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TRIPODS - A NECESSARY EVIL
Vandit Kalia
August 2006

Visit the accessories section of any photography forum, and you’ll see that one of the most common question comes from photographers seeking help in finding a tripod that is light and sturdy enough to hold their gear, and yet cheap.

I find it amazing that people try to economize when it comes to tripods – which are probably one of the most important items when it comes to maximizing sharpness. Indeed, a lot of people think nothing of spending thousands of dollars more for that fixed-aperture f2.8 L or ED glass, and then stick it on a wobbly $50 Blue Light special tripod. The mentality is to get the cheapest ‘pod they can get away with it.

But I can also understand and relate to this way of thinking – like virtually all photographers who have been shooting for a while, I too have gone through this cycle: I first bought a cheap $30 tripod with a build-in pan and tilt head, and the rather optimistic leg braces. This P.O.S. fell apart after a week, which was probably a good thing as it was incapable of supporting a whim, let alone a camera and lens. So then I did my Internet research and, upon asking for recommendations, got a bunch of suggestions for Gitzo and a few for Manfrotto.

The B&H website produced the first shock – at the time, the thought of spending $400 on a tripod seemed ridiculous. So I did what most people in that position do, and bought myself the highly-recommended Manfrotto 055 (Bogen 3021). At last I began to realize the benefits of a sturdy tripod. A whole new world of low-light and night photography opened up to me and I actually started carrying the tripod around with me.

At that point, a not-entirely-unforeseen problem reared its head. The tripod, though sturdy, was heavy. My surgically fixed knees were in hell while hiking in the Himalayas with a full backpack and this tripod on my back. I was still looking for “light, sturdy AND cheap”, but at some point, I realized that I wasn’t the first to need something like this. Virtually every photographer (especially an outdoor shooter) has at some point or the other tried to find a tripod which meets all three of these characteristics, but with no success – because it doesn’t really exist. You can get any two of those three characteristics, and that’s about it. So decide what is important to you.

My knees were getting worse after every hike, to the point of taking months to become pain-free. With photo sales starting to increase, there was no way I could leave a tripod behind. So I bit the bullet and got a Gitzo 1228 Mk2. After the pain of dealing with the credit card bill was taken care of, I realized how much I enjoyed having and using a lighter tripod. Not only was it easier to transport, it was also easier to use in the field – moving it from location to location was a lot less of a hassle, which meant I experimented more with shots, angles and lenses. And it provided the same stability as the Manfrotto – able to support a camera, vertical grip and lenses as big as the 100-400, even in breezy conditions.

I was finally convinced about the value of a good tripod. When I got my first supertele, a 500/4 IS, I didn’t mess around and straight-away got myself a Gitzo 1548 CF jobbie. It was such a natural purchase that I was actually nonplussed when a friend expressed amazement at spending so much money for a tripod – by now, the value of a good tripod had become such an ingrained part of my psyche that I forgot that a vast majority of photographers are still looking for something “sturdy and light, and yet cheap.”

That got me thinking – why? I have come to the conclusion that for most people, a tripod is a decidedly low-tech piece of equipment. It is, in essence, a glorified rock or wall for resting your camera. Then take into account the fact that few people actually like using a tripod (I sure as hell don’t – I appreciate a light yet sturdy tripod, but it is still an infernal pain in the rear to carry, setup and adjust). Given this hate-hate relationship, no wonder people want to pay as little as possible for this.

To make it worse, a top-end tripod costs the same as high-quality lenses: other than my telephotos, all my other lenses (200mm and smaller) are cheaper than my most expensive tripod – and all these lenses are leading optics in their class. Is it any wonder that first-time tripod buyers react in disbelief and completely ignore the suggestions for a Gitzo or similar carbon fiber tripod?

All this is rather long-winded way of getting a simple point across – viz, if you are buying a tripod, get it right the first time.

A Manfrotto 055 is certainly a very good tripod. I have had one for the longest time, and when I damaged my old unit in Zimbabwe, I got another one, which I still own. It is sturdy and can support all except my super-teles. However, it is heavy. And that means that I am less inclined to carry it around, so it doesn’t get used as often as it should. If you have more discipline and stronger will-power than me, and the weight doesn’t bother you, by all means get it.

However, keep in mind that even if the weight didn’t bother you initially, odds are good that at some point in the future it will – especially if you travel and have to deal with airline weight restrictions. And at that point, a mid-end Gitzo or similar carbon fiber unit is going to start looking mighty attractive. Consider it this way – the tripod will last you 10 or 20 years, at the very least. Spending $300 extra over that period means $15-20 extra per year. That’s 2 rolls of Velvia (remember it?) a year. Is that a good price to pay for having all the benefits of a usable tripod?

It may be tempting to just opt for a cheaper tripod, thinking that you can make do with it. But do realize that lots of other people have gone through the same thought process – and eventually ended up with high-quality tripods. Withthe exception of Galen Rowell, whose style of photograhpy dictated handheld shooting, I cannot think of any leading nature or outdoor photographer who uses a $30 (or even a $100) tripod.

Of course, not everyone needs a $700 tripod. Depending on what your current and future gear configuration is, you might be ok with a less expensive tripod. Also, given your shooting style, you may not need "sturdy and light", but can get by with "cheap and light."

Regardless, take your needs into account and, despite your mind and wallet rebeling at the idea of doling out so much cash on a tripod, get the best tripod that fits your needs, even if means spending more than what you would prefer. It is cheaper in the long run.

 
     

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