Tripods – What You Need to Know
Tripods May Be Your Best Friend
Thank you for listening to The Photo Flunky Show – episode 31. We really appreciate you.
We're talking about tripods this time. It's something that nearly every photographer should have, but which one? Lee and I discuss uses for tripods, some tips for what to buy and a few things you may not have considered while shopping.
Below, I have some links to the tripods I use (which are a bit spendy, but very reliable) and a suggestion for a less pricey tripod to consider.
Here is an affiliate link to the tripod strap I mentioned on the show. It's much better than a carrying case, since you don't have to take it in and out of a bag. Just unclip the bottom legs to deploy your tripod and then clip it back when you're ready to head out.OP/TECH USA Tripod Strap
My Tripods and ballhead from Really Right Stuff
A less expensive brand of tripod is from 3 Legged Thing. I don't have direct experience with these products, but I've heard nice things about them.3 Legged Thing Leo Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod System with AirHed Light Ball Head
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THE PHOTO FLUNKY SHOW: Episode 31
Hi! Welcome to the Photo Flunky Show, Episode number thirty-one.
Today we’re going to talk about tripods. I know. What fun!
William: Hi, my name is William Beem.
Lee: Hi, I’m Lee.
William: And thank you very much for joining us on the Photo Flunky Show today. You can find show notes available at williambeem.com/episode31 and there is a free transcript there. And of course you can find links to subscribe on your favorite source of iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, all at photoflunky.com.
Before we get started I want to let you know we’ve got a coupon code for you from MacPhun. If you’re looking for some good post processing software for your MacIntosh computer, I can get you a ten per cent discount. Just go to williambeem.com/macphun. Use the coupon code BEEM when you check out. It saves you ten per cent and I get a little bit of credit. Everybody wins. Sounds like a good time.
Lee: Sounds good to me.
William: Alright, I’ll be honest with you, we’re getting ready to start talking about tripods, but I’m probably going to screw up because we haven’t done a show in a month. Even though they’ve been coming out regularly, we kind of recorded them in advance. We’ve been on vacation.
Lee: Yeah and we are refreshed and a little bit rusty and golden.
William: I know. So if we screw up, it’s like – well, cut us some slack!
William: We’re not going to regale you with all this talk about vacation. Let’s get into tripods and starting right off the bat with: Do you really need one?
Lee: That depends. I think most people need one at some point. It might be that you don’t usually need one. It could be worth borrowing or renting one for an occasion, but most of us who really seriously develop our interest in photography and pursue it get to a stage where there is something that requires a tripod.
William: I think eventually everybody is going to have a time when you need a tripod. And really here’s the reason why you need it.
You need a stable platform for your camera when there are certain circumstances. For example, you need to take the shot in exactly the same place. Or you need to take a shot where the shutter speed is lower than you can handhold it and keep everything clear.
That’s primarily it. There are a couple of other circumstances, but those are the big things. If you are an action photographer, if you’re doing concert photography or you’re doing sports, then the last thing you need is a tripod. I mean your mobility is really what helps you get the shot that you need. So if you’re trying to lug around a pair of sticks, it’s not doing you any good at all. And that’s really not what this is for. Tripods are when you are going to slow down and you’re going to take your time. Think about your shot. You’re not necessarily trying to compete or keep up with anything. You want to have stability and consistency. That’s really when you need a tripod.
Lee: Yeah, absolutely.
William: An example from me: I like doing HDR photography and of course you’re going to be doing brackets of the same scene, whether it may be three brackets, five exposures or more. You want to make sure that you can align those later on and without having to rely upon Photoshop or some other tool, it is much easier if every frame that comes out is exactly the same as the other from a composition spot.
When you’re taking the shots for brackets for HDR you want to have the composition exactly the same. It’s going to save you some time in post processing and it’s just going to make everything easier to align.
Lee: You do. And you can’t handhold for brackets if your shutter speed is high enough on the brightest exposure, which tends to be the slowest shutter speed.
