I often say that a tripod is the only bit of kit you can buy that will actually make your pictures better. Well, I spent some time maintaining mine, today and thought you might benefit from my experience. Let’s talk about why your tripod needs maintenance, some tools you’ll probably need, and we’ll get to the Zen part at the bottom.
Like cars, or bicycles, or doors in your house, tripods just need some tender loving care every now and again. There are moving parts that need lubrication, and if you use your tripod half as much as I do, it certainly needs to be cleaned.
I’ve had friends complain to me about their tripods. They’ll say things like, “I’m saving up for that super expensive ball head because the one I’ve been using for ten years doesn’t move smoothly anymore,” or, “I used to love my tripod, but then the legs got too stiff to move in and out,” and, “My next tripod won’t have a center column–mine used to be fine, but now it slips down when I’m using it.”
Tripods are marvelous tools, but we stick them in the mud, we use them on sand dunes, we take them in the snow, and we plant them in the salty surf. They simply need to be cleaned and lubricated and they’ll probably be like new. The least you can do is give those poor sticks some love in order to raise their resale value and earn a few bucks toward your dreamy space-age tripod.
The Tools (You’ll Be Visiting the Guns Department)
Most of the tools you need for your tripod are already at home, came with your tripod, or they can be purchased very inexpensively. You’ll probably need moderately small screwdrivers, like a #1 Phillips and a flathead. Your tripod may have come with a hex-key and socket wrench, but these are readily available, but remember that you may need metric sizes (especially if your tripod was made anywhere but the USA).
Using these tools, I took my tripod legs apart and cleaned out the sand and salt that has accumulated in the joints and made collapsing the legs rough. It was simple, but if you do it you should go slowly and keep the right nuts and bolts and washers together. Make sure you can put back anything you take apart. I’d recommend doing one section at a time so that you don’t have too many parts sitting out at once. Most importantly, don’t tighten things too much. If a leg slips closed, it probably needs a very small adjustment. If the center column slips, the bolt needs a very small turnmaybe an 1/8th of a turn to get it to the right tension. Give a little turn, test it, and adjust again.
I recommend saving an old toothbrush. It’s great for cleaning out the fine sand and salt without being too abrasive on the carbon fiber legs. I’d never use a metal brush or scraper on carbon legs, but a metal pipe brush may be necessary on the joints if there is a lot of build up. Use baking soda or vinegar to gently scrub the legs and joints.
The last tool you’ll need is some dry silica lubricant. Don’t use wet lubricants or oils, like WD-40, on your tripod because dust and grit will stick to them so you’ll have to clean them after almost every use. You’ll find a dry lubricant anywhere guns are sold, and maybe at high-end fishing outfitters. I went to Walmart and found Otis Special Forces Dry Lube in the guns department for about $7. It’s a small spray can, but it dries on contact. After wiping my ball head as clean as possible, I used a little of this lube to make the movement smooth again. That was a year ago, and it’s still moving nicely. Just spray a little on the ball, and then twist and roll the head in every direction to spread it around. I also used it on a stubborn carbon leg to help it collapse more easily. You don’t need a lot, and it goes a long way.
The Zen Part of Tripod Maintenance
Making pictures is a pleasure. There’s nothing like going to a beautiful place at a beautiful time of day to photograph. It can be relaxing and it’s a great way to meditate on many things. However, nothing ruins the moment like cussing at a tripod with stiff legs or a ball head that is stuck or grinding. A little tripod maintenance will help you have a more relaxing (and possibly zen-like) excursion.