Big Sur, California

Lightweight Tripods for Landscape Photography

 Do you even need a tripod?

 

Not if you listen to some Internet photo experts. Tripods are almost anathema to creative photography. It's a sign of snobbery and a magnet for non-professionals to crowd your space and attempt to duplicate what you're shooting. What could be worse than that?

Besides, modern DSLR cameras with IS and VR stabilization has eliminated the need for tripods. Blah, blah, blah.

Before you agree with what these experts say, take a look at their images. Enough said.

In fairness, there are a lot of photographic activities that don't really need tripods – but typically, landscape photography is not one of them.

 

Why you need a tripod in landscape photography

 

There are good reasons why you need a tripod for your landscape photography.

  • Most landscape images require a smaller aperture of between f/8 to f/16 for proper depth of field and an ISO of around 100 to produce the best image quality.
    • This combination translates into longer shutter speeds, and
    • longer shutter speeds require a stable camera on a tripod to produce sharp images.
  • Many landscape images are taken around the lower light of sunrises and sunsets, or what's known as the golden hour.
    • The low angles of the sun soften shadows and saturate colors, making for more stunning images, but this also results in longer shutter speeds.
    • Again, longer shutter speeds result in the need for a stable camera mount.
  • Even macro photography requires such precise focusing and aperture combinations that a tripod is necessary.
  • Panoramas require overlapping images using a consistent horizon and need a tripod to facilitate this.
  • Landscape compositions are much different than street photography and require time to visualize and set up vs. the reaction shots of street photography.

As to the argument stating creativity is hurt with tripods, I would have to agree. If you simply leave your camera on the tripod, set it up to full height and start taking images, you're probably missing some great shots. The solution is to take the camera off the tripod and start visualizing your shots. When you have a good composition, simply move the tripod to accommodate the necessary camera position. In other words, don't let the tripod be the tail that wags the dog. Move around and start visualizing without restrictions.

 

The History of Photo Stabilization Systems

 

During the age of large format cameras, 4 by 5's and 8 by 10's, tripods were wooden contraptions. Talk about inconvenient. But they were stable and wood was actually a good shock absorber. This was the Ansel Adams era.

In the heyday of what I would call the Fuji Velvia or Galen Rowell era, tripods were aluminum from Bogen or what is now Manfrotto. There were some other legs like Benro but almost everyone had a Bogen for landscape photography.

Then came carbon fiber and the tripod world changed. These were light and solid and you could not only get a Bogen but Gitzo and other companies started to develop lightweight carbon fiber tripods.

At around the same time, a small company in California, known as Really Right Stuff, started to develop plates to mount cameras and soon even offered tripod heads and carbon tripods. Another company, Kirk Enterprises, also offered camera plates while Arca Swiss was another big player in ball heads.

Prior to this camera plates were mediocre, usually from Bogen and ball heads were equally bad.

Interestingly, Really Right Stuff was started by a gentlemen who offered everything but customer service – cash only and absolutely no returns. The current owners bought the company at just the right time and the market exploded. Also, interesting, RRS recently moved to Utah to escape the high taxes and anti-business nature of California. Times continue to change.

Everything was finally coming together.

Landscape photographers now had lightweight and strong carbon fiber tripod systems with L Bracket camera plates and superior and lightweight ball heads. Nothing could be better.

How to build your own landscape stabilization system

 

Camera Brackets

 

The best bracket you can buy is what is known as an L Bracket. L Brackets allow for horizontal and vertical placement with the camera still centered over the tripod. Without an L Bracket, vertical shots are accommodated by flopping the camera to the side of the ball head. Unfortunately, this results in less stabilization.

Here's an example of the Really Right Stuff L bracket for the Nikon D810, which is the camera I use.

RRS L Bracket Nikon D810

Notice that although attached to camera from the bottom of the plate, the vertical portion of the plate can be mounted to the tripod to facilitate vertical images while continuing to be centered directly over the tripod. This does result in better stabilization and allows for easier manipulation of the camera's position.

You do have to remove the camera and remount it but ball heads which offer level releases make this an easy proposition.

Both RRS and Kirk offer L Brackets that are customized for specific cameras. Unfortunately, each camera model update results in minor size changes which necessitate a new L Bracket and yes, there are still no refunds for old brackets.

 

Ball Heads

 

Without a doubt, quality ball heads make landscape photography a joy.

Before you purchase a ball head though, make sure you consider some of the surrounding issues. Obviously, you want a ball head that is as light as possible but offers a solid connection.