William: I’ve done that. My shots that I took when I got a tour of the Capitol a few years ago and I went in there with a 14-24 mm lens and it was just whatever the available light was inside the building and everything I did was handheld, but I had enough shutter speed in there that I could do what I needed to do.
Lee: Yes. But I’m trying to think what I was doing. Maybe I was just experimenting. But instead of using the automatic bracketing setting, I was manually choosing my exposures. That meant that to be handling moving the dials around, there was just no ways that you could hand hold and do that in between shots. Even although the available light was probably OK that I could have handheld it, what I was trying to do for whatever reason, didn’t allow for it.
William: Exactly. One of the other advantages that you get with a tripod is you can reduce your ISO so you are eliminating noise. You’re shooting at the cleanest ISO that you have, but that is going to mean that you have a longer shutter speed.
William: You’re not bringing as much light or you’re not as sensitive to light with the ISO so you need a longer shutter speed to make sure that exposure triangle works out for you.
Lee: And it’s all about the shutter speed because you need your aperture to be consistent.
William: Another time that you really could use a tripod is if you’re going to be taking photos of fireworks.
Lee: Yes! That’s why I bought mine.
William: We love our fireworks photos and we’ll go out, in our case we’ll go off to Walt Disney World because there are fireworks there every night of the year.
But some of the special occasions we were there, like a year ago with Fourth of July, shooting from the Contemporary hotel with some very nice friends who invited us over there. We just set up on the balcony and it was beautiful, where you could see the entire Magic Kingdom park and we just saw the fireworks going up across all of it and you get that little burst above every section.
But you can also kind of play some tricks. Sometimes you don’t get bursts in every part that you want, so you leave your shutter open in bulb mode and then you cover the lens for the parts where there is nothing interesting up there and uncover it just for the burst that you want and that’s what makes it look like you’ve got a ton of fireworks going there that never actually showed up at the time that you were watching the fireworks show.
Lee: That’s true. I’ve actually, aside from shooting with a fisheye, always used a neutral density filter on mine. I think last year – it’s not the first time – I have a bad habit of suddenly getting a change of heart for the lens that I’m using. I’ll be all set up and about a minute before it starts I’ll think, “Oh, I’m changing my mind.”
I did it this last time and I did actually regret it because the lens that I used wouldn’t take a filter or it might have just been a different size and I messed up a few of my shots just because I’m not familiar with shooting without a filter, but that’s another way to get a lot of bursts in there because you just leave it open for a long time.
William: Exactly. But you still need that stability from the tripod in order to do that.
Lee: Yes, I’m not sure if it was Tom Bricker, but I saw somebody’s photo which was absolutely incredible. They had used one of the Lee Big Stoppers and left the shutter open for the entire show. It wasn’t Fourth of July, but it was incredible. And it’s a risk because you might end up with blowing it out or screwing it up, but it worked.
William: Maybe we should try that. We’ve got one of those.
Lee: Yeah! But it isn’t being used apparently.
William: No. I’ve got this Big Stopper that’s a ten stop neutral density filter and I’ve never taken a shot with it.
Lee: Second confession. Refer to the previous episode.
William: Exactly. It’s something that I am never going to use for taking pictures of sticks in water.
Lee: No, we can do without that.
William: OK, another case for using a tripod is if you’re a portrait photographer. It is really handy to tether your computer along with your camera. So that way every time you take a shot you don’t have to look at the little small LCD screen on the back. You can have a nice big screen. Whether it’s on your laptop or if you want to put in a full sized monitor in there, you can set up your tripod.
There are accessories you can buy. I use the ones from Tether Tools, but I think there are other ways that you can do this as well. You can set it up so you have got a little cross bar perhaps, on your tripod. One, you can use to mount your camera on your ball head and the other is the table top that you put there for your laptop.
So you’ve got a place to rest your camera; it’s always in the same spot when you’re not shooting and you take a step away from there and you may need to adjust things, change your lighting or work with your subject. But it’s also nice when you’ve got the laptop there and you’re tethering and you can see on, let’s say a fifteen inch laptop, you can see a lot more detail about your photo than you do on that little LCD on the back of the camera.
