In my post “Breaking Through the Wall“, I made the analogy that to make your car faster, the best upgrade is to make the driver better and said photography is the same. That doesn’t probably sit well with people who think they can get newer, better equipment to solve their problems.
It is natural to want the latest thing, or to upgrade the camera or lenses you have, but I’ll throw another one at you: most people need to buy a good tripod before they spend any other money on other equipment. Unfortunately, tripods are like pretty much everything else in the photography world – you get what you pay for and the curve can get steep in a hurry. The net of it is this: buy the best tripod you can afford. If you’re really mobile, a monopod isn’t a bad idea either.
Why? Simple. Stable cameras make for much clearer, sharper pictures. Shaky cameras make for blurry images. Sadly, even a basic tripod setup with the head is going to cost you well over $200, and really nice ones that will serve most Enthusiast Photographers will get up where – $300-400 for the legs and another $300-$400 for the head. If you want carbon fiber, you just added a few hundred dollars more.
But for most of us, the enthusiast photographers, we don’t need a $1200 tripod/ball head setup. We just need a nice, non-consumer set of legs with a ball head capable of supporting the equipment in the bag. Check some of the Buy/Sell/Classifieds on the more established photography forums. Like good lenses, good support equipment holds value pretty well, but it is also generally something that doesn’t lose performance unless it is damaged.
I got the Manfrotto 190XPROB tripod with their interesting 322RC2 head. In retrospect, I might have gone for the slightly heavier-duty 055XPROB (don’t ask me about Manfrotto’s product names/numbering – I’m sure it makes sense to somebody…) and a more standard ball-head.
I can tell you this – my pictures and photography have improved dramatically since getting on good support. Yours will too…
[UPDATE: I moved on from the Manfrotto to a Gitzo tripod and heads based on the Arca-Swiss standard. My opinions have evolved a bit, and while I think Manfrotto's tripods are an excellent value, I'd recommend just about any head based on the Arca-Swiss system over any Manfrotto head. The "Why" is probably a topic for a later post, but check out some of my newer posts on Gitzo, Really Right Stuff and Sunwayfoto (you can search at the top right of the page)]