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Tripods: How to Choose a Great Set of Legs



Three Key Factors for Selecting the Right Tripod

You probably spent a great deal of time selecting your camera and lenses. There are accessory purchases that warrant careful consideration, as well, because they, too, can have a significant effect on the quality of your images. At the top of the list: tripods.

After all, a good tripod is as important to the final image as the right filter or lens. Could Ansel Adams have taken his popular "Moon Over Half Dome" without his trusty tripod? Of course not.

Which Tripod Is Your Tripod?

So how do you know which one of today's technologically innovative tripods is right for you? Here are some pointers to help you decide…

1. First and foremost, you need to consider capacity.

A tripod that won't hold your camera steady is worse than no tripod at all. It will allow unwanted vibration to be transmitted to the camera, softening or blurring your image. A tripod should be able to hold your camera, fully loaded with lens, power source, and flash. It should be tall enough to allow you to shoot at eye level without much stooping or bending, and preferably without having to fully extend all leg sections and the column. Remember: the less you extend the tripod, the more stable it is.

2. Weight can be another determining factor, as well.

A heavy tripod may be an asset in the studio, but it's no fun to carry in the field. Chances are good it will earn a permanent place in your closet when you're away on location. Similarly, one that is too light could flex or shimmy under the load of a fully loaded camera.

Fortunately, with the introduction of lighter-weight materials, such as carbon fiber, you can get the rigidity and stability of a heavier tripod, without its weight. The trick is to strike a balance between the tripod's strength and versatility on the one hand, and its portability on the other.

3. Another critical deciding factor is cost.

Carbon fiber is light, strong, and very expensive—usually double the cost of an aluminum tripod of equivalent strength and support.

If that's too tough a nut for your budget to crack, relax. There are a number of innovative alternatives on the market. Among them: a tripod from Gitzo made from basalt, a dense rock found in molten lava. This tripod falls between carbon fiber and aluminum tripods in terms of weight, strength, and cost.

And there's the NeoTec from Manfrotto, which has an internal, self-locking mechanism rather than external locks. A top casting allows the center column to double as a lateral arm for unusual angles and macro work.

To Top Things Off

Just as important as the tripod you choose, is the head. The two main types of tripod heads are ball heads and pan/tilt heads, also known as three-way heads. Each style has its share of pros and cons, all of which need to be evaluated. Most are available with quick release mounting plates and spirit levels.

A number of tripod heads on the market offer as much cutting-edge technology as the tripods they top. Some use magnesium alloy castings to reduce their weight, and offer both vertical and offset stem designs to get your camera in places you would have never thought possible before. They also have low-profile pan/tilt heads for a lower center of gravity, increasing their overall performance.

A new series of ballheads with hydrostatic locking mechanisms, from Manfrotto, creates a stronger head in a smaller package. The camera and head move in unison for smoother camera movements and total locking power.

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