Everything looks great when you look on the back of the camera.
Lee: Always. And it lies, because you get that card in afterwards and it’s not so. But it’s great having a tripod for that because we’ve sometimes set up a studio in the living room and we’ve had our seamless paper roll out there and you have to get the camera in the right place so that you are not getting too much or too little of the paper roll in, depending on how you are planning to crop. So you want to leave the camera while you check your images. And eat least once you have got it set on the tripod you’re good to go.
William: Yeah, so there are many uses for a tripod and it’s just a handy thing for any photographer to have. I understand there are times that you don’t want to use it. Maybe there are places you go that don’t let you use your tripod and we’ll talk a little bit about that later on, but for the most part, the times that you need a tripod, you want a good quality one.
William: So that brings us to our next little topic, which is, which one do you need? And that means we’re talking about purchasing decisions.
One of the things that comes up, that some people may not think about initially but you should, is that height matters.
Lee: Yes. Absolutely. I’ve seen people pulling out tripods that they got that were such a bargain and honestly, they were inexpensive and were fine for the entry level cameras they had with the kit lens. It supported it OK, but I was watching them squatting down the whole time, every time they wanted to check the back of the screen to see the image they had just captured. And it just looked like a pain in the butt. It’s not a workout!
But yes, it’s impractical. I think you need to be careful of that because sometimes compact ….. well that might fall into it. There are compact tripods that fully extend.
William: Well actually, height matters in both directions. You don’t necessarily always want to shoot from the height of you standing up. Sometimes height matters in how low you can go.
I’ve got two tripods that I primarily use. Both of them are from Really Right Stuff. This is my go-to company that I work with. Well, I don’t work with them, but this is the company that I buy from and this is not an affiliate code or anything like that. I just simply like them and I recommend them.
I have two products from them. The first one I got was a TVC33 which is a big honking tripod. I am six foot three and it comes up almost to my chin. It’s three legs and there is no center posts in this thing. What I like about it is yes, it can come up as high as I am, but also I can collapse those legs and bring it down low.
Even more important than that, instead if just having all the legs fully collapse down, you can ratchet the legs out. So if I need to get way down on the ground where I’m shooting on my belly it will get down that low as well. So you’ve got an angle of photography probably from say six inches or so above the ground all the way up to five feet or so.
Lee: Yeah, it does a split.
William: Yes, so when we say height matters, that’s what we are talking about. It’s not only how tall can it go, but how low can you go? That’s something to keep in mind if you get a tripod that has a center post because if you can’t remove that center post, then you can’t go down that low in case you need to use a tripod at that angle.
Lee: That is true.
Also, can you tilt it so that you can have the camera vertical?
William: Well that’s a good point and I think that really depends upon your ball head. What I got from Really Right Stuff (they’ve got a few different ball heads out there), I got the one in the middle. I think it’s the BH40 or BH44? I can’t recall exactly which one. But it works with an arca bracket. So there is a bracket that you mount on the side of your camera. So you can put it in landscape or portrait mode and put that on the ball head.
So depending which way you need to shoot, you make sure that your camera just doesn’t sit there in a horizontal mode. If you need to flip it around and do it in portrait mode it fits there easily as well.
Lee: And you want to have confidence in your tripod. You want it to feel solid enough to adequately be able to support the lens and the camera and whatever else is attached.
William: That’s one of the things I like about Really Right Stuff and other people like – you know Gitzo was the big name in tripods before Really Right Stuff. They are using carbon fibre so it’s lightweight yet very strong.
I can literally support my weight hanging onto this tripod, and I’m a big boy. It is strong. There is no doubt that this thing will not only hold my camera, but if I had a 500 mm or 600 mm lens, it would hold all of that and more.
Lee: And your wife.
William: And my wife. I can have my wife sitting on top of it. We haven’t both been on it. But trust me, if you’re getting a Really Right Stuff or you’re getting a Gitzo, something with a good strong carbon fibre, and there are other products out there – I can’t tell you that I’ve used every single one of them because I haven’t – but if you get a really good, solid tripod, you can drag this thing through the mud and it will raise and lower as you need to. It is almost, I’d want to say, you don’t have to buy another tripod. But there is always an exception.
