a photographer purchases a camera and lens, they start looking at other accessories. Most often they will look at flash units and other lenses and then cases and so on. Very often the last accessory they look at purchasing is a tripod. Once they make the decision to purchase a tripod, they usually opt to purchase a ‘cheap’ tripod. This is a big mistake that usually leads to photos that are not much better than hand help photos and in turn leads to the photographer leaving the tripod in the closet never to be used again.

Why would someone buy a $700 dollar camera and perhaps several $400 or several $1000 dollar lenses and then trust an $80 tripod to firmly and securely hold their equipment steady? The investment of a great tripod will result in much more photographic flexibility and much sharper photos. A great quality tripod will also last a photographers lifetime and could span the life of three or four camera bodies. If a great tripod will last twenty years, would spending a minimum of $20 a year or more be worth having a flawless smooth working tripod and head assembly that gives you the results you want?

When choosing a tripod there are many considerations including of course the ‘budget’. One must however look at size, materials, head types and the requirements of the photographer or rather, your requirements. Will it be used indoors in a studio, outdoors, perhaps in water, or for travelling? Do you need to get down very low to the ground or very high above obstacles? Do you have arthritis that can hamper some hand motor skills? All these questions must be looked at closely in order to properly make an informed decision when choosing the perfect tripod. You may find that like me, you may require several tripods.
In this workshop, I hope to answer many of these questions.

Types of Pods

There are Monopods, Bi-Pods, Tripods, Quadropods, Gorilla Pods (Best selling most money making tripod of the past two years, unfortunately the original designer did not patent it and so it has been copied and made available by many manufactures. Many are poor quality knock-offs, please support the Original Gorilla Pod, it’s an excellent tripod), Bean Pods, Sand Pods, MonsterPods (Attach to walls and trees and such), and a whole variety of other devices and clamps for attaching to almost anything including trees, bikes, helmets and cars. Here we will only discuss the Tripod but the attributes of a good tripod is true of most other pods.

What is a Tripod

A tripod is composed of a head where the camera or lens attaches or mounts, a base sometimes referred to as a collar or neck, three legs and feet. Each of these components plays a vital role in the overall functionality and stability of the tripod.

Anatomy of the Tripod

01) Feet – Rubber, Spikes, Rubber/Spike, Plates (for Sand), Webs (for Snow), Wheels

02) Legs – Wood, Various Aluminums and Alloys, Titanium, Carbon Fibre, Legs come in 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 Sections

03) Leg Locks – Clamps, Rings, Levers, Screw Device and Push Buttons

04) Base – Again different materials used. Forged or machined are usually better than formed or stamped

05) Center Column – Or no column, Levelling, Crank or Geared, Short, Reversible, Hook

06) Head – There are thousands to choose from, Ball Heads, 2 Way Fluid Head, 3 Way Pan & Tilt Heads, Offset, Panorama, Bowl Heads, with Lock Levers, Screw Levers, Thumb Screws and Clamps

07) Mounting plates – The mounting plate is integral to the overall stability of the tripod and should be looked at closely. There are different styles, offset plates, rotating brackets, micro-adjusting plates for Macro Photography and a whole variety of special purpose plates and brackets. Note that some brackets ARE the mounting plate while some brackets attach to a mounting plate creating another weak spot and potentially allowing for more vibration.

08) Accessories – Cases, Straps, Shelves, Poles, Clamps, 3rd Hands, Hold Down Rings, Spreaders, Cradles, Levels on Tripod base, Levels on Heads, Panorama, Leg Pads, Leg Wraps, Lighting System Accessories and a multitude of other rare and bazaar items.

What makes a good tripod?

Steady as she goes – Tripods should be solid, vibration free and not wobbly, flex and wobble in any component of the tripod from the feet to the head will cause problems. A good solid heavy tripod is always better.

09) Flex (or “Bend”) comes from either the use of cheap materials or from components that are poorly designed or from a tripod that is over loaded with weight. Flex usually comes from the legs or from the thin neck of the tripod head. Flex in a tripod will enhance vibrations.

10) Wobble on the other hand comes merely from poor quality or bad design and rarely from the material. Most wobble comes from loose fitting leg sections or joints or some component of the head assembly, or where the head attaches to the tripod base and on occasion from the mounting plate. A slight wobble can be a disastrous thing when it comes to vibrations.

