Thursday, November 24, 2016

Let's all give thanks for tripods

The contribution your camera makes to how you can express yourself with photography seems to be widely recognized, but in pinhole, so dominated by exposures too long to be handheld, tripods are a critical aspect of determining what you can and can't do. It's not impossible to take pinhole photographs without one, but it will definitely limit your options.


Even before I was involved in pinhole, I was attracted to images that were close up and ergo required small apertures (remember extension tubes?) or in lighting conditions that were too long to hand-hold, and multiple minute exposures were not unknown.

I got my first tripod shortly after I started seriously pursuing photography in the early 1970's. I no longer have it. (full-disclosure, I got this image from ebay).  It was a Vivitar 1600 or something, I think.   It wasn't a bad tripod. It was a little wiggly at full extension, but plenty stable enough for the consumer SLR I had at the time.  It's biggest problem was the one-way tilt mechanism.  It's one of the those Murphy's law situations that where you're on an uneven surface, the camera needs to tilt the other way to get it level. Adjusting one of the legs is always an option, but that's a really slow cumbersome process.

It's weakness was in the locks of the legs. They had levers with some sort of compression mechanism and once they broke, were unrepairable.  A tripod with one leg that just slides in and out is pretty much unusable.

When I outfitted the new college AV department I was hired to run, the local camera store recommended a Davis and Sanford Reditilt. I was pretty happy with it. The one I got for the school was silver, but when I replaced the Vivitar, I went with a black one for myself.


This thing is really solid. I once used it with a wooden antique 8 X 10 inch portrait camera. It tilts on both axes in either direction.  It actually tilts over a little over 90 degrees so if you're tilting a 35mm camera over for a vertical, you still have a little play to correct for a non-level surface.

The locks on the legs are rotary compression fittings so I don't think you could break them.  The camera is attached to a little brass fitting that slips into a hole on the top which is then locked by a bolt.  It not only makes it easy to attach the camera, but if you're switching between tripod and handheld, it works like a quick-release. Over 25 years later, I lost it for a short while, and the local camera store had one in stock!

For those 25 years, it was the only tripod I had. Eventually one of the legs got a little floppy, but that was easily fixed with a lock nut from the hardware store.

It's the tallest tripod I have. It extends to over five and a half feet. The only disadvantage is that it's pretty big and heavy. It's minimum height is almost three feet.

When I got seriously into pinhole, I wanted to photograph plants closer to the ground and get closer to things in my south kitchen window so I went down to local camera store to get something smaller and bought what I think was the cheapest tripod they had.  None of my cameras weigh more than a couple ounces, so I wasn't concerned about a sturdily built device.

Collapsed, it's only a foot off the ground, but it has six section telescoping legs. That seems to give a lot of adjustability, but there are issues. The stops are these little ball and socket affairs which, in this case, means you have to pull just about the whole leg out, and then individually adjust each segment to get the the height you want or when you want to collapse it back down.  In addition, the ends of the segments are pretty sharp so there was often a bit of finger pinching.

It also has the same sort of one direction only tilt head, which again, is inevitably the wrong direction to get the camera level.

The camera is attached with a quick release adapter which has one of my pet peeves – you need some sort of a screwdriver to attach it.  You'd think I could remember to put a coin in my pocket, but inevitably, when I need to attach or remove the camera, I don't have one handy.


In one of my summer children's workshop, they broke the handle off the elevator mechanism, somehow lost the tilt lever which also served to lock the forward and back tilting and recently one of the sections lost it's little ball bearing and won't lock.  It's still workable, but kind of a pain to use.  I guess you get what you pay for.  It was easy to travel with and was what I took with me on that transformative trip to Florida that got me going with 35mm.

Of course one of the the things that got me really hooked on the Populist was that I could just stick it in my pocket and carry it with me everywhere, but you still need something to support it so you can adjust the pointing at what you want to photograph, so I bought a small, folding desktop tripod. It's the support I've used with almost all of the road trip photographs on this blog (and f295 before that).

This is the third one I've had.  I had one fall out of my pocket while riding my bike to work one winter which I found in pieces next to the curb the following spring and then one of the legs came off the one I bought to replace it.

My current version, this ProMaster, is actually the smallest one I've found. A key feature is the way it folds flat.  It's only 2 x 4 x 3/8 inches so it will fit in almost any pocket.

It does have extendable legs so it adjusts up to 7 inches.

It doesn't always sit on a flat surface.  Just as often it's held against a wall, tree or post, or held against a railing or chair.


After I lost that first one, I did buy another desktop tripod, but it doesn't fold flat, weighs nearly a pound and is sturdy enough to hold a professional DSLR, so it doesn't get used for pinhole much, but it's real handy to hold my iPad (with adapter of course) when we're having Facetime conversations with Andy.

Handy as my little desktop is, it is limited, and in some situations, at home, in the garden, at Mosquito Hill, I don't mind carrying something a little bigger. My main workhorse is this Bogen/Manfrotto 76B.

It's almost the ideal compromise between size and portability.  It fits in my backpack. It extends out to over 5 feet tall, and with 5 leg extensions and an elevator it is adjustable for about any height. The ball and socket head is locked with a button built into the handle, so it's really easy to point.

The locks are levers that all point in the same direction and can almost be flipped open in a single motion.  I'm not sure how they work, but after 10 years of heavy use, they are still very positive to lock and unlock, and show no signs of loosening.

