The Most Powerful Light In Your Bag

Last year I photographed Michael Stebbins for Rep Stage, which is how I got to know him for the Glass Menagerie photos.

The Smith Theater, where I shot him, is big and dark. In fact, I had shot someone else there about twenty years earlier for a magazine assignment -- and the Smith Theater had kicked my butt.

I brought every light I had (many, many watt-seconds worth) but I still did not have what I really needed -- the understanding required to work in a big, dark setting.

I even had with me the exact of piece of gear I needed. It was just that I just didn't know how to use it.

Time is Your Most Powerful Light

My mistake at the time was trying to light that big cavern with flash. The best I could do was to light a section of seats and have the rest of the cave drift into darkness. And this was with several big White Lightning flashes.

There's a perfectly good explanation, too -- I was young and stupid. What I should have done was to use a longer ambient exposure to let the theater to light itself, and add just a little bit of light to my subject.

A Lighting Photographer's Best Friend

All you need to tame a big, dark space (before you add light) is a tripod. But if you are not going to buy a decent tripod, don't even bother.

The one you are looking at on the left is my sidekick for the last 25 years -- a Gitzo Reporter Performance tripod with a Slik Pro Ball head. There are a lot of places where you can cut corners in lighting gear, but your tripod should not be one of them. And frankly, most people do cut corners on their first tripod.

This Gitzo was my third or fourth tripod, if memory serves. And back then, it was pretty much the only brand to buy if you were serious about it. I resisted and bought a few crappy tripods, because the Gitzos were very expensive at the time. And they came in two choices -- heavy steel and heavy steel.

But times have changed, and now tripods are made out of things like carbon fiber and magnesium alloy. Which means lighter weight, but still very strong. And there are other companies making good tripods, too. Which is a good thing, because Gitzo tripods have gotten just silly expensive.

So why should you fork out for a good tripod, and how do you choose?

As to the first question, I tripod is not worth a hill of beans if it won't hold your camera rock steady. Seriously, what's the point? If you cannot leave your shutter open for 30 seconds and get a sharp frame, the tripod is not doing the one job it was designed to do.

And being able to keep that camera still means you can light people in big, dark spaces.

Take the photo of Stebbins, above. Rather than trying to nuke the place with more power (like I did as a pimply-faced newb) I now understand that you let the theater ambient come to you. Then you finesse your subject with small amounts of flash.

In fact, this is one of those times when a Profoto or AlienBee might not even be able to dial down far enough to help you. They might give you a maximum (i.e., widest) working aperture of f/5.6 or f/8, when you'd really rather be able to work at f/4 or f/2.8. Why do you want to work closer to wide open? Because of the corresponding shutter speed.

In my case, I underexposed the theater by about two stops by shooting at 1/20th of a second at f/4. That made the ambient light in the room become the fill. Which let me light Michael with very modest amounts of light from three speedlights.

(Of course, the theater was lit with tungsten light. So I had to shoot on tungsten WB and gel the flashes to bring it together.)

In the end, it's the room that does the heavy lifting. It lights itself -- if you can just keep your camera steady enough long enough for it to happen.

And that's the irony of the Big Dark Room. It scares you as a lighting photographer until you realize that you are only a half-second or so away from that room looking beautiful and subdued. You just have to be able to keep your camera perfectly still while the shutter is open. Then you finesse just the areas you want with a small flash or two.

In that sense, I would feel perfectly comfy heading into a portrait assignment in a big dark room with just one speedlight and an umbrella. As long as I had a good tripod to bring it all together.

Tripod Buying 101

First: Don't buy a crappy, no-name tripod. You'll only have to repeat the process later. Trust me on that one. I learned the hard way.

Second, don't buy too much tripod. Buy enough to support whatever platform you are using. That will allow you to point your money towards good quality rather than just buying a larger piece of crap. If you shoot with a DSLR, buy a tripod that is designed for s DSLR. Don't waste money on the next size up in hope of more stability.

One exception might be if the tripod is going to do double duty (i.e., supporting a telescope, etc.) or if you plan to tether and want to mount your laptop to a dual plate up top. In that case, buying bigger might make sense to get the flexibility.

Carbon fiber or alloy? That's up to you. My recommendation is, unless you are a backpacker, go with alloy. Carbon fiber is nice, but I am looking for the most stability and quality per dollar. That's a personal choice tho, obviously.

As for the head, get one matched to the tripod. No sense in getting great legs and a crappy head, or vice versa. I like ball heads because they are very fast. But if you shoot, say, architecture, you might want to be able to adjust your axes independently.

One thing I would absolutely recommend is to choose a tripod with a stability hook. This allows you to hang your camera bag from the bottom of the tripod's center column for greatly increased stability.

Buy for the long term, and/or consider buying used if you are on a budget. You may only be dating your DSLRs for a few years each, but you'll probably marry the tripod.

