The Infuriating Search For The Perfect Tripod

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Not long ago I wrote an article about re-invigorating my photography with a project. In it I wrote about shooting with freedom, unburdened by such things as tripods. Of course that’s fine if you are shooting freestyle in good light. However, often you might want a more considered approach, you might want to shoot in low light or perhaps even video. Then the tripod becomes a necessity.

As many of you may know, I am what’s known as a hybrid shooter. On many of my photographic trips, I will shoot both video and stills. That means I have to carry a tripod pretty much everywhere I go. Which brings me, in a roundabout way to this article and my endless search for the perfect tripod. 

Row of tripods with cameras
None of them are perfect. By Sippakorn Yamkasikorn

My Current Arsenal Of Tripods

If you include two mini tripods, I currently own four of our three legged friends. The biggest, most expensive one is my Manfrotto C055 Carbon Fibre. The legs alone cost me around £300. It's light, sturdy but also quite large and cumbersome.

Next I have the Manfrotto, Belive video tripod. It’s kind of the opposite of the C055, small, very light and not particularly sturdy. It is also a dedicated video tripod.

Skipping the mini tripods, the heads I own include a heavy, Manfrotto ball and socket, a large Manfrotto HDV video head and the smaller Manfrotto RC2 compact video head.

The thing is, none of these tripod legs and head in any combination is perfect. All have flaws, some quite minor, some show stopping. So, what is my concept of the perfect tripod?

The Perfect Tripod Head

Starting at the top, the tripod head. Why, oh why has no one yet thought of designing a hybrid video, stills head? Stills photographers have pan and tilt heads but they are not fluid dampened for video. Videographers have fluid dampened pan and tilt heads that cannot be put into portrait format. It seems to me, getting a hybrid out of these would not be the greatest engineering challenge the world has ever seen.

In terms of making my, and many other photographer’s, lives easier it would be incredible. As it stands I either accept that I cannot take long exposure images in portrait format, or I carry two heads with me. Doing the latter means a slow, cumbersome head change, just as the light is beginning to fade. It also adds weight to the already heavy camera bag.

I cannot help thinking there must be someone working on an all in one solution for hybrid photographers, after all we have had hybrid cameras now for more than a decade. 

video camera on video tripod
A video head that has portrait mode. How hard can it be? By Sharegrid

The Perfect Tripod Legs

My Manfrotto C055 with a tripod head on is slightly too big and slightly too heavy to attach to the side of my camera bag. The only solution I have is to use a dedicated tripod strap to carry it. That means when I head out to shoot I have both a mid sized camera bag and a tripod slung over my shoulder. Anyone that has ever used a busy public transport system will know how frustrating that can be. Even getting in and out of a taxi can be a right pain in the derriere. 

On the other hand, my Manfrotto Belive, fits perfectly to the side of my camera bag. Despite its diminutive size, it extends to a descent height. However, if the wind has slightly more velocity than a mouse’s fart, the tripod sways.

As you know, swaying tripods are not good if you are looking for nice sharp images.

Now, I hear you cry, you could always add your camera bag to the tripod to give it some sturdiness. Of course you would be right, but if you saw just how much those tripod legs bend given just a half loaded camera bag, you would avoid that as much as I do.

What, then are the perfect tripod legs?

For me they would extend to my eye height (I am 180cm, about average for a male). They would slide easily from within each other, be sturdy, yet reasonably light. They would fold down to a size where they can easily be attached to a camera bag, with the head attached. Oh and when unlocking, the leg locks would work perfectly every time.

Speaking of which? 

Photographer with tripod on beach
The perfect tripod legs must be out there somewhere. By Blair Fraser

The Perfect Leg Locks 

There are two basic types of tripod leg locks. Rotating locks and lever locks. My personal preference is for the lever locks, but both have their issues.

Lever locks are more positive, when you close the lever, you know that leg is locked. However, they are very prone to collecting all the detritus of everyday shooting. Very often after a few months this can make them very stiff to operate. Now this can be alleviated to an extent with some basic maintenance but often, a lever can go stiff during a shoot, making it hard to extend and contract the legs.

The rotating locks, in my opinion are the devil’s own work. They lure you into the false pretence that they are locked solid, only for your tripod to sink slowly to one side. When you come to release them however, they require a lot of turning before the leg becomes free.

So the perfect leg lock? Simple – one that works every time, does not require two hands to operate it, and has a tactile click to let you know that it is locked or unlocked. 

Man squats beside his camera and tripod
Twist or level, no leg locks are perfect. By Dan Senior

The Tripod Head Base

If you are a videographer or hybrid photographer, you will know there are two types of base upon which your tripod head may sit.

  • The more common is the flat base with a 1/4 screw. This allows both video and stills heads to be screwed into the legs.
  • Less common is the bowl head. This is a concave style base that allows a video head with a concave bowl to fit inside. This in turn allows the camera to be levelled very easily by moving and locking the bowl. 

The thing is, tripod manufacturers, seem to have got it into their minds that the bowl base is entirely useless for stills photographers. In fact the opposite is true. A bowl base, is pretty much the same mechanism as a ball and socket head. It gives the same freedom to move and lock the camera in the pan and tilt planes, allowing you to very easily get your horizon straight.

Camera on tripod looks out towards sunset
Is the perfect tripod on the horizon? By Franz Nawrath on Unsplash

So, in short, my idea of the perfect tripod is: Compact lightweight sturdy legs, simple but effective leg locks, a bowl style tripod head base and a hybrid fluid pan and tilt head with the ability to move to portrait format if required.

Tripod manufacturers, over to you.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

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