At it's lowest, it's about 16 inches, but the legs can unlock to spread out further, in two steps, until it's almost on the ground. In addition, the elevator can be reversed so you can put the camera underneath the legs and get it right to the ground, which coincidentally just today I saw illustrated by my Pinhole Day colleague Lena Källberg on Facebook (I think hers is a slightly newer model)

I rarely use that function though. When I want to get that close to the ground, I usually just lie it down the ground, sometimes adjusting it up a bit with a bit broken branch or my foot.


If I have any quibble with it, it's the screw type attachment to the quick release adapter, but the slot is wide enough that I can use my keys if I've forgotten to put a coin in my pocket.  Another very minor problem is that it's got a knob to switch from video to photo mode which seems to get accidentally switched to the video mode, but it's easily switched back.

Although it's not designed to hold a lot of weight, for at least two years before my knee surgery it also stood in as a cane that allowed me to continue walking up and down and around Mosquito Hill.

Several people have commented to me about the oddness of the primitive nature of my cameras and the relatively high tech appearance of the Bogen/Manfrotto tripod. That got me poking around on eBay for a vintage tripod that might match my cameras better.

As I was planning for the trip to my son's wedding, I ran across this Susis tripod from what I think is about the mid-century.

For the wedding, I wanted to take something that would be a little more unobtrusive than the Bogen/Manfrotto, but also gave me a little more height  than a desktop tripod in case I got the chance to use it for a wedding portrait.

It's just over eight inches high and it folds flat like my little Promaster. Not small enough to get in a pants pocket, but not too big for a coat pocket.

It's got nine leg extensions which bring it up to three and a half feet, high enough for a full length portrait.  It's the same round tube with the ball bearing locks as my old cheapo, but it's much smoother to extend and if you release the top catch, all the sections collapse pretty smoothly, without finger pinching.

It was a buy-it-now for only about twenty bucks, and when I received it, I discovered why. I was having trouble getting some cameras to attach tightly, and while futzing with it, discovered the plastic part at the top was slightly cracked when I actually broke it in half.  A few drops of superglue and a bit of the pinholer's friend, 3M #235 tape,  and it's good as new.



In addition, it just looks like the kind of tripod that goes with a formal suit, and I did get the opportunity to use it to get the portrait I was hoping for. and a few other shots on that trip

At the Artscore Summer Colony in which I did a pinhole workshop, I got into a conversation with the director of the Paine Art Center, and wondered if I could get permission to take pictures inside the mansion with a tripod. He not only said yes, but gave me leave to go behind the velvet ropes where visitors are usually not allowed.  I got to thinking that it would be a little rude to other visitors to have a tripod sitting in the midst of the period rooms, but it might be pretty cool if I had a tripod that was contemporary with the early twentieth century building.

So again on to eBay, and with the help of Sarah, who is a particularly victorious shopper, acquired a wooden Eastman Kodak tripod which I think was made from 1896 to 1915. It's not the most sturdy thing, but I imagine it was designed for folders and box cameras.  It folds into a nice rectangular configuration so it's actually pretty portable.

It has four leg segments and extends to a little over four feet.  The locks are thumbwheels which have seen better days, but, with care, hold the segments tight enough to support my four ounce cameras.

One weird thing I'm not used to is that the legs just flop around and don't automatically hold the tripod straight up.  It is possible to hold the camera up, but this struck me as a little dangerous if I was going to be using it in a museum around some pretty valuable decorative artifacts. I was familiar with surveying and astronomical tripods that had a three segment chain that restricts the spreading of the legs, so I fashioned such a device out of a bit of brass chain from the hardware store, and three binder clips (so useful as clamps when gluing paper cameras together), which clamp onto the top lock.  I was feeling a little odd with my modern kluge until I looked up binder clips and discovered they were invented in 1910, perfectly contemporaneous with the tripod!


The legs only had pointed spikes at the tips, and that also seemed like a problem on the antique carpets and polished stone floors of the Paine mansion.  I got some little self adhesive rubber feet from the hardware store and actually got the little pointed ends to penetrate, but every time the leg was collapsed, it would knock them off. A little more good old 3M #235 to hold them on and prevent the bottom section from sliding all the way in and I had a reliable, less slippery solution.

It didn't come with any kind of adjustable head. I suppose you could adjust the pointing by moving the legs around, but that's probably not going to happen. I initially bought a mid-century ball and socket head, but if the camera was tilted more than 45 degrees down, it wouldn't hold it solidly.

You know how if you search something on eBay, everywhere else you go on the internet, somewhere on the display shows other things that come up from the search terms you used.  Not long after, it came up with this incredible Optipod tripod head that also was an Eastman Kodak product, so that seemed like it would be appropriate for this tripod.  I subsequently saw it in an Eastman Kodak catalog from 1948 (a year before I was born), so it wasn't exactly contemporary with the tripod, but it's really a good tripod head, and combined with the tripod has a really cool steampunk look. I love the way the ball and socket head mechanism is clearly visible.  It came in this really Art Deco looking box, so I think it might be a somewhat earlier product than the catalog I saw.


For several reasons, I have to put off my project in the Paine Art Center until after the new year, but I'm really looking forward to using this tripod.

Incidentally, I took all the photographs for this post with a hand-held iPhone camera and had to reshoot about half of them because of camera movement.

I shoulda used a tripod.

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