New To Photography:A beginners guide to buying a tripod and head

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This page is a chapter in the book Stability - Why use a Tripod (or monopod).
Contributed by trublubiker

This Tripods and other supports is a good resource for finding Tripod vendors

When getting that tack sharp image constantly eludes you, it is often a sign that you need a stable support system for your camera. I hope this article, written from recent personal experience, will help you to get those sharp shots.

Do I need it, you may well ask, when my camera/lens has built-in stabilisation? Good question. What the various types of stabilisation do is increase your shutter speed three or four stops. At times it is enough, at other times not so , particularly when the light not as good as you would have liked. It is almost mandatory for macro, panoramas, and any shot that you want to show the really fine details.

Lets start with the tripod.

SIZE: It is very important to match your proposed tripod to your height. Start by measuring your height at eye level. In my case it was 1580mm. To find the required tripod height, take the sum height of an average ballhead, plus the distance between the camera base and the viewfinder, away from your eye level height. This will generally be around 180mm. So, in my instance 1580mm minus 180mm equals 1400mm. This of course will vary according to your own height.

Lets call this your base height. Next match your base height to a tripod with legs extended and centre column fully down. It is generally accepted that overall stability decreases as the centre column is raised.

This calculation will allow you to work standing, without stooping.

USAGE: The main consideration here is the weight of the tripod. Most modern tripods are made of either aluminium or carbon fibre, aluminium units generally being about twice the weight of their carbon counterparts. The downside here is that carbon fibre is at least twice the price of a comparable aluminium unit, however they are said to be better at absorbing vibrations. So if you're only ever going to shoot indoors, or a short stroll from your car, aluminium is the way to go. If you're going to chase birds and wildlife in the bush, then the lighter weight of carbon fibre is a real advantage.

TYPES: Tripods come in a seemingly endless variety of styles and configurations. They usually come with three or four legs sections, the three section variety apparently more stable, and the four section models collapsing down to a smaller length, a consideration if backpacking or flying. There are twist locks and flip locks to lock the leg extensions, both seem equally favoured, and a choice of leg tips including spikes and rubber, rubber being the most popular.

LOAD RATING: This is the tripod's rated carrying capacity. It should cover the weight of your proposed head, your camera, your largest lens, your flash, a teleconverter plus a bit to cover brackets and plates. You should also factor in the weight of that big 2.8 lens that you've been lusting for, because if you do this exercise right, first up, this tripod is going to be with you for a very long time. I believe that this is an area where you should not skimp. If you calculate your maximum load at say 4kg, I'd suggest looking at tripods rated to about 8kg.

Selecting a suitable head.

TYPES: They include panning heads, mainly used for video applications, 3 way pan/tilt heads and the current favourite of most, the ballhead. I would suggest the ballhead for most general uses. The ballhead is exactly what it's name suggests, a ball sitting in a housing, with a clamping mechanism to lock it in the desired position. It is fitted on top with a releasable clamp, which locks on to the mounting plate on your camera or lens. The mounting plate is screwed onto a camera, or a lens with a tripod mount.

Ballheads allow 360 degree horizontal rotation, and up to +90 and -90 degree vertical inclination. They range in price from around $50.00 to $500.00 and more. The better models are all-metal construction, the cheaper ones have plastic bits, usually where you can't see them.

LOAD RATING: This is a real minefield as there is no generally accepted rating system. That 30kg rating you see on the manufacturers web page usually indicates that their ballhead will hold 30kg in a perfect vertical orientation, ie with the weight directly over the center of the head. Incline the head 15 degrees and the load carrying ability drops, dramatically.

There are very few manufacturers who give a specific rating. Acratech is one, stating that their head "easily holds over 25lbs (11.4kg) at any angle" and RRS is another, giving examples of the types of bodies and lens their various heads hold.

The Achilles Heel with a lot of ballheads is droop, or creep, when the ball moves in the housing after you think you have locked it tightly.

Every time I thought I had found the right ballhead, I 'Googled' the make and model, and almost invariably found Forums full of unhappy users complaining about the dreaded 'droop'. A lot of these complaints may have come from people who picked the cheap instead of appropriate option. A general 'rule of thumb' is that the bigger the ball diameter is, the less likely it is to droop. I believe that this is one item of your kit that you really do get what you pay for.

Buying your tripod and head.

A good starting point is your local camera store. You now know the size and weight you need, so look at the different styles and makes. When you find one that seems suitable, go home and research it online.

I have just bought my fourth outfit. I have also wasted about $450.00 buying stuff that was cheap(?) and wasn't appropriate for my needs.

It has been said by well respected photographers that camera bodies come and go, evolving technology forcing regular updates, however a quality lens, tripod and head should be with you for a long time.

A related article:
Previous: New To Photography:Why use a Tripod (or monopod) Stability - Why use a Tripod (or monopod) Next: New To Photography:Finding Subjects

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