Last time we discussed some of the theory behind hand-holding a camera – the increased chances of shake at slower speeds and a rule of thumb for lower limit of shutter speed vs. focal length of the lens (50mm at 1/50th, 200mm at 1/200th etc), and also how raising the ISO will lead to a faster shutter and sharper images in low light. This week we’ll continue to keep things steady and look at the mainstay of camera stability.
The first thing that springs to mind when we think of holding a camera steady is the tripod. When we first get a camera, a tripod is often the very next piece of equipment we get, if not at the time of camera purchase. While that inexpensive add-on to the deal is appealing, it is worth resisting. Find out how you are going to use your camera first. With modern digital cameras and their low-light capabilities, a tripod is unnecessary. If after some experience you find yourself gravitating towards, for example, long exposure, macro or landscape photography, a good quality tripod becomes a must-have to keep those images sharp.
The array of different tripods is great, and it can be confusing to determine which is best for your needs. What to consider?
Stability is most important and seems like a no-brainer as this is the prime characteristic that all tripods are designed to provide, but while you are in store, just compare that cheap afterthought model with one of the higher quality options and you will see that between the spidery legs and plastic head, stability is exactly what the budget version seems to lack. A rule of thumb I’ve heard for tripod purchase is that because stability is influenced most by mass, a tripod with head should be at least twice the weight of the camera. This does however seem a little excessive to me as you can always add mass by hanging your bag off it – many good tripods have a fixture for this very purpose. But do erect a few in-store and compare them for stability. A load rating of about 8 – 10kg is good for most photographic applications.
Another important characteristic is weight. Consider carefully how you will be using the tripod. Will you be part of your kit as you travel? Will you use it on infrequent occasions? Good quality alloy tripods tend to be heavier, but if weight is a prime concern, carbon fiber, though much more expensive, could ease your burden considerably.
With most quality tripods, the head is a separate purchase, and like the leg assembly, there are a wide variety of options. The most popular general-purpose heads are of the ball type – a ball in socket design. These are small, sturdy, light and offer a wide range of movement. The load rating for the head should be about the same as that for the legs.
As I mentioned earlier, don’t pick up that cheap tripod with the camera, if you get at least a little serious with your photography you will regret it eventually. Take your time and see where you interests lead you and if necessary invest in a quality piece of equipment. Cameras may come and go, but a wise tripod acquisition will last you a long, long time. Don’t skimp on it.
Next time we’ll round off this series with a look at some other ways to maintain stability.