And there is no reason your tripod shouldn't last a lifetime.


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Blogger Lou said...

DH, I can't agree with you more on this, and I'm a new convert to the world of "decent tripods".

I've had a crappy "walmart-special" tripod that "did the job" for a while, but the adjustability was killing me. Primarily in the height and portrait/vertical areas. After going to a figure shoot workshop where (almost) everyone had some nice Gitzo, Manfrotto, or Bogen sticks, I decided I'd pick some up as well.

Being on a budget, I remembered reading about Scott Bourne's experience with Induro tripods. I'd also just received an MPEX email about having the Induro Alloy 6M on sale.

I ordered the Induro Alloy 6M Tripod A113 with the Induro BHQR Tripod Head SA12, and all things considered, I couldn't be happier. I like the ball head much more than my old crappy pan tripod, it's much more solid, easier to set up, and looks better. I just wish there was a grip style ball head in my price range. The SA12 head also isn't the smoothest ball head, although I may just need to lubricate the socket some.

I definitely became a convert to how important a good tripod is over the past few weeks. An important piece of quality kit to have for sure.

March 22, 2010 12:23 AM  
Blogger Phat Baby Photographer said...

I don't usually skimp on equipment, but I did with my tripod and honestly the $30 cheapo has done me just fine for time lapse photography, portraits and the occasional long exposure. No disrespect intended.

March 22, 2010 12:28 AM  
Blogger Christian Louzan said...

I wish I had read this article before I waste 300 dollars. You live and you learn.

March 22, 2010 12:37 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

I wholeheartedly agree with this article. I bought a Bogen 3000 tripod in 1986 and price has been long forgotten. It has seen use with 4 cameras. It has never failed me. Sure, there is a little rust here and there, but it functions as good as new. I will probably have it for another 25.

Another item I just bought that I should have bought a long time ago is a reflector holder/boom attachment for my light stand. It has become invaluable! No more asking someone to hold it here, then they move it there before I snap the photo...

March 22, 2010 12:45 AM  
Blogger Patrick Smith said...

Ugh! I wish I still had one of those Slik Pro ball heads. That thing was epic! I hope the thief that stole it is enjoying it.

March 22, 2010 1:29 AM  
Blogger wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Hmmm David -

that sounds like good advice, and I also lit up some dark areas very well with just using long exposures. But what would you do if your subject isn't some grown-up whom you can tell to "just sit still for a sec", but a bunch of kids? You'd never be able to freeze them without heavy use of strobes IMHO...

March 22, 2010 1:32 AM  
Blogger N said...

The Induro AKB2 tripod kit with ball head can be had for $181 on and it's a fantastic deal. It sells locally here for $300. The ball head is a bit stiff but the whole unit works well. Legs lock at various angles, 3 part legs, bubble levels on the body and head, hooks, reversible column, light weight but solid. It's a really good deal for the money. I got mine on sale for $124 just after Christmas on

March 22, 2010 1:43 AM  
OpenID restaurantouring said...

I've probably spent upwards of 200 bucks on cheap, plastic tripods by now. Broke every time. The biggest scare I had was when one of the cheap heads I had broke with thousands of dollars' worth of glass, flash, and camera body on it. The sudden shift in weight tilted the tripod enough to make it start falling, but I was luckily able to catch it in time. No damage. You know, except for the heart attack I suffered.

Hasn't happened since I got a carbon fiber Manfrotto. Both my heart and wallet are thankful for that.

Question: pistol grip style ball head or no?

March 22, 2010 1:49 AM  
Blogger James Pratt said...

Great suggestion. When I was scouting for this photo:

I knew I couldn't light the entire parking garage with strobes. I also knew that I would have a reflection of my light source in the side of the car. So I found a parking garage that had a large white wall in front of a plate glass window. I woudl use the ambient light coming in through the window and bouncing off the white wall as my key light. The rest of the lighting was built up from that using speedlights and studio strobes. I had to shoot on a tripod for the ambient, which was my key light. This would have looked like crap if I had used my strobes as the key light - would have had the reflection of a softbox in the side of the car. You can see the white wall in the side of the car.

March 22, 2010 2:39 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

This entire concept of using slow shutter speeds is great, as long as you don't have a subject that is moving. For those of us who shoot weddings and deal with big dark churches and reception halls, it's unfortunately not very useful. It may work just fine for a few shots when you're allowing some "artistic" blurring... but if you were to show your client a few hundred shots in a row from the ceremony, with the groom looking OK (he's in black) but the bride's white gown blurring every time she fidgets... they're going to think you're pretty incompetent. Of course, I'm only referring to the LIVE work; posed portraits are a different story.

Good advice re: the tripods. I have a Slik that I've been using for 16 years. Its no Gitzo, but it's never failed me.

