Choosing a tripod for photographing fireworks
Most photography guides encourage you to buy the most expensive tripod you can afford. Whilst this is pretty sound advice, I’ve actually been using tripods costing a paltry £15 each to produce good photos for a few years now. The trick is to look out for a few key features that makes them suitable for firework photography. In this article I’ll run through some essential advice on choosing a tripod and what you can expect to gain if you do spend more.
Why you need a tripod to shoot fireworks
Good fireworks photos require a long shutter time – typically 8 seconds or more – during which time the camera must be completely stationary. Since it’s impossible to do this by hand, a tripod is required.
Camera and camcorder tripods
When you start shopping for a tripod you must first be careful to distinguish between tripods designed for cameras, those designed for camcorders, and those designed for both.
Camcorder tripods have a long grip which you use to pan the camcorder around while shooting. These also usually have a fixed mount, with the camcorder sitting level on it. Although you can use these for cameras, your camera will always be locked in the landscape position. You won’t be able to tip it on its side to shoot portrait (where the vertical side of the frame is the longest).
Tripods designed for multi-use with either a camcorder or a camera will still have a long arm for controlling the camcorder but will also have an attachment plate which will rotate up to 90 degrees. This means you can tip the camera on its side and shoot in portrait mode – most fireworks shots tend to use this orientation since fireworks burst high in the air.
Tripods designed just for camera use do not have a long arm coming out since there is no reason to want to move the camera while it is taking photos. There are a number of different head designs on the market, one of the most common is a ball in a socket as shown in the next picture. These have the advantage of being able to position the camera at any angle and usually hold the camera a little more firmly in place.
Choosing a tripod
If you want the most flexibility then pick a tripod which can take both cameras and camcorders. Just make sure you can rotate the attachment plate as shown above so you know you’ll be able to use your camera on its side.
If you are going to be shooting only stills and won’t be using a camcorder, then I’d recommend putting your money into a tripod designed just for that purpose.
How much to spend?
The advice usually given by photography magazines, books and salespeople is: “The most expensive you can afford”. I can certainly confirm that you get what you pay for with a tripod and although you don’t have to spend a lot of money (which I’ll cover in a minute) as you go up in price you do get better equipment.
Spending more on a tripod usually means:
- You get a better quality head, which attaches to your camera. This can improve stability or reduce the time required to swap cameras if you need to.
- You get a heavier tripod, which means it is more stable, especially in wind.
- You get a bigger tripod which has a higher maximum position.
- You get better quality (or adjustable) feet for different types of ground.
- You get better build quality. Quite important because tripods do get banged about and clattered an awful lot.
- Some models feature independent legs. Very useful for very low camera positions, for example doing set up or product photography.
- Some models feature a top arm section which can move into any angle (unlike the straight up and down motion of cheaper models). This has proved useful for minor adjustments to camera angle without disturbing the head and to nestle a camera closer to other equipment such as camcorders, when shooting from multiple sources!
The first tripod I bought – going by the advice of get the best you can afford – was a Benbo Trekker. This cost around £110 at the time. Over a decade later and it is still going strong!
What I like about this tripod is the legs which are all independent. On cheaper tripods the three legs are connected. On the Benbo Trekker they can all move around on their own. This has helped to steady the camera when photographing in difficult locations such as ploughed fields or hillsides. I’ve also been able to use the legs to wedge into car seats and even trees to secure the tripod. It has also proved to be much, much more stable in high winds; with waterproofing or bags over cameras they can act as sails to help topple the whole lot over. The Benbo’s legs can be splayed out to cover a larger area and make it impossible to tip.
Best of all however is the build quality. I think this more than anything is why people do spend more on tripods – once you get to a certain price point you lose the plastic parts and move up to something designed to be knocked around and survive it. In the case of the Benbo Trekker it is actually highly acclaimed for nature photography – the legs allowing the camera to be lowered right to ground level – so I figured if it could survive the jungles of Borneo it could cope with a wedding in Suffolk.
Up until that point I would have agreed with the advice of spending as much as you can on a tripod. That is until I needed an emergency tripod to mount a “spare” camera during a shoot. UKFR member Fahrenheit451 had recommended a tripod costing around £15 on Amazon, a Giotto VT806. Thinking this would be a one-off use of the tripod I bought it solely because of the cost.
In practice it has turned out to be an excellent tripod and has certainly removed any “tripod snobbery” I had. For general use and on fairly even ground it is well recommended by me. It has clearly been made to a cost and this is reflected in the lightweight legs and plastic parts – this won’t survive too many years of firework display abuse. But at £15 a time does it matter? It certainly makes a brilliant ground zero tripod since it doesn’t matter if it gets blown up.
[Update: As of March 2014, my bulletproof Benbo is still going strong. But one of my cheap and cheerful tripods has, sadly, lost a leg simply due to low build quality].
There are a couple of things on tripods which I have found to be a bit gimmicky. The first is a little spirit level. Almost impossible to see in the dark and far too small to be accurate, don’t waste your time with them. Level the shot by eye and correct it afterwards in your photo editor.
The second “feature” I have never used is the ballast hook on the bottom of the camera shaft. It sounds like a great idea being able to weigh the tripod down to make it stable – until you think about what you’d use to weigh it down. I want my equipment to be as portable as possible so taking along extra weight for this is out of the question. Hanging my camera cases from the hook is equally impractical since I prefer to have all my support materials – torches, lens clothes and spare cards – close by and ready to use. Spend extra money instead on a tripod with better legs. For example my Benbo Trekker has legs so strong I can kick them into soft ground to get a stable footing.
For light use I have found – surprisingly – even cheap and cheerful tripods work well. Don’t be ashamed then to be a total scrooge!
If you can afford a better tripod and intend to use it a lot, do invest more and buy a better quality one. Avoid gimmicky features and look for good build quality and a well designed head.
Cheap tripods are easy to find on Amazon and similar stores. Better quality tripods are best assessed in person at a specialist camera shop. You can feel their weight and how solid they are.
Most importantly of all: Ensure you buy a tripod which has a head designed to rotate your camera on its side. Tripods designed only for camcorders cannot do this.