Jordana Wright talks about choosing camera support for travel photography. This article outlines tripod options and more all from her book The Enthusiast’s Guide to Travel Photography published by Rocky Nook.
Choose support wisely…
Tripod mishaps can be epic. We don’t really think about how much trust we’re putting in those three legs until something awful happens, but you are literally entrusting thousands of dollars of gear to them. That’s reason enough to take tripod selection seriously. I never realized until I sat down to write this guide just how much of my knowledge about photography comes from having made some sort of grievous error. Oh well. My loss is your gain…
You get what you pay for
For my first trip to Costa Rica, I knew it was time to get a smaller, lighter weight travel tripod. Having done minimal research, I headed straight for a camera store (this was very early in my career and Internet reviews weren’t as prolific as they are today). I selected an inexpensive ($60 or something equally ridiculous) but seemingly sturdy amateur-end tripod by Sunpak. It was mostly plastic, which I now realize is why it was such a steal. Fast-forward to travel day and my misery upon discovering that somewhere inside the airport X-ray machine the tripod (carefully strapped to my bag) had been decapitated. When I examined the break, I discovered that the piece of plastic connecting the head to the tripod had sheared cleanly off, along with my hopes of doing any kind of long exposure or low-light photography. I was now in possession of an utterly useless tripod and I hadn’t even left my home airport. Rather than throw it out and travel unencumbered (I was angry enough to want my $60 back for the POS) I decided to lug the worthless thing all the way to Costa Rica and back—my pathetic souvenir for attempting to save a few bucks. That’s when I first realized that when it comes to tripods, you absolutely get what you pay for.
If you’re in the market for a travel tripod, you’ll quickly find that they come in all shapes and sizes, from the classic three-legged concept to bean bags, clamps, plates, and whatever else they can think up. Tripod preference will vary from person to person and situation to situation, but when it comes to travel, lightweight and reliable are the magic combination.
Dozens of companies offer your classic telescoping, three-legged tripods. Though they may vary based on bells and whistles, they are mostly the same. Travel tripods generally feature an increased number of shorter leg segments so that they can have a smaller overall profile when collapsed. Here are a few things to consider when selecting a classic tripod:
- Material: Carbon fiber is the lightest, followed by aluminum, and then titanium. You can also find tripods made of plastic (nope) and wood (less compact and therefore less portable). Because carbon fiber is the lightest, it is also the most expensive. I’ve used aluminum tripods for travel almost exclusively and find them to have the best weight-to-price ratio.
- Leg lock style: Leg locks are the joints between leg segments. They are most commonly found in two types: twist and lever. Twist is easier to manage one-handed, but over time or in very cold temperatures may loosen and start to slip. Twist locks also pose more of an issue if you get debris like sand or dirt in the joint itself. Lever locks are easy to tighten (most have a thumbscrew or hex screw), can be locked even with debris in the way, and are less likely to slip. Though lever locks can be noisy to close or catch on things while you hike or travel, I’ve always used them and have been happy thus far. Regardless of which type of lock you choose, be sure they’re made of a strong durable material.
- Feet: Usually feet are made of rubber, but some models offer spiked feet for extra grip/stability in certain shooting scenarios. Some models also have spiked feet hidden within rubber feet, offering the best of both worlds.
Head: The two primary options for tripod heads are ball heads and pan/tilt heads. I have used both and found ball heads to be more compact and more convenient for fast repositioning and specificity. Check the weight rating for a tripod head before you purchase to make sure it can handle your camera and the heaviest lens you could potentially use. Some ball heads have only one point of articulation—the ball itself— whereas others also have a point of 360° rotation at the base, which allows you to keep the ball position locked in while panning or rotating incrementally (useful for time-lapses, stitching panoramas, or making incremental adjustments). Invest in a good tripod head and you will be able to use it across multiple sets of legs, or on other types of support systems.
Many companies have made similar flexible products, but the GorillaPod by JOBY (joby.com) is the real deal. JOBY offers a variety of GorillaPod styles capable of supporting anything from a cell phone or point-and-shoot to a full DSLR with a lens attached. I often use the GorillaPod Focus with the Ballhead X for travel photography (Figure 15.1). It’s a compact and lightweight rig, able to securely support my camera for a variety of situations. I’ve wrapped it around poles and fences, hung it under railings, and balanced it on precarious ledges. I’ve been able to use my GorillaPod without incident in several settings that do not allow the use of tripods because it doesn’t have the profile of a typical tripod. The Ballhead X is so sturdy that I can also use it on full-sized tripods. A GorillaPod is a great option for travel photography.
I first used a Platypod (platypod.com) for a restaurant shoot. I wanted a low-profile camera support option that would allow me to shoot at table level without blocking the path between tables at a busy restaurant. It was the perfect solution for food photography and quickly became my travel photography tripod backup. The Platypod is inexpensive, sturdy, and more compact than anything else you’ll find on the market, and it lets you use your preferred tripod head. I use the full-sized Platypod Max, which easily accommodates a full-sized camera and zoom lens. When I travel to locations with strict tripod policies, I can easily set the Platypod on the floor, a table, or flat railing or wall and get my shot. For uneven surfaces, threaded legs are included with spiked feet on one side and rubber feet on the other, adding further flexibility. On a recent trip to NYC, the Platypod was the only tripod I brought with me and it saved me lots of unnecessary weight. I was really happy with the shots it allowed me to achieve.
- Even the sturdiest tripod has its weaknesses. If you only need to partially extend a classic tripod, do it from the top down (the thicker segments first) since they are sturdier than the thinner segments. The center shaft or support column is generally the weakest option for extension.
- Solidify any tripod by moving the legs farther apart for better weight balance and stability.
- If your tripod gets wet, allow it to dry in the extended position to keep moisture from hiding in the leg locks.
- Keep any associated hex keys in your camera bag so that you can tighten joints in the field.
- It’s a good idea to keep an extra camera mount plate in your bag in case you damage or lose a plate (that way, your whole rig isn’t rendered worthless).
- Use a camera trigger or select a two-second shutter delay to help keep the camera and tripod absolutely still during the exposure.
- Use whatever stabilization you have available—I have been known to take off a shoe and prop my camera up with it in a pinch. Yes, it’s weird. Yes, it works.
- If you are going on a long hike in bright midday sun and you have no intention of doing panoramas, long exposures, or time lapses, then save yourself the extra weight and leave the tripod behind.
- A fully extended tripod can serve as a very helpful walking stick on rugged hikes.
- A fully extended tripod is also a great self-defense weapon. Bobcats and creepers, beware.
No matter what your interest is in photography, Rocky Nook has a book or two for you. See all of the photographic skills books from Rocky Nook.