Picking out and buying a tripod that will last a lifetime is a serious investment.
The two mistakes that are typically made by new and even professional photographers when it comes to tripods are to purchase too cheap, or too light.
We found many of our listeners are looking for strong, lightweight tripods that’ll work for outdoor use, support all the weight of their camera and accessories, and not break the bank. The question is: does this even exist?
Sort of. Professional photographer Kevin O’Connor joins the show this week to talk about the benefits of top of the line tripods, and how to get them for less than top of the line prices.
- Why tripods are such an important investment
- Ways to get more tripod for your money
- How and where to buy used tripods
- More ideas to get a great deal on a top of the line tripod
- How to evaluate a tripod’s weight rating vs. your needs
- Think ahead – what’s your heaviest lens?
- Ball head vs. gimbal head vs. geared head
- Recommendations of great tripod brands
- How to get the most out of a visit to a photography supply store
- Weight vs. Cost – you have to pay for lightweight material
- Much more!
Listen in to learn about lightweight tripod recommendations
- This episode featured questions from Aziz and Michael.
- For more on choosing the right tripod for your needs, check out Kevin’s excellent article on the subject.
- Kevin has also written extensively on how to shoot sharper images.
- Tripod brands mentioned in this episode: Really Right Stuff, Gitzo, Induro
- Love the show? Have some feedback for us? Leave us a review on iTunes
Prefer to read over listen? Want to save this conversation for reference later? We transcribe all of our shows for these reasons! Download this episode’s transcription below:
Or, to view a web version of the transcript:
In this episode we talk about tripods and recommend some affordable equipment for outdoor use.
Hey everybody and welcome to AskBC.
I’m your host Justin from Breathing Color, and today I’m going to be talking to photographer Kevin O’Connor.
Kevin is a frequent contributor to the Breathing Color Blog, and this episode is going to be an extension of a blog post of his that we published last November called “How to Buy the Right Tripod for Your Needs”
In that article, Kevin covered all sorts of things to consider when shopping for a tripod – from how high you need your tripod to go, to what kind of legs it should have.
Every month since we published that blog post, we get two or three questions from AskBC listeners that are looking for a more specific recommendation from Kevin on a tripod that will be perfect for them.
Most of these questions are from photographers looking for the same thing – an awesome, completely stable, professional tripod that’s affordable and great for outdoor use.
Does such a tripod exist in the “affordable” price range? And what’s your best bet for a lightweight, versatile tripod that’s travel-ready?
Today we’re here to find out. Stay tuned as we jump into my conversation with Kevin O’Connor.
Justin: Hey Kevin, thank you so much for joining the show today, for coming back with us.
How are you doing?
Kevin: It’s a great day. I’ve been out shooting, things are gorgeous, it’s California, so we are having an early Spring and all sorts of things are blooming and looking gorgeous.
Justin: Yeah, same here actually. We have some California weather out there, which I wish I could get out there and enjoy. Maybe after we get done recording here?
So, the topic of today’s show started with your blog post last year on tripods. And since then, we’ve gotten a lot of people asking for your personal recommendations of a specific tripod that’ll fulfill their needs, that also fits within their price range.
The trend among these listeners seem to be that they’re mostly all looking for the smae type of tripod, and that’s something lightweight and good for outdoor use.
Here’s what a listener named Aziz wrote in with, he asks,
Aziz asks, “I’m a beginner photographer who has just bought a Canon camera, and I’m looking for tripod. Can you suggest a tripod that is practical and will last a long time within my budget of $250 to $400? I see myself tending to shoot birds in the future, so I would prefer a very sturdy and lightweight tripod with an easy-to-move, smooth head.”
So, kind of a long wish list there, for a pretty moderate price I would say. I’m not super-savvy with tripods, but what are your thoughts?
Kevin: Well, golly, there’s so much there. It’s hard to know where to start.
But let’s take a stab at it, and you’ll tell me if I leave anything out that we should talk about.
The first thing that I think is really important is that Aziz is looking forward to the future, and because he knows that he wants to do a specific type of photography, and he knows that there are some special requirements for it, he’s being really smart by starting with that and saying, “Well, this is where I want to go – what should I do to invest wisely?”
That’s the good news.
Now, the not-so-good-news, is that his budget is a little modest for top-end gear for this particular type of photography.
And by that, I mean we should imagine that, at least the people I know that are serious bird photographers, start out using an 80-200mm zoom lens, or somewhere in that range.
And they quickly discover it’s not long enough.
And then, depending on their budget, they graduate to longer lenses, for example, I heard some very nice things about this new Sigma – the 150-600mm lens. And a lot of people who are birders have a lot of interest in this lens.
