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How to Choose a Tripod for Your DSLR

There are tons of options out there when it comes to tripods. Too many options, I say. The product lines are cluttered and confusing. It's so cluttered that even I have a hard time narrowing down tripods when someone asks me for a recommendation. I tried my best in my post "Recommended Tripods (Part 1: Aluminum)" and there will be a part 2 and probably part 3, but I think it'll be more effective if I give my advice on how to choose a tripod based on what features and options to look for  rather than try to narrow down very specific models. So let's look at some of the most important criteria when shopping for a tripod:

Gitzo tripodMaterial:

Tripods can be made of different material. The two most common are carbon fiber and aluminum. Carbon fiber is lighter weight and much more expensive than aluminum. Don't bother with basalt or wood tripods.

Weight: 

If you're planning on doing backpacking or international travel where weight is definitely a concern, go with a lightweight carbon fiber. If you'll be shooting within a couple miles of a car or tour bus, weight isn't as big of a concern and aluminum will probably be fine. And keep in mind that if your tripod is ultra lightweight, that can equate to less stability. Make sure it has a hook on it that allows you to hang some weight off the bottom for more stability.

Maximum Load Capacity:

This is how much weight the tripod can carry. Unless you're using those huge 15+ pound lenses you see on the sidelines of sporting events, don't worry too much about this specification. Most tripods over $100 can handle your typical DSLR just fine. Make sure the maximum load capacity is at least 7 lbs or so.

Maximum Height:

Check out the specifications for the maximum height of the tripod. Two heights will usually be listed - the maximum height without the center column extended and the height with the center column extended. Disregard the maximum height of the tripod with the center column extended. You shouldn't extend the center column of the tripod unless absolutely necessary because it greatly reduces stability. If weight and folded size aren't a huge issue, try to find a tripod with a maximum height (without the center column extended) not much shorter than 8" below your eye level. It's a drag being hunched over a 3-foot tall tripod all sunset long. But if you're doing a lot of travel and you need something that folds up small, you'll probably need to sacrifice maximum height a bit. Although the bad back from being hunched over a short tripod may about match the bad back from carrying a taller, heavier tripod.

Manfrotto TripodMinimum Height:

If you plan on shooting low to the ground for macro work, get a tripod that can shoot from a few inches off the ground.

Tripod Head:

I could (and probably will) write an entire blog post on tripod heads. For now I'll keep it simple. You have 2 basic options: ball heads and pan/tilt heads. Ball heads consist of a ball in a socket which has full range of motion with the flick of a single knob. Pan/tilt heads have 3 separate knobs for each motion - panning, tilting, and leveling. Pan/tilt heads are slower than ball heads because you have to loosen 3 knobs for a full range of motion versus one on a ball head. But the nice thing about pan/tilt heads is that you can level the camera or pan it side to side or tilt it forward without messing up any of the other adjustments. It makes leveling a horizon much easier. I personally prefer ball heads because of their speed and I think most people prefer them unless they have some specific reason to use a pan/tilt head. But whatever the case, you can either buy a tripod that includes the head and legs, or you can buy the head separate from the legs. And if you like your tripod legs but you grow tired of the head down the road, don't worry. You can switch out the head and legs on any decent tripod. You can mix and match brands, too. Oh, and don't get a fluid head. Those are for video.

Leg Locks:

The tripod leg locks are what secure the telescoping sections on each leg. There are 3 different types of leg locks - butterfly knob locks, flip locks, and rotating grip locks. The butterfly knob locks, like on this tripod, are slow and annoying. Don't bother if the tripod has these locks. But the good news is that manufacturers know they are a hassle, so very few tripods have them. Flip locks are ultra fast and are the most common on tripods. As the name implies, they consist of a little flip lever that with one flick of the hand unlocks the telescoping legs. Here's an example of a tripod with flip leg locks. Almost as common as flip leg locks are rotating grip locks. They consist of a rubber-gripped collar around the tripod leg that rotates to loosen the telescoping legs, like on this tripod. They are not quite as fast as flip locks but they are close. Rotating grip locks are nice, though, because there is no flip lock to snag on anything and there are no steel parts in the lock itself. Flip locks have bolts and screws that rust (especially bad at the beach). Rotating grip locks are just anodized aluminum and rubber. That's why high-end tripods like Gitzo tripods use rotating grip locks. Less moving parts and less metal means less breakdown. I prefer rotating leg locks for extreme environments, but I like flip locks for the speed.

Folded Length:

The folded length of the tripod is especially important for air travel. Will you need to pack it in a small suitcase? Do you want to try to fit it into a backpack? If you want something ultra compact, check out the line of travel tripods from companies like Gitzo and Feisol. Their legs usually fold up in the opposite direction to save a few inches on the folded length. Kind of cool.