Landscape photography usually uses relatively light lenses. Certainly, you may use something that extends to 300 or 400mm but you're not shooting wildlife, so you can get by nicely with a smaller and lighter ball head. Landscape photography does require packing gear into the wilderness and having a light system that is still stable is the primary goal.

I've used a number of ball heads from Bogen, to Arca Swiss to Acratech to Really Right Stuff. For years, I used the much larger RRS BH-55 which weighed in at 1.9 lbs. Although this is a great ball head it is definitely overkill and heavy. The ball head I use currently is the BH-30 LR that only weighs 11.2 oz. An improvement in weight and with the camera I use, the full sized Nikon D810 and lenses such as the Nikon 11-24 f/2.8 and Nikon 28-300, the BH-30 works perfectly.

Here's an image of the Really Right Stuff BH-30 LR (right) that I use and the Acratech (left), which is also popular.

 

ball heads

 

Tripods

 

I have as many tripods as I do camera bags – way too many. But over the years I've tried to continue to improve my system and with techonol0gal improvements, work on making it lighter and more efficient.

For years I used various Gitzo legs which are great in that they offer a lifetime warranty and they definitely cater to professional photographers. They are not inexpensive but I've not found too much in photo equipment that is inexpensive. Gitzo has some inherent problems and one which continued to plague me was that the leg sections would often come apart. They were constructed in such a way that if you extended them too far they would easily separate and you would then have to fish the curved plates from inside the upper leg and reattach. Not the end of the world but this would often happen at the most inconvenient time. Of course, you always had the lifetime warranty but in the middle of a shoot, this was little comfort.

I suffered from the love-hate relationship with my Gitzo legs until another landscape photographer, to which I have great respect and admiration (Dave Morrow), recommended a set of legs that are completely meeting my needs. Dave is the type of landscape photographer who goes on landscape backpacking trip for months at a time so, he knows what he's talking about.

In any event, the legs that I now use and highly recommend are the Feisol Tournament CT-3342 3-section rapid carbon tripod.

Not only are this lightweight at 2.27 lbs but they extend full height and only require two joints. All the other tripods required three or more which takes more time to set up and take down. Additionally, these legs don't have the joint issues that I experienced with the Gitzo since they are constructed completely differently.

One of the problems with many tripods is that they don't extend the full height. If you, for example, look at the featured image for this post, you'll notice that the tripod that the photographer is using only extends about 3 or 4 feet while a long center pole extends the rest of the distance to accommodate the camera. This is a bad situation and does not offer the proper stabilization that, for example, the Feisol offers. (I've always liked this image, but always disliked the tripod that the photographer was using.)

In any event, here's the Feisol image which is available at Amazon. Again, I recommend this without any reservations and have been happily using this as my main tripod for all my landscape shoots.

Feisol Tournament CT-3342

Want a cost-effective alternative that works?

 

I know, just the combination of the recommended gear – L bracket, ball head and tripod will set you back over a thousand dollars. And, for an advanced amateur to professional, that's entirely reasonable, but for someone getting into the art of landscape photography, it's a bit steep. Although I hate to buy gear that ultimately needs to be replaced, there is an alternative that actually works reasonably well and may even be usable for ultra-light hiking or backpacking down the road.

I still would suggest that you get a good L bracket, but this tripod I'm going to recommend even comes with a simple plate that will work in the meantime.

I actually own this tripod and although it's not the sturdiest legs around, it is reasonably strong, lightweight and very cost effective. In fact, you can choose between a carbon fiber system or for about half the price, an aluminum one.

Like I've said, the tripod comes with a camera plate, a ball head and either aluminum or carbon fiber legs. It even has a carry bag. The tripod is the MeFOTO and have become very popular among the ultra-lite crowd, and for good reason.

Here's an image of the MeFOTO which is available for Amazon. Again, choose carbon fiber or aluminum and you can even choose from several colors.

 

MeFOTO Tripod

 

Again, if you can justify the RRS/Feisol system, go for it. If not, this will really meet your needs for the time being. At least you have a legitimate choice.

 

So where do you go from here?

Landscape stabilization entails developing a system and includes the L Bracket, Ball Head, and Tripod. The combination of these items are not inexpensive but they are absolutely necessary for landscape photography. Technology developments are such that the initial changes are pretty dramatic. Subsequent changes are less incremental. I believe we have achieved a significant amount of any real changes with what is currently being offered in stabilization systems and what is recommended above. Consequently, I can state. with reasonable confidence, that owing the system that I've outlined above will last a really long time.

I hope so. I can't afford another change either.

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