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Which new tripod?

There’s two pieces of camera gear which consistently – (even after decades of product development) befuddle photographers. The camera bag (the perfect one simply doesn’t exist) and the tripod – which is never a fun thing to lug around. A good tripod can become necessary for landscape photography, long exposures, architectural photography and even for working in the studio. A solid set of “sticks” generally becomes a part of most photographer’s kits at some point, whether they’re using small mirrorless cameras or larger systems from Nikon, Canon, and bigger systems from Hasselblad, etc. With the camera in a fixed, stable position – the photographer extends his or her creative possibilities and avoids the pitfalls of high-ISO settings, motion blur, and is saved from holding the camera in a tiring position. Having recently made a tripod purchase of my own, I thought I would share my experience.

Viewfinder students shooting architectural subjects during our Zurich Low-Light & Night Photography course.

Bear these important facts in mind: Most photographers “under-buy” on their first tripod purchase. Granted, many photographers end up owning more than one, so if yours is looking a little shaky under the weight of that new dSLR, then you may still be able to use it with a lightweight mirror-less camera, etc. Most tripod companies are over-confident with their weight ratings and it helps to get your hands on the thing to judge whether it’s really capable of it’s rating or not. Thirdly, each company lists it’s maximum height, which is important. If you’re setting up for some long exposures – you won’t want to use your tripod’s center column to achieve maximum height. Many “big-league” tripods don’t even have center columns because the tripod’s stabilty is so dramatically compromised when the camera is being supported by one vertical beam. Save your back (and your image) by getting a set of tripod legs which brings the camera to eye-level without extending the center column.

Now it’s time to define your priorities. From the following three characteristics choose the two characteristics which are most important to you (sorry, you can’t have it all):

Choose two:  affordable, stable, light weight.

A tripod which is high enough to look through without crouching makes for more comfortable landscape shooting.

The center column should only be used as a last resort. A fully extended center column dramatically reduces camera stability.

Starting to get the picture..? The most high-end tripods are lightweight and stable, but not cheap. There’s plenty of affortable tripods that are stable – but they weigh a ton. I’ve seen loads of cheap, lighweight tripods, but I wouldn’t hang my hat on them.

With that said, I was happy to discover that it wasn’t necessary to spend over a thousand francs or dollars to get a set of high-end carbon fiber tripod legs. Until recently, it was difficult to find a solid set of legs that wasn’t made by either Manfrotto or Gitzo, the two (formerly) dominant brands in the industry. The competition has heated up in recent years with good offers from less known brands such as Sirui, Benro, Oben, Induro, and Giottos (to name a few).

 

 A short center column allows closeup work and very low camera angles as demonstrated here by Rod on an Advanced Study field trip in Switzerland's Engadin Valley.

I was able to quickly narrow my own search based on the following criteria:

  • The tripod must be lightweight and compact (ie. easy to travel with).
  • Must be sturdy enough to support my heaviest combination of camera+lens+flash, perhaps up to 5-8 kilograms (in the worst case scenario).
  • Must be well built and easy to handle – even with gloves on (bonus points for not pinching me).
  • Must be able to position the camera at eye-level without using the center column and be capable of lowering all the way to the ground for closeup work and low camera angles.

Being able to invert the center column helps to achive more creative angles.

Viewfinder instructor Susanne Venditti using an inverted center column to achieve a low point-of-view during an Advanced Study field trip.

I can’t claim to have reviewed every option on the market, but I came upon the Sirui 3204-M and it checked all the boxes listed above, plus offered some additional advantages. The Sirui M-3204 comes with a six-year warranty (longer than any other tripod priced under Fr. 1000), comes with a high-quality carry-case and tripod-carrying strap (this wasn’t included in any other offer I found), comes with an accessory short column for working close to the ground, and get this – one leg unscrews to form a monopod – super cool! Did I mention padded legs for carrying, retractable spiked feet for added stability on rugged surfaces like ice, dirt, or frosty grass? All that, plus a load capacity of 18 KG (or 40 lbs.). Wowsa!

Best of all, it comes in at under Fr. 500. You may be thinking that even Fr. 500.- sounds quite expensive, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Consider though, that when shooting with long exposure times your image quality is reliant on these factors (in order of importance): Sturdy camera support, high quality lens, camera with a mirror lock-up feature and cable release, and a capable image sensor.

If this tripod seems overkill (in terms of price or size) then consider the smaller model: N-2204, and/or an aluminum version which will both save you a few pesos.