11) Vibration – Tripods with cameras mounted on them are subject to vibration. This vibration can even be amplified by the use of improper materials or from a badly designed tripod. On the other hand some materials excel at reducing vibrations. Good tripod design also plays a large role in reducing vibrations. When you combine a great material with a great design, you have a great tripod. Vibrations can come from the ground on bridges and platforms, from wind, even slight wind, and even from the camera or camera strap itself. When a photo is taken there are three mechanical things that happen that cause vibrations.
a) The first source of vibration is usually from depressing or releasing the shutter button. The act of pushing the camera no matter how sturdy the tripod is will cause vibration. This can easily be fixed by simply using a shutter release cable or the more modern day wireless remote.
b) The second is that the cameras mirror that directs light through the prism to the eye piece needs to be moved out of the way very quickly when a photo is taken. When this heavy glass mirror is pushed out of the way at high speeds it is brutishly jammed against a stop block which causes tremendous vibrations. The use of special mechanisms and materials and sock absorbing stops reduces these vibrations, but they are not eliminated. To eliminate this vibration one must use a mirror lock up feature available in some older cameras or the “live view” mode of most modern day cameras.
c) The third mechanical event that occurs is the movement of the shutter, or rather, shutters, itself. Again here we have two metal curtains (Usually metal but can be cloth in older SLR’s) that need to be sent across the sensor at high speeds, the mechanics required to do this causes some vibrations but again most of it comes from stopping these fast moving shutters. Like with the mirror, efforts are made to reduce shutter based vibrations but they cannot be completely eliminated.

Scientists in Japan recently did some tests showing that Camera Vibrations greatly enhance blur even in high end cameras. Scientists are studying the problems and trying to figure out how to minimize or eliminate these problems. Newer technologies are starting to allow for shutterless systems where sensors are turned on-and-off at quick rates or pixels are turned on-and-off in waves without the need for a shutter curtain or blades. Casio for example has a camera EX-F1 or EX-HF20 that shoots at 1000 frames per second. Because of the very fast electronics and ultrafast memory required, they are limited to a rather small un-printable resolution of 224 x 56 pixels. They are a long way off from doing this with say a modern 21 Mega Pixel camera. But it will get there.

12) So what makes a good tripod? A well designed and engineered tripod that uses low vibration materials throughout. Well designed legs that use low torsion and low flex materials. And finally a well engineered head with no wobble or flex.

13) Which is the right Tripod for you? I could show you a 150 pound tripod and tell you that it is perfect and will in every case hold your camera super steady; however, this behemoth of a tripod would not be suitable for most of you probably 99 percent of the time. Choosing the right tripod for you takes some careful research and a good assessment of your needs and requirements for a tripod. In many cases, no one tripod will be perfect and having several tripods may be a better solution.

To best asses what tripod is right for you, you need to have a good understanding of what a tripod is used for.

What is a tripod for?

Note: When using the tripod, always check with the manufactureres recommendations on wether you should turn off the Image Stabilization or keep it on!! Most newer IS Lenses can now hve the IS enabled when on a tripod. With very big and long lenses (500 and 600) you can always hace the IS enabled.

14) Holding the camera – This is rather self explanatory here, or so it seems. Yes there is the simple basic hold the camera steady scenario, but what about holding the camera where it may otherwise be difficult to hold it steady, say at ground level, or hold it steady for a longer period of time with a heavy lens, or in the exact same spot for a complex HDR Panorama, or where the slightest movements make it impossible to get the right shot when doing macro work.

a. Hold Camera Steady
b. Hold Camera steady for many exposures over a long period of time (Sunset example)
c. Hold Camera Steady for Composition
d. Create a level Horizon (Don’t waste valuable pixels)
e. Unattended Camera (Kids, Hummingbird)

15) Holding the camera in other ways – With a little thought, creativity and ingenuity, tripods can become very valuable artistic rendering tools
a. Snake or other critters down low
b. High elevation above head (Concert or just to see over people)
c. Hanging over the edge (Cliffs Example) CAUTION: Used a safety strap system!!

16) Self Portraits – The tripod can be used for creating self portraits or even photos with everyone in them, especially when on holidays.

17) Testing – Tripods can also be a valuable tool for testing:
a. scene or studio setups of props and such re composition
b. exposure
c. lighting

18) Preventing Camera Shake – If you want ultra sharp images you need a) a good tripod and b) you need to use it! Creating razor sharp images or what we call ‘tack sharp’ images is an art in itself. One must assess their optics and then use the right techniques to create these images. Note that ‘tack sharp’ images make great images and usually look much better even smallish sizes like 5x7 inch print sizes but will look way better than non sharp images at 11x14 or at 16x20. For more on ‘Tack Sharp’ images, check out my article on the subject at

a. Tack Sharp Images for Print (Describe Process) Need good glass, Prime Lens, good tripod, skills, sweet spots Aperture and Zoom level, remote shutter, Low ISO, Image Stabilization OFF, Corrected Focus System, Live View, Auto Bracket Focus, Composition perfection, move in if required and Don’t waste valuable pixels.

