Category Archives: Tripod

You Need a Good Head and Great Legs

Me (to wife): “My head is unstable and I have ordered a new, $300 one.”
(wife): “I knew about the instability, but I didn’t realize you could buy a new one.”

Tripod and Panoramic Head in action

If you search around the internet you will find plenty of product reviews. One of the best reviews I ever read said something like this: “Save one thousand dollars by buying the right gear now instead of later”. He proceeded to describe how cheap tripod legs and cheap heads ended up costing more than had he bought the good gear from the beginning.

Wait, “heads?”, “legs?”

There are four parts to a tripod that are important to get right: legs, head, release, mounting plate.


But First… A Short Commercial

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Harold Davis and I will be conducting a workshop that you may want to attend. Registration is through Harold’s web site.

Tripod Anatomy

  1. Legs – The part that touches the ground, and yes the bottom of the legs is called the feet.
  2. Head – The part that is attached to the top of the legs and provides the ability to rotate and tilt the camera at various angles.
  3. (Quick) Release system – The method by which the Head can attach to the camera via…
  4. Quick Release plate – the part that you attach to the camera and mate to the release system. You can directly screw your camera on to many different heads, but you do not want to do that because it is really, really inconvenient.

If any bit of those is wrong, you have an unstable or even equipment-hazardous situation. Trust me, I started with “K-Mart” tripods (had 3 – each of which didn’t last long), 2 Manfrotto aluminum tripods (one is broken), and ONE Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. I have also owned at least 9 different heads including a pan-tilt head, SunFoto, Manfroto, Acratech, and a gaggle of off brands. The ball heads were bought for various purposes. I have also dealt with 3 different kinds of attachment systems: direct screw-in to the camera (really inconvenient), Manfroto style plate clamp (better), and Arca Swiss clamp (best of the bunch). I have also used a gaggle of different “quick release” plates from cheap off-the shelf, to custom made for my camera(s), including L-Brackets.

Trial By Fire

Trust me when I tell you I have discovered a lot of what not to buy, and can say confidently that if you want a stable, good quality camera support system you need to get all four components right. And doubly so for night photography where long exposures REQUIRE a tripod or other solid support system. My tripods have been to the top of Half Dome, Mount Whitney and Clouds Rest. I have used the “legs” as a walking stick to keep me from falling into rivers and ravines, to test stability of the ground before taking a step.

Many Paths to Failure – Plate and Clamps

Let me provide some examples of the myriad of ways things can go wrong: all of them have happened to me, by the way.

If the quick release plate is attached with a low quality screw or bolt… the bolt could snap and your camera and lens will tumble to the ground.

If the quick release plate is difficult to get a snug fit (or requires a special tool that you do not have with you), your camera will wobble or twist in the breeze no matter how stable everything else is.

If the plate is difficult to get into the latch (release clamp), you may think you have it ready to go, only to see your camera fall off the tripod onto the ground or down a granite staircase.

If the plate you have on the camera does not mate with the clamp on your tripod… oops. You’ve lugged your equipment for nothing.

If everything is solid except the clamp does not snug down well, you have wobble and ruined photos.

… and we have not even gotten to the head or the legs yet!

More Failure: Head and Legs

If your head requires superhuman strength to keep it from creeping under the weight of your camera and lens (or super human strength to undo it)… you get either painful fingers or a “sinking” camera angle.

If the tensioning on the head is either locked-like-super-glue or floppy-as-a-wet-rag, you may either have to give up aiming the shot as you want, miss the shot, or have the rig flop over when the camera does. And the flopping camera may pinch your hand, or mash your fingers or smack you in the face (Reminder: All these have happened to me!)

Even if the leg locks seem to be working well, unusually cold (or hot) weather may render the locks ineffective and your tripod may slowly – or suddenly – fall over.

If the legs cannot be adjusted wide-enough or accurately-enough or low-enough, a breeze or strong gust of wind may blow your rig over.

If the fully extended legs are so short that you fully extend the center column to keep from hunching over and hurting your back – you have turned your tripod into a wide-stance monopod that may not be able to bear the load.

