Do you use a tripod? I do for almost every shot. The way I shoot IR necessitates the use of a tripod. Could I hand-hold my IR shots? Probably. But I love to shoot panoramas and in poor weather. I’m also a sort of a purist when it comes to getting the most out of the camera and lens. So I always use a tripod. This isn’t just another tripod tutorial. You can find enough of those on the web already. What I wanted to do here is share my struggles with finding the right tripod and how I solved the problem.
For those of you that follow my blog posts, you’re probably aware that I started my IR venture as a spin off of my astrophotography. The stability requirements for long exposure astro photos are much higher than that for photography. I realize that it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison as equipment for astrophotograpy is typically much heavier. But I guess my need for absolute stability rubbed off. When I started looking for a tripod for my IR photography, it should go without saying that my first requirement was a high degree of stability.
I shoot IR with a full frame DSLR and heavy lenses . I love the medium format lenses. Did I mention that they are heavy? Add any filters, lens converters, a battery grip and L-bracket and you’re into a fairly robust system. Even so, many of the lightest tripods will hold the weight of a camera and a lens in ideal conditions. I find however, that the load ratings of some units are a little misleading. Sure these ultralight sticks may hold the load. But I hate having to fiddle with the tripod and wait for everything to flex back to a stable position after making a ball head adjustment. So I knew I wanted a tripod that could also carry a decent load without flexing.
I also like to shoot down low. The desert has some interesting foreground elements. So I also wanted my tripod to be able to work well at low levels. Almost any tripod these days can splay the legs and get low. But this is where the strength of lighter tripods can be compromised. Splaying the legs can reduce the load capability and place additional demands on the materials. Adding to the list, I also wanted something that was fairly compact, for traveling. So with my laundry list in hand, I set off looking for the tripod that would fit my requirements. I never did find exactly what I wanted.
So after some thought, I decided I’d experiment by adapting a stock tripod to fit my needs. I’m fairly handy when it comes to machining, metalworking and the like. I felt confident that I’d be able to make the necessary modifications. I dug around the web until I found a possible candidate, an aluminum leg Benro A3580F. It met a couple of the initial requirements. It is stable and has a good load rating (about 6x my camera load) and was also fairly inexpensive.
I did a little reconnaissance to see if I was going to be able to work some magic on this tripod. It turned out to be a fairly simple design and I decided to proceed. I began by removing and disassembling the legs.
Once I had the legs completely apart, I proceeded by cutting off 5 inches off each segment of each leg. Cutting each leg segment the same amount kept the symmetry of the design. I then cleaned up the cuts and reassembled. Voila, a shortened tripod. There were some other details not mentioned. But in general, it was a fairly simple modification.
Here’s the finished product. It’s substantially shorter than stock. But it still maintains the same (or probably higher) load rating, especially when the legs are splayed.
Here’s a comparison with with one of my larger tripods. I still use the larger tripod for portraits and when I need additional reach. But for nearly all my IR photography, I take the little custom Benro.
Here’s an action shot with the shortie and my 5DII with a Pentax medium format 55mm lens. The set-up is really rigid and required a lot less fiddling when trying to set up a shot. There is almost none of the flex that appears with lighter tripods. It’s hard to describe the satisfaction, unless you’ve experienced such rigidity.
This thing is like a little tank. I call it my “tankpod”. It’s short, really stout and can travel almost everywhere. When I need more height, I can extend the leg segments and get up to about 45 inches (to the base where the ball head mounts). I usually use it with the segments retracted or only the first segment extended. When folded up, It travels well and fits in a carry-on bag. It’s not a Gitzo or RRS, so the build quality is not the same, but is still quite adequate for me.
The last time I presented my shortened tripod to a group of photographers I got a lot of eyebrow raises and eye rolls. It might not be the thing for you. But this modification turned out a tripod that suits my needs perfectly. It now goes with me everywhere I shoot. So if you’re handy and need something specific in a tripod, think about out what modifications might make it what you need. Happy shooting.