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What tripod
by J. Ramón Palacios (jrp)

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Do I really need one?
» What to look for
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What should I look for in a tripod? - How to choose one

Is sturdiness a must? A good tripod should not vibrate when shaken. That vibration will show up in your images as blur. Good tripods are made of good caliber aluminum or well made and uniform carbon fiber tubing, capable of taking a few bumps without distorting, but most importantly, able to hold your load and not vibrate with the camera operation or some wind.

Magnesium fiber and basalt, allow for less expensive units than well made carbon fiber tripods, but what you save in cost you may pay in weight for equivalent load capacity and sturdiness. Sturdiness is the variable that should never be compromised if you really care for tack sharpness, more so if dealing with big magnification (macro) or with long lenses (wildlife, landscape).

Optimizing tripod selection by photographer's height?
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What tripod height should I choose?
(Height with legs extended)
The ideal is said to be one with a platform at least as high as your eye level with the legs open at their smallest setting angle. The idea behind this recommendation is not only that you would be comfortable composing and shooting at eye level, but that
in the wilderness it is too often that one or two legs of the tripod will rest at a level lower than where you are standing, so the tripod feels like it has shrunk. If you often find yourself over uneven terrain, it is better to have a little extra leg length than not.

If you are most of the time shooting over flat terrain then the extra height over eye level is not indispensable and you can always simply bend a little if necessary.

Deduct at least 5 inches (13 cm) from your own height (usually the minimum distance from the top of the head to the center of your own eyes) to get your eye level height figure. 

In addition to the above, a typical tripod head will add at least another 4 inches (10 cm) to the height of the tripod support and the camera body another 3 to 5 inches (8 to 13 cm) from its bottom plate to the viewfinder, depending on whether it has a power pack or not and if on horizontal or vertical position. If you are compromising for compactness for hiking, you should take this added tallness into consideration.

Should I insist on eye level height?
Well, it is not indispensable to have the viewfinder at exactly the height of your eyes. Even if you have a bad back, ask yourself these questions and then decide:

a) How long do you look through the viewfinder in a shooting day?
b) How often do you check the camera settings on the LCD on top of the camera body instead of through the viewfinder?

  Clcik for enlargement of other Height to consider

An important note: If your tripod has a center column never use it! Period. If you do, you have then successfully converted your tripod into a monopod on top of a tripod.

How many leg sections tripod should I buy? The most convenient to pack tripods are typically the more compact 4-section legged tripods. Stability is somewhat affected in aluminum tripods, but not anymore in modern carbon fiber ones -from a reputable brand like Gitzo. If you travel by air often it would be good if your tripod fits inside your suitcase.

3 leg sections versus 4
   

What about legs spread? Look for tripod legs with independent and multiple angle positioning. These work best in uneven terrain and will also let you go low when photographing objects close to the ground -like macro on flowers or insects- with added stability.

And center column positions? Some enthusiasts like tripods with a reversible center column. In theory a close up photo can be taken this way or a very low angle shot achieved.  I must tell you I've been unable to position myself in between the legs of the tripod to make this feature useful, but although not that many, some enthusiasts somehow seem most happy.

   

Others swear by the capability to place the center column horizontally -which makes a Manfrotto tripod to be designated "PRO" and the Gitzo versions "Explorer." But unless with a small camera and lens, I find it difficult to balance. Maybe I should carry a net to place some stones on the extreme opposite to where the camera is fixed. In any event this feature is not essential for me and most of the times you will induce some instability by changing the center of gravity. For macro shots I rather use a Nikon PG-2 focusing stage or the Kirk LRP-1 Macro Long Rail Plate or any other long sliding plate, then open the tripod legs as wide as needed to get low and close.

  More...»
see also
Nikonians Tripods, Heads & Camera Support Forum