The tripod has been hailed as the greatest photographic accessory ever invented, and with good reason. Of course, the basic concept of the tripod predates the invention of photography by at least a few thousand years, and artists, soldiers, seamen, astronomers, surveyors, and many others have employed tripods for a variety of purposes over the ages. The photographic tripod dates back to the dawn of the photographic era around 1840, when wooden versions of the artist’s tripod used with the camera obscura were pressed into service with the ponderous Daguerreotype cameras of the day. Up until the 1880s, with the invention of more sensitive silver-halide plates and flexible roll film, hardly any pictures were ever taken without using a tripod—given the low sensitivity (ISO 1-3) of the older glass plates, taking sharp pictures handheld was virtually impossible.
Obviously, photography has come a long way since the first photographic tripod with a standard 1/4x20 mounting screw was introduced around 1880, but the tripod is as essential today as it was back then. Indeed, virtually any professional photographer worth his or her salt owns and uses a number of tripods, and many leading pros shoot the vast majority of their images with a tripod-mounted camera. The reason is simple: Keeping the camera as steady as possible during the exposure is still the simplest, surest, and most direct way to ensure outstanding picture quality.While everybody knows that a sturdy tripod will help you get sharp pictures when you have to (or want to) shoot at slow shutter speeds, and provides a handy perch for composing landscapes or portraits, the extreme versatility of these not-so-simple three-legged devices is vastly underappreciated by most photographers. To give you a better idea of what a tripod can do for you, and why no serious photographer should have fewer than two, here’s a handy compendium of tripod capabilities and uses. It’s guaranteed to give you a better appreciation of why good tripod can play a lot more than a supporting role in your photography.1. Enhancing sharpness: A sturdy, stable tripod that’s properly set up will get you sharper pictures every time. Comparison tests prove that even at fast shutter speeds in the 1/250-1/1000 sec range, images shot using a tripod are measurably sharper than those taken handheld. The rule of thumb, based on 35mm-equivalent focal lengths, is that the slowest hand-holdable shutter speed is one over the focal length of the lens—that is, 1/200 sec with a 200mm lens. However this rule only works up to a given print size—approximately 8x10 inches. If you make larger prints, you’ll need to use a faster shutter speed, or, better yet, a tripod. The optical image stabilization systems built into many late model digital cameras yield sharper handheld images at slower shutter speeds than the rule recommends, but when you’re shooting at long telephoto focal lengths and/or making prints of 11x14 and larger, there’s still no substitute for a good tripod.2. Enhancing depth of field: To achieve maximum depth of field—an image that’s critically sharp from foreground to background—you must shoot at a relatively small aperture, generally in the f/11 to f/32 range. And to maintain high image quality, it’s best to shoot at ISO 100 to 400. In most cases, unless you’re shooting in brilliant sunshine, this means that you or your camera will select a relatively slow shutter speed in order to provide a proper exposure. The inevitable conclusion: If you require extreme depth of field for pictorial or artistic effects, set your camera on Manual or A (aperture-priority) mode, select a small aperture, and use a tripod.3. Enhancing capture quality: For reasons alluded to above, a tripod will allow you to set a lower ISO when taking picture under any lighting conditions because you can shoot sharp pictures at slower shutter speeds. Most digital cameras deliver optimum image quality with less “digital grain,” aliasing, artifacts, etc. when you set the ISO to 100 or 200.4. Enhancing framing precision: A tripod is the supreme image-control device, allowing you to compose the picture perfectly using its panning (lateral rotation) tilting (vertical swing) and center post height adjustments. Many tripods also provide grounder capability for extreme low-angle shooting, and levels on the yoke and/or head platform to aid precise composition and minimize keystoning and other types of linear distortion. Using a tripod is also the only convenient way of shooting multiple frames exactly the same picture at different exposure settings, allowing you to choose the rendition you prefer in terms of tonal range, depth of field, etc.5. Extending your focal-length range: The longer the focal length of your lens or the focal length setting of your zoom lens, the higher the magnification of the image on the sensor or film. That’s why the image-blurring effects of even a slight amount of camera shake will be amplified at longer focal lengths. Yes, enabling your camera’s image-stabilization systems and shooting at higher shutter speeds can certainly help, but if you often shoot at equivalent focal lengths of 300mm and above, you should be using a sturdy medium-sized or larger tripod, preferably with the center post in its lowest position or extended only minimally for maximum stability. Candidates for hefty tripods used with long lenses include nature photographers, bird photographers, sports photographers and surveillance photographers.6. Extending your photographic range: The number of subject types and situations where a tripod is essential or highly beneficial is virtually limitless, but here are a few you might consider: Night photography, shooting time exposures, getting yourself into the picture using the self-timer, remote photography of a pre-planned subject, view, or location, macro photography at high magnifications, architectural and astrophotography, scientific, testing, nature, and identification photography where repeatability is required, time-lapse photography, panoramic photography and of course action photography when