Choosing a tripod
This entry was posted on March 9, 2010 by gammafx.← Previous PostNext Post →

Choosing a tripod

Alta_Pro_TremontFor many photographers, the most important piece of gear after their camera, lens and flash (OK, and their eye) is their tripod. If you already use a tripod regularly, you probably already know why this is the case. If you don’t, you may be asking …

Why a tripod?
For starters, have you ever tried taking photos in a darkly lit room or at night with limited light? Or how about trying to shoot a precise panorama of your entire backyard?
Chances are, if you weren’t using a tripod, the results were frustrating. Tripods come in handy for all sorts of applications, but they are most often used to reduce camera shake and blurry photos when working with long shutter speeds (typically in low light), or for macro (or close-up) photography or with a remote shutter release to take photos away from the camera, such as a self portrait.

Like most specialized equipment, you get what you pay for with a tripod, and it’s always good to keep in mind how often you plan to use your equipment and for what purpose. Luckily for consumers, VANGUARD makes a tripod for almost any skill level and budget, ranging from affordable amateur models to the advanced enthusiast and professional. VANGUARD also offers a full range of sizes, from compact table-top units to heavy duty support for large format cameras with large zoom lenses.

Here’s a look at some of the features and figures to look for when choosing:

Heights
There are three heights to keep in mind when selecting a tripod: the maximum extended height, minimum extended height and the collapsed, or folded, height. The maximum extended height is the tallest the tripod can reach with each leg and the center column all fully extended. The minimum extended height tells you how tall the tripod will stand with just the legs fully extended. This measurement is important to keep in mind, because when a tripod is fully extended, it is less stable. For most photographers, a tripod with a minimum extended height at or above eye level would be most ideal.
The collapsed height is the tripod’s length at its most compact, when everything is folded up. There is a tradeoff of when it comes to extended height versus a more compact collapsed height. Photographers who do a lot of traveling or are always on the go will especially want to keep this measurement in mind, since it will factor into how easy it is to transport. Which leads us to …

Weight
The sturdiest tripod money can buy does no good if you leave it in the closet, because you won’t haul it to your shoot. VANGUARD’s full size tripods range in weight from just under 1.5 lbs. to more than 7.5 lbs. In many cases, a heavier tripod will offer greater stability, but newer, lightweight-yet-sturdy materials are making it so solid camera support doesn’t have to give you a backache.

What it’s made of
Tripods are usually made from plastic, metal (typically aluminum) or carbon fiber. Plastic is light and inexpensive, but less durable than aluminum or carbon fiber. Aluminum is the most commonly used material, because it’s durable and relatively inexpensive. The downside to aluminum is that it can add extra pounds. Carbon fiber is a newer material that is catching on fast for its durability, flexibility and light weight, all of which comes at a price. A general rule of thumb when comparing carbon fiber models to aluminum ones is that they weigh about 1/3 less and cost two-to-three times more.

Tracker-3-5Legs & Feet
Most tripod legs are divided into segments – usually between two and five -- so they can be made more compact for storing and toting. More segments results in a shorter collapsed height, but they also make the legs less stable than with fewer segments when extended.

The segments are held in place and released by lever-style flip locks or twist locks. Flip locks are typically quicker for set up and breakdown, but twist locks are thought to offer greater stability. Quarter twist locks and anti-rotating legs, which are featured on several of VANGUARD’s Alta+ and Alta Pro series tripods, allow for very rapid setup, even quicker than flip locks.

If you plan to use your tripod for more than straightforward portraits taken on level surfaces, you’ll probably benefit from adjustable legs that allow for varying positions. VANGUARD’s Espod Plus, Alta+ and Alta Pro and Tracker series tripods all feature legs that individually adjust to 25-, 50- and 80-degree angles, making it easy to compensate for uneven terrain or even sprawl out for ultra-low angle shots.

A tripod’s feet should hold your tripod, and therefore camera, steady. For indoor use, nonslip rubber feet are preferable. Outdoor photographers tend to lean toward spiked feet that will dig into the ground. The feet on VANGUARD’s Espod Plus, Alta+ and Alta Pro series tripods can convert from rubber to spiked, making them ideal for photographers shooting on varying terrains.

Center Column
When it comes to flexibility in shooting, the most important feature to consider is probaAlta-Pro-263AT-4bly the tripod’s center column. This shaft in the middle of tripod can be raised or lowered as needed either by a geared hand crank, typically found in more economical models, or a locking collar.

In addition to factoring into the tripods maximum extended height, some models, including VANGUARD’s Espod Plus and Alta+ series, feature a reversible center column, as well as an additional short column that allows users to position the camera close to the ground or even upside down. Espod Plus, Alta+ and Tracker also come with a short column for macro photography.

For virtually limitless shooting angles, VANGUARD’s Alta Pro series tripods feature an easily adjustable center column, which in addition to the standard 180-degree position can also be place at any angle in the field from 0 to 180 degrees, offering photographers more options than ever before.

Head Type
Atop the center column is where the tripod’s head is fixed. Not all tripods come with a head, because many photographers like to choose their own, but many of them do include one, and some even include a permanent head that cannot be changed. When a tripod and head are sold together, it’s called a tripod kit. For general use, the most popular tripod heads are pan heads – two-way for video and three-way for photography -- and ball heads for photography. In a future post, we’ll take a close look at ball heads. If your tripod is accompanied by a head, you may also want to take note of whether or not it includes a quick release system, which makes switching cameras only a moment’s work.

Load Capacity
Load capacity refers to the maximum weight you can safely support with your tripod or head. If your camera and lens exceed the tripod and head’s load capacity, you run the risk of breaking or collapsing the tripod and possibly damaging your camera in the process. If you are shooting with extra large lenses, it’s also important to remember to keep the equipment within the outer most leg diameter to prevent the tripod from tipping.

Other Features
While paying attention to these features and parameters, you may also want to take note of other unique, user-friendly features that are available. Detachable center column hooks for hanging extra weight, anti-shock mechanisms for reduced camera vibrations, foam grips for comfortable carrying and bubble levels for precise placement are some of the extra accommodations that come with many VANGUARD models.

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