Another point about tripods—as with any sort of photographic equipment, it's wise to go for advice to someone whose needs and usages match your own, or match what you aspire to do. That's why it's so important for a reviewer to be clear about what kind of photographer he or she is—so you know what kinds of needs the equipment has to meet. If you're a "power user" of tripods, you'd be foolish to get your buying advice from me, because until now I've only been an occasional tripod user. (In "Tripod Technology," the history of my tripod use—my relationship with tripods, you might say—is set out explicitly in Part I, so any reader knows from the start where I'm coming from). But if you're also an occasional or casual user of tripods, like I am, it might be equally foolish to go for advice to someone to whom the tripod is an essential and central piece of equipment, such as a long-lens landscape shooter. That's how people end up with deluxe, $1,000+ carbon-fiber tripod and ballhead combos they never use.
The tripod advice you'll get from telephoto lens users is different than what you'll get from large-format aficionados (LF shooters tend to prefer 3-way heads to ballheads, for example); the needs of a backpacker might differ from the needs of someone who shoots out of the trunk of the car; the needs of a studio shooter are much different from someone who frequently travels by air. And so forth.
When she shot the pictures in the epochal book Immediate Family (surely one of the most important and popular American photo books of the 1990s—think of it as the "Jagged Little Pill" of art photography), Sally Mann lugged her 8x10 camera around on a Majestic tripod. Ever seen a Majestic? They're enormous. That was only possible because she made virtually all her pictures within a few hundred feet of her house or car.
No one knows your needs better than you. You also know your own shopping prejudices. Personally, I've always been comfortable spending more money on the equipment I use heavily and skimping on the equipment I use only occasionally; others might like to use cheap equipment but replace it frequently (David Hurn at one point owned six cheap Canon Rebels, and Erich Hartmann shot for a time with a Minolta CLE), or they might enjoy owning the best of everything, even the things they use rarely.
I remember when I first read the all-too-common advice that tripods were essential for photographic quality. I lugged a big tripod around for weeks, dutifully setting it up even in broad daylight. Sure, some of my shots were a little sharper; I remember marveling over the clarity of each brick in a distant building. But then I started noticing the situations in which my best shots were taken: from a speedboat; leaning out over the ocean from a jetty; from a crowded sidewalk (in tourist areas in Washington, D.C., where I used to live, tripods are illegal on sidewalks because they impede foot traffic); from a fire escape; over the dinner table. Many if not most of my favorite kinds of pictures are taken in places where tripods would be impractical, even absurd. Technically it's possible to imagine some of those pictures being taken with a tripod, but the time and fuss required to set up the tripod would have missed or completely destroyed the spontaneity of the moments the pictures capture.
On the other hand, I also have a tendency to be less than adequately careful in situations where tripods would be helpful. I've never been much good at shooting architecture or interiors, for instance, and I'm not very demanding when trying still lifes. Those cases call for deliberation and fastidiousness, and I tend to get bored before I've gotten the shot. My shots of architecture, consequently, are taken like street shots, and they're not very good. It's just not my thing, is all.
If you took my ten all-time favorite photography books, there's probably not a single shot taken from a tripod in, say, eight of them. Tripods aren't necessary...for me, or for the kind of photography I most like.
Obviously, the opposite is true for others.
Just be sure to match your advisors to the advice you need, is all. Too much of a mismatch, either way, can be costly—either in money, or in "the wrong kind" of image quality, or in missed or blown opportunities.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by David Dyer-Bennet: "Very very good advice! I've had some experiences (not in photography) of getting 'too-good' tools for my level of skill; it's expensive and frustrating. The 'expert' tool is sometimes completely useless without expert-level skills. And other times, you just don't need that much ruggedness or whatever.
"My tripods haven't made it into the closet in years. One of them lives mostly in the living room (so I can walk past it on the way out the door with the camera), and the others live in a bin I bought for the purpose next to the pile of camera bags in the bedroom. There's a total piece of junk that is probably the second tripod I ever owned (and which I really should throw out), and a Slik U212 that's the third (still sort of useful), and the monster, a Bogen 3051, which I can't seem to carry up the stairs :-) .
"A few years ago I decided it was time for a tripod upgrade. I was doing more landscape, and also shooting at zoos, and needed the support for HDR sequences, long exposures for water, and so forth. My old tripod was the Bogen 3021 legs with the cheap Bogen ball head (maybe something-168 in Manfrotto speak?). I realized that the ball head didn't lock too well, and shooting vertical was a pain. So I ended up upgrading the head and the quick-release system (including an L-bracket on the camera), and not the legs. And in fact I've used the tripod a lot more since then. Which is just as well, given what it all cost (RRS RH40, clamp for it, another clamp for the monopod, L-bracket, replacement foot for the 70-200, and a few miscellaneous things; OUCH!)."