Episode 22 Show Notes: Camera Support Systems ft. Joe Fitzpatrick

Peggy Farren 2017-02-04

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Here are the show notes for episode 22 of The Understand Photography Show:

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Show Notes for Episode 22: Camera Support Systems ft. Joe Fitzpatrick

A camera support system is something that holds your camera.

Why not just hand hold your camera?

  • There is less camera shake, resulting in a sharper image.
  • Slower shutter speed is useful for night photography, astrophoography and the silky water effect.
  • When shooting landscape photography, you can use the lowest ISO for the best image and highest quality.
  • It reduces photographer fatigue caused by carrying heavy cameras/lenses.

What kinds of supports are available?

  • Tripods are the most popular.
  • Monopods
  • Bean bags
  • Clamps
  • Rail systems for timelapse

Tripods consist of only the legs. The more sections a tripod has, the more joints, and therefore the less stability. The head is a separate part from the tripod.

What should we look for in a tripod?
- The ideal tripod would be lightweight, rock solid and inexpensive.
- The reality is that we can pick any two but not all three!

Tripod legs are constructed of the following materials:

  • Wood is very stable and dampens vibration, but is heavy.
  • Steel is inexpensive, but heavy and vibration prone.
  • Aluminum is lighter, can be inexpensive, but is subject to vibration
  • Carbon fiber tripods are lightweight, super sturdy, and dampen vibration well. They are very well-made and are top quality, but are the most expensive. (Manfrotto 055 aluminum $220, carbon fiber $342)
  • Aluminum tripods are the most popular as they provide a good compromise.

What else should I look for when buying a tripod?

  • Leg locks:
  • TWIST-LOCK - Each section goes inside other and you twist to tighten. It won't get caught when climbing through brush, for example, but it is also hard to keep clean.
  • LEVER-LOCK: You simply flip a lever to tighten, so it is quick and easy, and you have visual confirmation on whether they're locked or not.
  • Height: The taller, the better; some tripods have a center column that extends, but you want it to be tall enough to look through without center column.
  • Size when collapsed for travel – many tripods are made with travel in mind.
  • Feet: rubber or spike
  • Weight ratings are really only good when comparing within a brand. Overall they are kind of a joke and more of a guideline, and aren't comparable between brands because you don't know what they used as their variables to determine their weight limits. The best thing to do is put your camera/system on the ballhead, and lock it down and see if it will sit there without gradually sinking/drifting, and see how much sag is associated. Sometimes when you lock it, the lock isnt firm enough to hold the weight, and the other is the shift after locking.

Monopods:

  • A monopod has just one stick, and you attach the head the same way.
  • It supports a heavier body when you don't have the space to spread out with a tripod.
  • It's a back saver with heavy lenses.
  • It is not as steady as a tripod.
  • Peggy has a Manfrotto monopod which she uses for weddings inside churches.

Clean the sand from your tripod with a garden hose or in the shower. Take a towel and wipe it off. Don't lubricate it unless the manufacturer specifies.

"If you really love your tripod, shower with it!" - Joe Fitzpatrick


So I can just buy a tripod, attach the camera, and start shooting, correct?

Most tripods do not include the tripod head. Some tripods and heads are sold pre-assembled. Some are very low quality, but some are mid-range where the manufacturer makes the ball head and legs. Makers who make both tripods and heads often have both packages and bare tripods. Buying the tripod and head is generally best so you can get exactly what you need You need to know whether the ball head in the package is the one you want. You can mix and match betweem manufacturers.

To put the head on the tripod legs, there is a screw at top of tripod (there are 2 standard sizes, US specs, not metric). The ball head has a thread and you simply screw it on, but you need to be strong so that it's tight! Some tripods have set screws undereath so that the head wont come loose when you're panning.

For new but serious photographers who are not rich but want something good, you will typically have to spend about half of what you spent on your beginniner camera on the head and tripod.

There are two basic types of heads for still photography: ball heads and pan/tilt heads.

Ball Heads:

  • Ball heads allow for rapid positioning of the camera; there are knobs to twist for positioning and then lock down. It is difficult to get them very precise, and a lot have "sag", where it shifts a bit when you lock it.
  • Ball heads are the all around winner for general photography as they are fast and easy to position. A ball head with a separate control for panning is preferable. In general, a bigger ball will hold more weight and have a smoother movement. Make sure that the head will hold the camera without sagging when locked up. Also, look to see how much the ball head shifts when the lock is tightened.
  • DP-Review has done two ball head tests. The results are informative and somewhat surprising.