19) Long Exposures – When trying to capture partial image blur where some of the image is sharp and other components are blurred, like a long exposure waterfall or stream shot, you need a tripod. Camera shake on a long exposure of this type will negate the nice smooth long flowing lines you want to achieve.

20) Panning – can be a great aid for panning (Note: If the tripod has a very smooth head assembly)

21) Ultra Long Exposures – Although these may also be used for capturing motion, ultra long exposures are usually reserved for night photography or when using a very dense Neutral Density Filter. In these cases of shooting clear Nightscapes, a tripod is a must.
a. Stars
b. Make Night look like Day
c. Light Painting and Writing

There are other great artistic uses and technical uses for Tripods

22) Multiple Exposures – There are various types of multiple exposures, but the basic single scene multiple expose is best done with a tripod. Hand holding without moving the camera at all for two or more shots is impossible.
a. Use the tripod
b. Manual exposure
c. Manual Focus

Note: Explain Parallax and slight side to side or up and down movements.

23) Time Lapse Photography – Self Explanatory and again just a multiple exposure. It is built into some cameras but devices are available including digital shutter cables with built in timers and time lapse controls and external battery supplies for the camera.

24) The Disappearing Trick or ‘How to Delete People” – This is just the reverse of the Multiple Exposure. Instead of adding components from each photo, just remove components from each photo. Great for:
a. Landscapes to remove unwanted cars, boats, birds
b. People from scenes like Lighthouses with many visitors
c. Washington Capital Steps
d. Malls or roads

25) Or Delete Parts of People – How about just having shirts and pants walking around? I will be showing an example of this in an upcoming competition.

26) Panoramas (Stitched Images) – Stitched images are usually used to create Panoramas. Here, two or more images are taken of different areas of a scene and then the two (or more) images are pasted (Stitched) together to create a single continuous long image.
a. Use the tripod
b. Manual exposure
c. Manual Focus

27) High Quality Standard Images – This is a great technique similar to creating a panorama where when combined with good ‘tack sharp’ image techniques, ultra high quality images can be created. Instead of using the camera in Landscape (horizontal) mode, the camera is tilted at 90 degrees and then three Portrait (vertical) images are shot and then combined to create a standard 4x6 format image. This results in a typical 10 mega pixel camera being turned into an approximate equivalent 23 mega pixel camera (or more).

28) HDR or High Dynamic Range Images – Again, this is similar to a Multiple Exposure Image but instead of adding or removing components, you can combine multiple ‘Exposures’. HDR can be done at any time but works best for High Contrast Scenes. Also, even though it can be faked with a single image, it is usually done with 3 exposures and best done with 5 or 9 exposures.
a. Use the tripod
b. Manual exposure with a fixed Aperture or Shutter Priority
c. Auto bracket exposure (3) with Caution about camera shake
d. Manual Focus

29) Macro Photography – The tool of choice here is the tripod and some sort of micro adjustment bracket, plate or rail device.

30) Stereoscopy or 3D Photography – Again, custom brackets and tools are made for doing this type of work. The basis for these systems is the tripod.

And finally my favourite use for the tripod:

31) Composition – The tripod excels at slowing the photographer down. Giving the photographer time to smell the roses or in our case, closely examine a scene and then closely examine and adjust the composition. Time to check “all four corners”. Time to really see a scene.

This is only a first draft of this document as it was used as "notes" for a Workshop I tought. I will update this document several times and will post the updates here.

Although there are a lot of great reasons for having a ripod, the first and foremost is to have sharp images. I would recommend reading this article or creating "Tack Sharp" images:

Start to Finish 'Tack' Sharp

And again, comments are always welcome. Do you use your tripod for something I havent listed? Let me know. Some readers have already asked about my recommendations which I will post soon, but for now, check out my equipment list.

© 2009 Fran├žois Cleroux

(Version 1.02 - November 2009)

Please feel free to leave comments, corrections, ideas, thoughts or suggestions.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post it has very useful information.This article contain some meaningful information.please keep posting like this with this useful information


I value thoughtful comments and suggestions. If you like or dislike this post, please let me know. If you have any ideas or suggestion, comments or corrections (I do make mistakes) please also let me know. Thanks.

- Francois Cleroux