On my wildlife trips, I often use a monopod. A monopod looks like one of the legs of a tripod, but with a head for the camera on top. I can change the length, so that I can use it when kneeling as well as when I’m standing or sitting. Although, I’m quite tall, the monopod brings the viewfinder of my camera on my eye-level. In my eyes that’s a must!
Wildlife photography means hiding and waiting for the animals to come up, but also moving slowly through the landscape to find some. Some animals are very shy, so you have to disguise to avoid disturbing them. Others are a bit more tolerant when humans approach slowly and carefully. Nevertheless, you have to use lenses with a long focal length. Unfortunately, these lenses not only cross the long distance between you and the animal. Because of their size they are heavy and catching the wind quite easily. The long focal length results in a small view angel. So, the slightest camera movement might decide between a lucky shot and a fail shot.
A tripod might help, but comes unhandy in the terrain. A monopod is in this field a way better solution. You’re still able to move. Only one leg is to justify instead of three. The monopod carries the wight of your gear and eases the handling of your gear to get a good shot. Balancing the horizon is possible by moving your body instead of re-justifying the tripod legs.
While you have to switch off the Image Stabiliser / Vibration Reduction mechanisms when putting your camera on top of a tripod, you have to keep that mechanisms active when working with a monopod.
On my first trip with a monopod several years ago, I felt a bit hindered. I had to learn how to work with a monopod and get used to its support. Nowadays, I don’t want to miss it anymore. But, I usually don’t attach the camera (the lens mount flange when using long telephoto lenses) anymore. Instead, I lay the lens simply on the head without fastening the screw to be a bit quicker and more flexible. When in a hide, I’m using the screw more often, because I don’t move that much and the area in front of me is quite limited because of the hide. A tripod would be fine in a hide, but because of the limited space in a hide you don’t have enough room for setting it up. So, a monopod is also for a hide a suitable solution.
Although, I could remove one leg of one of my tripods to use it as a monopod, I still have my monopod. First, the monopod is made from aluminium instead of carbon fibre and thus it is very solid. I also use my monopod as a walking-stick to stabilise me when in uneven terrain or for checking a creek before crossing it. Second, when using the tripod leg, it’s about 10 cm too small for me. So, usage is quite uncomfortable. But, for a plan “B” it’s good to know, I could switch (i.e. when I could only take one with me).
Many thanks to Steffi for the image. It’s taken in January, when we were on Helgoland.
Although, nearly all cameras nowadays are equipped with shake reducing mechanisms called Image Stabilizer, Vibration Reduction or something similar, you’ll come to a point where you still have to use a tripod.
Maybe, you want to use extended exposure times for creative aspects or for not to adjust the ISO to get images without (much) noise. For night-time photography or during the blue hour a tripod is essential. Other use-cases are still life and macro photography. Especially in macro photography you need a tripod because of the extremely small field of depth when having only a short distance between your lens and your subject.
You know, as a long time follower, I don’t do much macro or still life photography, but much landscape, which includes long-time exposures and night photography. Thus, I’m focusing on ‘my’ kind of photography a little bit more here in the post.
My first tripod was a Cullman. I don’t know the exactly name anymore. It’s middle pillar was moved up and down by a cograil and gear-wheel controlled by an outside crank.
My second one was a Vanguard Alta+ 203 AP (2nd from the right in the image above)
My third one was a cheap Walimex, a giveaway from a photo magazine as a bait for testing the magazine. (the one on the right) So, I didn’t ever used it for photography purposes.
Now, I own a tripod called Brian, made by the British brand 3LT (3 legged thing), for nearly four years. (2nd from the left)
The Cullman was lightweight, kind of mid-sized and not very flexible to use. The legs were locked by screw closures, as well as the middle pillar. The middle pillar had a crank level to move the pillar up and down with a gear-wheel. Although, the legs were thin aluminium, many parts were made of plastic. And, like all plastics, it became older and sensitive for breaking. Just like mine.
As I needed an instant replacement, I bought the Vanguard. It seemed to me a fitting one. It came with a tray, was bigger then my Cullman, a 3-way head, a quick-mount plate (fits nowhere else, not even for other Vanguards) and had switches to lock the legs (great, but also a weak point when the plastic becomes older) . But, after a short while I missed some things.
