The $3000 Tripod

Bristlecone Pine Tree - Galen's Tree - Photo 1

The tale I am about to tell you is as old and familiar as any.  It is the “I wish I had known then, what I know now” kind of tale.  Looking back it all seems so obvious.  In May of 2009, Mary and I went on our first photography workshop with Jack Graham.  His written instructions said, “bring the heaviest tripod you are willing to carry.”  So, Mary, being Mary brought along her super light, super cheap, 4 foot high, aluminum, $25 tripod.  Me, being me, went out and bought the “heaviest tripod I was willing to pay for” – about $100.  On the very first morning of our photography workshop, we experienced an exceptional sunrise and captured really great pictures.  At photo review, Mary’s were almost all blurry.  Mary was disappointed and complained about her issues with focusing.  Jack strongly suggested that it may not have been her, but her tripod.  After some convincing, we were all off to the store to buy Mary a new tripod.

Mary with first tripod

As we were walking into the store, Jack told Mary that she would have to spend at least $1,000 to get a “decent” tripod.  Mary winced and whined that her camera did not even cost $500. She was willing to spend $350 on a tripod.   Jack made a sour face, shrugged his shoulders, and said “I can’t work with that budget” and into the store we went.  After looking at several sizes and weights, Mary walked out with a very nice Manfrotto carbon fiber legged, ball headed, $350 tripod, while I picked up one of her cast offs – a heavy steel legged ball head for $200.  There we were on our very first photography workshop and already out an additional $500 on equipment we were not sure we would use again.  The rest of the workshop was splendid as we used our new tripods to shoot long exposures in very low light of the various waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge.

After living with our tripods for about a year, and after several more workshops, and additional and constant advice from Jack, we invested (I use this word purposefully because it no longer felt like a short term purchase, but a long term annuity) in Gitzo legs and Really Right Stuff ball heads and L brackets.  What a difference!  I am adamant that cameras do not make photographs, photographers do.  However, the right equipment gives you better opportunities to make better pictures.  The new tripods instantly made a difference when we were in the Eastern Sierra.  I could more easily switch from landscape to portrait orientation and the light weight, flexible legs, made setting up and breaking down fast and easy.

Why should you use a tripod?  There are three BIG reasons you should own and use a finely constructed, heavy duty, extremely steady and durable tripod.

  1.  Composition – especially for landscape and nature photography, a tripod allows the photographer to slow down and think, so that you can “frame” and compose exactly what you want.  Edges make a huge difference in composition.  When you look at photo 1 of the “Galen Rowell Tree” in the Patriarch Grove of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Tree Forest in White Mountains in California, can you imagine how bad it would look if I had cut off one of the branches, even a small one?
  2. Sharpness – a tripod helps with sharpness in a few ways.  It allows you to use small apertures, like f16, to get the best depth of field while using a slow shutter speed.  If you use a telephoto, like a 300mm, any small movement of your hands on the camera (even if you have image stabilization) causes large movement and blurriness in the image.  A tripod also enables you to use a cable release or the self timer, again to keep your hands off the camera at the moment the shutter snaps.   In photo 2, I needed to get low and have sharpness from the rock in the foreground to the tree in the background.
  3. Low Lighting and Long Exposures – A tripod enables you to photograph in low lighting where a hand held camera would cause blurriness because of slow shutter speeds.  This is essential for sunrise and sunset shots.  It also enables you to shot at night to do star trails, and taillight trails.  Lastly, it frees up your hands to do other things like hold a graduated neutral density filter.  In photo 3, you see me working in order to make photos 1 and 2.
Patriarch Tree - Photo 2
Peter in the Patriarch Grove - Photo 3

OK, so the Gitzo/Really Right Stuff tripod did not cost $3000, but when I add up the six tripods and three monopods in our house now, I am well beyond that number.  The best advice I got was also the first advice I got, with a bit of a disclaimer.  If you want to create very good pictures you must use a tripod.  Therefore, buy the best tripod you can.  It should be big enough and steady enough to hold a heavy camera and lens in windy conditions.  It should have a large ball head.  Ball heads are more flexible than Pan and Tilt heads.  The legs should be easy to open and close as you will do this 100s or 1000s of times, many times in the dark.  Believe it or not, with the excellent camera and sensor technology out there, you are better off having a good lens and a great tripod with an average camera, than having the best camera on a sub-standard tripod.  The next time someone asks you what kind of camera you have, you can enthusiastically reply, “forget the camera, let’s talk about my tripod.”  To see more of our photographs, go to

Mary in San Diego with her new tripod


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