What Makes a Good Tripod?

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Last week we started investigating how to shop for tripods and other common camera supports. This week I'd like to pick up where we left off--right in the middle of shopping for a tripod--and then look at some other handy accessories for stabilizing your camera.

The Head

After you've hung out in the camera shop for a while, extending and retracting legs and standing beside fully deployed tripods to assess the height, it's time to think about the head.

Folks new to photography don't think much about tripod heads and tend to end up with what's called a pan head, in which you adjust each of the axis independently--as you can see in this picture.

To frame your photo with your camera on a pan head, you need to loosen two or even three controls: up/down, or elevation; side-to-side, or azimuth; and leveling. In my experience, after you bring home a tripod with a pan head, one of two things tend to happen: Either you use it for a while, get frustrated with it, and stop using your tripod; or you use it for a while, get frustrated, and replace it with a ball head.

A ball head is far easier to control: In general, there's only one control that affects the orientation of the camera. The camera is mounted on a ball that sits in a socket, as you see in this picture. When you loosen the head, the ball can move in any direction--here's a typical ball head.

Quick Release

Once you've selected your tripod legs (as we discussed last week) and head, you're almost done! But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention another cool timesaver--the quick release.

Actually, not all tripods have a quick release assembly. Less-expensive models require you to methodically screw the camera into the tripod each and every time you want to use the tripod.

A better solution is to get a tripod (or a head) that has a quick-release mount. To use it, attach a plate to the bottom of your camera, where you should pretty much just leave it there all the time. The plate locks into place on the tripod head, which you can connect and disconnect with a quick flick of your finger.

Unusual Supports

Tripods and monopods are the usual fare for supporting your camera, but you can find all sorts of interesting alternatives around if you look for them. Take the Quik Pod, for example--it looks like a monopod, but it has a ball head so the camera is easy to point in any direction. The goal of the Quik Pod is to take self portraits: Set the self-portrait timer, hold the Quik Pod in front of you to put the camera at more than twice arm's length, and photograph yourself or a couple of people without needing a tripod.

Plamps are handy clamps that live at the end of long, flexible arms--ideal for holding your subject in place as you set up your shot.
Plamps are handy clamps that live at the end of long, flexible arms--ideal for holding your subject in place as you set up your shot.
You might also want to secure not the camera itself but your subject. In that case, look no further than "plamps." A plamp is a clamp with a long, flexible arm that you can use to precisely position subjects in front of the camera. They're especially handy for macro and close-up photography; attach one end to your tripod and the other end to whatever you want to take a picture of.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Tulips Everywhere," by Kevin Fenn, Spanish Fork, Utah

Kevin says: "Every year at Thanksgiving Point in the Salt Lake City area, there is a Tulip Festival where you can see hundreds of thousands of tulips in full bloom. I was down on my hands and knees playing around with the macro zoom on my Canon SD600, and I liked the way this pink tulip stood out amongst its peers. The snow capped mountains in the background add a nice touch."

This Week's runner-up: "Fuzzy Falls," by Bruce Tippitt, Evansville, Indiana

Bruce writes: "I took this photo at a small creek in the Smoky Mountains. I mounted my camera on a tripod and used a long exposure with a neutral density filter over the lens to get a slower shutter speed."

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

This story, "What Makes a Good Tripod?" was originally published by PCWorld.

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