Camera tripod parts – what you need and why

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In my previous post I advocated for a quality ball head to support your camera and lens. “To maximize sharpness your setup needs to include a quality camera tripod head that gives you total control of the camera position, rock-solid steadiness, and minimum transference of vibration. This will also depend upon the quality of the tripod upon which the head is attached …” The quality of the camera tripod parts you choose will largely determine the steadiness of your overall camera support. Keep in mind here that bigger and heavier is not always better, but can be more expensive than necessary.

Tripod components

Starting from the ground going up the first consideration are the proper tripod feet for a particular application. The choices come down to:

Feet

  1. rubber feet for general use:
  2. clawed feet for use in soft surfaces such as sand, muddy earth, or snow,
  3. short spikes for hard, rocky surfaces (generally used in mountainous terrain), and
  4. long spikes (e.g. STILETTOZ) feature a spike that drives into hard and soft surface alike to ensure that you get the firm shooting base you need. The longer profile of these spike feet places the legs raised above any soft earth, mud, water or rocky sand/gravel, which protects the tripod leg sections from damage and promotes a longer life span for your tripod.

Legs

The main function of the legs is to provide adjustable height and vertical support for your camera system. There can be three or four extendable leg sections, depending on the tripod height required and supporting load specification. Adjusting mechanisms on the legs can be either a twist-lock type on concentric telescoping tubes, or a lever-locking mechanism where the leg geometry may be either cylindrical or rounded corner rectangular extrusion.

Some leg sections have an inner support structure that unfolds as the tripod is opened (analogous to opening an umbrella), while others simply rely on a hinge mechanism at the apex of the tripod.

There are pros and cons to each of these designs. Having owned and used both types I recommend the twist-lock type on concentric telescoping tubes design due to its greater versatility. The tripod I currently use (more on this later) has three independent movable legs. This independent movement is not possible with the alternative design as all legs must fold/unfold together with the center section support. It is much nicer to have the freedom to extend one or two legs at different angles to get the positioning you need for challenging shots – especially when outdoors.

In my experience I have found no sacrifice in stability or support capability without a center leg support structure or center column. In fact, keeping the head and camera supported close to the tripod apex maintains maximum stability, where a tripod with a raised center column necessarily raises the center of gravity and thus decreased stability.

Baseplate

This component is arguably an optional one, yet I will argue in favor of using one based on my own experience. The type of baseplate referred to here is one that essentially replaces a center column. Its function is to provide for very low angle support (i.e. very close to ground level) where the existence of a center column would prevent doing so. An example and one that I use, is the Markins TB-20 pictured here:

This base attaches directly to my Gitzo Mountaineer 2530 tripod (note that this base ONLY fits select models of Gitzo tripods). The ball head mounts directly on top of this plate and becomes the apex point of the tripod. It is claimed by Markins that this accessory adds some vibration dampening capability, and Markins also makes it clear on their website that “Tripod bases are not required at all to use Markins ball heads.” I find that it makes for a nicer installation. For other brands of tripods other bases are available, including these that offer leveling capability:

Materials of composition

Some tripods, even modern ones such as are used for view cameras are made of wood. They are strong and rock-solid. They can also be very heavy and cumbersome to use. For Nikon SLR cameras the materials used for tripods will generally be of two different types:

  1. Extruded aluminum (cylindrical tubes, or semi-rectangular geometry)
  2. Carbon fiber composite (cylindrical tubes)

Both are light, especially compared with wood for the large format cameras, with the carbon fiber composite material having the greatest strength to weight ratio. That is greater strength for the same weight of material, or equivalent strength at a lighter weight of material. This may be a minor point depending upon your intended use. If you are an outdoor photographer, it may be one of the most important factors if you are carrying your gear with you all day long.

Examples of each of these materials are shown in the photos above comparing the leg locking mechanisms. The black colored tripod with twist-lock style mechanisms is a carbon graphite composite structure. The second photo above (silver-colored tripod) with lever-locking mechanisms is an aluminum material.

Considerations in use

If you are an amateur or advanced amateur photographer the aluminum tripod designs (which tend to be less expensive) may be the right choice. For occasional and mostly indoor photography these will provide a very stable platform to attach your Nikon gear. These consumer or “pro-sumer” grade tripods tend to collapse into relative small dimensions that would make it easy to pack for a vacation trip, even if traveling by air.

Other advanced amateur and professional photographers who required more frequent use of their gear, loading and unloading into vehicles, lugging around on most work days, etc. would get more mileage out of a composite material tripod. Using myself as an example, I regarded my photography skills in the past 20 years or so in the “advanced amateur” category and by 2007 I chose to invest in a carbon fiber composite tripod – the Gitzo Mountaineer 2530. The model pictured below is an updated version.

Camera tripod parts - Consideration in tripod material of composition
Gitzo GT2532 Mountaineer Tripod

I do not (and never have) used the center section. As described above, my center section was replaced with a tripod base on which a ball mount is attached to become the apex of the tripod. In my opinion, using an elevated center post only decreases stability with every inch of height. Configured in the way I have described with camera attached, all legs fully extended at nominal spread angle, brings the viewfinder comfortably to eye level (for me, standing at 5’10”). Your mileage may vary.

Value

A tripod configured the way described here is not inexpensive, it is an investment. If you currently have no tripod at all, by all means get yourself an affordable one that fits your budget so that you can enjoy the benefits of creating photographs free of camera shake. And if you intend to have photography be or become a life-long avocation take the time to design your dream setup, price it out, and start saving! When you reach your savings goal, buy your dream gear!!

Selection Criteria

My advice is to use the following criteria to guide you in deciding what gear is best for you:

  1. Ask yourself what type(s) of photography you do now and anticipate doing in the years to come. This will help define your needs for the right gear that suits your style of photography.
  2. Is this your first tripod or are you replacing one that no longer suits your needs?
  3. Ask yourself how much you can afford to spend on this equipment. Are you an occasional photographer, or do you shoot as a second source of income? Is this your primary source of income? Consider renting equipment if its only needed for a relatively short period.
  4. Buy the best gear that you can afford. Save for the best gear that you really want.

Conclusion

I’ve covered the most important camera tripod parts you should consider when planning a tripod purchase. The individual components, the materials they are made from, their form and fit together all combine to provide a stable platform onto which you will mount your Nikon camera gear. Combine your tripod choice with an appropriate tripod head, such as a ball mount head and you will have a great platform for creating the sharpest images possible.

Happy Shooting!

Do you currently have a tripod? Add your commentary below and let’s discuss it!

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