And that’s when I went back and bought something also from Really Right Stuff called a TQC14 and that is a shorter tripod and it does have a center post. So I’m thinking, why do you need a shorter tripod?
Quite honestly, there are places that I want to go where I do not want to stand out with a big honking tripod for the TVC33.
Lee: I get that.
William: And one of the things I mentioned before, we do a lot of photography at Walt Disney World and they’ve got a rule that came out maybe a year ago.
Lee: About two years ago.
William: Was it two years ago?
Tripods have never been a problem inside of Walt Disney World parks. They were a hell of a problem over at what is now Disney Springs, but that is a different story.
Lee: Yes, as with the Contemporary, depending what day you are there. They are either legal or not.
But anyways, the rule is you can bring a tripod if it fits inside of a standard backpack. That is what is written on Walt Disney World website.
And we looked at each other and said, “What is a standard backpack?”
Lee: Yeah, it’s a bit vague, because the ones that you buy in the parks are huge!
William: The reason that I got the smaller TQC14 tripod is because it is strong, it’s sturdy enough for what I am going to take in the park and it doesn’t draw attention. You can kind of fold this thing up so it’s maybe a foot and a half in length when you’ve got it collapsed.
Lee: Yeah and you also have to carry this thing around with you.
William: Yeah, it’s lightweight. It has a center post on it and typically I don’t like to use a center post on a tripod for one reason. As you raise your center post up and your camera leaves the top base of your tripod, you lose stability. Vibration can kind of come in and wind can shake it a little bit. Even just a little bit is enough to kind of mess up your photo.
So the higher you raise that center post, the less stability you have and that’s the whole point of having a tripod in the first place. So I’m not a huge fan of center posts, but I’m also pragmatic about it. Sometimes it is better to avoid a hassle than it is to worry about that center post.
Lee: The only thing with a Really Right Stuff tripod is that they are not cheap tripods.
William: Oh, god no!
Lee: I just couldn’t afford that. My take on it was to buy the very best that you could afford.
William: I agree with that and one of the brands that I’ve heard recommended (I’ve not used it myself) is something called a Three Legged Thing. A lot of people have had very kind words to say about that and I’m not going to endorse it because I haven’t seen it, but take a look at that. It may meet your needs if you don’t want to spend the money on something like a carbon fibre tripod from Really Right Stuff or Gitzo or a company like that.
And you know what? If it meets your needs, why spend more money? I am not encouraging you to go out and spend a lot of money just to say, “I’ve got this brand.” Get what works for you.
Lee: Well, exactly. I mean your camera is a lot heavier than mine, as are the lenses that you typically use for shooting. I mean, one of your favorites, the 70-200 mm. That is heavy! On top of your full frame camera body!
My camera is nothing like that and I don’t really use ridiculously heavy lenses so the tripod I have, I have absolute confidence in it. But it didn’t cost a fraction of what yours did.
William: No, and there’s no need to go spend money if you don’t have to. I do like buying stuff that I know will last me a lifetime. I’ll never have to go back and buy another tripod unless I lose this in a flood somewhere.
Lee: Well don’t do that.
William: No. But it’s the kind of thing where so long as I don’t drop it over a boat or off a cliff or someplace, it’s going to last. And it’s going to work very well. You can take it apart, you can clean it. Even the one that has the center post in it, you can take the center post out and put your camera just on the base of it and lower it down to a few inches off the ground just like I mentioned with the bigger brother. It simply will not rise up as high as the TVC33.
Lee: But then if you don’t need that for the occasion ….
William: And I’m not saying that because I have two, that you need to have two as well. Everybody’s photography is a bit different. But I look at the options and there are other models as well that you can look at, but all we are really saying with this stuff is, height matters. How low can it go? How high can it go? And the center post, you’re going to lose some stability, but don’t worry about that too terribly much unless you are in an extremely windy environment.
