Confessions of a Tripod Addict (Part One of Two)

I have a confession to make. I’m a Triprostitute. There, I said it. In my years as a photographer, my camera has mounted just about everything around that has three legs. Big ones, little ones, and everything in between. Some made me very happy; some disappointed me greatly. But for some reason, I had to have them all. It’s not something I’m proud of.

If I were a better person, I could control this urge and stay loyal with a single mount, at least until it wears out. (Some photographers think you should remain loyal to your mount even after it wears out, but I think that’s just plain crazy.) My wife, Patricia, would certainly prefer that I stay loyal, but she’s finally accepted the fact that if she’s going to stay married to me, I’m going to keep spending our money on new mounts from time to time.

At last count, I own about 20 different tripods. The photo shows me with most of them, not including some that I can’t find readily after moving and, of course, the one I’m using to take this photo. My LadderPod, which incorporates a 16-foot extension ladder for when I really want to get high—legally—is currently not in service as I had to disassemble it to do some work on the house. It also doesn’t include the big pile of tripod parts I have. Being the consummate do-it-yourselfer and photo-gear builder, I save EVERYTHING that might be put to use on the next mad-scientist project.

The photo also doesn’t include the many mounts I own that don’t have three legs, all of which I made myself. There’s the WindowPod, for shooting out of my truck window; the TreePod, which mounts a camera securely to a tree trunk or branch; the DirtPod, which gets the camera down and dirty for low-angle shooting; and the TacomaPod. I have my truck specially rigged so I can set up a tripod from the roof of the camper shell.

Kevin Adams with collection of tripods

A few of the tripods I own.

With all this mounting going on, you can see why it’s important that I finally have come out of the closet and admitted that I’m addicted. Yes, I know I have a problem, but I’m afraid I’m not yet willing to do anything about it. In fact, I just bought a new tripod last week! Before you send me off to the crazy house, allow me to defend myself.

To me, camera mounts are just like lenses. You use different ones for different purposes. There is no such thing as a perfect tripod that works for all situations. Photographers who don’t shoot a huge variety of subjects and never travel or hike far from the car can certainly get by with one tripod. Those who also travel a lot or hike more than a mile or so, also need a lighter and smaller tripod to go with their workhorse. If you shoot a lot of wildlife and use the big guns like the 500s and 600s and the Nikon 200-400 kinds of lenses, you probably need a larger tripod, unless your regular workhorse is already big enough to support all that weight.

So three tripods are all that most sane photographers should need, and all but the most serious wildlife shooters can get by with only the first two:

  1. A general workhorse that is rock-solid, sets up high enough that you don’t have to bend over to look through the camera, and preferably has three leg sections instead of four (makes it more stable and is faster to use).
  2. A travel tripod that is smaller and lighter than the workhorse, but still provides stable support. This one usually has four leg sections, which allows it to retract into a shorter unit. It also usually has a smaller diameter head base plate, which allows for a smaller overall diameter. Watch this, though. The larger the diameter of the head plate, the more sturdy the tripod.
  3. A Big Mama tripod, with large-diameter legs and head base plate, for use with big cameras and monster lenses. The gimbal-type heads that most professional wildlife photographers use are bigger and heavier than traditional ball heads, so this just increases the need for a bigger tripod. Most serious wildlife photographers dedicate a tripod for this use, keeping the gimbal head mounted on it and a ball head mounted on their general workhorse.       

Notice that I said “sane” photographers. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t fit that description. Here’s what a photographer like me needs:

  1. Workhorse Pod. 
  2. Travel and Backpacking Pod.
  3. Get Past the Guards Pod. Many places won’t let you use (or even carry) a typical tripod, but you can often get by with a tabletop model. Mine fits in the back pocket of my vest, so I can breeze right by the guards. It only sets up about 16 inches high, but it’s rock solid and holds the camera stable. It’s perfect for locations like Top of the Rock in New York, where you can set it up on the balcony railing and in restaurant settings where you can set it up on your table. I’ve had this baby for more than 20 years and unfortunately, they don’t make anything like it anymore.
  4. PocketPod. Many photographers carry a point & shoot camera with them at all times for that “you never know” shot. Mine’s the Canon S90. Unlike the G series, which many photographers have, the S90 is truly a “pocket” camera and is more practical to carry with you at all times. If I happen to have an extra pocket, I’ll throw in an old Bogen mini tripod with a tiny ball head attached. Like #3, I’ve had this puppy for over 20 years and don’t know if they still make it anymore. It’s about 6 inches long and the legs don’t extend, so it’s truly a pocketable tripod. You wouldn’t want to mount your new D4 on it, but it gets along quite well with the S90.
  5. Monster SwampPod. For shooting in eastern blackwater rivers and swamps, I made a tripod from painter’s poles that will set up 12 feet high (or 12 feet deep). Jammed into the muck, it is surprisingly stable and allows me to shoot from my kayak in any light conditions.
  6. Regular SwampPod. I made this one to extend up to 6 feet. It works for most of the situations I encounter in the swamps of the eastern U.S.
  7. BeachPod. I have an old Bogen 3021 that I use when there is likelihood of soaking the tripod in saltwater. Today’s tripods, especially the Feisol’s I use,  are built well and can handle salt and muck if you clean them up regularly, but I like having an old tripod dedicated to the beach so I don’t have to worry about the constant upkeep. Once the salt eats it up, I’ll just replace it with another old tripod I have lying around. Oh, for you youngsters, Bogen is the same company that is now known as Manfrotto. Some old-timers like me never could get comfortable using the new name.
  8. FlashPod. I do a lot of remote flash work in my night photography using Pocket Wizards to fire the flash. In the truck I carry light stands for holding the flashes, but for travel or hiking, I use a little tabletop tripod that folds to less than a foot, but extends to four feet. It’s not something you’d want to put your camera on, but it works beautifully for holding a flash.
  9. AstroPod. For shooting long exposures of the stars without trailing, I use a tracking mount called AstroTrac. This mounts onto a homemade base (actually a modified German equatorial mount assembly) that allows me to obtain precision polar alignment. The camera mounts to a ball head that is attached to the AstroTrac. All of this stuff together is HEAVY and needs solid support. I use a heavy-duty tripod made especially for mounting telescopes.
  10. Backups & Extras. Because I never throw anything away, nor sell any of my old tripods, I have several units that make good backups for my workhorse and backpacking tripods, as well as serving as extras when I set up more than one camera at a time.

I’ll save the rest of my confession for Part Two, which is coming up shortly. I’ll tell you what tripods I’m using now and what features I consider important in choosing a tripod. Oh, you might be wondering about tripod heads. After all, it’s not just the mount that’s important; you need to have a good head to go with it! Alas, I’m afraid that’s another confession and will have to be the topic for another post entirely. Here’s a tease, though. I currently own (and use) about 15 different tripod heads.

Oh, one more thing before I let you go. Among all the other goodies we have in store for this year’s Western North Carolina Foto Fest, I’ll be giving a program about all the stuff I make for my photography. I’ll have most of my tripods on display and will tell you how I built or modified them.   

Hmm, maybe it would be a good idea to start some sort of support group for people like me!

Did you like this post? Well, I sure would appreciate it if you told your friends. Thanks!
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