If your center column has a tightening collar or wing nut directly below the weight of your camera, you may accidentally over loosen the column causing the camera to slide down and pinch the living daylights out of your hand.

If your legs are spindly, they may induce vibration, or just snap when you accidentally bump them.

… I could go on … but I am hoping you understand how hard knocks, broken lenses, and broken tripod components all add up to a severe lack of enthusiasm for all but the best built of components.


So here is where you might expect me to make recommendations, right? I usually avoid making recommendations because gear changes, and people have different reasons for choosing what they do. My criteria are pretty simple: I want stability, versatility, durability, and light-weight – in about that order.  While the first three seem to be pretty obvious criteria, the light-weight aspect was something I learned over time, too. It was a chore to lug my > 8 pound aluminum leg Manfrotto with a Manfrotto head to the top of Half Dome. By comparison my < 4.5 pound Gitzo plus Acratech head seemed like a feather. Manfrotto made a smart move when they bought Gitzo.

You might have noticed that I did not list price as important. It used to be, but too many failed choices made me realize that choices that are less than great become costlier in the long run.  In a similar vein I bought half a dozen sleeping bags hoping to get something lightweight and WARM until I finally spent almost $300 on a bag (Big Agnes Lost Ranger) and pad that provided the most comfortable, warm sleep – and was also lightweight. I’ve spent more for a single night in a hotel than for the sleeping bag, but that bag has kept me snoozing on many chilly nights in the wilderness. Indeed one night I had TWO cheap sleeping bags nested inside one another while in a tent in Grandview Campground at 8,600 feet on White Mountain and I was still shivering. The next time I went with my Big Agnes. The night was even colder, but I was snug as a bug in a rug.

I had similar experiences with camera backpacks. I liked the design of a Tamron bag. It lasted about a year until the zipper broke. The second bag lasted less than a year. By contrast, my F-stop Tilopa bag has been all over the world over 4 years now – sometimes as my primary and only luggage. To say I’m happy with its durability would be an understatement – and that it cost me 4 times as much as one Tamron bag ($320 vs $95), means I’ve broken even so far – without the inconvenience of dealing with broken gear.

What About A Ball Head And Tripod Legs?

Acratech GPS-s

  • Acratech Head (pretty much any one), but the GP-s is a nicely designed lightweight capable head unless you have a huge camera.
  • Gitzo carbon fiber legs, but NOT the Traveler series which is too flimsy and too short.
    I specifically recommend the Mountaineer Series 2. It is the best trade-off between weight, stability and usable height.  If you’re willing to pay a penalty in extra pounds, the Systematic series (3, 4, or 5) are good except for two things: The Systematic doesn’t have a center column and sometimes that column is useful – like when trying to shoot straight up since the camera may end up hanging partially below the level of the head. The other thing about a series 5 Systemic that bothered me was that I was shocked to discover that the leg locks must be untightened in a specific order to fold it all up because if an upper leg is not tight, the lock on the lower leg will just spin. The mountaineer doesn’t require that silliness.
  • Really Right Stuff with carbon fiber legs. Pretty much all of them are well done, light and sturdy.  The RRS ball heads are good too, it’s just that they are all heavy, heavy, heavy.

But, but those are expensive choices! Yes. I suppose paying $430 USD for a good head and $950 USD for good legs sounds like an excessive amount of money. But: how much did your camera and lens cost? How much will your back thank you for carrying a smaller load?  And finally, how much are you willing to risk watching your camera and lens flop over in a gust of wind?


I write what I know – not what people or manufacturers or merchants ASK me to write. I paid retail price to purchase all the gear I’ve discussed. In other words, these are honest, unbiased, hard won evaluations of various gear. If you can purchase this gear at a local store, I recommend that you do so. You may spend a little more, but there is serious value to talking to real people, testing out gear in person, and in keeping a local business viable.

One Reason To Consider the Alabama Hills Workshop... The awesome landscapes

Exploring Night Photography: Lesson 6 BEST TIPS

Band of Techies by Steven Christenson on

Twilight Panorama of the San Francisco Bay

Last week we talked about photo processing.  This week is the last week of the in-person course.