- Matthew

March 22, 2010 3:30 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Bought a Manfrotto 055 Pro tripod with a #222 joystick ballhead when I went fulltime photog 7 years ago. Gets contstant use and well worth the investment - paid for itself time and time again. The joystick head makes adjustments for portraits really quick and easy. Also would recommend getting a decent cable release/remote to trigger the shutter. Even the most delicate trigger finger can cause vibration that you may regret - I know.

March 22, 2010 5:18 AM  
Blogger bobfoto said...

Thom Hogan certainly agrees with you. I read his article on the same subject several years ago and have subscribed to the theory as a result.

March 22, 2010 5:38 AM  
Blogger Bernhard A S said...

I have this strange habit not to get rid (easily) of my old gear. So I still have my first Okisch tripod and a couple of really crappy freebies. Also friends and family sometimes contribute a donation to the crappy tripod pool when they upgrade themselves.

I found them OK as a backup should you run out of lightstands. They dont have the heights, but for bouncing off the floor or for background light they might be useful. An they can all easily hold the weight of a decent flash.

March 22, 2010 6:41 AM  
Blogger George said...

David, I t would be helpful if you would comment about height requirements when buying a tripod.
Thank you.

March 22, 2010 7:05 AM  
Blogger Jim Poor said...

There is now another choice in the Carbon Fiber / Alloy race and that is Basalt. Gitzo just came out with a new line of Basalt tripods that are less expensive than CF, and only a little heavier.

March 22, 2010 7:39 AM  
Blogger Joe Holmes said...

One more angle on all this -- you can buy a brand-name expensive tripod and still make a mistake.

Years ago I spent a lot on an ultra-light Gitzo basalt backpacker tripod, and it's just never been steady or tall enough for my camera. So I ended up going out and buying all over again (another Gitzo).

So don't get carried away with a super-light tripod thinking that lots of cash and a great brand name will carry you through. Be smart.

March 22, 2010 7:55 AM  
Blogger Terence said...

DH, I've used a Manfrotto 055MF3 Carbon Fibre for the last 5 years all over the world. One of the best photography investments ever for me. Had no issues with quality, although doormen at two separate hotels have cost me tripod heads by 'helping' with my gear!

March 22, 2010 8:05 AM  
Blogger John W. McQuirter said...

Bought a second tripod 2 years ago. 1st one 30 years old,still works just very battered looking.My slick ball head , the same as yours has been retired for years,now using a manfrotto #222 , an early version of their joystick,20 years old.It worked great with my RB but not so good with a DSLR. Will have to upgrade to the new joystick soon, its new design is easier for vertical compositions.

March 22, 2010 8:33 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

@Phat Baby

It would be useful to know the brand, baby.

I bought a medium size Calumet tripod for a medium price, and I can assure you all it gives a medium performance >.<

Still loving the blog DH, thx :)

March 22, 2010 8:41 AM  
Blogger Reinoud said...

for tripods there are usually 3 dependent factors: wheight, stability and price.
Thas means:
- a light stable tripod is expensive
- a light cheap triod is not stable
- a cheap stable tripod is heavy

March 22, 2010 9:09 AM  
Blogger Mike Reed said...

I HATE TRIPODS. Why? Because I bought a $19 one, last year. Yes they really do make $19 tripods. So the funny thing is I shoot weddings, I shot 23 last year and about 2/3's of those where inside in very DARK churches! It took me a while but I figured out the ambient light thing but you can't keep a large group of people still (a couple yes, large group with kids no) for longer that 1/20th of a second so I got the new love of my life a really good monopod with a great matching ball-head... IT ROCKS! 1/20th of a second and a single strobe with a 60-inch umbrella has been working great. Looks like I'm on the hunt now for a real tripod. Oh and the $19 tripod? My three little kids love it! They play "TV Station" with it, it doubles as the TV camera.

March 22, 2010 9:24 AM  
Blogger brad said...

Thanks for yet another great article for newb, wanna be photographers like me. This is the best photo blog on the web. Keep up the great work.

March 22, 2010 9:47 AM  
Blogger JakobG said...

Out of curiosity, doesn't using a slower shutterspeed require the subject to sit reasonably still to avoid a bit of a fairyglow blurring around the flash-captured image?

I'm struggling with slow exposure flash photography to avoid a blurring around a sharp subject whether using rear curtain or otherwise. Am I going using too slow a shutter or is there something else I'm missing?

I get the purpose of slow sync or rear sync but aside from lovely ambience and sharpness I still end up with a slight motion blur around the subject

March 22, 2010 10:09 AM  
Blogger Alice-B said...

A lifetime... I still use the tripod my dad bought some years before my birth, 35 years ago...
He melt one plastic footpad doing lava shots during an eruption, but apart from this, it still works great...

March 22, 2010 10:09 AM  
Blogger Dominique LACOUTURE said...

A lifetime... I still use the tripod my dad bought some years before my birth, 35 years ago...
He melt one plastic footpad doing lava shots during an eruption, but apart from this, it still works great...

