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The trusty tripod, Part 1 (05/06/2007)
By Tom Hirsch

Tripods are the backbone of photography. A tripod will provide for maximum camera stability, and make it easier to get greater precision in composition. Every advanced photographer has a tripod as standard equipment, and the rest of us should have one for those situations that could result in fuzzy photos.

I know, you're thinking to yourself, "When would I ever use a tripod?" (seeing it here in print might have prompted that question in your mind). A tripod is a desirable, if not an essential, item in such areas of photography as night or available light, sports, scenery or nature, close-up, copy, portrait, with slow shutter speeds, or while using a telephoto lens of 200mm or greater. When you wish to use your camera's self-timer, you'll want a tripod for holding the camera.

When selecting a tripod, the most important factor to consider is stability. Look for a tripod with no more than three extensions on each leg. Any more than that could result in flimsiness which can result in camera movement. This can be as bad as having no tripod at all.

Elevation height is another factor. Sixty inches is good for most of us, but if the photographer is quite tall, this height might be uncomfortable.

A tripod should also be light enough to be easily carried. There are some pretty steady tripods in the two to three pound range that are small by tripod standards, but a five to seven pound tripod will provide better steadiness. The problem with these heavier tripods is that you're less apt to carry one with you.

Leg locking devices are of two basic types - the collar lock that you twist, and the lever that you flip. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The important factors to consider are ease of use, speed in setting up, freedom from slippage, and durability. When testing the locking system, try the locks while holding the tripod off the ground at several angles, then make tests with the legs on the ground. Locks should be easy to operate under all conditions.

Centerpost height adjustment devices are also of two basic types - sliding and geared. The siding systems are faster when extending the column more than a few inches; gears are faster and more precise over short distances, but geared systems add a little more weight to the tripod.

When you find a tripod that you think you'd like, give it this stability test. Extend the tripod legs and centerpost to their maximum extension, then put your hand on the top and push down with moderate pressure. The tripod might wiggle a little, but there should be no slippage in the legs or column, and the legs shouldn't bend as you press down on the top.

Ask the store person to let you attach a fairly heavy camera to the tripod so you can test the horizontal and vertical tilts. They should be easy to operate, and shouldn't drift when tightened down. By the way, while attaching the camera to the tripod, keep the camera strap around your neck in case the camera slips from your hands. In fact, it's a good idea to use the strap any time you handle a camera.

At the time you are attaching the camera to the tripod, pay attention to the set-screw that locks the camera to the platform. It should be easy to get at and to turn.

A tripod can be a once-in-a-lifetime investment, so choose one wisely, but more importantly, use it. 


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