Choosing a Tripod for Travel / Nature Photography
In today's camera market, you will find an endless supply of gear, some useful, some not so, some quality, and some not. This variety makes it harder to find exactly what you need, especially when you are not sure of exactly which features you need and which you can do without. A tripod is an essential part of an arsenal carried by any Travel and Nature photographer. You already know that for sharpest images you need to use a tripod. What you are wondering no doubt is why there is such a significant price range among the different manufacturers of tripods, and whether or not it makes sense for you to make a significant investment in a tripod.
Basic Function of a Tripod
First, let's quickly examine what a tripod will do for us. First and foremost, it supports our camera, attached lens, and some of the other gear, like a flash unit, etc. It helps us position our camera at an odd angle at times. It helps us get higher than our typical shooting stance, and get lower at times for macro work. The most appropriate tripod for you will depend on your shooting style, and choice of subject matter. There is not one tripod out there that is better with every subject matter; on the contrary, most tripods are specialists. Most are build to be versatile, but each is build to excel in a certain area of photography.
So, what areas should your tripod excel to be useful for outdoors shooting?
If you are planning to shoot nature, there are certain aspects of the outdoors which your tripod will have to endure, which it would not, if it was used indoors.
Moisture is an enemy of photography gear. If you plan to shoot landscapes in the wilderness, wild animals, birds, etc., your camera and you will end up in some wet environments. As such, you have to make sure that your tripod choice reflects this fact. Many manufacturers build tripods specifically meant for the outdoors, and they are built to be moisture resistant, if not proof.
Terrain is always a concern outdoors. A good tripod should have spiked feet, simply because you will often end up on loose soil, dirt, and other surfaces that will be uneven, and require sharp spikes to secure the tripod, and attached gear.
Load is a very important aspect to consider. How heavy is your camera and your heaviest lens? Are you planning on getting larger heavier lenses in the future? Are you planning to try a medium or a large format camera? While it is tough to predict, always try to plan ahead. Your choice of a tripod will reflect your future purchases. Always, make sure you tripod has at least 30% of capacity for future upgrades to your equipment. If you plan to shoot wild life, you will have some really heavy lenses, and a tripod will have to support them, and allow you to pan smoothly, when shooting animals in action.
Weight is probably the main determining factor in your purchase. Remember, when you travel and explore, you will have your tripod with you, and depending upon how much walking you do, weight of your tripod will be more or less important to you. However, always aim for highest ratio of weight to load. In other words, look for lightest tripod rated for highest weight. Outdoors are often rough environments and every pound counts. Think about this a lot.
Leveling is important especially for panoramic shooters. If you plan to capture panoramas of nature, your tripod base must be leveling. Look for a tripod with a large easy to use bubble level (spirit level). A level base is a “MUST” for good panoramas.
Flexibility of shooting positions is important when you change subject matter on the fly. If you are like me, you will shoot macro, landscapes, panoramas, and perhaps even some animals, depending on time of day and weather. If so, a flexible center column is a must feature. Look for a tripod which allows for multiple positions of the center column. My favorite tripods allow for the column to be vertical, horizontal , and everything in-between. A tripod should allow you to get low, and have more than one foot angle. Best tripods for this job will offer up to three different angles for the feet, which will allow you to get very low if need be, to shoot flowers, insects, etc.
How Much Money?
Choosing a tripod is not easy. Some manufacturers do make things easier and group them into specialties, like outdoors, studio use, etc. Do as much research as you can, because there is not one ideal model that suits everyone. Remember the old saying: “You get what you pay for”. This is very important when deciding how much you are willing pay. Keep in mind, a huge budget will not mean you get the best tripod, but it will mean that you have more choices. Do not look for a cheap tripod, which you think may suffice. Your shooting requirements will change, and within a year or two you will be shopping for another one. Strongly consider Carbon Fiber. CF tripods are lighter than any alloy, more durable, will not bend, and flex under the weight of your gear, and do not rust, corrode, or are adversely affected by moisture. They are more expensive, but without a doubt worth the extra money. Look at this purchase as a long-term investment in photography. After all, your images will only be as good as your shooting ability and your gear.
About the Author
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Which tripod to get the Bogen Manfrotto 3011 (B)N or 3021 (B)N?
I want to be able to use the legs separately at different angles but the 3011 (B)N doesn't do that.. Does that really matter? Should I spend the extra $50 (3021) so that the legs can spread out at different angles plus the minimum height of 3'' ?
I do like the fact that the 3011 and 3021 support 13.2 lbs. I have a Nikon D70 with kit lens and sb600 flash and maybe I'll buy another lens soon but some thoughts would be greatly appreciated on the tripod factor...
3021 minimum height 3.1 inches
It's a personal call. For me, the extra flexibility and build quality wouldn't be worth the additional $40. This might be a leading brand, but they're both budget tripods. As for your two concers:
You can adjust the angle of the camera by varying the angle of the 3 legs, the extension of the 3 legs, or by tilting the head. So long as the tripod continues to offer stability, who cares?
As for the minimum height, why not flip the central column up side down and lower the camera all the way to the ground? You CAN reverse the central column, you know. Why limit yourself to 3 inches off the ground plus the height of the head (sold separately)?
I personally don't have much use for a tripod, so I went with a Slik Sprint Pro. This nicely met MY criteria:
* Reaches eye level, fully extended
* Fits in an Eastpak backpack, fully folded
* Holds the weight of a D200 + 70-200mm (just barely)
* Good build quality for its weight.
* Cheap. Just 80 bucks. And that's WITH the retractable spikes and a ballhead.
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