March 22, 2010 10:13 AM  
OpenID Andrew Ball said...

I cant say enough about my Manfrotto 755B Pro Legs and 410 Geared Head. I shot a lot of commercial product and architecture so the geared head is an obvious choice but even for portraits is can quickly adjusted. and it can be leveled out in an 1/4 of the time of a ball head. My tripod is heavy and rugged, its been frozen solid(8 degrees out shooting long exposures of a frozen river), in sand, in mud, in snow, in heat and dust. Never has it failed me.

March 22, 2010 10:20 AM  
Blogger Frozen Forever Photography said...

Also be aware that a telescoping neck is not stable when extended. It’s best to use a remote to trigger the camera when working with long shutters. If your camera has a mirror lock-up function, then use it. Just the amount of movement created by the mirror moving is enough to add blur to your images.


March 22, 2010 10:25 AM  
Blogger NtwkGestapo said...

I've got an OLD Slik U-212 tripod I bought back in '81. Recently added a Manfrotto 498-RC2 ball head to it. Works quite well, but I'm seriously looking @ a Carbon Fiber one SPECIFICALLY for vibration damping (yes, the C/F ones DO do better damping. Built into the fact that the force vectors travel differently thru them). Gitzo has the best for vibration, only because they're the only one I know that does alternate wrapping (one layer is wrapped diagonally down the tube, the next is wrapped in the opposite direction so you get somewhere between 45 deg and 90 deg alternation on the wraps. Does MAJOR improvements on damping). Probably WON'T be a Gitzo for my next, they're just TOOO expensive!

March 22, 2010 10:58 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

I saw a few positive comments on the Induro tripods. Keep in mind the Benro tripods sold by B&H seem to come from the same factory. The Adorama Flashpoints also appear identical to some of Benro/Induro's products.

There's also some matchup between Amvona's product line and Benro/Induro/Flashpoint, but based on the quality reviews of the Amvonas, I'm guessing Amvona is selling the factory rejects that no one wants to sell under the Benro/Induro/Flashpoint brands.

March 22, 2010 11:11 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

ARGH. I forgot to mention these in my previous comment about the Benros/Induros/Flashpoints:

I have a Benro carbon fiber tripod with their medium-capacity ballhead and love it. I'm an avid hiker so the CF was a must for me.

However, if you don't hike, the extra mass of an aluminum tripod will probably help you in terms of stability. I've actually been considering getting a second Induro or Benro aluminum unit to keep in the back of the Outback for HDR/pano use.

March 22, 2010 11:13 AM  
Blogger vrillusions said...

For those that still want to get a cheapie search amazon for Dolica AX620B100. Only $40 but it's a really nice tripod for that price. Has adjustable legs, ball head, hook on center column, etc. Down side is it's a little wobbly when legs are fully extended. It beats the wal-mart special and best buy tripods though. There's a reason this is the #2 tripod on amazon.

All that being said, it's definitely not going to be mistaken for a pro tripod but if you're still starting out and annoyed with the cheap tripods you can find in stores then give this a shot. Once you can afford a better one you can keep this around for a standby flash stand :)

March 22, 2010 11:28 AM  
Blogger ads said...

so. I got that you stopped down twice with the shutter on this particular images. great. I am trying to achieve the same thing in my photography, whereas you balance the ambient with the flash... but I am thick headed and dense...

What is the ISO set at? what is speed lights set for? In what location where the light(s) placed? Did you shoot through an umbrella, or into an umbrella? was this merely TTL? Doesnt look like it to me.

My guess here is that if the setting was f4 on the camera, you set the light to f2.8? Or if it was TTL, you could of left the light at f4, and dialed down a stop.

What exactly did you do?

I get the tripod is imperative to all of the this, and yes, I have a great tripod. I just suck and lighting, and that is why I read your blog.

So, please, what is the exact strobist information? and if you could start adding this information to all of your images, that would be extremely helpful.

March 22, 2010 11:40 AM  
Blogger Patrick Eden said...

Hello David another great post, My Gitzo Studex Repoter tripod is 25 years old now as well. On another note, the beech tree photo you used in one of your posts is here now.
I managed to delete my other account. Doh.

March 22, 2010 12:01 PM  
Blogger Larry Eiss said...

Great article. My photography mentor kept telling me that my image problems were because my tripod wasn't good enough, but it was a long time before I listened. Finally, I selected a high-end Gitzo carbon fiber and paid the "silly expensive" price for it. I bought a great Kirk BH55 ball head to go with it too!. All in all, I have well over $1000 invested in my platform, but let me tell you what; it was worth every cent. My images are a lot better, and I know for sure that if there is a problem it's not my shooting platform.

March 22, 2010 1:17 PM  
Blogger captivatingimagery said...

