When your buying a camera kit it’s all too easy to focus all your attention on the camera itself and forget about all the other bits and pieces that you need to make your camera kit work at it’s best. One of the most important parts of any decent camera kit is the tripod. You can have the best camera in the world, but if your tripod is wobbly then your pictures won’t look good.
However while wobbly pictures are clearly not desirable you also need to consider how practical your tripod is. there is no point in having a substantial, rock solid tripod if it is so heavy and bulky that you don’t use it.
A good tripod is a long term investment. Cameras come and go in a few short years, but a good tripod will last a decade or more if well looked after. I only recently retired a Vinten 5 tripod that I purchased used in 1991. That tripod was still silky smooth even after 14 years of abuse. It may be that you find you need more than one tripod. For example, when I’m travelling on low budget or self funded projects then the weight of the tripod becomes critical, so I use a lightweight system (Vinten 5AS or Miller Solo). However when I’m filming drama or commercials then the camera can end up loaded with lots of extra accessories and a much more substantial tripod is essential (Vinten 100). Then there are the air-shows and aviation related shoots that I do where stability with very long telephoto shots is paramount. Again a very large tripod is needed. For the airshows we tend to hire in the tripods as these are only needed for a couple of weeks a year (O’Connor 2575).
So how do you select the right tripod for you? First of all I would strongly urge you to stick with the main brands: Cartoni, Libec, Manfrotto, Miller, O’Connor, Sachtler, Vinten all make decent tripods. You can get some bargain Chinese made tripods and these can be reasonably good, but don’t expect them to last, think of them as short term “disposable” tripods. Libec and Manfrotto make good ranges of lower cost tripods that are well made and last well, but for me these are just a little bit too budget and don’t have the feel of the more substantial (and more expensive) brands. There are also blatant rip-off copies of some of the reputable brands. My experience of these is that initially they can be very good, performing much like the real thing. But they don’t last, bits break and they wear out due to the use of inferior materials. Again, if your not fussed about the long term, perhaps these are worth a shot, but as I said at the beginning a good tripod can and should last many many years.
It’s all about the payload.
The first thing you should establish is the all up weight of your camera system. You need to include any accessories that you might add to the camera like microphones, lights, monitors, recorders or high capacity batteries. When your calculating the weight you need to support, for anything mounted more than 5″ or 12cm from the base of the camera (for example a monitor on the top of the camera) I would double the weight of that item to allow for the fact that objects a long way from the tripod head raises the centre of gravity of the system and thus requires a bigger tripod or greater damping effort.
For example if you have a 3kg camera with a top mounted 1kg monitor that uses an attached 0.5kg battery I would calculate a load of 3Kg + (1.5kg x2) = 6kg. Do not under estimate the extra load on your tripod that accessories add. Here’s an example:
Sony FS700 (2kg), Battery (0.5kg), Lens (1kg), Lens adapter (0.3kg), 15mm rails and mount (1.2kg), Matte Box (0.8kg), Top mounted Atomos Samurai with batts (1kg x2 to account for high position). This comes in at 7.8kg.
Once you have your weight then I would add a 20% contingency to allow for changes to your rig, for example a heavier lens or bigger batteries. In this case that brings me to a rounded up figure of 9.4kg max with 7.8kg min.
This is the payload my tripod needs to support. So when choosing a tripod it would have to support this as range. At the same time you don’t want to go too heavy on your tripod. If the tripod is designed for loads significantly higher than your payload you may find that you can’t balance it correctly or that there is too much damping for fast pans. Given a payload minimum of 7.8kg and possible 9.4kg you will probably want to look at tripods with a payload range around 6kg – 12kg or thereabouts.
Counterbalance. It is essential that the tripod head you choose has a counterbalance range that fits with the range calculated above. The counterbalance systems stops the tendency of the tripod head to want to tilt up or down when your shooting with the camera pointing up or down. Not only is this important in respect of getting smooth camera tilts but also from a safety point of view as it will help prevent the camera form unexpectedly tilting on it’s own and potentially unbalancing the tripod which can lead to your expensive camera kit crashing to the ground.
