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Recommended Tripods (Part 1: Aluminum)

As a landscape photographer, I love tripods. My tripod is my right-hand-man. Aside from carrying the weight of the camera and stabilizing it for tack-sharp images, a tripod allows me to get real careful with my composition. A hair this way to remove that branch, a nudge down to get the horizon in the right place...a tripod makes it possible.

There are tons of tripods to choose from out there. Even compared to camera bags, I think the world of tripods has more brands, options and variations than anything else in photography. It can be a lot to sift through, so I thought I'd help you out by recommending a few tripods.

I'm only recommending 3 tripods in this post - one around $100, another around $150 and another at $250. I'm sure there are many other great tripods out there at these price points, but the ones I'm recommending here are brands I've used and trust. And it seems there's a big price jump after $250. Once you get above that, you are pretty much buying the tripod legs and head separately, and things can get pricey that way (my tripod, for instance, cost about $1500). All of the tripods here feature a quick release system for rapid connection and removal of your camera, flip-lever locks for quick extension, multi-angle leg positions for uneven terrain, and a rapid center column for easy height adjustments. Also, these tripods are made of aluminum. I'm going to have to devote another post entirely to carbon fiber tripod recommendations, but those put you into a different price range altogether.

Around $100
Slik Pro 340DX Tripod with 3-Way Pan/Tilt Head (buy - $100)

Tripods under $100 are pretty much useless. They are about as stable as a soggy cardboard box. Those Sunpak ones they sell at Best Buy for $30...don't bother. You're better off handholding the camera than using one of those. But if you're willing to fork over $100 for a tripod, this Slik Pro 340DX is a great choice. The maximum height without the center column extended is 45.7" and with the center column extended, it's 57.9". It's pretty lightweight at 3.5 lbs and folds to a mere 19.3", which makes it easy to travel with. It won't handle weight loads over 8.8 lbs, but it's unlikely the average user would hit that limit anyway. This tripod has a 3-way pan/tilt head, which means you have separate knobs to control tilt, roll and panning. This makes them slower to adjust than a ballhead, but at this price point, that's what you get. Overall, this tripod is a really great value for the money.

Around $150
Manfrotto 293 Tripod with 494RC2 Ball Head (buy - $160)

Manfrotto is a very reputable brand that's been around for a long time and makes some of the best tripods on the market. You can't go wrong with them. This Manfrotto 293 tripod with a 494RC2 Ball Head provides a lot of bang for your buck. At 3.97 lbs, it's not as lightweight as the Slik covered previously, but the extra 5" in height make up for it. That's an extra 5" in height without the center column extended (50.6" in all). With the center column extended, it's only a fraction of an inch taller. But what really matters is the maximum height without the center column extended, because the more you extend that center column, the shakier things get. This tripod also folds down small to 20.7" and can handle a load of 8.8 lbs. But the biggest factor that sets this tripod apart from the Slik and makes the extra $60 entirely worth it is that this tripod features a ballhead instead of a pan/tilt head. This means you have a single knob to unlock and lock the tripod head. No more fiddling with 3 separate knobs to position your camera. Just flip the lever, position your camera, and lock it down.

Around $250
Manfrotto 055XB Tripod with 498RC2 Midi Ball Head (buy - $243)

This Manfrotto has many of the same benefits as the previous Manfrotto discussed including a ballhead, but this one is just a beefier, taller version. It's maximum height without the center column extended is 54.1" (70.3" with the column extended) and it can handle a load of 15.4 lbs. It's quite a bit heavier at 6.34 lbs and quite a bit longer when folded down at 28.92". But a nice feature on this tripod is its minimum height of 2.8". That means you can shoot from just a few inches above ground level if your heart desires. The previous Manfrotto and Slik tripods could only get down to 15" and 18" respectively. I wouldn't say that's a major selling point, though, unless you do a lot of macro work, because how often will you actually need to get that low to the ground? But I'd go with this tripod if you want the extra height and the extra stability of a higher maximum load. Just make sure you're willing to carry around 6.34 lbs of aluminum, otherwise you'll never end up using it.

What Lens Should I Buy Next?

Canon's Insanely Extensive Lineup of Lenses

Here's a common question I get in my inbox: "What lens should I buy next?"

It's something we've probably all wondered at some point in our photographic lives (myself included), so I thought I'd write up a short article here detailing my answer. But before I go into my thoughts on this query, I can't help but point out the peculiarity of it.

