Optics support systems vary greatly in design and size (and therefore weight). Each design had enough benefits that someone thought to make them. The parameters determining the best choice of tripods and other support systems vary with their quality and design, the conditions in which they are used, and preferences of the individual using them. For the most part, this section deals with supporting scopes, but you can also support binoculars and cameras with these devices. As with everything to do with optics, there are no perfect solutions. You have to give a benefit to get one. Usually, the tradeoff is stability versus weight, and sometimes weight versus price.
A good tripod is as important as a good scope. A flimsy tripod provides a poor image regardless of how good the scope is. The proper tripod fits the user's height, preferably with as little rise on the center column as possible. The longer the rise on the center column, the less stable the tripod will be. When calculating the proper tripod height, remember to add about four inches for the height of the head, another three to four inches for the height of the scope's eyepiece above the tripod mount, and subtract the distance of your eyes from the top of your head. Scopes with angled eyepieces don't require as tall a tripod.
Good birding tripods are heavy enough to minimize vibrations from wind, but light enough for easy transportation; compact, again for easy transport but tall enough to be comfortable during extended use; quick to set up and take down, with independently adjustable legs for uneven terrain. Avoid tripods with center columns adjusted with a crank. Those cranks are slow and noisy. Such cranks may be able removable. Thus, a birding tripod is a compromise of weight versus stability, and between compactness and height.
Tripods have two basic parts: the legs (which includes the center column) and the head. Less expensive tripods usually come complete with heads, while the more expensive ones usually come as components. This lets you select the combination of legs and head that best fits your needs.
Top-of-the-line models have legs and center column made of carbon fiber, with connecting parts made of magnesium. These cost from $300.00 to $600.00 (legs only), or about double the equivalent sized aluminum tripods, but pay off in being at least as sturdy with around 30% less weight. If you can afford one that fits your size requirements, get it.
Most birders use high-end tripods whose legs and center column are made of thick extruded aluminum, and the other parts of sturdy plastic or metal. They range in price from just under $100.00 to about $250.00 and in weight from four to seven pounds. We recommend this class of tripod, especially if you have a high-end scope and can't afford a carbon fiber model.
Top- and high-end tripods are built to stand up to heavy use and adverse conditions. Instead of having spreader bars, most have the ability to have each leg spread to a different angle for uneven terrain. Such tripods seldom feature a hand crank on the center column.
Inexpensive tripods are usually very lightweight. They range in price from $25.00 to $50.00, and in weight from three to four pounds including the head. Most have legs made out of thin aluminum with plastic for the other parts. They are often flimsy and hard to repair. They may suffice with low-end scopes (50mm to 60mm objectives), but cannot give adequate support for the larger and heavier scopes. Many have a hand crank for raising and lowering the center column, and spreader bars that keep the legs from spreading too far apart. It is difficult to find tripods in this class that extend high enough for tall people. We do not recommend these tripods for digiscoping or larger scopes.
Fig. #1: Tripod Legs
To make them compact for storage and portability, all tripods have legs made of multiple sections that nest inside each other (see Fig. #1). On most tripods, the leg section that touches the ground is the thinnest, and the section at the top is the widest. A few tripods have been designed with the leg sections inverted, so that the widest section touches the ground. This is an advantage if you spend a lot of your birding time in sand, snow, water, or mud, because it moves the place where the lowest section meets the next section away from the ground, thus reducing the possibility of dirt getting into the joint and fouling the mechanism.
Bogen/Manfrotto has recently introduced a new tripod called the NeoTec. It is billed as the fastest-opening tripod in the world. The NeoTec has a unique locking system in which the locks are internal to the legs. To extend the legs, just grab the lowest (and outermost) leg segment and pull. To retract the legs, press a button at the top of each leg and push the leg segments back up. To level this tripod on uneven ground, extend the legs, place the feet on the ground, press all three unlock buttons simultaneously, and position the head to the proper angle. When the tripod is where you want it, release the buttons.