The topics covered in class included Astrophotography, suggestions on what equipment NOT to get for Astrophotography. We also discussed the limitations of Lightroom and Photoshop (see Lesson 5) because we did not cover them all in the last class.

To conclude our lesson series we present our greatest tips.  Many of the tips you may be familiar with – especially if you have been with us on a workshop. Some tips will be a surprise.

Our Best Night Photography Tips

  1. Shine a bright flashlight through your viewfinder at night and it will show you what is in your shot. Much easier to figure out where the edges of your frame are when it is too dark to see well.
  2. A flashlight will not illuminate the sky where your shot is constrained by your lens, but a bright green laser through the viewfinder can accomplish that!
  3. Put glow sticks or LED slap bracelets around your tripod at night. Not only can you find your gear easily, but others are less likely to trip over it.
  4. Have a blue LED light that you need to make less “cold”? Bounce it off the palm of your hand… or a warm colored shirt.
  5. Want to see well in the dark? Don’t wear a head lamp! Shadows and contours are hard to see when the light is coming from close to your eyes. Instead keep a DIM light at waist level. Bright lights ruin your night vision. And headlamps make it painful to talk to one another… you ruin their night vision when you look at them.
  6. Before you spend the effort traveling for night photographs, consult the weather and the moon phase.
  7. It is astonishing how much you can pre-plan a shot without having to go the location… hint: learn to use Google Maps + Street View!
  8. Don’t overlook the hundreds of tips we have for you here on this site… the search box is your friend.
  9. Dark skies are good… but better is to know which direction you want the sky to be dark so you can make the right compromises.
  10. Sometimes being behind a hill is a great help to prevent unwanted stray light.
  11. Want to photograph (or see) the best part of the Milky Way? You need to know when it is up. A planisphere (rotating star chart) is your best bet.
  12. Velcro is a great way to keep things handy and secure on your tripod. Velcro your intervalometer to your tripod.
  13. Lens hood – use one all the time to protect your lens and prevent stray light from causing glare.
  14. Do not use any filters – especially not a clear or “ultraviolet” filter. All filters make your image less desirable by causing extra surfaces that can reflect light and cause glare. Our only exception to this rule are 1: polarizing filters – which are useless at night, and 2: a filter to seal your lens in really nasty environments like rain and blowing sand.
  15. Test your tripod stability before you move away from it. If your tripod is secure, take a few steps back and make sure the center column is vertical.  It is common to set a tripod up so that it leans in a way that makes it vulnerable to a fall.
  16. Another tripod tip: on a hill or slope, put two legs on the downhill side, one on the uphill side.
  17. Short straps (or no straps) on your camera is better for stability if there is any wind at all. We have personally seen cameras thrown over by wind gusts.
  18. Do not cheap out on a tripod. A sturdy tripod is more valuable for night photography than a “better” camera.
  19. The histogram is your friend. Be sure to check it before you conclude your shot is a good one.
  20. If your tripod has a hook below the center column hang your camera bag on it for even more stability. Be sure you’ve taken out all you need before you start shooting. Oh, and this may NOT work well if it is really windy or your pack is light.
  21. Study the place you plan to go during the daylight. It is not fun falling in holes or stepping on nasty things while wandering in the dark.
  22. Take a friend along for added safety, camaraderie and comfort. Also you do not have to outrun a bear, you just have to outrun your friend. 😉  [Do NOT try to run from a bear, by the way. That just makes you look tastier]
  23. A ball head works a lot better for night photography than a pan-tilt head. But get a sturdy head! It is useless having a sturdy tripod with a head that can not stay put.
  24. If there is anyone who may care: tell where you are going and when you expect to be back. Stick to the plan, too.
  25. Do not assume you will have cell service – some of the most amazing places to photograph have no cell coverage at all. Oh, and your battery might die.
  26. Overshoot. It is so much better to have two or three times as many shots as you think you will need than to find out you did not even get one quite right.
  27. When shooting sequences or panoramas… use your lens cap between sets so you can figure out when one set ends and another begins. Take it one step further and do what we do: use your hand forming an E, N, W, or pointing down to indicate the direction you are facing when you take the shot.
  28. Dark gloves make great “emergency stray-light reduction” devices – and they can keep your hands warm, too.
  29. It will always seem colder at night than the temperature might indicate. Dress in layers.
  30. Planning to leave your camera shooting for a long sequence and walk away? Use a GPS to record the camera location (you can do this using most cell phone map software, too).
  31. Respect people and their property. Ask for permission. You may be amazed how much farther courtesy and thoughtfulness will get you than being an intentional trespasser.

