Tripods, Monopods and Other Camera Supports
Camera supports covers a range of different products. There are beanbags, monopods, window mounts, and the support no one should ever be without, tripods.
If you are not used to using a tripod, the first thing you will notice is what a pain in the neck they are to lug around and set up. They take precious time to place and always need to be adjusted. The second thing you will notice is that your photos look so much better. No matter what lens you use, how fast your film is, or which camera you are using, your photos will be sharper when you use a tripod. You simply cannot handhold a lens as steady as when you are using a tripod; it is the first accessory you should buy for your camera. Tripods are not always practical, especially on a boat or in a vehicle, but if you can, use one; your photos will show the difference and you will be pleased with the results. Most photographers have them; good photographers use them. Like many aspects of photography, the easiest way to get used to using them is to use them often. Soon, you will use tripods without a second thought. The trick is to find one that works well for you.
You want a tripod that is sturdy enough to hold the equipment you will use on it, not one that will bend under the weight of your camera lens. In the past this has always meant that tripods were heavy, but now carbon fiber legs make tripods lightweight while retaining their strength. If you can afford the carbon fiber it is well worth the investment, if not, the benefits outweigh the down side of carrying heavier models.
There are many models to choose from and you need to think about your specific needs to make the right decision. A feature to look for is the ability to have the legs open completely; that allows you to work at about ground level. Center columns are good for precision adjustments, but unless they are removable they prevent you from working close to the ground. Also, it is better to extend the legs on a tripod than to raise the center column. A camera sitting on top of a center column raised above the rest of the tripod is really sitting on a monopod, which is not as sturdy as a tripod.
Monopods alone are a good way to steady your camera when a tripod is not an option. Our own body movement influences how steady monopods will be, and you probably tend to sway from side to side. Whenever I use a monopod, I also try to lean against something sturdy, like a tree or a vehicle. Tripods are the best, monopods are good if I can’t use a tripod, and leaning on something steady is for when I can’t use either one.
Other specialized supports are made for use in vehicles. Window mounts are very useful indeed. They allow you to attach your tripod head to the top of the window mount, making your vehicle the support. Many national parks and wildlife refuges have wildlife loop trails where you are obligated to stay in your car as you look for animals. Even when you are bound by park rules, wildlife will often allow you to approach much closer, if you stay in your car. Window mounts are perfect for this application. There are several brands on the market and I list some places to buy them in the Resources section at the back of this book.
If you can’t justify the expense of a window mount, another solution is a beanbag. Beanbags are cheap, easy to pack when empty, and work on any kind of vehicle. You can buy one or make one yourself. It is simply a small bag that you fill with beans or seeds. You rest your camera or lens on it to be steady. I use one all the time. If you make your own, include a zipper that will enable you to fill and empty it at will. When you travel, pack it empty and fill it when you get to your destination. This cuts down on the weight of your luggage. My beanbag has two bags that Velcro together so that it cradles the window of the vehicle and my cam¬era lens. Make sure it is big enough to handle your equipment and don’t be afraid to fill it about 8/10ths of the way. When I travel I fill it with dry beans. At the end of the trip I give the beans to a local who can cook with them, so they do not go to waste.
An excuse people give for not using a tripod is that they are awkward to use. One of the reasons for this might be that they don’t have a suitable tripod head. Pan and tilt heads are wonderful if you have the time for precise adjustments, but they have at least two handles to adjust so are not always practical for applications where time counts.
For wildlife photography, a ball head is better suited for the job. Ball heads have just one knob to adjust, giving you speed and flexibility in movement. They are compact and easy to pack.
If you use large lenses, make sure your tripod head is rated for the weight you are putting on it. The Wimberley head is the best on the market for large telephoto lenses. It has a gimbal design that allows you to move it around its center of gravity with ease and very little effort. It can be bulky for travel but is worth the effort. It is not the best choice for short lenses, but it can be adapted in a pinch. I tend to bring a very small ball head for use only with small lenses, like a wide angle for landscapes, and a Wimberley for large lenses. I wish there were one tripod head that fit all my needs, but I continue to use both for my photography.
Camera Bags and Vests
Backpacks, shoulder bags, hip packs, and photo vests are but a few camera-carrying devices there are to choose from. Which one is best, you ask? All of them! There does not seem to be one camera bag that is good for all cameras in all cases.
Camera backpacks are great for getting your gear from point A to point B, but may pose problems if you need to access your gear in a hurry. Shoulder bags give you better access but may not be big enough for all your gear, and Chiropractic visits to fix your shoulder could mean a second mortgage. Your choice depends on your needs.
There are many choices when it comes to carrying your equipment, top loading, belt packs and back packs. You will probably end up with more than one type as your photography develops.