By Bob Coates
Steady support for the camera is an important part of making good images. As a professional photographer, I have worked with many support systems over the years from tiny three-legged kit tripods to big studio stands. As I made the transition to nature and wildlife photography my needs evolved towards supports that hold the camera steady yet are relatively light and portable.
I mentioned the miniscule three-legged tripod although it no longer resides in my main support quiver. This came as a bonus that camera vendors throw in to make their camera deal look better that the next guy. Those bonuses usually include an off-brand SD card, camera strap, blower and the like.
Weirdly enough, this little tripod had quite a workout in that it was small enough to fit in my Think Tank Mirrorless Mover 20 belt bag. Since I work with micro four-thirds cameras this was useful in travel where I wasn’t working. When I speak to groups I half-jokingly say, ‘this little tripod has helped me make images of cathedrals in Europe!” And it did. The tripod was placed on the floor. Being only on the floor limited its use. Since it was always in my travel bag, especially when I couldn’t fit a larger support, I learned to hold it up against poles, columns, trees and buildings. In addition, I would rest it on railings, trash cans, car hoods and tables to increase the height, Truly, this little guy is a bit of magic.
Pros – Very small. Able to tuck in a corner pocket to always be at hand. Can be used to support small cameras, phones, LED lights. Very cheap. Five piece kit for $6.99 at Walmart or Amazon.com
Cons – Not a lot of support especially as you mount larger lenses on your camera.
Side note: My little guy died from lots of use. After researching these for this article I ordered a five pack to hold some small lighting and threw one back in my bag. Just in case.
Small tripods evolve
As the needs of travel photographers changed and some camera systems were lighter different solutions started appearing. Joby Gorilla Pod comes in a variety of small sizes. I use the 3K Kit. This is a big step up from my little buddy described above. It comes with a built in small ball head and plate that supports a little over six pounds.
Articulating legs come in quite handy. This is still a small tripod and can slip into a suitcase or backpack for travel. The articulating legs can be wrapped around a small pole or tree. I used it on the forth of July to support a third camera while photographing fireworks by wrapping it around the leg of one of my tripods.
Pros – Small enough for travel. Articulating legs to wrap around poles. Inexpensive at $56-$80 depending upon source.
Cons – Only 12 inches tall
New tech Platypod
A company called Platypod has reimagined the small tripod. A wonderfully machined strong steel plate is the base for this new tech. The plate has a built-in ball-head bolt. You need to supply a ball-head but this makes it customizable to support your camera/lens weight. There are supplied leveler bolts and a slot to accommodate a Velcro strap for attaching to railings, poles and the like.
I have the original Platypod Ultra and it works great for the micro four-thirds systems and lightweight DSLR’s systems with small to medium lenses. They also manufacture a Platypod Max, which is made for larger cameras including heavy DSLR’s and medium format cameras. I take this when I want to hike while traveling light but need strong camera support. This can also be configured with gooseneck support of small LED lights, such as Litra or Lume Cube lights, for adding continuous light when photographing flowers or other small subjects to give it that extra pop.
A Platypod costs $59 -$99 depending upon your camera system and can be ordered with ball head for about $130.
Pros – Inexpensive with great quality, very small profile, strong, versatile, has additional machined ports to support goosenecks
Cons – Can take a little while to set up leveling legs
Middle ground travel tripod
When hiking and/or traveling a solid tripod is the MeFOTO line of tripods. They come in a number of sizes and either aluminum or carbon fiber. All configurations come with a strong ball-head.
I first bought the Mefoto Backpacker model as I wanted to stay small for travel. It folds to 13.2 inches and supports up to 13 pounds while weighing only 2 and a half pounds. After using it for a while I found that it just wasn’t quite tall enough for me at 51 inches. I sold it and upsized to the Roadtrip model that extends to almost 62 inches. It folds to 15.4 inches and supports up to 17 pounds. Weighs in at 3.6 pounds. Specs for both of these tripods are the aluminum models. Slightly different numbers apply for carbon fiber and titanium models.