This question puts the cart before the horse. It asks what lens to buy next before asking "do I need to buy a new lens?" There's an assumption that you must need some new, different lens...of some sort...probably. It's almost making the statement that there is always another lens to buy. But remember that these are lenses, not shoes. They are advanced, complex, expensive instruments that will last you a long time. They are more of an investment than a purchase. So, before you ask what lens you should buy next, ask yourself if you need to buy another lens.

But how do you know if you need to buy another lens? After all, you haven't tried each one...

Well, my answer to the question in question (read that again, it makes sense) is the same answer I give everybody: "Your shooting will reveal to you what new equipment you need." What I mean by that is that as you shoot, you will quickly find out what lens you need based on what barriers you hit with your current equipment.

For instance:

  • If you find yourself always wishing you could zoom in closer because you can't get close enough to the action, then you need a longer zoom (read my recommendations here).
  • If you find yourself always moving backwards trying to pull in more of the scene, then you should consider a wide-angle lens (read my recommendations here).
  • If you find yourself always wishing you could focus on subjects closer to the lens, then you need a macro.
  • If you find yourself always wishing you could get blurrier backgrounds, then you need a lens with a wider maximum aperture...but that's assuming you already know how to use the aperture like the back of your hand and that you truly are getting the most out of your current lens.

So really, only look at buying new equipment if you're unable to achieve the pictures you want with the lenses you currently have. But let me qualify that statement in a big, BIG way: you have to be certain that you aren't able to achieve the pictures you want because of the lenses, and not because of your shoddy technique or lack of knowledge. Because if you're not fully trained in your current equipment and you don't know shutter speed, aperture and ISO like the back of your hand, then how can you be sure that you just aren't getting the full use out of your current equipment? You have to completely rule out user error, user incompetence, and user-desire-to-just-buy-a-new-toy-because-it's-fun-and-I-hope-that-will-make-my-pictures-look-how-I-want.

This is why amateur photographers get GAS - that's "Gear Acquisition Syndrome." I had a bad case of it for years. But new gear won't make your pictures better. Better technique will.

Just as an example, I've had a lot of people say to me that the kit lens that came with their camera is poor quality and their pictures are soft as a result - and they are certain of this fact. In all my 1500+ hours of teaching and helping students troubleshoot photos that are blurry, lack clarity and appear "soft", the lens has never been the issue. Never. Not once. It's been camera shake, too slow of a shutter speed, poor aperture selection, poor tripod technique, poor light, dirty filters and/or dirty lenses. But it's never been the lens quality.

Now I'm not going to say that certain lenses won't result in better pictures, but in order for a lens to result in better pictures, you must know how to use it to its fullest potential. Just like a 16-year-old brand new driver won't drive any better in a $200,000 Ferrari than in a $2000 Tercel, an amateur photographer won't get any better pictures with a $2500 lens than a $150 lens.

So don't be a 16-year-old in a Ferrari and don't get GAS. Buy equipment when you truly need it, not because you want it.

Red Skimmer Dragonfly

As is the norm here in Orange County for May and June, we've had pretty ugly sunsets. The ol' "May Gray" and "June Gloom" marine layer has been suffocating the coast nearly every evening. And with the inland hills dried up from the heat, there just isn't much landscape photography to be had within the county borders. I'd love to travel somewhere to get a taste of new scenery, but my private lessons have been booming and duty calls.

Nevertheless, I still managed to get out and take some shots. But instead of a sweeping vista, I focused my 100mm macro lens on a red skimmer dragonfly that's been hanging out in the backyard.

Red Skimmer Dragonfly

The trick with dragonflies is to not bother trying to sneak up on them - they know you're coming and they will fly off. The way to get close is to first figure out where they like to land. I've found that dragonflies (at least these red skimmer dragonflies) will usually return to the same perch over and over after doing some laps in the air. So once you've figured out where your dragonfly likes to land, get up close to the perch while it takes a lap flying around. They don't seem to mind returning to that same perch with you right next to it, so long as you don't make any quick motions. Apparently they respond to motion more than your proximity.

Then, once your dragonfly returns to its perch and you're nice and close, slowly bring your camera up to your eye and start snapping. It'll pose for you like a supermodel so long as you don't move too quickly. And keep that shutter speed fast if you're going to be handholding your camera.

Red Skimmer Dragonfly

Red Skimmer Dragonfly