Brands:

There are so many brands out there now. I haven't used all of them, so I can't comment on the quality of each. But you can get good quality from almost every manufacturer now. Very trustworthy brands are Manfrotto and Gitzo. Gitzo makes the best and most expensive tripods on the market. They are overkill for most people. I had a bad experience with Giottos once, but I saw a tripod from them recently and the quality seemed to be better. Feisol (I think) has good stuff. Slik tripods are great, especially for the money, but they aren't quite as rust-resistant as Manfrotto. Stay away from Sunpak or anything sold at Best Buy.

Price:

Price is easy. Just buy within your budget and realize that you get what you pay for. Tripods run from $30 to well over $1000. The more expensive ones will usually last longer, stand up to rough conditions better, and they should certainly be more stable. If you have GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), you have money to burn, and/or you absolutely must have the very best tripod available because your photos and your $3000 camera are only worthy of the very best 3 sticks on the market, then go for the thousand-dollar tripods. But be smart and buy something that makes sense for how serious you plan on getting with photography. A tripod in the neighborhood of $400-$500 would be a very sufficient tripod for even the most serious shooters. Most would be more than happy with something around $300-$400. More expensive tripods usually just make setting up a shot slightly less of a hassle and/or they allow higher vantage points. Gitzo tripods are some of the best on the market, but I would bet that for at least 75% of the people who have them, it's just a form of peacocking (showing off). So buy within your budget. Simple as that.

DIY: Tripod Snow/Sand Shoes

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

I shoot at the beach quite often, so my tripod sees a lot of sand. The sand and salt water ain't no big deal because I always clean my tripod after a trip to the coast, but one thing that drives me nuts is when my tripod sinks in the sand as the tide washes in and out around it. Whenever the waves swirl around those legs, the thing just starts sinking like Indiana Jones in quicksand. And since I use long shutter speeds quite often when shooting seascapes, this phenomenon has forced me to stick to rocky areas or timing my shots to finish before the water reaches me.

So I had the brilliant idea (after years of putting up with this problem) to steal the brilliant idea of other photographers and utilize some "snow shoes" to prevent the sinkage. I haven't had a chance to try them out yet, but the concept is solid - give the tripod legs a wider foot, and hopefully the water will be able to swirl around them all sunset long without the quicksand effect. To be honest, I'm skeptical and my hopes aren't high, but we'll see.

Being the DIY kind of guy I am, I thought I'd make my own. With $30 or so worth of materials, you can make your own, too. But if you're smart, you'll just buy these ready-made ones by Manfrotto. And wouldn't you know it, they're about $30. My home made ones may not be cheaper, but at least they're uglier. Wait...aw, man. But mine do secure higher up on the legs, so maybe they're more secure. But probably not...

Anyway, here's what you'll need

  • 3x adjustable flag pole brackets - like these
  • 1x package of furniture sliders - like these
  • 1x washing machine & dishwasher hose 1.75"x7/8"x2' (not like what you think, see the pictures below)
  • 12x machine screws 3/4" long with nuts
  • Sharpie
  • Awl

Step 1: Remove the foam padding from the furniture sliders

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

Step 2: Set the flag pole bracket on the upside-down furniture slider and mark the screw hole openings with a Sharpie

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

Step 3: Poke holes through each Sharpie marking with an awl

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

Step 4: Attach the flag pole bracket to the furniture slider with screws and nuts

Step 5: Cut a piece of the rubber hose to slide into the flag pole bracket - make it just long enough to stick out about 1/2"

This little length of rubber hose protects your tripod legs, fills the gap in the flag bracket for a tight fit, and gives something for the tightening screw to brace against. Make sure the rubber hose can fit over your tripod legs before buying it. If your tripod legs are thicker than mine, you may not need it at all.

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

Step 6: Repeat 2 more times

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

So there you go. Now you have 3 adjustable tripod all-terrain shoes. Use the screw on the side of the flag pole bracket to tighten the shoe to the tripod. And don't worry about scuffing up your tripod because the rubber tube inside provides more than enough protection.

Enjoy your ugly, DIY, may-or-may-not-be-as-good-as-the-real-thing tripod shoes!

Nikon is Backwards

Nikon is Backwards

If you know me, you know that I really don't care about the Nikon vs. Canon debate. As I've said before, that rivalry is about as useful as the "my dad can beat up your dad" argument. The bottom line is that both manufacturers make fantastic cameras, both have their strengths and, most importantly, it's the photographer, not the camera. A great photographer can get great shots with either system.

BUT...

There is something I want to point out about these 2 systems that no one ever seems to address. It's something so simple and so basic that while everyone is arguing about megapixels, color reproduction and ISO performance, this point just never comes up.

The point I speak of is that Nikon is backwards. That's right! I said it! Nikon is backwards! Despite my Switzerland-like neutrality between the two systems, I can confidently say that Nikon is backwards. And I can prove it.

Let's look at 4 undeniable, undebatable, and - dare I say - astonishing bits of evidence that prove Nikon is backwards. Allow me to remove the shroud from over your eyes...

