Last week we talked about investing in a camera bag to best hold your lens and DSLR kit. This week, we'll look at what it takes to keep your setup steady. The tripod is, for many photographers, a necessary support system. But it doesn't have to be a clunky, dreaded piece of equipment.
Most photographers will, at one time or another, need a tripod. Whether you shoot in low light, with a super telephoto lens, want to capture the movement of flowing water with a slow shutter speed (but want the rest of the image sharp), shoot in a studio, or have a penchant for macro photography, you're going to want to add a tripod to your gear bag.
Mix 'n' Match TripodSome tripods come with a head to attach your camera to, while other "modular" tripods require that you buy a separate head. Tripods with a fixed head tend to feature pan-tilt heads, but we prefer ball heads for their versatility. Typically, modular tripods are higher-end products, because they cater to a more advanced photographer.
The pictured Vanguard ALTA PRO 264 AT Tripod ($134.92 via coupon code "ABESAVES5" with free shipping, a low by $25) for example is a sturdy tripod that extends up to 5 feet and features a multi-angle central column system that adjusts to 25, 50, and 80-degree angles. This tripod can also hold up to 15 lbs., although it lacks a head. You can always pick one up that suits your needs, like the Vanguard GH-100 Pistol Grip Ball Head ($99.99 with free shipping, a low by $35). It features an ergonomic handle, dual-locking quick shoe mechanism, and 360-degree horizontal movement and 90-angle tilt. Note however that it has a smaller load capacity than the tripod, at just 13.2 lbs.
If you want to switch quickly between tripod and handheld shooting, also consider a tripod with a quick release plate, which allows you to attach one part to the camera and the other to the tripod for smooth mounting and dismounting from the tripod.
Medium Duty TripodOne of the most important tripod specifications is the tripod's height when fully extended. At barely 5'3", I'm short enough to work with smaller tripods, but if you're over 5'8", be sure the tripod will put the camera's viewfinder at eye level. For taller folk, consider the pictured Polaroid 72" Tripod ($39.99 with free shipping, a low by $3) which extends up to 6 feet and features a sturdy but lightweight setup that boasts a 3-way pan-head with two quick-releases, and closes to a compact size of 28".
It's also imperative that your tripod can hold the weight of your camera, battery, and heaviest lens. You don't want your tripod to tip when you change the angle you're shooting at either, so look for a setup that locks into place. If you're using the Smith-Victor Pro-4000 Heavy Duty Tripod with Pro-4 3-Way Head ($129.95 with free shipping, a low by $27) you can be sure that this tripod's 18-lb. load capacity will hold your DSLR and lens securely in place.
Portable 'PodIf you travel a lot or hike long distances, be sure to consider the weight of the tripod as well. A compact, transportable, lightweight tripod like the Targus 8 Section Aluminum Travel Tripod ($16.99 with free shipping, a low by $1) extends up to 42", but folds into an easy-to-cary 11" bundle.
If you're big into shooting in macro, consider a smaller tripod that can hold your camera steady while getting up close and personal with flowers, insects, and the like. The above-pictured Joby GP3-01EN Gorillapod SLR-Zoom Tripod ($32 with free shipping, a low by $3) for example features flexible segmented legs that can wrap securely to a nearby tree branch, fence, park bench, or anything else that's convenient. Plus, it's super lightweight at just 8.5 oz. Note that it will only support a camera setup of up to 6.6 lbs.
Beyond needing a tripod to safely hold your camera, every photographer wants to have a bit of fun sometimes, which includes getting in front of the lens. While the Quickpod Slim Handheld Extendable Tripod ($17.95 with free shipping via Prime, a low by $14) can't hold more than a point-and-shoot, it lets you take great self portraits by extending horizontally to 38". It may not be an accessory for a serious photographer, in that it won't work with an SLR, but there's no shame in wanting to occasionally preserve yourself in your photographs as well.
Adding a tripod to your camera kit can expand your photographic repertoire in just a few clicks. From offering stability in low light to helping capture the minute details of nature, a tripod can be a photographer's best friend. And the stands we've listed here are just a few of the options out there, but keep in mind the height, weight, and portability of any tripod before you buy.
Front page photo credit: Matt Denton Photo