Most importantly, it wasn’t big enough in my opinion (I’m quite tall). Next, I had problems coming close to the ground, turning the middle-pillar upside-down is in my opinion quite unpractical. And, when I noticed the problem with the head: the head is mounted directly on the middle pillar, without an option to change it. Thus, I had to look for a new tripod instead of repairing it. 😦
On our Iceland trip I was able to check out several tripods from the other guys. Some were way to small or to heavy. Others were too expensive and others had IMHO a to complicated head (revolver head). When I came back, I checked many brands (company sites), Amazon offers and googled a lot. Fortunately, in September of that year it was Photokina time and I checked many booths. One of the booths was run by 3LT, a quite new British company. I was fascinated by their solution: a small, lightweight carbon fibre tripod with an interchangeable ball-head. The head comes with a standardised ARCA-Swiss® compatible plate. Despite it has legs with 4 elements, it’s quite sturdy. Although, 4 elements are naturally weaker than 3 elements. It’s really a great companion. Although, the Vanguard was quite ok and I was satisfied most of the time. But, it wasn’t able to carry my camera anymore, without tilting its head unintentionally. The head screw is worn-out after 5 1/2 years. So, I was looking for a replacement. The other argument against it, it’s not high enough for me and you can’t change the head.
I own the 3LT Brian for 3,5 years. Until now, I used it on sandy beaches, in surf areas of sandy beaches, during cold winter nights of northern Norway and with heavy gear (~6 kg) while photographing cranes and deers.
Considering the wight of your gear is important for the ball-head and the burden for the legs, especially for the connections between the single elements. The more elements the legs have, the thinner they are and thus the weaker they are. You can fight that problem when choosing thicker (and longer) legs with fewer elements.
The other problem is the material. Carbon is much lighter than aluminium, but it’s more fragile in the cold. So, check the technical data and compare it with the proposed conditions of usage.
When it comes to talk about the height, often the length of middle pillar is calculated into the height by the manufacturer. But, you shouldn’t do this. As the middle pillar is a single pillar, it easily transports even slightest movements and the result is a blurry image. The camera on top of the tripod offers its space to be attacked by the wind, so that even slight wind or even the moving mirror is able to be the source for such movements. Instead, choose the hight of your tripod without counting the length of the middle pillar. When possible, take 3 elements instead of 4 or even more. Choose the legs with the thicker diameter in advance to the thinner ones.
This is my check list for you to consider:
- material (carbon, aluminium, wood)
- padding (also for carrying the tripod during winter)
- head (2- or 3-way head or a ball-head)
- quick-mount plate
- packed size (travel!)
- lowermost height
- size without using the middle pillar
- option to use the middle pillar in reverse position to come lower to the ground
- stability under load (the weight of your camera and the lens plus a security addition)
- do they deliver it with a tray?
- time for setting the tripod up or pot it away
- screw closures or switch locks for the legs
- spikes and / or rubber feet
My recent trip to Scotland gave me the opportunity, to test a Rollei tripod. (the left one in the image above). It’s as heavy as my 3LT Brian. It reaches the same height, but its legs have only 3 instead of 4 elements. And, while the legs of my Brian are folded over the head, the Rollei is folded in the traditional way. So, the packed size is much bigger!!
In the gallery below, you can see the Rollei, the 3LT, the Vanguard and a cheap Walimex. Don’t consider buying such a cheap one. I even won’t use it for a smart-phone or a compact camera. (I sometime use it for a flash.)
As every tripod has its pros and cons, you have to balance your own requirements and your budget.
I’d vote for:
- low weight and size because of traveling
- a ball-head for flexibility and ease of use
- a removable camera plate, preferably a ARCA-Swiss® compatible one
- a total hight that brings the viewfinder on your eye-level for convenience and health of your back and neck
- replaceable middle-pillar for working near the ground with ease
- a bag for carrying the tripod and its accessory
- rubber feet are a necessity
- spikes are not a necessity in my opinion, but it’s fine having them
- no cograil for the middle pillar, it’s too sensitive
- screw system for legs and pillar are less comfortable than clips, but they won’t get worn-out that easy
When you’re about to buy a tripod, I’d recommend making a list first. Write down your requirements in relation to your field of photography. Check the total wight of the heaviest gear you would use on the tripod and add 50% for security reasons. Next, go to a fair or a large store and try out the available gear. Ask for the maximum weight, the tripod can carry. Wiggle on a leg while the camera is mounted on the tripod. How does it feel? Does it feel sturdy enough? Make some notes for each tripod you checked. Try to meet some other photographers and talk with them. But, do your own decision. Don’t relay on others decisions. They might have different requirements. 🙂
Btw. there’s one more option: the monopod – On this, I’ll do another post soon 🙂