Have a tip you think is really super helpful? Please comment below!

Last Week’s Homework

Photo edit a “better” foreground into a star trail image.

Final Homework

  1. Comment below with what you’d like to learn about next.
  2. Get creative and leave us a comment below with a link to your super image.
  3. Comment below with the best tip you have learned about doing night photography.


Heaven Light by Steven Christenson

Milky Way and Waterfall – we talked about how to get the Milky Way aligned where you want it. 

Exploring Night Photography: Lesson 3 – Gear

Two weeks ago in class we covered basics (what is a photograph, using manual settings) Last week we learned a bit about noise, and its primary causes – temperature being the principle problem. And we explored different creative directions under the umbrella of night photography. We also got outside under a half-full moon (first quarter) and shot on campus. And learned a little about the night sky.

This view is southwest. From left to right are Canis Major, Orion and Taurus. The moon is off the top edge.

This view is southwest. From left to right are Canis Major, Orion and Taurus. The moon is off the top edge. The glow in the lower right corner is the glow bracelet on one of the student’s tripods. The sky remains blue due to the moonlight. Settings for this shot are ISO 800, f/2.8, 10 seconds, 20 mm on Canon 5D II.

Now it is time to talk about gear. Fortunately we already wrote a nicely detailed article about gear. Take a look here. We even updated it recently.

Too busy to read the details? That’s a shame, but here is the super quick summary in order of importance:

  1. GOOD tripod.
  2. Night photography friendly lens (wide angle recommended)
  3. Decent camera body with an optical viewfinder. Full frame preferred, but not necessary.
  4. Layered clothing and good shoes, including lightweight gloves (G) – and heavy gloves in cold season.
  5. Sturdy camera bag
  6. Extra batteries and memory cards
  7. An intervalometer (1), and extra batteries (2)
  8. Headlamp (B) and flashlight assortment (C, 3, 6)
  9. Other needful things: clear shower cap (A), lens cloth, hand cloth.

What About Other “Gear”?

Here is what is usually in our bag besides the camera gear.

  • (H) Glow bracelet/stick to mark the camera location (we have just started experimenting with other methods, too, like the LED band (4).
  • Hand warmers (F and 5) and rubber bands (G) for dealing with dew formation
  • Creative lights – bulbs, keychain lights,  and cord (3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9)  Item 7 is a green laser pointer.
  • Insect Repellant  (E)
  • Gaffers Tape – flat black duct tape (L). We don’t take a whole roll though!
  • A smart app that shows the positions of the stars, planets, and bright satellites. Also helps if it shows meteor showers.
  • A smart app that shows the location(s) of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset.
  • A game or two on the smart phone to pass time.
  • An external battery to keep our smart phone juiced (5) and the appropriate matching cord.

Before We Leave We Also Use the Following

  • A star map (planisphere). On our desktop, we favor Stellarium, but it is a little geeky to use well. On iOS we like Sky Safari, Star Map.
  • Weather prognostication tool
  • Sunrise/set Moonrise/set predictions.


Last Week’s Homework

We asked you to pick a creative direction. Here are some shots our students took including “semi transparent” you, moving lights.

XNP_Alex_assignmentsTop: f/4 1/30, 500 ISO, 20mm; Lower photo: f/4,  1/4, 1600 ISO,  20mm. Bottom was from moving the camera body





This Week’s Homework

  1. Use the light you were given in class to write a message or draw an image in light.
  2. The moon is full, if you didn’t work out settings for capturing the moon. Now is another chance. If you did work out the settings, compare them to your last shot when the moon was half-full. Notice anything?
  3. Find a way to make a strong white flashlight a different color. Use the colored light to illuminate your foreground. Your light may have to be really bright to compete with moonlight.
  4. If you are using a “white” LED flashlight, you’ll notice it is significantly cold (blue). Can you think of a way to make it a warmer color?
  5. Is there any “Other Gear” listed above that intrigues you? E.g. what can you use Gaffers Tape for?