This is good advice. While I went for a decent quality tripod, I wish I would have upgraded to one that would hold more weight. With a telephoto lens on it, the ball head on my Manfrotto tripod eventually dips toward the weight of the lens.

March 22, 2010 1:40 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I have been in photography for 27 years now (I don't feel old enough to say that). I had gotten good advice when I started out and bought a good Bogen tripod which is still my number one tripod today with spiked feet and a case. All I have added was a speed grip head, along side the normal 3 way that came with it. Which I change out as needed.

Complete, it cost nearly as much as my used Canon F1 that I bought at the same time. Since then I have added a few others A lightweight Culman tripod for hiking, a carbon fiber Bogen, several monopods, and one Studio mono stand that I love and weighs about 200 pounds. I've had a few others in there too that were cheaper and did not last very long. My view camera was bought with a wood tripod that I use as a decoration with a brass spotting scope now. But my best tripod has always been that heavy Bogen (sorry I don't memorize part numbers).

it's been in the ocean and many rivers, snow, and desert, rain and perfectly dry studios and never fails me. I'm sure it will be around long after I return to the dust of the earth!

March 22, 2010 1:43 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

For what it's worth... I decided to buy a carbon tripod over a metal one because I knew from my own experience that its lightness would greatly raise the probability that I carry it along. (You could tether the Hindenburg to my previous units.)

The weight savings also allowed me to choose a stiffer, stronger model than the 'lightest' version.

For me, the benefits of more frequent use and much greater stability outweigh the penalty of higher-cost.

March 22, 2010 1:47 PM  
Blogger Myron said...

I'm a backpacker in Hawaii so I got the carbon fiber, then they came out Ocean no-rust model, oh well. I like the weight of the carbon fiber but the legs don't slide nicely, kind of sticky, not a big deal just weird.

March 22, 2010 2:05 PM  
Blogger Myron said...

I use the cheap tripods sometimes instead of light stands for more stability in the great outdoors. A lot of stuff works best in flat floors.

March 22, 2010 2:07 PM  
Blogger David said...


This is primarily a piece on tripods, rather than an On Assignment piece. I did not want to lengthen/dilute it, nor do I want to work through the entire shoot in the comments section.

I have, literally, hundreds of lighting walkthrough lighting posts in the Lighting 101, Lighting 102 and On Assignment sections on the site. I suggest you work through those sections if what I am saying in the post left you scratching you head.


March 22, 2010 2:49 PM  
Blogger Fenix Fotography said...

The going rate for used gitzos on eBay just doubled and will likely triple by the end of the week.

I had one of those "Promaster" camera-store specials before I got my Manfrotto sticks and head. The head on the neck on the cheap pod snapped on the middle of a long exposure sending body and glass to the concrete below.

March 22, 2010 3:03 PM  
Blogger Sathish said...

A better tripod to hold your gear firm??? Oh,, ask me!!

I am kind of always behind the camera. 2008 fall, i visited Shenandoah Valley and was taking pictures of the valley. I wanted to get a picture of me with that colorful background. So i set up the camera on the small tripod and put it firmly on the rocks. I moved in front of the camera and as i was turning around, there was a strong gush of wind. I dont know if its due to the wind or someone touched it or the tripod couldnt hold the camera,, what ever it was,,, i saw my D40 with kit lens falling on the rocks and the moment it hit the ground the lens separated from the camera. The shutter of D40 is struck and body broken. The filter attached to the kit lens smashed and the thread broke into pieces. Thread as in the two edges that hold the lens to the camera. I didnt dare to take it to a camera store since then.

BOTTOM LINE: Invest n a better tripod and you will be at peace leaving your gear on it. Got a manfrotto now. But considering my lenses now, i am planning to one in next level and that would be my tripod for next decade or so for sure! :-)

March 22, 2010 3:37 PM  
Blogger Chip said...

"No sense in getting great legs and a crappy head, or vice versa."

Man, that reminds me of this girlfriend I had in college...

March 22, 2010 3:44 PM  
Blogger NtwkGestapo said...

Well, I must correct my statement about the Gitzo's being the only ones with alternating wraps... Induro and Giottos both due multiple direction wraps for their legs (that'll teach me to believe what I read on the internet! :) )... Induro looks especially good in that area (at least 4 different wrap directions). The reason for this being important... When vibration is induced anywhere in the tripod, it travels down/up the fibers... multi-directional wraps cause it to "get lost" as it travels along the lengths... it gets absorbed much quicker with C/F tubes and therefore less of a chance of it making it to the camera.... Oh well, c'est la vie!

March 22, 2010 4:39 PM  
Blogger Paul Mason said...

When your only tool is a hammer, every job becomes a nail


Great post - good light isn't necessarily about lights...

