Why Do I Need That?

Long ago when I was first starting out, I got advice from some experienced photographers - as all beginners do.  The smart ones listen.  I, on the other hand, didn't.  A few pieces of advice had to do with camera supports - tripods.  I remember being told 3 things:  

1.  "You need to use a tripod."  

2. "If you spend your money on a good tripod and head, it will last you the rest of your life." and

3.  "A good tripod and head will cost you a minimum of $1000.00.  Anything less will be a waste of money and you'll just have to buy it again."  (That was many years ago and I'm sure $1000.00 figure has undoubtedly gone up.)  

Back then I couldn't believe anyone could afford that much money for such a useless item.  I didn't need a tripod.  I was better than that.  After all, I was shooting birds-in-flight while hand-holding a 600mm f/4 lens and getting tack sharp images.  Besides, they're heavy, awkward, and slow you down, not to mention they make you look like a lazy photographer.


Fast forward to today.  As I sit here looking at my equipment room, I see a sizable collection of tripods and heads.  Those tripod/heads are divided up into 2 groups:  The well used ones, which were quite expensive; and the ones sitting in the corner that either just don't work well or are in need of repair.  That group didn't cost a whole lot.  The expensive ones are still in use today, operating just as they did when they were new.  The cheap ones?  Well, they're sitting in the corner for a reason.

I've learned a lot about tripods and heads over the years; particularly, when you need one and when you don't.  My younger self told me I didn't need one at all; but, I now acknowledge that they are quite valuable and in some cases absolutely necessary tools of photography.  Some may argue that tripods will eventually become unnecessary due to advances in lens and camera stabilization technology.  But I think we're a ways off from shooting 5 second exposures handheld.  As I shot (and still shoot) cars and motorcycles on location for magazines, I rarely use(d) a tripod.  With lights and the right camera/settings, I can easily shoot hand-held.  Sometimes I use one, but it's rare.  Even when shooting them in the studio, I rarely use one.  And when I do, it's not a "normal" tripod; rather, it's a studio camera stand (more on these later.)  In both cases, location and studio, I really have very little need for a tripod.    


But when shooting products in the studio, it became very clear, very fast, that a tripod was absolutely necessary.  In fact, now it's rare that I DON'T use one for products.  In most cases, hand holding the camera is not an option.  Product shots often require the blending of multiple shots of the same piece.  It's critical that the camera stays absolutely stationary during those shots so that they can be blended together perfectly.  Early on I tried to use a fairly inexpensive tripod with a cheap head.  And, again, I quickly learned this wasn't going to work.  The flimsy tripod allowed too much camera movement between shots and the head was difficult to move accurately.  I eventually gritted my teeth, spent a lot of money, and purchased a studio camera stand (which I still have today) and a decent tripod head (which I also still have today.)  

Studio camera stands are tripods on steroids.  My Foba studio camera stand can take my camera nearly 10' high and weighs about 250lbs.  Imagine a camera attached to an oak tree on wheels.  These things are massive and once locked down, they are designed not to move.  They are heavy AND expensive (mine is about $7000.00 new.  I purchased it used for about half that), but I'd never give it up.

Camera Stand

Foba studio camera stand                   Manfrotto 405 geared head

Along with it, I purchased a Manfrotto 405 geared tripod head - sometimes called a 3-way head.  These heads are designed for very precise movements when you need minor changes in your composition.  It's a strange looking contraption (see second pic above) but works quite well in the studio.  Movements are geared separately for side to side tilt, up and down tilt, and side to side panning.  This combination stand and head have been very valuable in the studio, but for obvious reasons, totally useless anywhere else.


As my interest in landscape photography became more serious, I quickly realized that hand holding a camera for landscape shots and trying to get them sharp was a fool's errand.  Most landscape photography is done during the "good light" of early morning and late afternoon/evening - when the light is low and consequently shutter speeds are slow - too slow for hand holding.  So I started looking for a tripod/head combination for landscape shooting.  After going through several cheap ones, I finally had enough money to buy a Gitzo tripod (around $600 at that time).  This was before carbon fiber tripods came on the scene.  The Gitzo (I don't remember the model and the model number wore off years ago) is made of steel and very heavy.  It's built like a tank and I could probably use it to jack up a car; but, I used it diligently.  The pic below shows it with a Wimberley gimbal head.  Over 20 years later, the tripod has been discontinued but I still have it and it works perfectly.  I now use it occasionally but due to it's weight, I prefer to use newer and lighter carbon-fiber tripods.  At the same time I bought this tripod, I chose a ball head, also made by Gitzo, to go with it.  It wasn't the most expensive head, as heads go, but it was decent.  It lasted for a few years before a spring in the tensioning mechanism broke and I couldn't get it replaced.  I tried a few off-brand replacements but none of them worked very well.  Finally, I replaced it with one of the most highly rated ball heads on the market - a BH-55 from Really Right Stuff.  


