Which Tripods are best for Macro Photography?
A very important aspect of macro photography is finding a way to support the camera whilst also allowing you as the photographer, to make precise movements to the cameras position. To get consistent results this has to be done in a way that is fast, simple and accurate. To get this type of camera positioning control you need to invest in a sturdy tripod. A tripod does not necessarily have to be expensive to be effective for macro photography. The very cheap unbranded all-in-one pan and tilt tripods are best avoided because they are simply not good strong enough for the job. This type of tripod is designed for much lighter cameras and camcorders rather than heavy digital SLR cameras with macro lenses and flash units connected. It is likely that the excess weight would break the tripod and could result in damage to the camera, lens or flash unit. It is therefore a good idea to find a tripod that is strong, sturdy and designed to take the weight of all your expensive camera equipment.
There are thousands of different tripods on the market and the only thing that they have in common is that they all have three legs. A tripod is the only realistic method of getting consistently sharp macro photographs. However, this cannot be guaranteed when working with outdoor subjects such as plants, flowers and insects. Still life Photography is relatively easy in comparison and a sturdy tripod is almost guaranteed to give crystal sharp results indoors. This of course is only possible if you are using an adequate camera and lens combination with good lighting and a remote switch. Another way is to achieve consistent sharp still life images is to attach the camera to a stand or bracket.
Nature and wildlife photographers often use their cameras hand held (without tripod support) for flexibility. This can be a difficult skill to learn and often requires the use of flash which allows for quicker shutter speed. Unless balanced with ambient light this may result in pictures that have an unnatural appearance. My own experience of hand held macro photography has been disappointing at times but with practice has gradually improved. I found that it involves taking a lot more shots of the subject in the hope of getting at least one that is sharp. On reflection you can have a lot of soft images of the subject or use a tripod in the hope of getting at least one acceptably sharp image. The argument against using a tripod is that they are rather restrictive, cumbersome and time consuming. My response to this would be that this is the price you pay for seeking consistently sharp images. Your strike rate may be lower but the pictures you do manage to get will be of much higher quality. Also the composition will usually be better due to the slow and thoughtful way that you are forced to work with a tripod.
One of the tripods that I have found that is suitably flexible for outdoor wild flower photography is the Benbo range by Paterson Photographic. These tripods have a unique design that makes it possible to get your camera very close to the ground. In fact the Benbo Trekker will allow you to get lower than ground level if your subject is in a hole (below ground level). There are other tripods that can do this by reversing the central column. Reversing the central column means that your camera will be upside down. In addition the legs may obstruct your view and make it difficult to see through the view finder. If macro photography is your sole purpose for buying a tripod and your subjects are likely to be on the ground or close to it, a Benbo is probably one of the options to consider.
Benbo tripod are not always the easiest piece of equipment to use. I have found the Trekker II that I use to be quite a challenge to set-up quickly. The lower leg section are sealed and waterproof so that the tripod can be stood in shallow water. Although I recommend this tripod (the current model is the Benbo Trekker Mark 3) I would not buy the tripods standard ball and socket head and also consider whether to avoid the swivel joint. The swivel joint is available in the centre column and allows the camera to be adjusted from horizontal to vertical. However, many photographers have indicated that this additional joint adds a weak point in the tripod. I can confirm that in my own experience the swivel joint does affect the overall weight capacity of these tripods. In macro photography ability to use precision to fine tune your composition is very important. Any weak point or vulnerability will become apparent very quickly. Benbo tripods are an adequate tripod for beginners but you have to accept that they do have limitations. These tripods can be improved by the addition of a third party head such as the Manfrotto 460mg (or similar) rather than a low quality standard ball and socket head. Poor quality ball and socket tripod heads will make framing your subject a very frustrating exercise, particularly if the camera is facing downwards. In this position the ball and socket joint will be under a considerable amount of stress.
Manfrotto 460mg - 3 Way Tripod Head
This is a very innovative tripod head made from light weight magnesium, it weighs 0.4 Kg (0.9 lbs). It can be moved in 3 different directions using independent adjustments. This flexibility makes it possible to move the camera to any position imaginable. The head will pan through 360 degrees and has frontal and lateral tilt. The Manfrotto 460mg has rubber grip fine adjustment knobs rather than levers so you cannot poke yourself in the eye! The head is supplied with a PL 200 quick release plate. It has a load capacity of 3.0 Kg (6.7 lbs) which is enough for most camera, macro lens and flash arrangements. The combination of the Benbo Trekker and the Manfrotto 460mg gives you an excellent and balanced set up for macro photography. There are plenty of alternative tripods heads in all shapes and sizes. Geared heads offer more precision and are popular but also very expensive in comparision.
Please Note, that to use the Benbo Trekker tripods (with 1/4" thread) with a Manfrotto tripod head (3/8" thread) youwill need to purchase an additional adapter. Benbo Trekker tripods have 1/4” male thread, this requires the addition of a Bogen/Manfrotto 1/4” to 3/8” adapter. This inexpensive adapter will make the Benbo Trekker tripod compatible with 3/8” tripod heads made by other manufacturers. There are two different types of this adapter. One of them is a simple adapter that threads directly over the original 1/4” thread converting into a 3/8” thread. The other type is virtually the same except that it has a flange (or disc) around it. Neither are expensive and both will allow you to convert a 1/4” thread to a 3/8” thread allowing you to use a Manfrotto tripod head with a Benbo (or Uni-loc) tripod. I found that Kaiser also make a very inexpesive 1/4” to a 3/8” thread adapter.