March 22, 2010 4:50 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

I've got a manfrotto 3046 with a gitzo ballhead. I've thought about trading in the manfrotto for a lighter tripod, but it is just so nice I don't know. The weight is horrible and the legs are fixed. I got it as part of a deal with a german equatorial mount, so I can't decide if it is to much tripod, or if it is the last tripod I'll ever need.

March 22, 2010 8:03 PM  
Blogger Lola said...

You all look pro photographers, am I right? What kind of tripod would you guys recommend to a non-professional, that occasionally goes out with the camera? I really want to buy a decent one, but I'm not prepared to invest piles of money on that.

March 22, 2010 8:19 PM  
Blogger Ranger 9 said...

Astute point about sometimes needing to go heavier if your tripod is dual-purpose. A case in point is video -- which more and more photographers seem to be shooting, now that we have a choice of HD-capable DSLRs.

When you're shooting video, weight is your friend; when you pan, you want to be panning the camera,, not sending the tripod legs skittering across the floor!

March 22, 2010 9:02 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Just this past weekend I dug out the first tripod that I bought in the early 70's. The TiltAll. A quick search says that they're still available too. My wife still has her identical black paint version with the Star-D label. Close tolerance machining, all alloy without a single piece of plastic, solid and stable enough for 4x5 view camera work and no outboard plastic locking levers to break off. This is a tough piece of equipment to damage.

March 22, 2010 11:24 PM  
Blogger Phat Baby Photographer said...


My tripod is a QSX 9001 from Ritz or something before I knew what I was doing. Well, I still can't claim that I know what I'm doing but five years later the tripod still works fine despite doing children's photography and having kids mangle my stuff.

I definitely agree that an Induro, Manfrotto or Gitzo would be nice and I'd buy one if I could bust my cheap one in half, but I never looked back on spending the money on nicer glass or lights which I use all the time. If I were a landscape photographer, I probably would have invested in a nice tripod over nice lights.

March 23, 2010 12:04 AM  
Blogger Bob K said...

I think it's okay to skimp a *a little* on your first tripod... it takes a while to find out what your personal preferences really are. Get something that will last until you can afford more and know exactly what you want. The first one will remain handy to have.

I started with an entry-level Manfrotto; after a certain point, I decided lightness and compactness mattered enough that I splurged. (Velbon Carmagne 540 & Gitzo G1177M head; 3.25 pounds, 20" collapsed, and not outrageously expensive.)

Really pays to spend some time comparing components; other combos, even with carbon fiber, spec'd out 1-1.5 pound heavier.

Of course, this being the Internet, some helpful person has compiled a list of lightweight ball heads (also tripods, on a separate page):

March 23, 2010 12:32 AM  
OpenID daligeri said...

Just to chime in on heads ... I used to be a 3-way head supporter, all the way. Then I tried Manfrotto's vertical joystick head. It was a pleasure to use with my Hasselblad, but a pain in the butt with my DSLR - I kept popping myself in the face with the camera when I tried to look through it while making fine adjustments.

I now use the horizontal joystick head, #322 I think. It supports 11 pounds, and is made of magnesium so it's not that much heavier than a heavy-duty ball head. More importantly, putting the camera right on the axis (rather than above it) means that I don't smack myself in the eye with it, and it's still easy as heck with waist-level finders.

Just wanted to toss that out there. For those of you that haven't found a head you like yet, try that one. Well worth the money.

March 23, 2010 8:08 AM  
Blogger David Ritchie said...


One question: ■ Do you need to ask your subject to hold still, while the shutter is open (which can be a while if the shutter speed is +-1sec), in order to prevent blur?

March 23, 2010 8:15 AM  
Blogger rjg said...

Could someone answer "Ads" question? I too am confused about how get the subject still, and the strobist info.

March 23, 2010 9:54 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

@lola - The medium-capacity Induro/Benro aluminum tripods are not that expensive. I paid a LOT for my tripod (Benro C-158n6, discontinued in favor of newer CF models), however as I said above, as an avid hiker I really needed the light weight of CF.

For example, a Benro A-158M8 is $102, and a B-0 ballhead is $134 (total $236). Not too expensive compared to Gitzos, but both provide room to grow and are VERY good solid starter units. (There may be some cheaper ballheads, but I STRONGLY reccommend finding something that uses Arca-Swiss style quick release mechanisms.)

The Benro A-358M8 is much heavier duty and only about $50 more. The 158 is probably more than enough for most people though.

March 23, 2010 10:31 AM  
OpenID yo-sarrian said...

Hey, David... great article! I'm actually just getting round to buying my first "big boy photographer" tripod, so this article came at a great time for me.

It's certainly been frustrating using my cheap POS tripod for portrait work, but since it doubles as a cheap (in every sense of the work) lightstand, I'll probably keep it around :)

March 23, 2010 11:55 AM  
Blogger sunkid said...