And the longer your lens, the more important it is that your tripod be absolutely sturdy and supported well.
And that takes some testing and some research to start.
In the article that I wrote about tripods, I talked about a formula that I recommend people use as a starting point where you get the weight of everything that you’re going to put on top of the tripod, and you add up the total weight and then compare that total to the rated weight that the tripod manufacturer says the tripod will support.
Justin: Makes sense.
Kevin: This is not an absolute perfect guideline, but it’s a starting point for discussion. In general, what you’ll find is that there are brackets in terms of what tripods are rated to support, and sometimes if you know what you’re doing, you can go a little under those weights, or a little over them rather, to get what you want and still not break the bank.
But that’s where I tell people to start, always.
If you know that you have your eyes on a long lens, then try to look at the ones that you think you might be wanting to get in the future, even if you don’t plan on buying them right now.
And check out how much those weigh, and factor that into the total load that your camera and your lens and whatever else you’re going to hang on that, need to be considered in terms of their total weight put on the tripod.
Now, when you add up all these weights of the things you want to stack on your tripod, as I outlined in the blog post you may find that the weight you want is not considered to be acceptable by the manufacturer. And then you have to make a choice, either buy a bigger tripod which is more expensive but heavier duty, and also weighs more, or you have to learn some tricks about how to keep sharpness going when you have a lighter tripod than perhaps you would like to be carrying.
So, when you do that sort of analysis, sometimes you end up buying a tripod, trying it out, and finding it doesn’t do what you want. But other times, what you can do is, do an awful lot of online research – and there’s a whole series of hits when you research “inexpensive tripods” as a Google search. And you’ll find that when you do this, people have a lot of really strong opinions about what makes a good tripod.
Whether or not this is of value…you end up doing a lot of reading, but you want to do it right the first time and not find that you’ve bought a tripod that you don’t like and you wish you hadn’t bought.
Justin: I feel like in this information age, you can literally just Google “what’s the best tripod for birding” and find a ton of articles on that specific use, if you’re so sure that’s going to be ninety percent of what you’re using it for, you know?
Kevin: Well, I think the challenge here is to find an inexpensive tripod that’s going to work for birding, and those tend to be sort of opposite purposes.
Justin: Right, few and far between.
Kevin: Exactly. So that’s why it becomes really important to master technique for maximum sharpness with your images, which is another blog post that I wrote some time ago, and there’s some good tips in there.
The first is that using a remote release whenever possible tends to add sharpness to your images.
And when you can’t use a remote release, learning how to very gently tap the shutter button instead of getting all excited and punching it like you’re hitting a slot machine is a really good idea, because you introduce shake and vibration.
The next thing that we should say is that if you’re going to be birding, some people use tripods and some people try and photograph birds solely with handheld cameras and lenses, relying on the image stabilization built into either the camera body or in the specific lens, depending on the manufacturer.
Not being an expert in birding myself to the degree I would like to be, I talked to a friend who does an awful lot of birding photography in prepration for this podcast, and one of his comments that was really revealing was that he finds one of his biggest problems in birding is that when he has his camera on a tripod, which does not like the image stabilization, in fact, most manufacturers will tell you if your camera is on a tripod you must turn image stabilization off or it’ll make your images worse instead of better.
But one of his biggest problems is when hitting a broad lens when the wind is coming against it, introducing shake because of the wind hitting the lens acting as a sail.
And so his point is that you need to always be conscious of the wind if you’re using a tripod, and stand in such a way that you block the wind from shaking both your tripod and your lens.
Justin: That’s an interesting point.
Kevin: It’s true for any kind of outdoor photography. If you’re just doing standard landscape photography, it’s really important not to let shake be introduced.
And of course, some of the things we’ve already talked about and written about include using a good tripod that’s sturdy, and setting it up on firm ground where there isn’t going to be vibration, such as from a roadway that’s right next to you.
Using a cable release or a remote release of some kind os that you’re not introducing shake with your hand. But it all starts and ends with making sure your tripod is sturdy enough, and that’s where the compromising has to come in.
Because the three factors in Aziz’s question- he wants it to be sturdy enough for birding, he wants it to be lightweight (because if it’s too heavy he isn’t going to want to carry it when he goes out to photograph birds), and he wants it to fit in his budget.
And that leads me to suggest a couple of possibilities – I would suggest that he start by figuring out where he would like to go in terms of the total weight on top of the camera.
And then he should start looking at specifications, and then he might consider purchasing either a demo unit from his local camera store if they’ve got one available, or if he’s not near a professional camera store selling good tripods, I’m a firm believer in buying things on Craigslist and eBay.
