A Short Course Book
Curtin's Guide to Digital Cameras
And Other Photographic Equipment

Tripods and Monopods

 
Tripods come in a variety of sizes and weights. Courtesy of Gitzo.
 
 
Legs on some tripods can be set at a variety of angles. Courtesy of Gitzo.
 
 
The spiked feet on a tripod. Courtesy of Adorama.
 
 
TA short center column lets you spread the legs to get the camera very close to the ground. Courtesy of Gitzo.
 
 
If you want to shoot down on items without having to shoot between the tripod's legs you need a center column that swings out so you can cantilever the camera out to the side. Gitzo's Explorer line of tripods has this feature.
 
 
TA short center column lets you spread the legs to get the camera very close to the ground. Courtesy of Gitzo.
 
 
The Benbo Mini Trekker is a lightweight compact tripod ideal for photographing flowers and other low-level nature subjects, or indoors as a tabletop tripod.
 
 
Cullman makes some tripods where you can unscrew one of the legs and join it to the center column to make a monopod or reverse it to shoot straight down. These tripods also fold into a small, flat shape that's easy to pack.
 
 
Cullman makes some tripods where you can unscrew one of the legs and join it to the center column to make a monopod or reverse it to shoot straight down. These tripods also fold into a small, flat shape that's easy to pack.
 
 
Gitzo makes an assortment of monopods. Some models have a removable ball head, telescopic height adjustment, a contoured rubber hand grip, a steel spiked foot and an all weather shoe.
 
 
A heavy duty padded carrying strap for a tripod from Manfrotto.
When you take a photo, there is almost always some camera or subject movement that blurs the image. Even under the best of circumstances, this happens ever so slightly and will show up in large prints, if not in small ones. To reduce blur caused by camera movement, especially when photographing in dim light, using a long lens, photographing close up, or when planning to make large prints, you have to support the camera so it moves as little as possible. In some cases, a porch railing or tree branch helps. In other cases, you need a tripod or monopod.

One thing to be aware of is that the familiar aluminum or magnesium tripod is now accompanied by carbon fiber models that are both lighter and more expensive. These tripods are up to 30% lighter than equivalent metal versions yet have the same strength, stability and durability. The tubes are made of long carbon fibers impregnated with epoxy resin under high pressure and temperature. The additional cost of carbon fiber is justifiable if you carry the tripod long distances or photograph in extremely cold temperatures where carbon fiber won't feel as cold.

Most professionals use tripods from Gitzo or Bogen/Manfrotto but there are also other quality manufactures, most with lower prices. There are hundreds of tripod models and even more accessories so even a fairly large camera store stocks only a limited selection of what's available. Smaller stores tend to stock inexpensive tripods because that's what most consumers want. For quality tripods you almost always have to find a large store in a metropolitan area or shop over the Internet at a site such as B & H. The dilemma is that a tripod is something you really need to play with to evaluate. Buying on-line based solely on a photo and description may not be wise.

Tripods

When choosing a tripod, there are 3 heights that you should consider; the maximum and minimum working heights, and the collapsed height or carrying length. Normally the maximum height does not include extending the center column because doing so is really for fine tuning or desperate times because it's thought that raising it too high can introduce vibrations. All other things being equal, the only reason to get a shorter tripod is because it's lighter and smaller. However, it's easiest to work with a tripod that's tall enough to put the camera at eye level so you don't have to bend over.

Tripod legs are tubes with a number of telescopic sections that can be extended or collapsed after unlocking them. The mechanisms used to lock leg sections in place seem endless and ever changing. Bogen/Manfrotto tripods use flip locks and Gitzo uses threaded collars. The problem with the Gitzo approach is that you have to lock and unlock sections in the right order. You can't unlock or lock lower sections unless those above them are locked first. With Bogen/Manfrotto locks, you can lock and unlock sections in any order but the locks can require quite a bit of finger strength to open. On some tripods, the legs can only be set at a limited number or range of angles. On others they can be positioned and locked at almost any angle. This is especially useful when shooting on uneven surfaces as you might be in the woods. Instead of changing leg lengths to level the camera, you can change the angle of one or more legs. Some even have a way to lock the legs in any position.

The number of sections in each leg is another consideration. More sections make a tripod of a given height shorter when collapsed, making it easier to pack or store. However, more sections means more locks to undo and redo when raising or lowering the tripod. Also, it's a common belief that 3 sections is best because any more reduce stability because of the number of joints. This may be true when heavy view cameras or extremely long and heavy lenses are used, or when the tripod is cheaply made, but doubtful when mounting a light digital camera on a well made tripod. In normal conditions (not high winds), if the leg and center column locks are tight and the camera is tightly mounted, it's unlikely there is noticeably more vibration at the top of an extended column than at the bottom. Even if the tripod isn't quite as stable, the fact that more sections create a shorter collapsed length may be important if you hike or pack. Legs usually end in rubber feet, but on some tripods, you can turn the bottom of the legs to extrude a sharp spike for outdoor use, or add adapters with spikes, suction cups, or even big foot adapters for soft ground.
 