The Benbo Trekker range is also cloned as the Uni-loc Major System - so these tripods are essentially the same product using the same or (very similar) design. They both meet high standards of quality (some say that the Uni-loc has a better build quality). Trekker tripods are sold with or without the controversial swivel joint in the centre column. It is also possible to purchase replacement centre column. If you have a Benbo with a swivel joint but want a straight column you can buy a replacement from Paterson Photographic.
Also I have read that some photographers are unhappy that the camera has to be supported when you undo the tension nut. This is actually no different to most other brand of tripod, I am not aware of any tripod that can be operated any differently. I have found that the Benbo tripods are easy to set-up if you slacken the tensioning nut very slightly (just enough to move the legs or the centre column into a new position). I accept that for some people the Benbo is just right for them. In fact as you begin to more proficient as a macro photographer you may decide to look for a more proffesional tripod for your macro endeavors.
If you want to avoid the Benbo/Uni-Lock style of tripod and would prefer to go straight for the proffesional tripods here a a few brands to consider.
(Aluminium).Gitzo get very good reviews for their Explorer Range of tripods most notably for macro photography. A popular choice and currently still available is the Gitzo Explorer G2220 Another popular choice but with mixed reviews from photographers are the Manfrotto 190X Pro B and the larger 055B tripods. My only advice is to try before you buy or at least read as many reviews as possible, not only about the products but the company behind them. Customer Service should always be considered as you will need this when seeking spare parts, repairs or even a refund if the product does not live up to expectations.
Macro Focussing RailsI have already outlined a fairly reasonable tripod (either the Benbo, Manfrotto or Gitzo) and tripod head (Manfrotto 460mg or better) for macro photography. This combination is especially suited to outdoor field work such as wild flower (botanic), insect (bugs), fungi (mycology) or similar types of field photography. It is actually possible to improve the equipment's flexibility further by adding a focussing rail (also known as a micro positioning plate). The difficult and frustrating part of macro photography is focussing on your subject. To do this manually without a focussing rail means moving the camera backwards and forwards to bring the subject into focus. To adjust the focal distance you have to move the tripod and camera closer or further away from subject. To maintain a particular ratio i.e 1:1 you might have to resort to adjusting the extension of the tripods legs or the centre column. This can be a frustrating and difficult procedure without a foccussing rail. The focussing rail connects to the tripod head and can be used with a quick release plate. This enables the camera to be moved in small increments backwards and forwards for quicker and more precise focusing. Manfrotto/Bogen make an acceptable micro positioning plate for this purpose. In the UK it is branded as the Manfrotto 454 Micro Positioning Plate and in the US as the Manfrotto/Bogen 3419 Micro Positioning Plate. It is an outstanding piece of kit and a perfect compliment to the set-up that I have described in this post. This labour saving device is ideal for macro photography because it can be used to make precise positioning movements with fingertip control. It is small at 180 x 77, 5x6mm in dimension and does not add much weight at 0.5 Kg (1 lbs) because it is made from extruded aluminium. It is strong though and has a maximum weight capacity of 8.0 Kg (17.7 lbs) which is easily enough for a Digital SLR camera, Lens and off camera flash unit. When using the fingertip control for ultra-fine positioning the Manfrotto Micro Positioning Plate has a simple lock-release lever for fast set-up. It is common sense really, but it is important that you support the camera if you have it positioned facing downwards whilst using the lock-release lever. It is also possible to fix two Micro Positioning Plates together so that you have the same control over left to right movements (but this is over kill in my opinion and not really necessary - each to their own).
Quick Release (QR) Plates It is always worth paying for a good quality tripod head to use with your tripod. Remember that you do not have to buy the same brand of tripod head as your tripod. The flexibility of being able to mix and match provides the photographer with a much wider choice of selection. Quick Release (QR) Plates are a simple device that make it easier and faster to attach or remove the camera from the tripod (via the tripod head). This means that you spend less time setting up each composition and more time taking photographs. Macro Photography without a quick release plate is awkward and fiddly to accomplish. If you do not use a quick release plate there is a strong chance that you will eventually damage your camera, tripod or lens collar connection. This will come about through repeatedly attaching and disconnecting the camera to and from the tripod manually. The end result of this would be having to buy a new and expensive lens collar for your macro lens. The worst scenario would be the camera, lens and flash unit coming away from the tripod and getting damaged. You always have to consider the stability of the the system you are using and quick release plates makes a lot of sense. Many of the high quality tripod heads come with a quick release plates but you can also buy them separately if required.
I hope that you found this post about tripods, heads, focussing rails and quick release plates useful. If you begin using (or upgrade to) a set-up like the one I recommended it will make a lot of difference to your macro photography. In my next post and possibly several subsequent posts (hey, its a big topic) I will be writing about image editing software. Thank you for visiting my macro photography for beginners website.
You may also be interested in my blog post about Macro Tripod Problems (or the day my tripod broke, may have been a more accurate title)