When you're new to photography, whether you're using an old film camera or a modern digital SLR (a.k.a. “DSLR”), for a time, you may be content just to roam about with camera in hand. Many modern DSLR camera lenses have built-in optical image stabilization, which helps counteract the movement you may inadvertently introduce, despite trying your best to keep your movements under control while taking your photos.
For some situations, you can often get away without using a tripod and, in fact, having your camera mounted on a tripod can inhibit how creatively you use the camera to create your photographic masterpieces.
However, there are situations when a tripod is invaluable. I will cover some typical example situations, and then discuss your options when it comes to buying a tripod – whether it be a more traditional aluminium or carbon fiber tripod, or one of the alternative tripods, such as a Gorilla Pod, an Ultra Pod II, or a camera beanbag.
Why You Might Want To Buy A Tripod
For every situation where a tripod is needed, it is required in order to avoid introducing unwanted vibration into your camera, particularly during long exposure photographs, where the camera's shutter will be open for a second or more, during which time any vibration will be picked up and, most likely, be represented as blurring of your subject(s) in your final image. Landscape photography is one such sub niche that always benefits from having a good quality tripod.
Another area of photography where you will want a tripod is if you're exploring light painting – this time, not only are you going to be using longer exposure times, you're also going to need to rest your camera on a stable platform, while you either stand off to one side with a flashlight, or go into the frame, painting light into your scene. Once again, a tripod is your friend for this task.
Anytime you need to keep your camera at a specific angle – whether it be absolutely horizontal (such as for landscape photos) or vertical (such as for portrait photographs of people) or any other angle in between – a tripod is the best tool for the job. Being human, there's only so long you can hold your camera in a totally still position, before you start to fatigue… and that's when you'll wish you'd had a tripod to take the strain. Providing you have a solid tripod that can comfortably hold the weight of your DSLR camera (and possibly and external flash on top), then it will keep your equipment at the angle you want it, for as long as you need it.
It's good to have a tripod when doing product photography – many times, I will take the photos without using a tripod. However, it can quickly become a chore to hold a bulky DSLR, and that's when I'm glad I've got the option to stick the camera on the tripod, so I can just focus on arranging the products to get the best shot.
Types Of Camera Tripod
Okay, so now that you're hopefully coming around to the benefits of having a tripod, the next issue is which type of tripod to get?
Nowadays, the way I see it, there are really two types of tripod:
- Traditional Tripods
- Alternative Tripods
Tripod Type 1. Traditional Tripods
These have three legs (hence the term “tri”pod) stacked in sections that collapse down on top of one another, to keep the tripods compact when storing them or when travelling with them. When you are using these tripods, the legs can be eased out to a required length and then locked in place, for the specific height you need. Locking the legs is either done via a spin-lock system (where you rotate rings to lock the legs so your tripod won't collapse unceremoniously to the floor), while others have quick-release locks (with flaps that can be flicked open or securely closed).
One of the key decisions you'll need to make is whether to get an aluminium tripod, or one constructed from carbon fiber. Aluminium tripods will be cheaper to buy than carbon fiber versions, but the carbon fiber tripods will weigh less, making them the better option for those who like to go trekking with their camera gear and want to take a tripod along as well.
Just remember, because carbon fiber tripods are so lightweight, you're likely to need something to weigh it down, so that the wind won't introduce unwanted vibrations – good carbon fiber tripods, such as the 3LT “Brian”, which I own, have a hook underneath the central column, onto which you can sling your camera bag, for added ballast.
Tripod Type 2. Alternative Tripods
There are three different types of alternative tripod that may interest you; they have their pros and cons, compared with a traditional tripod, and I have one of each.
The first offering is the Gorilla Pod. The benefit of this style of tripod, over a more traditional tripod, is that, due to the unique construction of the legs, the Gorilla Pod is better suited to placing on all sorts of awkward and uneven surfaces – such as, rocks, grassy hillsides, etc. You can also wrap the three legs around tree branches, posts, railings and the like, to place your Gorilla Pod at all sorts of different heights… providing there are suitable objects available to do this. That's one of the advantages of a standard tripod: you'll generally have enough height variations (by expanding or contracting the legs), to set up your camera at a fairly decent height. One thing you should be aware of are the subtle variations of Gorilla Pods, as one type will only fit the mounting bracket of larger DSLR cameras. I have both a Panasonic FZ1000 (bridge camera) and a Panasonic GH4 (DSLR, but a micro four thirds camera, so smaller than larger, full frame DSLR, such as Canon's 1DX) and neither of them will fit on the original Gorilla Pod. I had to purchase a Gorilla Pod Zoom, which fit both cameras.
The next option is the Ultra Pod II. This is the smallest tripod I've ever owned. It has three solid plastic legs, which are NOT height adjustable. However, what it lacks in height, it makes up for in both portability and versatility. This thing is super lightweight, so it's great for hiking about with. But, its party-piece trick is the integrated Velcro strap, which allows you to secure the tripod to tree branches, gates, sign posts, and the like. The one slight downside is the Velcro strap isn't all that long, so you're limited to attaching it to things not much larger than the size of a thick man's wrist. However, it's so compact and lightweight, and is so brilliantly versatile, that it has a permanent place in my camera backpack; it comes with me wherever I go with my camera gear and, if I think I can get away with it, I will prefer just this one Ultra Pod II (and maybe my Gorilla Pod, which is also similarly compact, but is superior to the Ultra Pod II on uneven and awkward surfaces), than lugging about a bulkier, more traditional tripod.
The final tripod alternative is not actually a tripod, at all… it's a camera beanbag. I have a 1kg variety (though different weights and sizes are available) and it's great that you don't have to fiddle about screwing in your camera… just plonk down the beanbag, mush your camera down on top of it so that you get it level (okay, so there is still a little bit of fiddling), and then you're ready to start snapping. You can also put it on top of your car, for instance, and not have to worry about scratching the paintwork.
So, if you had to buy just ONE tripod, which would it be? I'm tempted to say the Ultra Pod II, because you don't have to fiddle about with adjusting multiple leg sections before you're ready to start photographing stuff. However, as much as I really like that lightweight tripod alternative, you can't beat the height adjustability of a traditional tripod. If you find yourself wanting to take it out and about, and if your budget can stretch to it, a quality carbon fiber tripod is probably the one to go for. However, if you have extra cash going spare, I do find it great to be able to choose between using my Gorilla Pod Zoom, Ultra Pod II, and my more traditional carbon fiber 3LT Brian tripod – if I need the height, I will use the 3LT; if I think I can get away without this larger tripod, when going out with my camera gear, I do prefer to travel light and take both the Ultra Pod II and Gorilla Pod Zoom, which give me enough options to find a suitable solution for where to place my camera to get some interesting shots.