Thank you for the article, David! I think I learned how to "drag my shutter" from your Lighting tutorials a while back and have been using it quite a bit since then. Like others here, I also have encountered difficulties with faster moving objects. This tripod-based solution however, seems to adequately address those concerns ;)

March 23, 2010 2:51 PM  
Blogger kevwil said...

I heard a great tip on how to use that center column hook. If there's any wind, of any kind, you don't want to hang your bag from the hook. Rather, put your bag on the floor/ground and connect an elastic strap between your bag and the hook. This creates good downward pressure without creating a swinging pendulum effect.

March 23, 2010 3:14 PM  
Blogger lanceb said...

As a frequent business traveler I found that a 4-section Bogen CF tripod fits inside my 20" roll-aboard if I take the center pillar out. It takes up space, but sometimes I'd rather show up in dirty clothes than leave the tripod at home.

March 23, 2010 6:58 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

A bit off topic but you mentioned switching white balance in this shoot.

I shoot on Canon so I may be missing something Nikon-related but for me, I only need to set white balance in-camera when I'm shooting in JPG (which I never do). I get that you had to gel the flashes to match color temps, but shooting in RAW, I only need to set/adjust white balance later in ACR.

Am I missing something here?

March 23, 2010 8:06 PM  
Blogger Micha Photography said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

March 23, 2010 8:52 PM  
Blogger Micha Photography said...

Best money I ever spent on photo gear was on a HG-504MX Carbon Fiber Tripod by Hakuba. It was under $300 and has held very heavy medium and large format gear in extreme situations. I've had mine over 5 years (until it was stolen) and replaced it with the another one. Check it out here:

March 23, 2010 9:19 PM  
Blogger Bob Walters said...

".........manganese alloy"???

Perhaps "magnesium alloy" is what you meant to say.

Indeed manganese is used in some aluminium formulations, but only in very small amounts (around one percent or so) to improve corrosion resistance. Most manganese is used in small amounts to improve the properties of steel and to produce cheap stainless steel.

I think it's the entirely different element "magnesium" which is used in place of aluminium for some high end tripod components.

March 23, 2010 11:46 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

AMEN Mr. Hobby! I, too went through several crappy cheapo tripods first, but finally pulled out the stops and bought quality. Never looked back. It makes a huge difference.

March 24, 2010 1:57 AM  
Blogger Glenn said...

Perhaps a newbish question here: How do you keep the subject (person) from blurring if you drag the shutter like that?

March 24, 2010 4:32 AM  
Blogger David said...


You are correct! (Fixed, thx.)

March 24, 2010 9:26 AM  
OpenID myphotographer said...

Thanks, what gels did you use? Hop I didn't miss this response, section, thanks r

March 24, 2010 9:46 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

@drew - Setting WB in-camera helps with chimping. :)

As to preventing subject blur, I'm guessing in this case Dave said "hold reaaaally still", or the shutter was still fast enough that subject blur of a sitting subject wasn't an issue.

March 24, 2010 9:49 AM  
Blogger Terry said...

A question please, not meant to be off topic or critical.I too wished for detail about “rear curtain” or “dragging the shutter” as Glenn, JakobG, sunkid and ads mentioned.
David, your response @ads was clear. You didn’t wish to dilute the article.
Looking twice at both the Index (understand, it is a work in progress) and the Archive listings, I could not find references to my question. But sunkid did allude to an article somewhere. Am I missing something? Many thanks for any thoughts.

March 24, 2010 10:12 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Can anyone recommend a good tripod and head for a Nikon D80 with a Nikkor AFS 18-200mm DX lens? I want to use it for landscape shots, night shots, and portraits...strictly an amateur photo guy...

March 24, 2010 10:49 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

I would like to suggest Giottos Aluminum Carbon for cost, stability, and performance. It is just what I use now, after doing the cheap tripod dance. I have the MTL 9271B, perfect hight, great stability for the Canon 5D MKII, 1D MK III, with 70-200mm or 100-400 lens setup. $170 locally, in Houston. When I saw and felt the difference of a stable platform, I questioned my own soundness for judgement. Just another suggestion.

March 24, 2010 1:28 PM  
Blogger Fenix Fotography said...

@ Drew,

The issue with color balance isnt about setting/correcting it in ACR, Lightroom or Aperture. What David is taking about is having all the lights the same basic temp. Strobe is essentially White and Incandescence are yellow. If you fire a naked flash into a tungsten environment you will have some white and some yellow lighting and it can look odd. If you tungsten balance your strobe it will be the same temp as the ambient and you can set a white balance for the whole scene.

Some time you want to mix light to be funky--such as a tungsten-gelled flash with tungsten white balance in a daylight environment to get super indigo skys or day for night.

March 24, 2010 1:35 PM  
Blogger Guru said...

Did he have to stay still throughout the whole exposure?? i mean if he moved .. would not this lead to a blurred ghosty effect??