And in California, where I live, there are some photo schools and a lot of people who go to school and then sell some of their gear because they’ve decided they want something else, or they decided they can’t make a living in photography so they’re closing their studio and they’re selling their gear.
Lot’s of reason why good photo gear ends up on Craigslist or on eBay. I just did a quick search on Craigslist this morning for the state of California, using the statewide list, I just typed in “tripod,” and there’s a huge number of listings.
Now, if you’re going to buy used, you need to be able to test it. So you should show up with your camera and try it out, and that should be a condition for the sale.
You should show up with your heaviest lens on it, and if you’re uncomfortable going to meet a total stranger, it’s probably smart to take somebody else with you to help with doing the test and at the same time, they can call 911 if it turns out the person is a [unintelligible] of some kind.
Now that’s never happened to me, but you always want to be prudent.
Justin: You never know.
Kevin: So, the best possible way to do this, I think, is to figure out what you want, and then be patient and wait for it to be listed.
One of the sad things about photography right now, is a huge number of people who thought they were going to make a living with it have gone out of the business and continue to go out of the business, so there’s an awful lot of used gear available for sale. And a lot of it was bought to be very good professional gear and is available for sale at buyer sale price. It’s entirely possible you can find this absolutely perfect tripod of your dreams within your budget. That leads me to talking about the fact that when you’re buying a professional level tripod to do quality image shoots, you don’t just talk about buying the tripod, but it’s the tripod and the head that sits on top of the tripod.
We should probably take a minute to talk about those two pieces, because if either one of them is not up to the task, it doesn’t matter how good the other piece is, you’ll never get the quality that you’re looking for.
Justin: Yeah, that’s a good point. And like I said, I’m not super-savvy with tripods, but the more top of the line ones, aren’t they typically sold as separate units? You buy the head separate from the body, or whatever the proper term is?
Kevin: Yeah, let’s call it the head and legs, shall we?
Technically we have the tripod legs, and then the tripod head sits on top of it. And we want both of those to be really good quality. Now if money were no object, one of the best manufacturers of tripods and heads in the world is right in my hometown of San Luis Obispo – the company called Really Right Stuff.
When you’re the best, just like Bentley, you do not sell at discount prices. And Really Right Stuff is a serious investment, but if you buy it once, you’ll never need to buy it again. So I always encourage people to look at their website, look at their information about how to choose a tripod, there’s even a pretty interesting image of the owner of the company suspending himself upside down on a fairly light weight Really Right Stuff carbon fiber tripod to show that the weight ratings are extremely conservative.
Justin: Yeah, that’s impressive. Surely that’s in the $250-400 range, right?
Kevin: No! [laughs] Not at all. But if you were to pick one of theirs and one of their ball heads, or many birders like to use what you call a gimbal head, because it lets them track a bird more easily and more quickly, both of those would be things that you would pick out and then attempt to buy used, because that’s going to bring it closer down to your price range which you’ve mentioned in your question.
Now, one of the things i think we should probably mention in here, is that regardless of the brand that you buy, any tripod where the head and legs are one unit where you can’t swap them out, is almost certainly not going to be worth buying for the kind of serious birding photography that Aziz is talking about.
They just don’t tend to be made that way very often. It’s possible there are exceptions, but I haven’t ever seen one myself, and I’ve seen and evaluated an awful amount of tripods.
Now one of the tripods that I use myself is an Induro model, and I got it because it is carbon fiber, and thus very lightweight, and it is also fairly sturdy. And on top of that, I have a series of different heads that I put depending on the type of work that I do.
When I’m doing tabletop work, I tend to be inclined to use a geared head that lets me do very small adjustments so that I can compose the shot very precisely.
When I’m shooting something that requires action, a gimbal head tends to be a little bit easier for me to swing something around, especially a big, long lens.
If I’m looking for an all-purpose travel head, a lot of times I’ll take a ball head with me, because the ball heads tend to be best at meeting varied needs when you’re on the road or in the field, as opposed to the more specialized nature of some of the other types of heads.
Justin: Right, kind of like an all around good solution.
Kevin: So one of the other things that Aziz might look at to use, is, every now and then manufacturers will be closing one model out to make room for another. And that doesn’t’ mean the old one wasn’t any good, it just means they’ve added some new refinement they think they need to offer and not offer the old one anymore.
A lot of times, if you can catch those, and those pop up every now and then in various places online and sometimes by subscription you can catch photo deals about that sort of offering. When you do those sorts of purchases, you’re getting a new unit at a closeout price, you can really score some good deals every now and then.
