You could be forgiven for considering the tripod the grey flannel suit of your camera gear. It was dull but dependable; you relied on it, but maybe, deep down, you just didn't feel that spark. Well, no more. Tripods are evolving into ever more dynamic instruments, opening up new creative possibilities. Yes, camera makers may have made remarkable strides in image stabilization, but nothing compares to a good old-fashioned (or, should we say, new-fashioned) tripod.
The biggest trend in product design is toward specialization, says David Fisher, product manager, GITZO/BOGEN. "It's not just three sticks together, it's not just about which is the strongest," he says. Now photographers can customize their stabilization device based on task and use it more as a creative accessory.
Materials matter a good deal in the tripod world, and everyone is crazy for carbon fiber. INDURO, which jumped into the tripod market three years ago, sees strong demand for carbon-based models among photographers on the go, says Jeff Karp, product marketing manager. The company has also begun using magnesium alloy in the spider, or base, of its tripods to further reduce the weight without sacrificing load capacity.
Photographic needs differ, and many shooters will opt for carbon when traveling and the more traditional aluminum-based stabilizers for studio work, Fisher observes. Price, too, plays a role. "When price is a factor and weight isn't as critical, photographers are opting for aluminum," Karp adds.
Photographers need portability, but a tripod must still bear up under the weight of the camera and lens. "Carbon fiber is still leading the way in the tube," Fisher notes. But other lightweight polymers are being rolled out in the casting, locks, and ball heads, which help reduce the overall weight and provide greater protection against the elements. These new engineered materials are trickling down from the automotive and sporting-goods markets, so they're not adding too much to the cost of the tripod, Fisher adds.
A tripod is no good if it's sitting at home, and with lenses and a camera body already weighing on your shoulder, a carry-on-friendly tripod or monopod is a must. "Travel tripods are a hot item right now," he says. "Photographers are looking for tripods that can go in the overhead, so it has to be 20-inches or under for those international trips. There's a real need for 'as lightweight as possible.'"
Sometimes you need a tripod to go above and beyond (or perhaps below) the call of traditional duty. Capturing unique angles requires unique gear, and manufacturers such as DELKIN and JOBY have been building out a portfolio of products that let photographers stretch themselves beyond traditional tripod uses.
Delkin's Fat Gecko, which uses suction cups to adhere to a number of surfaces (cars, boats, airplanes, etc.), has already been put to a number of novel uses. "I had a photographer tell me he attached three to a car and telescoped it up 30 feet to get angles that no one has grabbed before," says Tom Robeson, marketing manager, Delkin. It's all about expanding creative options, he adds: "People are using it for lighting, too."
New variations of the Fat Gecko replace the suction cups with clamps, and another offers a dedicated bicycle mount. Accessories for the Fat Gecko, like a quick release, are also expected later in the year.
Joby's line of Gorillapods has brought a new spin to the standard support, with the ability to cling to various surfaces at odd angles. At PMA, the company added an SLR-zoom ball head to its line of SLR stabilizers. Equipped with the new head, Gorillapod users will be able to pan their camera up to 360 degrees or tilt at a 90-degree angle. It's housed in aluminum with an all-metal ball.
The Brave New World
With Nikon, Canon, and Panasonic all bringing high-definition video recording to digital SLR (and SLR-like) cameras, tripod makers will begin to roll out their own "hybrids" to accommodate the new functionality. This means fluid heads, Fisher says. "You can't shoot video in any real fashion handheld," he explains. "You need smooth pans, or you'll get the Blair Witch Project look So you'll see us model products from the broadcast and video industry."