March 24, 2010 5:11 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I, like many, went cheap on my tripod. It has worked but not without frustration. I have used the ball heads when working or borrowing others' tripods and love them.

One interesting note...I had a well known photographer say "amateurs light the subject; pros light the background". It seems that falls into this situation.

March 24, 2010 5:42 PM  
Blogger sunkid said...

@Terry: David may not have used the term I used for the same, simple principle: set your exposure lower than in the typical 1/200 - 1/60 range and you are on your way to "dragging the shutter". All it means is that you expose longer than would be necessary if you relied on flash alone. Have a look at this part of "Lightning 101" to get a better understanding on how to balance ambient.

"Rear curtain" refers to having the flash pop not at the first opening of the shutter ("front curtain", commonly the default), but just before the shutter closes. On longer exposures with moving objects, this affects any light trails from your subject. With front curtain, they seem to precede rather than follow the subject, which looks unnatural.

March 25, 2010 11:53 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Great lesson and insight! As a landscape photographer there is nothing more sad than seeing your work up on a 20 x 15 screen in a workshop jury and having your peers say, "too bad about all that camera shake -- jeez, it wasn't even windy!"

I bought a Gitzo with a ReallyRightStuff ballhead five years ago, choked on the price, and have been happy (and stable) ever since.

March 25, 2010 12:16 PM  
Blogger Shawn Chamberlin said...

gitzo is definitely the way to go. i have a bogen, does the trick, and its very sturdy, but my next pick would be a gitzo. love the slick ball head, i use those a lot with remote cameras, very good head, when its locked down, its not going anyways. you have a winning combo, good work my friend.

shawn chamberlin

March 25, 2010 2:36 PM  
Blogger jocelyn said...

Thank you so much for inspiring me to finally (yes, finally) upgrade my tripod head after 5 years of hating to use my tripod because of its head. The legs didn't do anything to me, I swear... and it's not so bad to have to unscrew each leg... what really gets me is having to mount & adjust that camera to the stupidest, cheapest head ever, and then adjust it with 3 separate axes while my client waits for me to stop fussing with my gear.

You've given me permission to move forward, bravely.

March 27, 2010 2:41 PM  
Blogger Xavier said...

Very well said.

I once shot F-18s chained to the flightdeck at sea under moonlight. It doesn't get much darker than that. No flashes allowed. The shutter speed was bulb, measured with a wristwatch. I wasted a lot of film bracketing, but ended up with several awesome shots.

All because I had a decent tripod. FWIW, the tripod was tied to a padeye as well.

March 28, 2010 9:33 AM  
Blogger Tom K. said...

The article at the following link about tripods is legendary. It tells you all you need to know:

March 28, 2010 2:22 PM  
Blogger Lisa Cleland said...

I have had good luck with my Vangaurd tripod that I bought from Meijer in a pinch. I've shot 8 weddings and taken it to countless other locales for still-life and long exposure shots in an urban environment. I never have had a problem with camera movement, although i do use remote trigger. My slik that was given to me has been more of a pain than the Vangaurd. It's a lightweight aluminum model with a fixed head and the angle is always off for verticals. I gave up on using it and it has been downgraded for use with my rangefinders and 120 film cameras.

March 28, 2010 3:55 PM  
Blogger andrew said...

The TiltAll is a great tripod for the budget conscious. It's stable and bulletproof (I've been using mine for 30 years), and only about $100. It weighs a couple more pounds than a fancy carbon fiber job, but that doesn't bother me much.

March 30, 2010 12:03 PM  
Blogger richphoto said...

I have had my gitzo for 20 years now and its traveled many places and granted I have not been so nice to it, it functions the same as when it was new. I would never have purchased anything else and maybe never need another one.

April 07, 2010 4:26 PM  
Blogger Gerald said...

Hey, I just got that exact model of legs for $60 at my local camera shop here in Tempe. I put a Manfroto head on top and I've had great results working with low levels of ambient light.

April 11, 2010 4:25 AM  
Blogger Jen Dolen said...

Yes! I sell photographic equipment and one of my mantras to new DSLR customers, when they're hesitant about spending money on a tripod: It's an investment. If you just spent a thousand dollars, you don't want to put that on top of a thirty dollar piece of plastic.

Now I use a much more appealing Manfrotto, but my first tripod was one of those cheap pieces of plastic (as a teenager, I went into the store and bought the cheapest one they had without thinking about it or asking questions). I never had a problem with it per se, but also didn't use it very frequently. It wasn't very flexible and often got in the way.

Luckily, I never had a truly bad experience with it, though. One of my coworkers relayed a story that he once had a "pro" shooter purchase the cheapest tripod we (then) sold, despite the fact that several salespeople told her not to do it, because it wasn't designed for her equipment. What happened? She was shooting at a wedding and it collapsed, breaking her gear.

Think of it as a useful tool rather than an irritating crutch.

April 11, 2010 8:48 PM  

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