I just finished teaching a great class at the Lepp Institute called exploring “Light, Shadow, Twilight and Night: Using Available Light.” Obviously, we worked a lot at twilight and into the night and I was repeatedly asked, which is the best tripod?
To me, the perfect tripod must properly support my camera, be easy to use, have a good ball-head that moves in most any direction and work well in all sorts of situations. It also has to be easy to carry (and unobtrusive.) There actually is one particular tripod that I have used all over the world, which meets all of these criteria and has served me incredibly well. The funny thing is that for me, the perfect tripod is not the one that most people would expect a “professional” to be using.
If you want to see my favorite tripod in use, go to the 1:25 point in the podcast at: http://www.davidhwells.com/2008/10/22/the-importance-of-timing-when-photographing-at-twilight-podcast/
You will see that I am using a small, inexpensive tabletop tripod. To me that is the perfect tripod. In this case I am using a Bogen /Manfrotto 209 Tripod with 484 Micro ball-head, though I am not wed to that brand or model.
You are probably thinking, wouldn’t a so-called “pro” use a bigger tripod?
To me, the key factor is that a tripod is only good if you actually have it with you all the time. This tripod is so small that I always carry it with me. 90% of the time it is threaded into the base of one of the two cameras I carry, with the tripod legs closed and folded to be parallel to the lens on the camera.
We all know what happens with the bigger tripods. We intend to bring them with us but they are too bulky or too heavy to carry along all day. After a while, they end up left behind and then you are without a tripod. The lightweight carbon-fiber tripods go a long way toward reducing the weight, but they do nothing in terms of reducing the bulk.
I will be the first to admit that the set-up I use is not always ideal, especially if you cannot find something to rest it upon. But I have had great luck finding places to place the tripod, including bridge railings, tree trunks, walls, mailboxes, etc. In fact, the first thing I do when I see a picture that calls for a tripod is to look around for something to rest the small tripod upon or jam it into and 95% of the time I can find something. I continually surprise myself with the new ways I find to squeeze the tripod into holes in fences or wedge it between tree branches or balance it on mailboxes, etc. I have also become very good at pressing it firmly against vertical walls, using any kind of edge or lip in the wall, to stop the tripod from sliding down.
A couple caveats in terms of which table-top tripods are best. In my experience, it must have a ball head so you can move the camera around as needed. The legs must be rigid, as it often works best to press hard on the tripod to hold it in place. Finally, I often use the two-second self-timer on my camera in place of a cable release to ensure that the camera is stable when the shutter actually opens.
In the future, I plan to produce a separate podcast on all the weird ways I find to use the table-top tripod. However, for me, the very best tripod in the world is a simple, table-top tripod. Go figure.