you want to blur the background by panning the camera.7. Enhancing your videos and movies: There’s no substitute for a tripod with a fluid head in achieving smooth panning and tilting when shooting videos and movies. Even moderately priced video tripods with fluid-effect heads instead of true fluid heads are a big help in achieving smooth looking pans that give your videos a professional touch. Serious amateurs and pros will opt for true fluid heads that can actually adjust the degree of damping action, not just the amount of friction on the movement. Even if you don’t use a tripod with a fluid head, it’s a good idea to mount your digital camera or camcorder on a tripod whenever you can—your results will look far less jerky than using a handheld camera, and you can even mount your tripod on a dolly to achieve true Hollywood-effect dolly shots, which often look a lot more realistic than zooming in or out with your lens.8. Enhancing your creative expression: How can a tripod possibly enhance your creativity? Basically by forcing you to slow down, giving you time to think about creating a photograph and expressing your ideas, as opposed to grabbing snapshots of the passing scene. This is not to denigrate either snapshooters or photojournalists who have certainly produced timeless images of life on the move, but there is also something to be said for taking the contemplative approach, carefully considering everything in the frame before pressing the shutter release. Yes, there are some geniuses that can consistently capture decisive moments on the fly, but most shooters find their photography improves both technically and esthetically when they use a tripod. Try it—we guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised.9. Extending shooting flexibility: Tripods have many uses besides holding a camera. They can be pressed into service as light stands, to hold flash units, slaves, and reflectors, or (when fitted with suitable hooks, platforms, or baskets) to hold and protect delicate equipment. We’ve even heard of one intrepid wildlife photographer who used his heavy-duty tripod with spiked leg tips to fend off a bear!Davis & Sanford and the development of the modern tripodDavis & Sanford, the oldest American tripod manufacturer and a key player in the advancement of tripod design, grew out of the renowned Davis & Sanford Photo Studio on Fifth Avenue in New York. Founded in 1892 by Charles Henry Davis and E. Starr Stanford, it catered to members of New York’s high society, including such notables as Andrew Carnegie. In 1930, Michael Resk, an established professional photographer who had emigrated from Germany, bought the Davis & Sanford Studio and continued its tradition of catering to the carriage trade.Michael Resk was more than just an accomplished photographer—he was a brilliant inventor who saw the vast potential in color photography. In those days, before the widespread use of color film, professional photographers used bulky three-color separation cameras that shot three identical black-and-white negatives simultaneously through three primary-color filters which were then combined to make a color print. Resk invented and constructed a new cutting-edge version of this type of camera, but he soon realized he needed something else to get the most out of it—something that didn’t yet exist—a super-rigid, lightweight metal tripod. He also knew there would be a ready market for such a tripod, and that only he could manufacture it to his exacting specifications.Michael Resk proceeded to perfect the Davis & Sanford Model A tripod, a design so successful that it was used , in modified form, in the Desert Storm campaign and is still listed in the catalog! With the help of his three sons Ed, William, and Rene, he began manufacturing tripods, and the company certainly didn’t rest on its laurels. When customers asked for a tripod that went higher than the “A”, they designed the Davis & Sanford Model B, which is still a standard in the field of industrial photography. When the market moved to smaller cameras, Davis & Sanford engineered the smaller Model C, which incorporated the proven features of the Models A and B, and is still acclaimed for its simplicity, dependability, and ruggedness.Over the years, Davis & Sanford tripods became the choice of many professional photographers, and new models were introduced to serve the special needs of portrait, fashion, astronomical, government, and television photographers as well as photojournalists, professional cinematographers and videographers. When the construction industry required a giant tripod that would extend to 15 feet, they turned to Davis & Sanford, and the company quickly developed the unique Model Maxi.This spirit of functional excellence, technical innovation, and outstanding value continues today, and the latest line of Davis & Sanford tripods, and the new line of Vista tripods marketed by The Tiffen Company include many of the most durable, best performing tripods on the market. Available in a wide range of sizes and types, including carbon fiber, grounder, and fluid head models all Davis & Sanford and Vista tripods benefit from the latest technology, and our 75-year tradition of uncompromising quality.
Best budget-priced compact: The new Vista Ranger offers braced 3-section snap-lock legs, 3-way fluid-effect head for still or video shooting, 13-inch geared center post, bubble levels on head and body, and a quick release. This sturdy unit weighs only 4 lbs. but holds up to 5.5 lbs, and extends to a convenient 65 inches. Street price: $49.95.
A truly unique bargain-priced compact: The Davis & Sanford SwitchKit is ideal for casual shooters and travelers who need a lightweight portable tripod that does it all. It comes with a convertible tripod case that doubles as a point & shoot camera case, and cleverly concealed in the handle that controls its 3-way head is a fully adjustable tabletop tripod! Other features include a 9.5-inch geared center post and a quick release. Capacity: 2.5 lbs. Maximum height: 50 inches. Total weight: 3lbs. Street price $19.95.