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09
Apr
2014

(Sorry) you still need a tripod for landscape photography

Posted by Todd Sisson

 

A top quality tripod and ball head are essential equipment for landscape photography...

Sarah rocks out a tripod at sunset - yet another example of a sexy woman making an arduous task look like fun... 

Once upon a time...

In ye olde days we shot virtually everything on a tripod - and I don't mean just landscapes.  Back in the days of  ISO 50/100 film, portraiture, studio and even some photo journalism was done with the camera clamped to a three legged fun-prophylactic.  The early days of digital were no better - venturing more than two stops beyond base ISO resulted in images that were noisier than a car load of seven year olds returning from a birthday party at McDonalds (I've experienced both and neither is advisable).  

Technology has markedly reduced the role of the tripod - correct use of image stabilisation (IS) and the clean high ISO performance of modern cameras makes handholding a viable option in many situations.  However, landscape photography is rarely one of those situations - the best conditions for making outstanding landscapes are the worst conditions for handholding. Low light levels in the scene combined with the need to achieve maximum image quality usually result in shutter speeds far too slow for effective handholding.  If you want to make razor-sharp landscape photos in interesting lighting conditions you still need to own and use a quality tripod.

In this short article I will outline our general advice for buying a tripod that will meet your landscape photography needs. .

 

Buy the right tripod for the future - now

Paying more is sometimes the cheapest thing to do. No mentally stable individual actually wants to spend money on tripods, so almost everyone  (myself included) wanders expensively down the well-worn path of purchasing a cheap tripod, followed by a less cheap tripod, then replaced with a mildly good tripod until one day they fork out for an 'expensive' top-quality tripod.

It is at this point that they (I) invariably look back and realize that they (I) have spent double the price of the 'expensive' tripod on trashy, shot wrecking tripods over the period of several years.   Avoid this trap – if you are serious about landscape photography buy a quality tripod now. Try thinking of it as investing in the ultimate lens sharpener – that may help a little... 

As I mentioned above, the good news is that top quality tripod legs should last a lifetime if cared for.  Tripod legs are like ski poles in that no one has really invented a tripod in the past 25 years that is so revolutionary as to make every other tripod obsolete.  Newer tripods look a bit snazzier and feel a bit nicer but they are still essentially three sticks bolted together - if you buy the best set of sticks now they should meet your needs for decades.

 

Tripod buying advice part one: buy a ballhead... 

 I recommend buying your 'camera support' in two parts - tripod legs and ballhead.  The following video shows why ballheads are our preferred camera mount for landscape photography...

 The reason for that we recommend buying ballheads separately to your tripod legs is that tripod leg manufacturers are generally terrible at designing and producing ballheads. All of the big tripod manufacturers (Gitzo, Manfrotto/Bogen, Benro/Induro) produce ballheads and all of them would be world class - if it was 1995.  

 Recommending a ballhead to buy is super simple - Really Right Stuff make the world's best ballheads (IMHO) - they are beautifully machined, have silky smooth action and are tough enough to give years of service in the real world.  The two models to consider are:

  •  The BH-40 mid-sized ballhead - this is the best option for most folks as it will hold up to 18lbs and is recommended up to 300mm focal length.  We don't own this ballhead, but we have used one and wish we did!
  •  The BH-55 full-sized ballhead is the go if you are shooting with heavier gear and longer telephoto lenses, but this comes with a larger pricetag and an additional weight penalty.  We own this ballhead, but would probably buy the BH-40 these days.

 There is no way of sugar-coating the fact that Really Right Stuff ballheads are painfully expensive compared to the kit ballheads offered with tripods but I have recommended these ballheads to dozens of photographers and I have never heard anything but praise for this gear - it takes the frustration out of composing landcape images on a tripod which leads to better images. 

Choosing a Tripod

Buy the lightest tripod that you can afford - if you don't mind carrying your tripod you will use it more often.  This usually means buying carbon fibre legs. French company Gitzo pioneered this process and everyone else has slavishly copied them including Induro (aka Benro), Manfrotto (aka Bogen) and Really Right Stuff.  I use a set of cheapish Chinese Benro carbon legs that are about 8 years old and still going strong while Sarah uses a Gitzo setup that she purchased used in 1996.  

Buy a tripod that is taller than you - this video explains why.