To keep the legs extended to the desired length, tripods use compression mechanisms at the section joints (see Fig#1 insets). There are three kinds of leg lock designs. One is a coaxial collar. These are the most reliable, as they are self-adjusting, but are the slowest to use. Next is a collar similar to a hose clamp in that a screw mechanism on one side of the collar does the loosening and tightening. Some of these use a quick-action lever while others use a screw with a knob on the end. Both of these can be adjusted easily in the field. Low-end tripods have quick-action levers that move a friction plate inside the leg assembly. These are most prone to failure and very hard to fix on your own.
Some tripods allow you to change the type of feet on the legs. Instead of plain rubber feet, you can get feet that twist to expose metal spikes for rough or icy terrain. For snow, sand, and mud, there are "snow shoes" that strap onto the tripod's feet so they stay on top of the surface instead of sinking in. This saves a lot of foot cleaning and protects the lower leg joint.
Most birders prefer tripod heads designed for video camera use. This is because there are only two degrees of freedom that concern us - pitch (tilting your scope up or down), and yaw (panning left or right). Rarely is there a need for roll (spinning the scope on its lens axis). Roll control is only important if you are doing photography. If you are digiscoping with a high-end scope, you will usually have roll control built into the scope mount or the camera mount.
Heads for low-end tripods are usually built onto the tripod, so you have to select your tripod with the quality of the head in mind. Always try moving the head on the tripod before you buy it. If it sticks too much, you will have a hard time getting on the bird. Look for tripods that come with "fluid heads".
High-end heads are sold separately from the legs. They will usually have the designation
"micro fluid". The fluid helps the head move smoothly by dampening vibrations. These heads, when adjusted properly, will stay pointing where you leave them until you move them again. This allows for one-hand control without the need to lock the head into place, which will slow you down for the next bird and otherwise occupy your focusing hand. A good head will usually cost from $70.00 to $80.00 and weigh about 1.5 pounds.
Another head design favored by many photographers is the ball head. This is a ball-in-socket joint with a mounting platform on top. A lever locks the ball in place. A variation on this design is a mini-ball with a pistol-grip type locking mechanism. Some people love this head but others have problems aiming it. If you haven't had the opportunity to try one in the field, stick to the video head style.
An important aspect of head design is how the scope or camera attaches to the head. All use a 1/4" or 3/8" screw to attach the two. When switching between scope and camera on the tripod, or transporting the scope and tripod separately, repeatedly screwing and unscrewing the scope from the head is cumbersome and slow. Further, the screw-on mechanism wears out fairly rapidly, and eventually loses the ability to hold the optic steady at all. The solution is a head that uses quick-release plates. These heads have a receptacle for a plate that screws onto the scope or camera and stays there. Purchase a plate for each device used on the tripod, and snap them in and out as needed. Quick-release plates and heads feature different plate designs, so be sure everything matches.
As the name suggests, monopods are supports with one leg instead of three. They are useful when you want to further reduce the amount of weight you're carrying. While monopods can be used with scopes in an emergency, they are most useful with a still or video camera. You will need a head for your monopod for pitch control. Make sure your quick release plates fit both heads. You want to keep the head directly over the foot, to maximize stability.
Shoulder stocks are devices that look like a rifle stock with a strap that goes over your shoulder from the butt. This is a way of further reducing weight. Not many birders use them, but it is another option that might work for you. Shoulder stocks are excellent for following the path of a moving bird, but they do take some practice. With a stock, the scope is only as steady as the arm supporting it and fatigue is a major issue. Therefore, as with monopods, we recommend that shoulder pods only be used with cameras.Also, using anything that resembles a firearm can be problematic in some areas.
Birders often use a car as a mobile blind. Window mounts allow attachment of a scope or camera to a slightly raised window. Some window mounts require a second head for use; others feature a mini ball-and-head design, which is more convenient. A fixed head requires the user to move their head to the window mount. As with tripods, there can be issues of head and mount compatibility.
- Tripods are a compromise in height, weight, and price.
- Video heads are best for birding but not for photography.
- Monopods and shoulder stocks are light weight alternatives that are best left for use with still and video cameras.
- Window mounts help you turn your car into a moving blind.
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