Thoughts on tripod height

Advance warning – this might turn into a rant …

I was out walking on the Simonside Hills today. As the focus was more on walking than on photography, I just took a 35mm camera, loaded with Fuji Sensia slide film, plus 50mm and 24mm lenses, together with the lightest of my three tripods. I took about twenty shots in the forest, and on the tops, of rock outcrops looming out the mists. During the course of the day, the tripod height was varied from the lowest possible, to get really close to the ground, to the highest possible – whatever each image needed to get the most interesting (in my opinion) composition.

Fast forward a few hours and I find myself reading reviews of tripods on internet forums. I’m thinking of buying another tripod for use my with my Mamiya RZ67 medium format kit. At the moment I use an Manfrotto 075 with 029 head, a combination which is incredibly strong and stable (and heavy) but which doesn’t go down as low to the ground as I would like.

Anyway, here’s the ranty bit .. I came across a lot of discussions where people were searching for tripods that were the “right” height for them; by which they meant that when the tripod legs were fully extended they should present the camera at eye level. These photographers thought it was too much trouble to have to adjust the tripod legs to anything other than the maximum height !

I see two problems with this point of view.

First, the right height for the tripod is the height which is appropriate for each individual image. As I said above, I will vary the tripod from low to high during the course of a photoshoot, to meet the needs of each image. As a photographer, primarily, of landscapes, I use low viewpoints quite a lot. This means that I have to get low down, often on my knees and occasionally lie on the ground, to see through the viewfinder. Admittedly this is why I prefer waist-level viewfinders, which the Canon EOS300 I was using today doesn’t have. It’s also why I will often wear waterproof overtrousers on a landscape photography shoot.

Secondly, for maximum stability, extending the tripod to maximum height should be seen as a last resort. The lower sections of the legs are always the thinnest and weakest, and the more the legs are extended, the more surface area there is to be caught by the wind, possibly leading to camera shake.

Of course, these are only my opinions and everyone’s opinion is valid. Others may have specific photographic needs which mean that eye level is best for them. The needs of a sports or portrait photographer may differ from those of a landscape photographer.

On a final point, the maximum height of my Manfrotto 075 tripod is over seven feet, I think, rather higher than my eye level. But I have made use of that height when standing on the edge of a rock ledge with the tripod legs on lower ground below, or standing on a rock in a river with the tripod legs in two feet of water. That’s what I did for the image below. If you select a tripod which extends only to your face level, you may not have the extra reach needed for such a situation.

The River Allen, Northumberland - Mamiya RZ67, Kodak TMax 100, Manfrotto 075 tripod

Like most photographers, I’m still searching for the “ideal” tripod – featherweight, incredibly strong, easy to carry, and can change from ground level to seven feet height with a flick of a switch. Of, and free would be nice too !

 

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on tripod height

  1. Mike Green April 27, 2014 at 9:49 am Reply

    Well said, Kevin! I couldn’t agree more with the need to adapt tripod to the shot, not to your own height.

    I generally tend to [try to] not even get the tripod out until I’ve worked out where, in space, the camera should be. Having done that, I then [try to] hold the camera still and place the tripod underneath it. Vastly better than putting the camera on the tripod then moving around with it, though admittedly somewhat more difficult to actually achieve sometimes. As to the usefulness of very tall tripods: I’ve recently bought a new one for precisely that reason. i.e. to be able to put one leg far down a slope, or into a stream in a gully. All very sound advice and really not very ranty at all 😉

    Mike

  2. David A Lockwood April 27, 2014 at 12:52 pm Reply

    I have an original Uniloc tripod (Benbo are similar) and depending on the model: very manoeuvrable from ground level to head hight. Best I ever got and with a good ball head, takes my tank of a Bronica S2a no problem.

    David.

    • kevinallan April 27, 2014 at 5:49 pm Reply

      Thanks David. May I say that there is some seriously impressive work on your website. I had a loan of a Bronica S2 for a while – it was actually a lot lighter than my Mamiya RZ67. But the S2, unlike the S2A, doesn’t have mirror lock-up, which was a limiting factor for me.

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