But don’t be afraid of buying used at the high end of the market, because those tripods are made to be incredibly rugged. I know several people who have happily purchased used Gitzos online that were fairly old, and they have never failed to deliver exactly what the purchasers hoped they would get from them.
Gitzo of course is one of the top names, as is Really Right Stuff. Induro tends to be more affordable, but they’re still not a cheap date.
For example, the legs that I purchased to go with an existing head cost about $450. And that of course is the entire budget that Aziz has put into what he wants to do. So the best way to approach this, I think, is to set aside a special piggy bank and be prepared to buy something that you don’t have to replace because it’s dissatisfying fairly shortly.
You can get a lighter tripod and a lighter weight tripod and it may serve you for a while, but when you put that long birding lens on it, which will be a serious investment in itself, you may not want to have to buy a new tripod right after you do that.
Justin: Right, it would make more sense just to invest the money upfront for something that continues to work for you for the next ten years or whatever it might be.
Kevin: People who shop only on price as opposed to value very often they’re disappointed. Of course that’s very easy for me to say, and I understand that the reality is that budgets sometimes don’t accommodate everything we would like. If that were true, and we got what we wanted, we’d be driving Ferraris.
Justin: [laughs] So true. You don’t drive a Ferrari?
Kevin: Pity, pity. But you know, there’s not a lot of room for the camera gear in the trunk.
Justin: [laughs] That’s a good point. So it sounds like your ultimate recommendation for Aziz is maybe to give it some more time and save up a bit more money and purchase some stuff used.
Kevin: Well I think that’s one recommendation, but one of the things that I always tell people is, if they have any possibility at all of establishing a relationship with a professional camera store, I encourage them to do so. Because, although they’re a vanishing breed, these people live and breathe and love photography, and they want to help you make a really good choice.
One of the stores that I always encourage people to go and visit is called Keeble & Shuchat and it’s in Palo Alto, California. And the man who is sort of the tripod master there will ask you what your requirements are and what your budget is, and then he’ll tell you one of three things.
“You don’t need to spend that much money.” That rarely happens. “I can show you some options in your price range that will meet your needs.” Which he’s usually pretty good at. Or, “Your needs and your budget are in conflict, and I can’t do what you want, but I may have something that’s a floor model that you should look at, or I will have one that’s a floor model, and you should check this out.”
And that’s a really good relationship to cultivate. The sad thing is, that people go into these stores, pick their brains, and then go order it on Amazon for twenty dollars less.
Which is unfortunate, and also somewhat tacky. Because you just have taken advantage of people and if you don’t keep supporting people who have all this knowledge, when we need them they’re going to be closed up and gone away, because nobody was willing to spend the extra twenty dollars for the personal advice and experience.
Justin: Yep, good point.
Kevin: Very important to support these stores, and I’ve found that the serious stores are very competitive in their pricing. So while you may save a little bit, you don’t save enough to be not only slightly dishonorable in doing it this way, but also not supporting a valuable resource that the community needs to keep alive and keep going.
So that being said, a personal relationship like that is of great value, but as these stores dry up and blow away, it’s very hard to find those sometimes. And that’s when we’re back to eBay, we’re back to Craigslist, we’re back to garage sales sometimes.
Justin: Yeah, and a lot of online research.
Kevin: A lot of research. It’s surprising some of the treasures you can find in garage sales every now and then, and people who are not aware of what they have – therefore pricing for next-to-nothing.
Justin: Yeah, that’s a good point. Kind of a diamond in the rough. I’m sure that happens a lot less often.
Kevin: Well, people sometimes get in a hurry after they’re cleaning out a house to get rid of stuff, or they’re cleaning out a house after a family member died, and they’re not into photography but their dad was just really inot it, so he had all this great gear, and they don’t take the time to find the model numbers and find what the going market is, so they just mark it down so they don’t have to pack it up and bring it to Goodwill.
Justin: Right, check those garage sales.
Kevin: Well, I even know somebody that found a great tripod at Goodwill once, but I don’t recommend it as a first line of attack.
Justin: [laughs] Awesome, well any other suggestions for Aziz on this question?
Kevin: Lots of research, figure out some models that he would like, build his piggy bank, and watch for special deals, and see if he can score something that will meet his budget, or if that doesn’t work, if he doesn’t meet his budget, then I think one of the other things that he can probably do is buy something that will meet his immediate needs, preferably used with an eye towards continuing to build his bank so that when he does get his long lens for birding, that he ends up with adequate support for the long lens.
Justin: Yep, good options, I think.
