my flickr photostream

Monday, November 1, 2010

Beware of Cheap Tripods

© 2010 Simon Hucko

One of the biggest pitfalls for new photographers is choosing a tripod. Most photographers don't even buy a tripod to start out with, but eventually we all get to a point where the idea of a tripod is appealing - self portraits, the family Christmas photo, panoramas, long exposures, HDR bracketing, macro photography, etc. You hop online and look for some tripod recommendations, but everything you come across seems pretty expensive ($200+ for a tripod?), so you head over to the local Best Buy or Ritz and fork over 40 bucks for a cheap aluminum and plastic model. It has 3 legs, a camera mount, and is nice and light and compact. What more could you need? You chuckle with self-satisfaction at the people who are shelling out big money for expensive tripods. Suckers.

Then you start using your tripod. The second or third time you set up the legs and tighten them down on the center column the plastic screw snaps. Oh well, you always set them up wide open anyway, no need for a screw. You start keeping the tripod in your car so you can grab it when you need it. A few weeks later you re-adjust your seat and hear a crunch as you chip the plastic clamps on one of the legs (you forgot the tripod was on the floor behind your seat). No biggie, just a little scarring, and you can bend the leg back into shape so that it'll slide right. A month or so after that you're out on some rocks photographing a sunset. The tripod isn't perfectly level, and a gust of wind comes along and almost topples your camera over (good thing you were there to catch it). OK, you'll just stay within arm's reach of the tripod at all times. Finally, a year later, you pull your tripod out of the car again and notice that one of the feet has broken clean off. Game over.

This is pretty much what I went through with my first tripod (pictured above). I was never really happy with it, and regretted the purchase almost immediately after I started using it. The general rule for tripods is:

Lightweight, Sturdy, Inexpensive - pick two.

Fortunately, before my POS big box special finally broke, I picked up a used tripod on Craigslist. It's an old Bogen monster with a heavy duty 3-way head on it (I don't remember the model numbers). I got it for $60 (super inexpensive) and it's rock solid, but also weighs about 15 pounds (see the rule above) and is only 2 sections so it's about 3 feet long when collapsed. Despite the amount of hiking I do, I can live with that for now - it's easy enough to throw it over a shoulder. Some day I'll get a fancy carbon fiber tripod with a nice light ball head (light and sturdy, and definitely not inexpensive), but that'll have to wait.

If you're just starting out and haven't bought a tripod yet, I suggest saving yourself the agony of the cheap tripod. Even if you don't see yourself using a tripod that often, spending $100 once on a tripod that will last for a lifetime of light use and that you don't have to worry about breaking or knocking over is a much better idea than spending $40 several times on cheap tripods that could lead to other gear damage. Notice I said "light use" - if you want something serious and sturdy, spend the same $100 on a rock solid used tripod. It may be heavy, but you can beat it up and place it down just about anywhere (on rocks, in creeks, in a tornado, whatever) without worry. If you have the money, spending a few hundred on light weight sticks and a few hundred more on a silky smooth ball head will make your life a lot easier and more enjoyable. Hey, no one ever said this stuff was cheap. Think about it as buying another lens.

Have you fallen victim to the cheap tripod? I read a story the other day about a photographer whose camera fell down a cliff because of an unsteady tripod (don't believe the "protective filter" BS, that UV filter did nothing for the lens). Share your horror stories in the comments!


[title of blog] on flickr

No comments:

Post a Comment