Next… Lesson 4.

How to Fly with Camera Gear

We, that is, Steven and the Mrs. recently had to attend a funeral on the East Coast. Steven lives on the Left Coast.  If you’re wondering what this post has to do with photography, he will admit that this article is part rant against Delta Airlines and part tips on transporting photography (or other) gear and assorted other tips. I’ve flown all over with my gear both in the US and internationally and picked up a few tips which I offer to you. I would be interested to hear any tips you have as well! If you want to skip the rant and go straight to the tips, just scroll down for the title: “Tips on Traveling with Camera Gear

Fare Tip: Bereavement fares may be available, but those fares are very likely to be a bad deal. Qualifying for a fare requires many hoops to jump through. You may find, as we did, that you can get a much better price by using PriceLine or similar service. Warning, however: you may also discover that you will be treated like a pariah. Our 3 flights went from San Jose, to LAX to Raleigh-Durham. In each flight we were relegated to the non-reclining back row seats.  This means no-resting, and extreme first hand familiarity with the poo bin. Indeed, even the new aircraft we flew on from LAX to ATL actually had direct visual access INTO the bathroom. Arom-rama and people standing around twitching does not really heighten the flying experience in any way.

Book early enough to NOT have to be in or near the back row (hard to do, of course if your travel is of an emergency nature).

But wait, it’s worse!  When we booked we were only able to claim seats on the last leg of our 3-hop circuit. The other two legs were “gate holds”.  When we checked in at the airport desk rather than actually giving us boarding passes for any flights, we were given a “placebo pass” for the first leg and told to claim our boarding passes at the gate. The gate was CHANGED however. It wasn’t actually gate 7, but gate 5.  At gate 5, apparently there was some additional difficulty. The printer was not printing.  No problem, we were told… just stop at any attended counter when we disembark.  Mind you that we only had a 40 minute layover, the plane was late arriving and since we were at the back of the plane we lost still more time while the hordes ahead of us disembarked. We had what seemed to be fractional seconds to exit the plane get boarding passes AND get to the departure gate in another terminal.  The first attended Delta counter employee said “Sorry, we’re really busy with this flight right now, could you please go to another counter?” What did we learn from this?

Insist on getting all of your boarding passes at the beginning. Don’t believe it when they tell you you can get them later – you may not have enough time or cooperation.

We ran to the gate listed on the flight display only to find that the plane we were to take the next 4+ hour ride on was already boarding.  We found ourselves relegated again to the “bathroom seats”. By now we were quite hungry, but without time to even buy a snack in LAX. We were relying on the food (at extra charge) to be served on the long leg of our flight. BUT (you knew there’d be a BUT), they RAN OUT OF FOOD about 12 rows ahead of us.  One bag of peanuts and pretzels were our only sustenance.  On a subsequent leg, beverage service was suspended due to turbulence.  The back half of the plane was unserved – not the airline’s fault, of course, but it is a cautionary tale about being prepared.

Tip: Pack something to eat *and* drink. Something substantial because you can’t trust the airlines (Delta, at least) to have any food for you. Bonus tip, make sure that your food is in your “personal item” since you may not be able to fetch it if there is turbulence, or you have to store your bag far away (see below). Ditto for any medication you might need.

The Delta in flight entertainment screens worked great except for the intermittent pop-up 32 second advertisements that were SO LOUD you literally had to yank off your head phones or risk deafness. Oh, and the Delta attendants were also hawking American Express cards seat to seat. On the way back, I was amused to learn that the entertainment system runs Linux, and crashes!  So a tip here is do not use the Delta entertainment system unless you really want additional aggravation. Besides, they are going to charge you $5 to play Sudoku – you can get the iPhone app for free. Another thing to consider: in my experience about half of the jacks for headphones are marginally to completely non-functional.  You’re better off bringing your own entertainment on board.

