It never ceases to amaze me how few people provide their cameras proper support while making photographs. I’m speaking about tripods and the heads that we use on them. Obviously some forms of photography don’t lend themselves to using a tripod. But for a landscape shooter, a tripod is an essential piece of kit. Some people claim that they have steady hands and don’t need a tripod. If that is you, stop reading now. You probably don’t and don’t want to hear what I have to say anyway.
When I was younger I didn’t like a tripod for all the same reasons most folks rationalize not using one. But the day came when I decided, that I wanted the best possible images that could be squeezed out of my equipment. I had a good camera body and pretty good glass at the time, but if I wanted more, I could not ignore the science or the wisdom of the landscape shooters that had gone before me.
Many photographers (myself included) purchase several tripods over the years. Usually spending a little more each time but still not finding any improvement in their images. Which of course leads to thinking that there is no benefit. What I think is happening, is that most people believe that tripods should be inexpensive. They are after all basic looking devices and they seemingly don’t play an imaging role like the lens or camera body. But cheap tripods are just that. Cheap, wobbly and weak. Usually they are far too short and have a terrible head on them.
The fact of the matter is that a tripod should be solid and tall enough that a mounted camera is at the photographer’s eye level without using a centre column to raise the camera. In fact, the best tripods won’t have a centre column and definitely won’t have a head. When building a camera support system, the process is one where you buy legs, a head and perhaps a mounting system.
In 2004, I decided that I would get serious about camera support. I spent a great deal of time reading, contacting other photographers and fiddling with equipment in stores. As it turns out, support is not cheap. In fact, it is expensive. Now ten years later, I find that I have sufficient support and have some information to share. I can also say that proper support helped get my images to the next level of quality. Today with cameras that have 36MP sensors, the need to support a camera in a rock solid fashion is more important than ever.
From my experience, giving the following items consideration will make using a tripod much easier and no longer a frustrating experience.
Start With The Legs
Select a sturdy 3 section tripod (4 sections at most) from a manufacturer like Manfrotto, Gitzo or Really Right Stuff. Make sure that the legs extend tall enough that when you mount a tripod head and your camera on them, the camera eye piece will be at your eye level without raising the centre column. In fact pick a model with no centre column to save weight. Raising a centre column will negate any good that your tripod legs are doing since even a slight wind will shake the camera. If you don’t plan to carry your tripod long distances, an aluminum set of legs will do great. If you are a hiker, then carbon fibre will be the lightest option. You are probably going to spend $250-$1000 just on legs. This is a pay me now or pay me later deal. Don’t buy cheap stuff. There are other manufacturers than I noted above and they will have some good legs too. But select carefully.
Notice that the legs above do not have a centre column. Just a nice big hefty platform to mount a head.
Select An Appropriate Ball Head
A ball head is the perfect tool for still photography with 35mm style cameras. A proper ball head will set you back $250-$600. Great units come from companies like Acratech, Kirk, Arca Swiss and Really Right Stuff.
Heads from these manufacturers will graduate you into a new method of mounting your camera to the ball head. Most tripod heads have frustrating proprietary mounting plates which you screw onto your camera that allow you to pop the camera onto your tripod. These small plates do not hold well and eventually work loose at the worst time causing you to lose a shot or perhaps dump your camera on the ground. They also only work with accessories made by the company that made the head.
A good pro head will have a mounting system invented by Arca Swiss many years ago. It is a quick release system that is strong, easy to use and in my opinion an absolute pleasure to use. Arca mounting plates open up a whole new world of options for the photographer. The photograph below is of my current ball head made by Really Right Stuff. It has an Arca Swiss mounting clamp on top, a large ball which allows the head to support heavy pro camera bodies and nicely knurled knobs that are a pleasure to use in any weather.
There are people that like the inexpensive pistol grip style heads that are available. But despite the seemingly wonderful flexibility they have, they are not stable enough. They just aren’t. You won’t find any big names in photography with them on their tripod legs.
Select A Mounting System
A camera will require some sort of mounting system. It could be as simple as a 1/4″ screw that goes right into the bottom of the camera or a mounting plate made by the ball head manufacturer. The best systems use an Arca Swiss compatible mounting plate. An Arca Swiss plate must be installed on a camera in order to use the ball heads I mentioned previously. Do yourself a favour and purchase what is known as an L-bracket. An L-bracket is a machined aluminum plate that fits around the bottom and left side of your camera body. It is machined to precisely fit your model of camera while providing access points to all the covers, hatches and batteries in your model camera.
Once an L-bracket is mounted on the camera, the camera can be rapidly moved from horizontal shooting to vertical shooting by quickly releasing the camera from the head, turning it sideways and sliding it back in. This keeps the camera completely centred over the tripod head and prevents the horrible flop to the side that is so annoying when trying to compose a vertical image while on a tripod. I can rotate my pro sized camera body from one orientation to the other in 2-3 seconds. L-brackets can be purchased from companies such as Kirk, Markins and Really Right Stuff. Expect to pay $100-$150 for the bracket. I promise it will be worth every penny.
The image above shows how vertical images can be composed in a more stable position using an L-bracket. The camera is directly over the ball head and not off to the side in an unbalanced position. I can’t overemphasize how amazingly easy and comfortable this scenario is when shooting vertical images. Once a photographer has moved up to an Arca mounting system, a whole new world of accessories open up to them that make life easier and quicker while working.
Support Is Essential!
Getting a camera stable is critical to making the sharpest photographs possible. Once a photographer wraps their head around the idea that their support system is every bit as important as their camera and optics, the price becomes understandable. Modern high end support systems require a lot of engineering, machining and testing to design. It may take a photographer some time to realize the need for proper support. However, take it from me and of course the photographic masters, proper support will be a game changer when looking for the sharpest images possible.