Michael asks, “What kind of geared tripod head would you recommend? I am looking for something for travel (I have plenty in the studio) and prefer the lightest I can get that still gives great stability.”
So, geared head tripod, what do you think?
Kevin: Well, I use a couple different geared head tripods myself. ANd neither one of them are as light as I would wish.
Justin: What is a geared head tripod exactly? I’m not familiar with that term exactly. You mentioned before that it lets you make really fine adjustments?
Kevin: A geared head tripod has two sets of controls, and the first set lets you make a big adjustment so that you can turn the way the camera is facing on the tripod from, say, left to right.
Now, once you do that, and you get it close, there are knobs that you can turn that then let you get it perfect.
So one is a major adjustment, one is minor, fine-tuning adjustments.
Several manufacturers make these, and some of them make several models, which are going to be heavier or lighter. The earlier ones were made out of a cast iron, and they were pretty close to boat anchors.
Quite heavy. And one of the best things to come along in the photographic market, has been this emphasis on finding things that are new materials that can be used to make photographic gear that’s lighter to schlep around.
So when you see some of the pictures that Ansel Adams, in the early part of the last century, where he’s got a mule to carry all the gear that he needs to carry in order to be able to get the images he wants to create.
There’s Ansel with his mule! You look at these photos and you think, “I don’t see myself with a mule anytime soon trying to make this work.”
So what do you do next?
Well, it turns out that some of the manufacturers – Manfrotto, for example, or Dito, have heads that they have come up with that are geared heads, but they’re made out of special alloys or they’re made out of magnesium, which is a very light material.
I don’t think that I’ve seen any that are made out of carbon fiber yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if those come along very soon as we learn more and more about how to shape carbon fiber and make it work well for our needs.
Once again though, it’s important to review – the idea of this gear, in general the lighter it is, the heavier the price.
So in the article that I posted on the blog about choosing a tripod, I put in this wonderful image that shows tripods that were first made of wood, then they were made of, in some cases cast iron, then they were made of aluminum, and then they’re made of carbon fiber. And you can still buy all four kinds of those, both new and used, today.
But as you might imagine, the lighter they are in general, the bigger the price.
These heads, these geared heads that you want to give you this wonderful capability to compose to very precise, quickly and easily, while being as light as a feather in your backpack or your carry-on bag. Those are an item for which you budget, unless you have a large amount of discretionary income.
So, have I answered the question sufficiently or should I say something else about this?
Justin: yeah, I think you’ve pretty much covered it all – named some brands and stuff like that. That’s perfect!
Kevin: Yeah, they’re cool tools to use, and they – especially when you’re doing micro work, they can be very handy to be able to compose correctly.
Justin: Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever worked with one of those. I guess I’ve only worked with pretty low-budgeted tripods myself, you know, off the shelf just cheap stuff – probably a ball head.
What was the other one you said, the one that birders typically use?
Kevin: It’s called a gimbal head.
Justin: Gimbal, yeah, I’ve heard that. Just not exactly sure what it looks like or what it does.
Kevin: If you picture…a gimbal head attaches to the tripod at the same point – it’ll screw right into the center of the three legs, but generally they come over, out from that horizontally, and then drop down on a long arm, and the camera sits on the base that is attached to that long arm.
And then you can pivot it and turn it around. I’ll send you a link to a couple of good ones, so you can have a picture of it in your mind.
Justin: Yeah, that’ll be cool. Maybe we’ll throw a photo of it in this article as well, for somebody that may or may not be familiar with this.
That was actually the last question that we have today. Kevin, I appreciate you joining us for today’s episode. If people want to find out more about you, where can they get that information – do you have any social media, website, stuff like that?
Kevin: I don’t have a lot of presence right now, I’m working on rebuilding some stuff that I took down because I didn’t like. So, stay tuned, and some things will appear shortly that will show me off to better advantage.
Justin: Perfect, well, we’ll put it on the show notes page as soon as that becomes available. We’ll backlog all of these episodes that way everybody can find out more about you once that’s ready to go.
But like I said, I appreciate you joining the show, and we will catch you next time.
Kevin: Thank you very much.
That’s our show for today. Thanks for listening in, and I hope we were able to help out any photographers looking for advice on buying a tripod.
For Kevin’s more in-depth written article on tripods, just hit the Breathing Color blog at breathingcolor.com/blog and search for Tripods. The link will also be added into the show notes for this episode.
Have a question of your own for the show? Our inbox is always open. Submit a question by going to ask-bc.com and filling out the question form there.
Thanks again for listening in today, and we’ll see you next time!
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