MeFOTO tripods come with a convenient sling bag for carrying out on the trail. As a side note I take the ball-head from this tripod and use it on the Platypod.
Pros – Relatively inexpensive, folds to small size for travel, strong ball head included
Cons – Can be just a little short
Carbon fiber tall-boy
Years ago I got a heck of a deal on a new Cullmann 525C carbon fiber tripod at a tradeshow in Las Vegas. The vendor did not want to carry this back with him so I was able to score it for $300. Looks like the Cullmann tripods are no longer manufactured but I saw some online through E-Bay.
I added a Sirui Ball-head to complete the setup. I use the K – 20X model. You might want one a little heavier duty if you are shooting full frame and not micro 4/3rds.
I really like this tripod when I’m not going too far into the landscape. At just over five pounds it’s relatively light and can be carried comfortably on a shoulder. It had built in padded top legs. If you get or have a tripod without pads I highly recommend installing your own. You can use pipe insulation available at hardware stores. Slice down the side and add some gaffers tape and you add comfort and padded protection for shoulder and alsoprotect your hands from the cold.
Unless you buy used or on EBay, you can’t get these particular legs . Many manufacturers make tall carbon fibers tripods that are quite strong and lightweight.
Pros – Tall legs with additional center column extension,
Cons – more expensive and harder to travel with due to larger folded size
High-end beauty tripod
If you are really serious about your wildlife and landscape photography you will want to look into my favorite tripod. The FotoPro Eagle 6L. I was sent one of these tripods to test and I love it.
The machine work and detailing on this tripod are wonderful. You can tell the quality as soon as you put your hands on it and work the controls. I’m going to highlight some of my favorite features below.
- Quick release plates and Button lock. I have never seen this safety feature before. When un-mounting the camera or vertical quick release plates you need to undo the tension and then push the button in order for the track to open up enough to release your plates. I didn’t like this until it saved my camera from a fall when I thought the quick release plate was secure and it wasn’t.
- The quick release plates are oversize .
- The tripod head works as a gimbal for smoothly tracking moving wildlife. A dampening knob allows movement but can be tight enough to hold the camera in place when you let the camera go. The head works for panoramic capture as well with click stops. The long quick release plates allow you to move the light entry point AKA the nodal point of the lens over the pivot point of the tripod for easier stitching in post-production.
- A quick-level ball head with built in bubble level makes for quick leveling of the camera without the need to adjust the legs
- Carbon fiber legs are light but quite strong and stiff. In addition, they are waterproof and sand/dirt proof.
Pros – See many comments above. Excellent machining, folds to small size with carrying case.
Cons – You get what you pay for, but this is a solid value. No center column for small height adjustments.
Last but not least
A tool you might not think of in an article about tripods is a camera strap. For the longest time I was fighting with my strap once the camera was mounted on a tripod. It increased windage and vibration even when wrapped tightly. It often came unraveled during on windy days. I now use Peak Design straps, but other brands also have quick-release straps..
Peak Design has set up a quick release strap system using plastic snaps. When the camera is mounted on the tripod the strap goes into my pocket or the camera bag.
There are many options for getting your camera steady, both in types of supports and quality brands. If you take your image making seriously don’t buy an inexpensive, unsteady tripod. It will lead to frustration and missed images. As you can see there are inexpensive steady options, but they can’t do all things. Invest in the best you can afford and happy shooting.
Bob Coates has always leaned in the artistic direction from an early age. His current work is a culmination of exploration, research and experimentation through the years. A twenty-plus year professional photographer he has been sharing his knowledge in creativity utilizing the medium and hopefully transcending the medium.
Borrowing techniques from many art genres starting with photography and adding watercolor, oil painting and acrylic looks. Bob combines bits and pieces of these genres into artistic representations that he terms PhotoSynthesis and Lens Based Art. According to Coates, “All of my source material comes through a camera lens but then all bets are off! I’ve been working on blending images and techniques for the last five to six years building upon my photographic experience. As a bonus I’ve been exploring artist brushwork that behaves the same in the digital realm as it does in life. Look for new work to come!”