             Gitzo steel tripod w/Wimberly head                   An original Wimberly Gimbal Head            BH-55 Ball Head from Really Right Stuff

The BH-55 will set you back about $600.00, depending on options, but it will be the last head most people will ever buy.  Really Right Stuff is known for it's quality and they stand behind all their products.  I've had mine for a long time, it's been extensively used, and still functions as new.  It goes with me on every shoot, along with it's companion tripod - the Induro CT314 carbon fiber tripod.  I've had this tripod for so long that it's no longer made.  But, it still works as well as it did new.  In fact, I've had all my tripods so long that all these models have all been discontinued; and, I'm sure, they will still be around in working condition long after I'm gone.  At $600-$1000 each, each one has been well worth the money.

But, as my landscape photography demanded more and more precision, the BH-55 ball head had some limitations.  Ball heads are made of a ball (go figure) that sits precisely in a socket.  By loosening the tension on the ball, the head will move effortlessly in all directions to any position.  But if you need to make a precise, small movement in just one direction only, it can be difficult, especially in high winds or when wearing gloves.  Ball heads are great general purpose heads but when precision movements are needed, geared heads are the way to go (such as my old Manfrotto 405 studio head.)  


As I began researching new geared heads, one head appeared on everyone's wish list over and over again - the Arca-Swiss C1 a.k.a the "Cube."  Arca-Swiss is a Swiss company that produces some of the finest, most precision equipment for the photography industry in the world.  The C1 head is regarded by many as the ultimate geared head.  And with a $1600+ price tag, I would expect nothing less.


Arca-Swiss C1 "the Cube" Geared Head w/Really Right Stuff quick release plate and Kirk leveling base and quick release tripod mount.

A fellow photographer friend of mine had one and I had briefly examined it long before I thought about buying one, and I remembered that it was very impressive; but the high price tag was a little too much for me at the time, so I didn't give it another thought.  Plus, I wasn't convinced that I needed such a thing.  But that changed and I eventually acquired one; and, I can say that everything I'd read about it was true.  The moving parts are smooth, precise, and work perfectly.  There's no play in any of the mechanisms, even as you are moving the tensioning screws.  And once locked down, there's no movement at all - even with a very heavy camera/lens combo.  The overall workmanship is second to none and the finish quality is superb.  In the field, it's easy to carry, quick to adjust, and the two built-in bubble levels make leveling your camera a snap (something I rely on heavily for shooting panoramas and tilt-shift images.)  I have mine mounted on an Induro CT404 Grand Series EP carbon fiber tripod (discontinued) that I've used for years.


When I pack for a shoot, I take the C1/tripod as my main head/tripod, the BH-55/tripod for a back-up and second camera support, and a very unique little tripod, the Induro DR Hi-Hat Tripod​ with another Manfrotto 405 geared head.  This setup is great for shooting from a very low perspective or placing it on a tall surface, such as a rock, where it's up high but easy to reach.  And, you guessed it, this tripod is also discontinued.

When hiking to a location, though, I only carry one - the C1/tripod combo.  All my tripods are equipped with quick release plates (MFP-45) from Kirk Enterprises so that each head can be quickly disconnected and reattached to a different tripod.  The heads themselves have quick release camera plates from both Kirk and RSS for attaching cameras.  Why all the quick release connections?  Being able to move around quickly is essential when "chasing light."  Also, in high elevations, bad weather can move in quickly so you often have to quickly break down gear to avoid getting caught in dangerous conditions.  The quick release devices cut break down time to a minimum.  



So, there's my reluctant journey through the use of camera supports.  The lesson I took from all this is that listening to the experienced photographers could have saved me a lot of money and headaches.  There's alway a bit of trial-and-error when buying new equipment, but I could have been wiser when doing so.  Not to mention that I could have been saved from a lot of blurred, useless images.  The guys who gave me the advice long ago knew they were right.  I didn't know as much as I thought I did; and I couldn't do what I thought I could do.  I'm sure at that time, they knew that too.  Since then I've adopted their philosophy of "buying once" when it comes to other gear that I use, and I freely admit that a good tripod and head combo is an extremely useful tool and a necessary part of my equipment.  Yes, they are awkward and slow you down, but that's the nature of the game.  Just because they are inconvenient is no excuse for me not to use one.

Check out Kates Nature Photography  website where you will see lots of images - of which about 90% were shot using a tripod.  Most of them could not have been done without it.