Photography Photography - Canon 5D Mark II

A Tripod Novice – About to Become an Expert!

[Update: See this post for what I ended up buying instead of a tripod – a Gitzo GT1541T Monopod instead!]

Once you own a reasonably high-end digital SLR (like my brand new Canon EOS 5D Mark II), getting a decent tripod to use with it and create those super “sharp” shots is a necessary upgrade.

For example, I headed over to Stanford Memorial Church late yesterday afternoon to try some handheld HDR photography on the new 5D Mark II. Inside, shooting with my Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens, I had to crank the ISO up way too far – resulting in grainy shots. A solid tripod would have made a huge difference in capturing enough light to minimize the sensor noise.

Over breakfast at Cafe Borrone with a couple of good friends this morning, I got a quick education in tripods – and, better yet, a strong “buyer’s guide” recommendation for a specific one (a Gitzo GT1541T Traveler) with a Markins Q-Ball Q3 Emille head. I already have a Manfrotto tripod – unfortunately, I bought the model engineering to steady a Canon Powershot class camera, not a Canon 5D!

I can already tell that the world of camera tripods is way too arcane and confused. It feels like a cottage industry, with guild-like craftsmen in dark factories working their magic to ship the best tripods into the world from small towns in Europe. What kind of name is Manfrotto anyway? Or Gitzo? For example, here’s what Philip Greenspun says:

Gitzo is made in France and reflects Continental Rationalism. … Bogen is made in Italy by Manfrotto and reflects Mediterranean chaos.

Wonderful. Almost sounds like they’re making cheese or wine!

Tomorrow morning, Chris Gulker and I are heading to the local pro photographers store in Palo Alto (Keeble & Shuchat) to see what they have/recommend and to learn more.

Here’s Amazon’s List of Best Selling Tripods, updated hourly!

As Philip Greenspun says, “the best photographers … talk tripods, tripod heads, and quick releases.” I guess I’m moving up in the world of photographers. At work, I sometimes joke about the “tyranny of the expert.” I now feel I’m about to become at least a bit of a tripod expert – so “look out below!”

And, if you’ve got any tripod advice for a novice like me, please share it with me ASAP!

One reply on “A Tripod Novice – About to Become an Expert!”

The ball head I recommend is the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead. It has an open design that is much more reliable in the field than the finicky cup-and-ball designs based on the original Arca-Swiss B1. If you do end up getting the Markins (that Korean company has an excellent reputation, as does Kirk Photo and Really Right Stuff), I would strongly advise you to get their Arca-Swiss type dovetail quick-release plate designed specifically for the 5DmkII and the assorted leather wrist strap, as I have been doing with my 4 last DSLRs (Rebel XT, 5D, D3, 5DmkII). A camera with a wrist strap is much more convenient than one on a shoulder or neck strap – you can just keep it in a messenger bag, and pull it out when you need to shoot.
Manfrotto is an Italian name, Gitzo is short for Gitzhoven, a Frenchman of Dutch descent. Both companies are part of the same group, but Gitzo is the higher-end brand. I bought my Gitzo 1137 from Keeble & Shuchat, there’s nothing like trying a leg set in person to see how comfortable you are with the weight and rigidity. I believe they also carry Acratech. Another good place is Calumet Photo on Bryant & 18th, San Francisco. If you get a tripod, don’t forget to get a carrying case (Calumet has a better range than K&S).
Consider the Gitzo 1550T Traveller. It has a distinctive design that folds down to a ridiculously compact size (it fits in a neoprene wine carrier bottle), while still having the capacity of a full-sized tripod and the stability of a Gitzo. Sure it’s expensive, but not quite as much as the over-the-top Gitzo Titanium Traveler ($2,500), and it includes a ball head.
By the way, the K&S salesperson may recommend an off-brand tripod. Just keep in mind that Gitzo and Manfrotto tripods have a surprisingly strong resale value (I sold two on eBay for close to the original retail price).
Depending on your style of photography, you may want to consider whether you really want a full-sized tripod. Novoflex makes one called the BasicBall, which folds unscrews into a very small package while being very robust. It’s ideal for table-top photography (e.g. macro)

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