Damping and friction. There are several different methods used to damp the movement of a tripod head. Some use friction clutches with “sticky” grease, some use special fluids, valves and pistons. Provided you stay with a reputable brand these all work well. Best if you can try before you buy. Friction clutches and sticky grease may not be quite as silky smooth as a true fluid head but they tend to be cheaper, maintenance free and robust. True fluid heads can develop leaks over time if not serviced adequately, but offer the smoothest action. If you work in environmental extremes check that the greases or fluids will work at the temperatures your likely to encounter. A lot of the greases and fluids used in tripods become very stiff at low temperatures and can freeze solid in arctic conditions.
Play and Slack. Check for play and slack in the head. There should be none. Also check for twist and flex in the head itself. I’ve come across some tripod heads where if you push and pull the pan bar with a high damping setting the actual head assembly can warp and twist slightly.
Pan Bar. This is what you will use to control your tripod. It should have a good adjustment range for angle and lock into place when adjusted with a rosette type mount. Make sure it is good and secure as does not bend when working against a large amount of friction or damping. Extending pan bars are the worst for this, they can sometimes flex at the joint where the extension piece goes.
Legs and Spreaders. Most tripods use some kind of spreader to control the splay of the tripod legs. There is often the choice of a ground spreader or mid-level spreader. For lightweight and medium weight tripods I would almost always choose a mid level spreader. The big advantage of a mid level spreader is that they work just as well on rough or uneven ground (stairs and steps too) as on the flat. For heavy duty applications ground spreaders are the norm. Carbon fibre legs tend to be lighter than aluminium, but if abused the carbon fibre can crack or de-laminate. Getting shards of carbon in your hand from a damaged tripod leg is unpleasant I can assure you. Aluminium legs, while heavier are often more robust. Check for twist in the tripod legs. Lock the pan lock on the head and use the pan bar to twist the tripod. A small amount of flex may be normal in a lightweight tripod but there should be no obvious easy twisting of the tripod, especially with medium and heavyweight legs. Any twist or flex makes starting and ending pans smoothly difficult.
Leg Locks. Make sure these are good and secure. Test them if you can, lock the legs and make sure that the legs don’t flex around the joint or collapse when you put a bit of weight on the tripod. Lets face it, someone at sometime will lean on your tripod for support! Also look for locks that won’t get tangled up in wires or cables. Quick release locks are easier to use than multi-turn locks. Also check to see if the locks can be adjusted by the end user. Over time they will wear and there may come a time when you need to adjust them to keep them tight. Look to see where the locks are. Locks located high on the legs are much easier to operate than locks at ground level or low down on the legs.
Feet. Some tripods have rubber feet, some spikes. Whichever you choose make sure they are stable. Rubber feet are best for solid floors, you don’t want to use steel spikes on someones luxury wood floor! But if your outside on loose ground spikes are best. If the tripod has removable feet make sure you can get them on and off without having to resort to special tools.
Looking after it. Keep your tipod clean, this helps stop dirt and grit building up around any of the seals that protect the damping mechanism. Wipe it down with a damp cloth if you have been using it in a dirty or dusty environment. When your transporting a tripod, particularly if it’s being shipped, remove the pan bars. I’ve seen several tripods ruined by the pan bar mounts getting broken off in transit through impacts on the ends of the pan bars. Also for transportation unlock the head locks. If the tripod isn’t going to be used for a while turn the damping to zero to prevent the grease from being squeezed out from between the friction plates and reduce the counterbalance setting to relieve the pressure on the spring. In use, avoid tilting or panning when the pan or tilt locks are set, this can damage the head and will eventually wear out the locks. With a little bit of care a decent tripod should last for at least 10 years.