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Tripods and Tripod Heads

by Philip Greenspun, 1992

You can judge how good a bunch of photographers are by what they are talking about.

Really bad photographers debate the merits of the Nikon F4 and the Canon EOS-1. Somewhat better photographers debate the merits of the Yashica T4 and the Contax T2. The best photographers, though, talk tripods, tripod heads, and quick releases.

A tripod is at once a photographer's best friend and worst encumbrance. It somehow seems that one is forever lugging tripods around and adjusting them and yet never has the right one when needed. Most serious photographers own several tripods and heads.


When to use Camera Support

The original Bob's Big Boy. A historical landmark. Toluca Lake, California.

Rule 1: when it is getting dark.

Rule 2 (the standard): you need to use a tripod when your shutter speed is slower than 1/focal-length of the lens. Thus with a standard 50mm lens, you should not attempt to handhold shutter speeds slower than 1/60th and with a 500mm telephoto lens, you will have to keep the shutter speed at 1/500th or faster. Rationale? Longer lenses magnify the subject but they also magnify any vibration of the camera.

Rule 3 (for big enlargements): you need to use a tripod all the time. The standard rule is designed for 35mm cameras and presupposes a certain degree of enlargement and viewing distance from the final print. If you're going to make big enlargements and let people get close to the prints, then you need to be more careful about lots of stuff including camera shake.

Rule 4 (for big cameras): you might be able to handhold a slower shutter speed because the final image won't be enlarged as much (since the negative is larger). On the other hand, medium- and large-format cameras are so big and heavy that most photographers prefer to use them on a tripod if only to avoid muscle fatigue. Sports photographers often use a monopod so that they don't have to support the weight of a 300/2.8 or 600/4 lens through an entire football game.

Where to Buy

You can find a selection of tripods and heads stocked by Adorama. Adorama is a retailer that pays photo.net a referral fee for each customer, which helps keep this site in operation. For additional retailer information, see our recommended retailers page and the user recommendations section

Gratuitous Examples

Why? Because my friend Kathy at Advanced Digital Imaging scanned them for me. These come out the back of a Rollei 6008 and hence can only be scanned on a ProPhotoCD machine.

Top photo copyright 1992 Philip Greenspun, and is a six hour exposure thoroughly explained in my star streak tutorial.

"Tripod Statue" photo from my collaborative guide to Italy.

Article created 1992