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The Need For a Tripod
For the budding photographer, few experiences are as rewarding as capturing a perfectly framed and exposed image of a majestic landscape bathed in the vibrant hues of a setting sun. Likewise, no experience is more frustrating than realizing that instead of that inspiring image you had envisioned, you ended up with a blurry, grainy soup of colors not even your mother could find beauty in. Once you lose enough opportunities to shaky hands and slow shutter speeds, you'll realize the easiest answer to your agony is to invest in a tripod.
A tripod instantly eliminates those missed opportunities, and opens the door to new creative options. As a general rule, if lighting conditions and camera settings mean the appropriate exposure time for your shot is longer than 1/60 second, your choices are using a tripod, or accepting the inevitability of a blurry shot. A tripod also allows you to experiment with a whole new world of photography, including extended exposures and unique shooting angles. What kind of tripod to invest in depends on the photography you do, so what should you look for?
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Major Tripod Components
Tripods are actually kits built from two major components - a set of tripod legs, and the tripod head. The tripod head acts as the interface between the tripod legs and your camera, and allows you to adjust your camera's position. Less expensive tripod kits often come with the tripod and head integrated as one unit, while higher-end kits typically are sold in separate parts.
If you usually shoot in moderately well-lit areas with a lightweight point-and-shoot camera, then an entry-level one-piece tripod kit may be all you need. However, if you use a heavier SLR camera, and look forward to taking pictures in a variety of shooting conditions, a two-piece tripod kit from a quality manufacturer is a wise investment.
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Tripod Legs: The Base of Your Shooting Platform
Tripod legs are usually made of either wood, carbon fiber, or, most commonly, metal. Aluminum legs are fairly lightweight, rigid, and durable. Carbon fiber legs are even lighter, but will be substantially more expensive and won't provide much added benefit to the average aspiring shutterbug. Expect to spend $100 or more on a set of legs that you can take everywhere you go for years to come.
Additional important features to look for are that the legs are independently adjustable so you can level your tripod on uneven ground, and that the minimum and maximum usable heights of the tripod will meet your shooting requirements. Make sure your tripod legs extend far enough that you can look through your camera's viewfinder when using the tripod, without having to bend over uncomfortably. Take note whether the tripod legs themselves extend to this height, or whether the center post must rise substantially from between the legs to reach this height. The higher the center post must extend, the less stable a shooting platform you will have.
Now check the minimum usable height of the legs. Look for a minimum height of less than 18 inches. A low minimum height will allow you to take clear shots from angles most people don't often see. However, you will probably use this feature infrequently, and let it influence your purchasing decision correspondingly.
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The Tripod Head: The Control Center of Your Shooting Platform
Tripod heads are available with a lot of bells and whistles, and you can easily spend a lot more money than you need to, if you're not careful. The most important thing to keep in mind during your research is that you need a tripod head that will reliably lock in place, and not slip under the weight of your camera. Saving a few dollars through buying a weak tripod head erases the most important benefits of having a tripod. Fortunately, some of the most trusted manufacturers on the market have models available under $50.
Tripod heads generally come in two types: ball heads and pan-and-tilt heads. Ball heads allow you to quickly move your camera's position on all three axes, but making precise adjustments with a ball head can be tedious. Pan-and-tilt heads are more common. While moving your camera from one position to another can be a more manual process with a pan-and-tilt head, the ability to adjust each axis independently of one another makes precise adjustments easier.
Other important features to look for when shopping for a tripod head are a bubble level, and durable, usable adjustment controls. While the ground you're standing on may not always be flat, a bubble level ensures that your camera's shooting platform will be. Adjustment controls should be solidly built, so that you don't need to worry that a flimsy plastic knob will break off in your hand when you tighten it. Also, if you may be shooting in chilly environments, look for adjustment controls that you will be able to manage while wearing gloves.
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Investing in a tripod kit can make your photography experiences greatly more rewarding, but it's easy to go awry when shopping and end up with a tripod kit that either doesn't live up to your expectations or makes you feel as though you alone put the salesperson's child through college. Most importantly, make sure that you are buying a tripod kit that meets your needs, not those of anyone else, now and in the future.
Be sure you invest in something that is stable enough to hold your camera and any heavy lenses you shoot with, and something that you can depend on in whatever environments you shoot. Hopefully now you feel confident that you are knowledgeable enough to make an informed decision at your camera store, for the right tripod kit will be an essential and reliable part of your photography toolbox for years to come.