Choosing a Tripod

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One of the most discussed items in photography seems to be over tripods. A lot of professional photographers will say that you need to purchase a really good support system, and that tripod can easily cost more than your camera. I’ve explored this subject over the last couple of years in regards to my own photography, and can’t exactly agree with them, due to the way they approach the purchase vs what I have found to be true.

Typically, someone will ask, “What tripod do I need?”, and the response will be, “What is your longest lens?”. One the person responds that they have a 200mm lens, they are immediately told that the minimum is a Series 2, which really means 28mm upper legs, and that they should spend over $600 on a set of Gitzo legs. That’s just the legs, not the ball head. The recommended ball head is usually going to be something from RSS, Markins, Acratech, Arca-Swiss,etc – all high end and expensive ball heads. These run from $300-$500, so quickly you are talking about a $1000 tripod – more than the cost of the camera.
Needless to say, most amateurs don’t want to spend that much, when their camera cost them $500, and they are shooting kit lenses.

The problem is that you shouldn’t just recommend a tripod based upon their longest lens without seeing how they intend to use the tripod as support.

AX620When I am shooting cars, I don’t need to extend my center column, nor do I need to usually extend the last section of the legs (the smallest section). I am usually working at the height of the fender or even lower, which means that my tripod has a lot more stability than when it is fully extended. Additionally, I am not usually shooting my 200mm lens at the car shows – I typically use a wide angle, which obviously doesn’t have the same magnification factor as the telephoto lenses. A small amount of vibration is not noticeable in a wide angle like it would be in a telephoto.

On the ball head, because we are using smaller and lighter lenses than the pros do, we don’t have the same amount of weight hanging off the front of the camera. A 55-200mm VR is much, much lighter than a 70-200mm VR, and is much shorter. It doesn’t need the same amount of support.

What we find is that a much smaller and cheaper aluminum tripod will provide the same performance and be as light as the very expensive high end tripods.

How am I certain of this? Simple. I’ve used the cheapest Dolica AX620B100 tripod (less than $45 brand new) with my gripped D5100 and D70 with a variety of lenses, including a 17-55mm, Sigma 10-20mm, and even my 80-200 AF-S for the last two years without an issue when shooting car events. None of the pros would recommend that tripod, simply based upon cost, but not once did any of them consider HOW it would be used. You cannot simply recommend a tripod based upon lens length. You have to consider HOW it will be used, and if it will work in the way that YOU need it to. For those of us that mainly need a tripod to shoot at car shows and meets, a much cheaper and still stable solution exists – you just have to think outside the box.

I have recently parted with my Dolica AX620B100. I could afford to buy a $1000+ Gitzo, if I wanted to spend the money on that. My choice was the newer Dolica CX600B502D/S tripod. I’m pretty sure that it will do what I need it to do, based upon my previous experience with the Dolica tripods.