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Monday, February 12, 2007

3-way or Ball

A friend was asking my opinions on tripods. Thought I'd write down here what I told him verbally. This reflects my personal experience of having used various tripods and tripod heads over the year, including some pretty poor ones.

The golden rule, when buying a tripod, is bring your camera to the store and mount it to the tripod with its heaviest lens. The tripod should be able to hold the camera rock solid, for minutes at a time, when the camera is placed at a precarious angle.

Not everyone needs a fancy tripod. If you have a very lightweight point and shoot camera, then the kinds of cheap tripods you can buy in shopping mall and high street stores should work fine.

However, if you are serious about photography you probably have a heavier camera - a digital or film SLR. Especially once you have screwed in a zoom lens, these cameras are pretty heavy (over a kilo) and the weight is not evenly distributed.

You need a tripod head that will hold the unbalanced weight of an SLR firmly in place, at whatever angle you place it. Cheap tripods just don't do the job, in my experience.

The tripod for the serious photographer is actually sold in two bits. Separately, you should pick up:

· a set of legs which will have a 3/8 inch screw fitting at the top
· a tripod head with a thread that fits the screw

With a set of legs you have a range of choices based on how high you want the tripod to go, how compact, how light and how well protected against the environment. Some tripod legs come with a centre column that can be mounted horizontally, so the camera can be pointed straight down. A centre column with a removable section will let you place the tripod very close to the ground.

With tripod heads you get a base that attaches to the legs, a plate that attaches to the camera with a 1/4 inch screw, a holder for attaching the plate - and the camera, to the tripod and a set of joints for changing the camera position. For the joints your choices are basically a ball-and-socket type arrangement, or a 3-way head or pan head. The ball and socket head has a single joint with three degrees of freedom - a single control tightens and relaxes the joint. The 3-way head has a rotating base and two hinge joints that are separately adjustable with 3 controls.

Having used both it's my observation that the most frequent camera movement is tilting the camera from horizontal (landscape) to vertical (portrait). For the same amount of money, a 3-way head will probably be better in this respect than ball. The three-way head design is such that the joint under strain can only move in one direction, which in turn means it is likely to support more weight.

However, I didn't chuck my ball joints away - Instead I mount a monopod tilt head (which only has one joint) on top of the ball joint. This gives the critical horizontal-to-vertical movement, using the stronger joint that supports more weight.

Once you get into the game of having multiple cameras or multiple tripods, it helps to standardize on the one size of release plate. Keep a plate permanently attached to each camera, then mate the camera to the tripod as required.

Useful tripod links :-

Tripods and Tripod Heads - photo.net
Tripod & Monopods - shortcourses.com

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