Pan/tilt heads:

  • Pan/tilt heads (aka gear heads) allow for precise positioning of the camera. You can tilt up and down and swing side to side using two levers. Some are geared, where you turn a knob to move it for tight positioning and accurate framing. These are great for product, landscape, and macro photography (when the subject isn't moving). For stills, you want a 3-way pan/tilt head so you can flip the camera to portrait mode. Video pan/tilt heads often are 2-way, and the panning motion is usually hypdraulically dampened for smoother motion.

Are there other types of heads I should consider?

  • If you do action photography, such as bird photography, with a heavy lens, use a gimbal mount for the head, which is used to track things in motion. They allow you to freely move a long lens up and down and side to side to track birds in flight. They are a specialty item and not good for general photography, so you need a second tripod or be prepared to switch heads.
  • While the full gimbal replaces ballhead, the half gimbal attaches to the ball head clamp. Then you flip it on its side and it somewhat acts like a gimbal, although it's less precise. It can quickly attach to ballhead and is ready to go. The panning feature of the ball head must be smooth and free.
  • Joystick and grab ball heads allow quick positioning but don’t handle heavy loads and cause hand and wrist fatigue.

To complete the camera support setup, you have to have the tripod, then head/ballhead. You also need a tripod plate which fits into a clamp on the head to allow easy attachment and removal of the camera.

Quick Release:

  • The most common type is the Arca-Swiss style. Manfrotto has a proprietary design as well as an Arca-Swiss compatible type. Most cheap tripod/head combos have proprietary systems.
    •The Manfrotto QR plate works well and is small and lightweight. Its drawback is that your choices are limited to Manfrotto products.
    •It is not a standard so the plate width and groove angle varies slightly from maker to maker. This can be a problem when using lever clamps with plates from different makers.
    •Gimbal heads and L plates are typically Arca-Swiss.

Joe's favorite ball head is the Sirui KX series. His tripods are all Manfrotto, except for the ancient Vanguards.

Small tabletop tripod: Joe's favorite is the Manfrotto Pixie, which stands about 4" and has a little ball head. It is great for travel with a light camera, such as a 4:3 camera or starter DSLR with a kit lense. Joe uses it with his Panaxonic LX100.

Gitzo makes super light tripods, most of which are carbon fiber. One collapses really small. The Manfrotto middle-align tripods are less expensive. The inexpensive tripods (such as from Best Buy) are not sturdy, but you can use for flash for product photography in the studio, for example.

Jobo makes small tripods with flexible legs that can bend to go around trees and obstacles. Stick with the Jobo brand - the cheap ones are useless and fall apart.

You can attach a long lense to your tripod for balance, which is attached with a tripod mounting ring. This makes it easier for the ball head to get a good grab.

"The longer the lens, the more likely you are to have motion blur from shutter shake."
- Peggy Farren


Beanbags are great for travel and are lightweight when empty. When you arrive at your destination, buy a couple of pounds of beans and fill the beanbags. Set them on whatever surface you have and lay your camera on the beanbag.

Put your name on your camera equipment!

Joe's tips on camera support systems:

  1. Buy the best tripod and head you can afford. (Vanguard makes a good tripod!) Good ones last forever, and cheap ones have to be replaced. If he had to pick, the ball head is probably more important than the legs.
  2. Turn off the stabilization on your lens when using a tripod. There are a few smart lenses where you don't have to do that, but if it's not specified in the documentation, then you need to turn it off.
  3. Use a cable/shutter release. If you don't have one, set the self-timer. This allows the camera to settle down to get stable after pressing the shutter button.
  4. Make sure the tripod legs are locked - especially with twist locks. Push down a little to make sure they won't sink.
    Check the tightness of lever locks, especially at temperature extremes.
  5. If you've been in salt water, sand, or dusty conditions, hose off the tripod with fresh watr.
  6. Don't lubricate the head unless the manufacturer specifically states to.
  7. Don't hike with the camera mounted on the tripod.
  8. A tripod makes a great stand for an off-camera flash.
  9. Make sure that leg spikes are retracted before using a tripod indoors. Some tripods have rubber feet and little retractable spikes, or you can replace rubber feet with spikes. You can use these to stick into the ground somewhere.
  10. If you're buying a camera support system, ask us on our free Understand Photography Facebook group.

See you next week for episode 23!


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