William: Of course the material, I think, matters. I’ve got a couple of other old tripods. When I started photography when I was in high school – it was late 70’s, early 80’s. I had some cheap aluminum quick lock thing that I bought and I still have it. I would not trust that thing with my iPhone right now.
Lee: Not even with the phone?
William: No. And I’ve got another tripod that is sitting in the corner in our living room, which I’m not sure why it’s there. But it’s not made out of carbon fibre. It’s made out of aluminum and that sucker is heavy! When you start lugging your heavy camera and your heavy gear ….
Lee: That’s why it’s still in the living room.
William: Yeah, it’s just that you want as light weight of material as you can get and that’s why carbon fibre is strong and lightweight, but it is expensive. You pay for that privilege of having something lightweight. Honestly, if you’ve ever taken your tripod on a long trek, you’re going to think it’s money well spent, I believe.
Lee: Well, you know the rule. Things get heavier with every ten steps.
William: That’s true. So I don’t use that thing anymore. I wouldn’t hesitate if I needed to use it in the studio, because you’re not really carrying it very far. It’s strong, it’s sturdy, it’s capable, but I would not want to carry that thing around.
Lee: Although having said that, if you haven’t experienced something lightweight, you just suck it up. You don’t know any better and you adapt.
William: Well, exactly. But once you’ve picked up a lightweight carbon fibre tripod, suddenly your old aluminum one is just like it’s filled with bricks.
When to use it.
Again, we’ve kind of gone over some of those times, but there are times when you want to take it with you and again, we said, it’s when your composition needs to be there, it’s when the light is going to be low and you need to keep shutter speed or you want to have your ISO down at the bottom.
There are also times when you want to leave it at home.
William: A couple of times they are going to be forced upon you. There are places where you simply cannot take your tripod, or maybe you cannot take your biggest tripod.
We mentioned Disney has a restriction on the size and that’s going to be left up to the judgement call of whatever security guard or cast member is there. If they come up and say your tripod is too big or your tripod is professional, you can’t argue with them. They are the final word.
Lee: The same with some museums and even stations and public places that are interesting. Some of them are quite happy for tripods, but they don’t want it to become an obstruction and for that purpose, they will have maybe size restrictions on, or just ban them altogether.
William: That’s what I found in a few of the places I have traveled. In Washington DC I went to the Lincoln Memorial. No tripods allowed. If you go there at two or three in the morning and there is nobody around, you can probably get away with it, but there is a crowd at the Lincoln Memorial. There are people over there and there are guards there as well. No tripods allowed there.
I went to the National Air and Space Museum. Again, no tripod allowed. But I still did my HDR there because I had something else and I think I may have mentioned it before. It’s called a Manfrotto Magic Arm and a Super Clamp and around almost every exhibit that they have there is a railing that is about three feet off the ground. I knew about this in advance, I went there, clamped the Super Clamp there and the Magic Arm is like an arm that bends and twists and you lock it into place and it gives you a fairly stable platform. Then you just click off your photos. Whether you want to do HDR or not, it’s just so that you’ve got a stable platform in the low light there.
It was funny. I started doing this and all the security guards came out and then the head security guard came out and said, “Tripods aren’t allowed.”
I said, “It’s not a tripod. It’s not touching the ground. It’s clamped over here.”
I was trying to be very polite and maybe sounded like I was being a bit of a smart Alec, but the head guy walked off and he came back and said, “You’re right. You’re clear to go. Have a good day.”
And that same thing happened in Las Vegas. I went to the Stratosphere. They have a very strict policy of no tripods and the reason I know that is because the gentleman in front of me in the line to go in had a little pocket tripod in his coat and the security guard there, she screamed at him, “That’s a tripod. No tripods allowed.” And she confiscated it from him.
I don’t like the idea of anybody confiscating my property, but if you want to go up she’s not going to let you take that tripod with you.
Then I’m right behind and she looked in my bag and she said the same thing to me. She said, “No tripods.”
I said, “That’s not a tripod.”
She looked at it and man, she had the most confused look on her face. But then she agreed. OK, it’s not a tripod.
