This is Philadelphia's City Hall, shot from in front of the Marriott Hotel, just after sunset. It takes either a good tripod, image stabilization, or plain old-fashioned luck to get a sharp image in this kind of light.
One of the best pieces of advice floating around on the Web these days is that if you buy a tripod, buy the best available. The logic behind this is that you'll save money in the long run by buying “the right stuff” first, rather than buying a series of tripods and heads that you will ultimately discard in favor of what you should have bought in the beginning.
The problem with this advice is that it’s not always practical. Let’s start with the fact that even a mid-range Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod costs around $575 these days. A comparable quality ball-head averages $350. Add that together and you come up with $925.00. That’s more than many photographers can afford to spend for a camera and lens. It’s hard to justify spending that kind of money on a tripod unless you really need one. Unless you use long telephoto lenses, do a lot a macro work, low light work, or architectural photography, a tripod is usually more of an option than a necessity.
On the other hand, there are times when you need a tripod, and when you need one, you need a good one. A lousy tripod is barely better than no tripod at all. Unfortunately, there’s no clear dividing line between good tripods and lousy ones. Discount store tripods are obviously bad and pro-caliber tripods are obviously excellent, but what about the ones in the middle?
Based on my experience, mid-range, medium-weight tripods can do a fine job as long as you’re careful not to exceed their limitations. Limitations vary from tripod to tripod, but in general, when using a mid-range tripod you should avoid:
- Extending the center column
- Extending the thinnest legs
- Using focal lengths longer than 200mm
- Using equipment more than twice the weight of the tripod
- Shooting with the camera mounted vertically
- Shooting in high winds
The last three are especially important if you’re using a tripod that weighs less than four pounds, even if it’s a top-of-the-line carbon-fiber model. If you mount a heavy camera and lens on it, it will become top-heavy. Flip the camera to the side for a vertical shot and it will become side-heavy as well. All it takes is a strong gust of wind to blow it over. That’s why the better tripods have hooks on the bottom of the center column: so you can attach enough extra weight to lower the center of gravity.
I mention all this because I’m in the market for a lightweight, inexpensive, reasonably well-made tripod to use for travel and hiking. I've already got a 20 year-old Gitzo Studex, but it's too large and heavy to carry for anything more than a few minutes at a time. If any of you readers out there have any suggestions based on first-hand experience, let me know. It shouldn’t have to cost close to $1000 just to hold a camera steady, right?