By Jim Foster
I love photographing flying and running subjects with a handheld camera. This involves panning, fast shooting, a fast focus and, oh yes, some luck. The flying owl image was taken in this manner. But in reality, this type of shooting should be the exception and not the rule.
The number one photo accessory, after the camera and lens, is a tripod.
It’s always better to use a tripod. If you look closely at one of your handheld images – maybe view in “actual pixels” in Photoshop – you may see where your image is not as sharp as you like. This can be the case in spite of using a very fast shutter speed.
Tripods can be a pain to lug around. I have had my share of problems with these three-legged monsters, too. On a trip to the rim of Paria Canyon in Arizona, our group was caught in a storm. Hurrying to get to lower elevation I lost an expensive tripod when it fell off the back rack of a four-wheeler and was subsequently ran over by two vehicles tailing the four-wheeler.
An experience like mine could cause a photographer to rethink the necessity of a tripod. However, if you take photos in the wild, a tripod can come in handy.
Now, before we progress much further, many photo experts will tell you that you “must” have a ball head for your tripod. A ball head is a ball and socket joint that allows rotation about a single point in all directions. Their name for the other kind is a video head.
Well folks, I have never shot a second worth of video in my life, but I find the video head quite useful. For shooting out of a hide, I prefer the video head. I use a ball head from time to time, too, as each tripod head has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, adjusting a long lens on a ball head that isn’t tightened properly will cause your expensive lens to crash down, even tipping over the tripod as it falls.
When working with a micro lens where very small movements matter, the ball head is what you will find on my tripod. Moving a fraction of an inch is not a problem when dealing with something as small as a flower or a butterfly. This would be the preference of most photographers and their equipment budgets. I carry two or more tripods and both types of heads.
The tripod proves its usefulness when trying to capture multiple flashes of lightning or other fleeting weather conditions. Or when using a slow shutter speed to photograph subjects. As you become more accustomed to using a tripod, you will discover other situations where a tripod saves the day—or at least makes it easier to get a sharp image.
Selecting the proper tripod can be frustrating. How will the tripod will be used and how much weight can it safely carry? Choosing a flimsy lightweight tripod for your 2.8 500 mm lens is a disaster just waiting to happen.
If you want the “good stuff” that will support professional lenses, expect higher costs. This is not the place for a $29.95 Walmart special made of plastic.
Choose a tripod you can use standing up as well as from a hide or a sitting position. My choice for a solid working tripod is a Vanguard ELITE 4 CF.
I also use a lightweight aluminum alloy Vanguard Alta Pro 263AT tripod. This tripod is a must-have—its multiple angle control column makes getting hard-to-reach angles a breeze. I use the Vanguard SBH-50 ball head with this tripod. With adjustment, this tripod can get close to the ground, making macro photography of a honey bee easier.
All of the better tripods use mounting plates. The plates attach to the camera and quickly slide into slots on the tripod, locking the camera in place. Some are called quick links.
Unfortunately, most of the different models of tripods have different sizes and shapes of mounting plates. If you are shooting with multiple cameras and lenses, this will create a problem or at least slow your work down considerably.
Buy several extra mounting plates when you settle on the tripod you want. This will save you from the hassle of changing plates when you change cameras or lenses. It’s a small price to pay for making a smooth switch from one camera to another.
Tripods are as important to a photographer as any accessory in his or her bag. You will never regret the expenditure if you take your time and select a product that will meet or exceed your expectations.
Jim Foster is a full-time writer, photographer and lecturer specializing in writing about and photographing nature, the outdoors, travel and adventure travel. Foster makes his home in Salmon, Idaho. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.