So I got my shot from on top of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. It’s windy as hell up there and that thing bounces back and forth. You really had to kind of try and block the wind in order to get a stable shot. But it worked.
So there are times when you can take a tripod and there are times when you just leave the thing at home.
One of the things I worry about when I’m traveling with a tripod is typically I want to put it inside of my suitcase.
William: I know some people will not want to have any of their camera gear out of their sight and I know one guy who has got the TQC14 and it won’t fit in his camera bag, but he just folds it and he slides it into the backpack that he’s got and he slides it onto the backpack and he said so far no-one has ever stopped him.
Lee: I think if it fits into your bag or the dimensions are within the guidelines or restrictions, you’re fine.
William: I don’t think it fits within the dimensions. I think it’s just the fact that no-one has paid close enough attention. But what I would worry about though is, is somebody going say you’ve got a blunt object there? You’re a photographer.
Lee: I’ve never really thought about it and I’ve traveled with my tripod so many times but then again, I put into the checked bag.
William: I put mine into my checked bag as well. I’m worried about what happens if you run into the kind of person who is going to give you a problem. Then what do you do? You’re stuck.
And they’ll say, “Well I’ll check it for you.”
And you think, great! I’ll never see it again.
Lee: Actually, sometimes they are safe, but I’ve also had stuff going missing so yeah.
William: I’m not telling you which way to go with that. I’m just saying I’m afraid to take the chance of losing any of my photography gear, including the tripod, so it’s always going in my checked luggage.
And either one that I’ve got – the big one or the little one – fits in there just fine.
Lee: I mean if it’s a day trip you might want to leave it at home, however if you’re going out somewhere and it’s just one or two of the places you’re visiting while you’re away, you’re just as well to leave it in your hotel room, if you are comfortable doing that. You don’t necessarily have to leave it at home, but there are days that you may not want to take them out with you.
William: Well pretty much I leave it at home unless I know that I’ve got a reason to use it.
Lee: I used to be different. I used to take it with me unless I was very sure that I shouldn’t or couldn’t.
William: I’ve gotten to the point now where I don’t want to take gear with me just in case I need it. I used to do that a lot and I was lugging around a ton of gear. I had the backpack or the slingpack or whatever bag I was carrying and I was getting a workout.
William: So I decided I don’t need that. These days I’m happy to go walk around with one lens and just do my shooting that way, unless I know that I need the tripod because I’m going to be there late at night or I’m shooting fireworks. Unless I have a specific case that I know I need a specific shot with this tripod, then I’ll take it with me without any complaints. And the way I carry it, I’ve got this little Optec tripod strap and some people have got bags that they put the tripod in the bag and they have a shoulder strap with that.
I had one of those and I found it to be a pain in the neck because you’ve got to unzip the thing, you’ve got to put the tripod in there, zip it up and put it on. Those extra steps were just getting in my way.
Lee: Yeah, that’s why I never use the bag.
William: I’ll put a link in the show notes. You can get it on Amazon. It’s fairly inexpensive. But all it does is it has little quick locks. One goes around the neck, one goes around the leg and then there’s a little Optec padded shoulder strap and you can just sling it over your shoulder and go. Then when you get there, all you really need to do is unclip the one around the legs and leave the one around the neck clipped so you can expand as much as you need. But that way you don’t lose the strap someplace if you’re taking the whole thing off. You can just kind of leave it connected to your tripod. It doesn’t bother you when you’re shooting.
Lee: If you are just taking a camera and you’re fairly confident the weather is going to be dry, hey!
William: Again, if I know that I’m going to use the tripod and I only need one lens, I’ll go ahead and mount the camera and the lens and put it on the ball head. I’ll use that Optec strap and sling it over my shoulder and I’ll just walk around with the tripod and the camera on there as one thing and I’m ready to go.
William: So it’s fairly convenient and easy.
That is all we have for today’s show. If you’ve got some thoughts on tripods we would love to hear about it. Please let us know at williambeem.com/episode31. If you like this show, that’s great. Go ahead and subscribe. We’d love to have you listen to the rest of them as well and get the new ones as they come out.
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