Delta Inflight Entertainment Crash

Delta Inflight Entertainment Crash

Tips on Traveling with Camera Gear

As you are probably aware, Delta and many other airlines charge an additional fee if you check baggage. The additional charge has many side effects, including making it take longer to check-in. And of course it also means people are taking MORE on board the airplane to avoid those fees.  The geniuses at Delta (and Virgin) have confounded the problem with their policies. If you lug a huge-ish bag all the way to the gate, they will gate check your bag for FREE. Smart people have concluded that schlepping a large bag to the gate will likely result in not being bilked out of another $50!  The bag fiasco also means that the airline will try really hard to convince you to gate check your bag otherwise there won’t be enough overhead space!

My fully packed f-Stop Tilopa photo bag WITH tripod easily fits in every overhead bin I’ve faced. I usually separate the tripod and put it crosswise in the narrow section at the back of overhead bin. You can also attach the tripod to either side of the bag, but depending on your tripod, it might be too long to fit.

FStop Tilopa Pack

FStop Tilopa Pack

On most aircraft, the Tilopa fits long-way in – meaning the bottom of the pack is at the back of the bin rather than sideways. In fact, it’s almost a perfect fit that way. The Tilopa might look bigger than many carry ons, but it’s not! My Tilopa even fit sideways in the 50 passenger commuter aircraft. One additional benefit to carry ons: domestic airlines do not usually weigh your carry on. You might get away (as I did*) with stuffing 45 pounds of gear in there! And don’t worry, the posted weight capacity of those overhead bins is around 160 pounds… so even if three of you packed the crap out of your bags and stuffed them in the same overhead bin, the bin is engineered to take it.  It also means if you could appear to effortlessly shuffle a 100 pound bag around the airline would be none-the-wiser and you’d not have to pay an overweight baggage fee! If the airline wants to shake you down for every nickel and $20 bill they can, you might as well do some creative baggage management of your own. Besides, do you really trust baggage handling to not break or “lose” your thousands of dollars investment in camera gear?

I’ve never had a problem traveling with my tripod. Screeners seem to understand what a tripod is both when traveling domestically and internationally. Once when leaving Israel I was warned that I might not be able to take the tripod on board but there was no problem going through security. Every once in a while I am asked to remove my camera and lenses from the pack, but most of the time the pack – chock full of bodies, lenses, batteries and miscellany goes through screening without a hitch.

Those overhead bins aren’t ONLY for passengers. On our Delta flight we found toilet paper, and leaking bathroom deodorizer refills together with the usual oxygen and blankets in the overhead bin above us. To find space for your pack, you’ll want to get on the plane as SOON AS YOU CAN. That usually means you want to be IN LINE well before your zone or row are called even if they politely insist that you wait in your lounge seat. But being the first in your group may not be enough. The only available overhead space might be many rows in front of or behind you.  I now understand why the guy in row 33 put his junk over my row 17 seat: he was not lazy he had to adapt because the airline had co-opted what would have been his overhead space.  If you’re traveling on Southwest, it is probably well worth the $10 fee per flight to get “automated checkin”. That may get you in the A list for boarding.  If you find yourself in the “B” or “C” section on Southwest, you might want to get the $40 business boarding “upgrade” for at least one in your party.

Those overhead bins apparently are seldom ever cleaned. I used a thick white paper towel to wipe out the leaking bathroom deodorizer and the paper towel came out as black as my camera bag!  Don’t throw a sport jacket up there unless it’s in something to keep it from getting icky – or maybe you don’t mind smelling like a lavatory 🙂

Oia at Night (Οία τη νύχτα)

Oia at Night (Οία τη νύχτα)

*I often carry about 45 pounds (17 kg) of gear in my pack. Only the Greek airline Aegean asked to weigh my carry-on bag – and their weight limit was 7 kg despite the 90 kg capacity of the overhead bins.  They allowed me a waiver since the flight wasn’t full.  Despite their check of my carry on bag Aegean is one of the best airlines I’ve ever traveled on. Delta could learn a few lessons from them!