 

Avoid tripods with centre columns - using a centre column increases the chance of camera movement and prevents you from getting close to the ground.  This video illustrates this.

 

Purchase an L-plate for your camera - L plates are fantastic for landscape photography, they allow you to switch between the vertical (portrait) aspect and horizontal (landscape) aspect with the bare minimum of hassle.  This is hard to explain in writing so it is detailed in this short video. 

 

L-plates are custom machined to each individual camera body and I only know of two companies who do a great job of these:

Ideally, buy a tripod with three leg sections - but four will be fine.  More leg sections allow a longer tripod to be retracted to shorter lengths when not in use.  However, more leg sections mean less rigidity and by the time you get to four sections the last section will be spindly.  Don't buy a five or six section tripod for landscape work.

Buy from a reputable brand.  These are the tripod brands that we have used or owned over the years and can recommend as making good gear with decent warranty and parts support. I have included links to Amazon.com but  be sure to read the user reviews before purchasing any of these items as not all tripods models are created equally.

You need to buy the tripod that is right for you and to be perfectly honest I find tripod buying online to be really confusing - particularly when looking at Gitzo's range which appears to have been organised by a branch of the French Government tasked with finding everyday uses for chaos theory.  Despite this, I will venture down the dangerous path of providing a couple of suggested starting points in your search. Whatever you do read the product reviews on amazon carefully before buying and don't blame me if you get the wrong tripod!:

 

Induro CT-314 8X Carbon, 4 Section Tripod

This is tripod looks almost identical to the Benro branded carbon tripod that I have used for nearly eight years. The great thing about the Benro range is that you can select the size that suits you from this single model designation - unlike Gitzo where you have to search for a new model number if you want a taller set of sticks (see below). All Induro tripods have a centre column - just hacksaw it off if you want to get low.

Gitzo GT2542LS 4 Section Carbon Tripod

This is a 'systematic' model which I think means that it has no centre column - who the hell can tell with Gitzo? Anyway, this is a good place to start if you are looking for a superb set of legs that extend to only 150cm (59 inches) - perfect for more diminuitive landscape photographers..

Gitzo GT3542XLS 4 Section Carbon Tripod (Tall)

Gitzo's product planners apparently never read Goldilocks. If the 2542LS is too short this monster will surely be too tall for most people who don't shoot hoops for a day job - I couldn't find anything in-between. The XLS tops out at 200cm (79 inches) which is overkill once another 30cm of camera and ballhead is clamped to the top. Despite this, it may be a great option as you should be able to avoid using the skinny little fourth leg sections in most situations - leading to greater stability.

Gitzo GT3541 Mountaineer 4 Section Carbon Tripod

If you really want a centre column the 'Mountaineer' range may be the go for you. Apparently the centre column can be reversed allowing for ground level photography. I have no idea what this means or how it works - the Gitzo site is seemingly devoid of information. Once again, most of this range are far too short for 6 foot photographers - but you may be able to find one that works for you.

Really Right Stuff Tripods  

 If money is no object take a look at the RRS carbon tripod range. I've played with one and it was beautiful but I could see nothing that would make me ditch my existing tripod.

 

Further shopping options:

The B&H Photo webstore has a terrific filtering system on the left sidebar that lets you narrow down the tripod options by size, brand, construction etc - this can make the whole process a little easier.

 

Image stabilization / vibration reduction

Almost all new lens designs include image stabilization (IS) technology – and some camera brands apply it to the camera sensor, meaning IS is available at all times irrespective of lens. 

IS is an incredible tool for handholding when used correctly and it keeps getting better.  But - and this is a big but – it does not eliminate the need for a tripod.  IS becomes useless under really the really complex lighting conditions under which most great landscape images are made.

Use IS as it was intended to be used and then switch to your tripod – but be sure to turn off IS as it can and will introduce blur when tripod mounted.  I know this from firsthand experience :-(

Thanks for reading/watching this article

I hope that this has helped in your quest for the perfect tripod - please feel free to share further advice with other readers in the comments section below.  Please note that I can't offer detailed Tripod purchasing advice due to the enormous number of variables involved (I visited my favourite camera shop and opened 15 different Gitzo boxes up and couldn't find a single model that I could recommend for landscape photography).

 

Check out Sarah's Lightroom Presets! 

 

 

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