Considerations for Building and Using a Tripod

I recently wrote about the really nice tripod that I put together, but I didn't talk much about how I arrived at the mix of components I got, nor about how I'll use them.

What to Buy?

Deciding on components is a balance among a lot of things, including:

  • Size (how easy is it to schlep, pack in luggage, etc.)
  • Size (is it tall enough that you can use it comfortably?)
  • Size (can you get low enough to the ground with it?)
  • Price (isn't it always?)
  • Ease of Use (how easy is it to adjust the tripod's height, where the camera points, camera orientation, etc.?)
  • Support (how much equipment can it support, in what orientations?)

Those are just the most very basic issues (there are plenty more), but one thing these points have in common is that, generally speaking, the more you optimize for them, the less stable (more shaky) the tripod becomes. And lest we forget, stability is the whole point of using a tripod in the first place, which is why it's so difficult to put together a good one without compromising.

Other items in the decision-making mix include:

  • Education (do you really know all your options and what you're buying?)
  • Availability (some components are great, but always seem to be out of stock)
  • Expandability / Compatibility (tying yourself to a closed system?)
  • Needs (Simple photos, fast-moving sports/wildlife, panoramas, stereograms, with or without flash?....)
  • Future proofing (Will it handle the largest lens you have now, or the largest lens you'll likely to have in the next five or ten years?)
  • Price (It's worth mentioning twice)

I'm no expert on tripods, so I'm sure that there are plenty more things that I should be listing.

Most or all of these sets of points come into play with each component. For example, I opted for a tall set of legs (Gitzo 3540XLS) because I'm sort of tall myself, but in doing so I gave up the ability to pack it in all but my largest suitcase (and even at that, I have to disassemble it to get it in there). Also, its size makes it trouble enough to carry around without having the added hassle of it being really heavy, so I had to spend more to get a lower-weight (yet still stable) material.

How to Use?

Anyway, once you have the stuff, there are still questions about how to use it....

  • If you have a center column, does using it reduce stability enough to matter?
  • How important is it to use a remote shutter release?
  • How important is using mirror lock up?
  • Should you use your lens' image stabilization?
  • Should you hang weight from the tripod to add stability?
  • How much stability do you lose by extending all the tripod leg sections?

I don't know how to answer these questions myself, but I want to. My next post, Tripod Stability Tests, Part I, looks into the tests I've done to try to find out.

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