Picture the scene – Bangkok airport and I’m settling into seat 16H on my short Thai Airways flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. The lovely hostess hands me a hot, scented towel as I shout ”Bollocks” while slapping myself firmly on the forehead.
She gives me a justified look of disdain while I apologize for my outburst and then start begging her to contact Lost & Found as soon as possible. You see, I’d stupidly left my gorgeous carbon fibre, ball head tripod, in one of those plastic trays into which all airports now force you to empty your worldly goods before being forced through the X-Ray machine.
I’d somehow managed to wander through Bangkok airport, grab a snack, check my email and then board the plane without even realizing I’d lost one of my most essential pieces of equipment. I blame it on the terror filled drive through downtown Bangkok the night before while trying to find our hotel, it was a late night.
I realize I will never see that beloved tripod again.
So I touch down in Siem Reap, Cambodia and the first thing I do is go shopping for a tripod. Siem Reap has seen some major development over the years but it’s still a galactic black hole when it comes to tripod shopping.
The best I could find was a $45 Yunteng tripod with a plastic video panning tripod head that has one of those long handles that poke you in the eye every time you try to look through the viewfinder.
It was like going back in time to the very first tripod I’d ever bought. The next four days of shooting were an exercise in rage management as it took me five times longer to set up my shots. If it hadn’t been for my ever present tuk-tuk driver and his calming influence, I would have bent that tripod over my knee and tossed it under the wheels of a bus for good measure.
No wonder so many beginner photographers quit at the tripod using stage.
A good tripod makes ALL the difference
When buying a tripod, if you go for an El Cheapo one, two things will happen:
- You’ll spend so much time messing around getting your camera in position
that by the time you’re ready to take the shot, you’ve already lost the will to live.
- You’ll realize that the $45 you spent could have gone towards a proper tripod that you now know you’ll have to buy anyway.
I realize that for total beginners, spending around $400 on a tripod seems like a major financial commitment but I’ve seen so many of my workshop students struggle in frustration with shoddy tripods that it breaks my heart. When I lend them one of mine, it’s like a ray of sunshine for them. At that point they realize their cheap tripod is now junk.
Speed is important
You might think that if you’re using a tripod to hold your camera in place, that means you’ve got plenty of time to frame your shot. Sometimes that’s true but more often than not, the scene changes quickly, especially when you’re dealing with nature. Weather and wildlife won’t wait for you to get your tripod set up.
Things to consider when buying a tripod and tripod head
1 – How fast do the legs telescope?
I can’t stand those rubber twist leg locks that you have to loosen and then tighten. I much prefer quick release grips that flick open and quickly drop those tripod legs. Securing the extended legs requires a quick push of the thumb and you’re done. If your tripod has four telescopic extenders with threaded grips you’ll still be setting up your shot while I’m at the next shooting location.
2 – How fast does the ball head adjust?
Once your tripod is in place and secure, it’s time to position your camera. For me, the best ball heads are those that only require one lever to loosen and tighten. That means that with just two turns of the lever I can position my camera in exactly the right position.
It’s also important to get a ball head that allows you to quickly switch between landscape and portrait aspect. A lot of cheapo tripods have those flippable mounts that you have to loosen first then tighten once in place. These are usually abysmal as you struggle to get just the right position and then the flimsy flippable part wobbles from the impact of just your breathing.