Most tripods have a center column ending in a platform on which you mount a tripod head. Typically you raise or lower a center column by loosening a lock of some kind and pushing the column up or down, then relocking it. A few tripods use geared center columns that you raise or lower with a crank. These add weight, and although popular with filmmakers, I'm not aware of anyone who uses them in still photography.

Center columns come in all lengths. Some even have multiple telescoping sections so they are extendable. Courtesy of Gitzo.

The standard tripod has some limitations when trying to photograph wildflowers and other subjects close to the ground, or when you want to shoot from a low perspective. However, solutions have been devised, generally by repositioning the center column. On some tripods you can remove the center column and invert it to place the camera closer to the ground. Other center columns pivot or can be removed and inserted into another hole so they are cantilevered out parallel to the ground, or even pointed down. The later positions are great when shooting down, as you might be when photographing wildflowers or using a tabletop setup. A shorter center column lets you get the tripod lower to the ground. A longer one will hit the ground before you can get the camera low enough for some shots.

Many center columns are now equipped with a weight hook on which you can hang your camera bag or other weight to give additional stability to the tripod. You can even buy bags designed for this purpose that you fill with rocks or sand on the spot. Some also come with a bubble level built into the platform so you can level the head when taking panoramas or architectural shots.

Tripods come in all sizes. A handy size to have as a second tripod is a tabletop model. They fit in a coat pocket and can be set on a railing, counter, or table to get a shake free shot almost anywhere.

 
The Leica tabletop tripod has been around for decades and is a classic. It even has a separate ball head attachment.
 
Surveyors always use wooden tripods because of their stability and ability to dampen vibrations. Many large format photographers prefer them for the same reason. If nothing else these tripods are heavy. You wouldn't want to carry one far from the car. They are made by companies such as Brom, Reis, and Billingham.

Monopods

Carrying a tripod long distances can be a hassle and setting one up can be time consuming. For these reasons the monopod is a popular camera support. Like a walking stick it has only one leg but that's enough to make a big difference in camera stability. Once the camera is mounted you can compose and shoot almost as fast as you can when just hand holding the camera. In the 19th century a version of the monopod called the chainpod was popular. It's simply a length of chain attached to the camera's tripod mount. You stand on the end of the chain that lays on the ground and pull the camera to add tension on the chain that dampens small tremors as you take a photo. Not only are these light and easy to pack, you can use them where heavy foot traffic prevents you from using a more rigid monopod. (Although it doesn't seem any are commercially available you can make one by drilling a hole in a 1/4-20 thumb screw, and attaching about 8 feet of light chain).

With a monopod, you can aim the camera just by moving the camera/monopod unit. However, to switch from horizontal to vertical you need a lens with a collar or a ball head. There are lots of small ball heads to choose from and it helps if you also have a quick release system so you can quickly attach and detach the camera.

Closely related to a monopod is the hiking or trekking pole used by hikers for stability and safety, especially on steep slopes or slippery surfaces, while reducing pressure on the knees and other joints. Some of these poles are collapsible and have a tripod screw where you can mount a head for your camera. They have an ergonomic grip for hiking and some have an anti-shock design.

Accessories

Tripods and monopods almost always have a threaded screw sticking through the top platform that you use to attach a camera, head, or quick release system. Cameras, heads, and quick release systems almost always have a threaded mounts into which the tripod screw threads. The problem is cameras and tripods occasionally have different connectors; a 1/4-20 or 3/8-16 (the fraction is the diameter and the whole number is the number of threads per inch). If the threaded screw or socket is slightly smaller than a normal wooden pencil, it's 1/4" thread, and if it's slightly larger, it's 3/8".
  • A bushing can be used to reduce a 3/8-16 socket so it accepts a 1/4-20 screw.
  • Carrying a tripod can be a real pain-literally. After a while it begins to wear on the shoulder, especially when crossing rough terrain. To make the job easier, you might consider a strap, tripod case, or padded sleeves for the legs. Some camera backpacks also come with straps you can use to tie the camera to the bag. There are also heavy duty bags available if you want to check your tripod on airline flights.
  • There are many situations where you'd like the camera to be perfectly level. This is true in landscape, architectural, and panoramic photography. One way to achieve this is to use a bubble level. Some are built into tripod center column platforms but others can be attached to a monopod leg or slipped into the camera's hot she.
  • Even monopods have accessories including ball heads and supports.
 
Bogen makes a shoulder brace for use with their monopods and a support that turns a monopod into a low tripod.
 
 
Bottlecap tripods for small cameras screw into a camera's tripod socket then onto a bottle.


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