 

Exhibit A
The light meter/exposure compensation scale

When you look at the exposure compensation scale or the light meter scale (both use the same exact scale) of a Canon camera, you see something like this:

Canon Exposure Compensation Scale

Positive on the right, negative on the left. Makes sense. That's how we were taught in school and that's how pretty much every other meter on the planet is designed - positive to the right, negative to the left. That's how society is set up - to have higher numbers to the right and lower numbers to the left.

When you look at a ruler, the higher numbers are to the right, the lower numbers are to the left. And if a ruler had negative values on it, they would be on the left side of zero. Same deal for a radio dial, a speedometer, and book pages.

But now picture a ruler where zero is off to the right and then as you move left, the numbers progress up 1, 2, 3... Or picture your speedometer with 0 mph on the right and as you accelerate, the dial sweeps to the left. Doesn't feel right, does it?

Well, here's your Nikon scale:

Nikon Exposure Compensation Scale

It's backwards. Plain and simple. It just doesn't jive with how we think of numbers. We think of positive numbers on the right, negative on the left. Nikon decided to throw caution to the wind and flip the positive and negative. I don't know why, but they did.

So, there you go. Nikon's exposure compensation and light meter scale is backwards.

Strike one, Nikon.

 

Exhibit B
The lens mount

What's the old rule for fastening a screw, nut, bottle cap, or jar lid? "Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey." You rotate to the right (clockwise) to secure something tighter, you rotate left (counter-clockwise) to loosen it.

So now instead of a bottle cap or screw, let's attach your lens to your camera. With your Canon lens, you line up the dots and rotate right (clockwise) until the lens clicks into place. Fasten it on just like a jar lid.

Okay, let's do the same thing with your Nikon. Take your lens and line up the white marks, now rotate clockwi-NOT SO FAST, AMIGO!

You're going to have to throw out everything you've ever learned about fastening things to other things because on a Nikon, you rotate the lens counter-clockwise to attach it to your camera. So instead of righty-tighty, lefty-loosey, you'll have to remember "righty-removy-the-lensy, lefty-attachy-the-lensy." Doesn't have quite the same ring to it, though.

So, there you have it. Nikon's lens mount is backwards.

Strike two, Nikon.

 

Exhibit C
The rear lens cap

As a result of the lens mount being backwards for a Nikon, the rear lens cap also fastens on backwards. Rotate right to loosen it and remove it, rotate left to attach and tighten.

But just like the lens attaching the camera in a seemingly backwards way, I'm sure this clockwise to loosen and counter-clockwise to tighten thing only seems backwards to us. Surely only us Americans with our crazy imperial measuring system are on this page. I'm sure this "backwards" tightening/loosing business makes complete sense to the rest of the world.

What's that? It doesn't? It's backwards everywhere?

Damn. Strike three, Nikon.

 

Exhibit D
The zoom ring

Let's look at the zoom ring for a Canon lens:

Canon zoom ring

Ah, yes. Lower focal length numbers on the left, higher focal length numbers on the right - just like inches on a ruler and mph on a speedometer.

Now here's Nikon's zoom ring:

Nikon zoom ring

Hmm...okay. Lower focal length numbers on the right, higher focal length numbers on the left. Backwards from every other scale we're familiar with in the rest of our lives...alright. Makes sense, I guess, when everything else on the camera is already backwards. I mean, if I have to think backwards when attaching the lens and using the light meter, why stop there? Better to go 100% backwards than only partially. Right?

Strike 4, Nikon. You were out one strike ago.

 

Closing Statement

I have no idea why these things are backwards on a Nikon. My guess is that they just had to be different than Canon. Too bad being different makes everything backwards in this case.

So, in summary, this backwards business is the main reason I recommend Canon over Nikon. Now some of you gear heads out there may be thinking "that's ridiculous to recommend Canon over Nikon based solely on these trivial matters. Nikon is clearly better in image quality/ISO performance/auto-focus/blah, blah, blah."

Well let me respond to this imaginary devil's advocate with 2 statements:

First, these "trivial" matters actually play a huge role in the usability of the camera. If you're constantly fighting decades of training on what's considered forwards or backwards, then you're fighting an unnecessary battle. A camera's controls should get out of your way. They should be so easy and intuitive to use that you never have to think about using them - you just use them.

And secondly, Nikon doesn't have better image quality, ISO performance, auto-focus or blah, blah, blah. Canon doesn't either. Sure, you can compare MTF charts and side-by-side sample images. You can do an in-depth analysis of noise performance and color reproduction. But most of that stuff has no practical application in photography. Plus, Nikon and Canon are always out-doing each other. Canon may be the top today, but Nikon will be back on top on a few months. It's a never-ending seesaw of who has the latest technology, best image quality, and better auto-focus system.

So don't worry about Nikon vs Canon. Concentrate on learning how to use your equipment to the very fullest. Concentrate on becoming a better photographer, not a better gear reviewer.

But all that being said...let the angry letters begin!