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The Binocular Advisor

The Scopes Advisor

The Tripod Advisor

Choosing a Tripod

A cautionary true tale

We went birding once with a famous man known to all birders who read about birding. He'd flown across the country to speak at a birders' convention in western Iowa. After his talk, he went to a local hotspot with a group of birders, all of us hoping to see piping plovers, which are exceedingly rare in Iowa.

I was eager to see what kind of scope the famous birder had brought. It was one of the best in the world. (See our 2009 review of high-end birding scopes.)

The wind blew briskly from the west as we were setting up at the edge of the fly-ash deposits of a power plant to study the small shorebirds. The birds were few and distant. The famous birder attached his fine scope to his tripod, and we all took a look.

But the image through that excellent scope was a shaky mess. No one could see a thing. The famous birder shrugged his shoulders and said he'd left his good tripod at home because it was too heavy, and he was sorry.

And at that moment I realized that a scope is no better than the tripod that supports it. The most expensive scope in the world won't show you a clear image if it's perched on a wobbly tripod. And that goes double if the wind is blowing.

Here are some things to consider when selecting a tripod to go with a new scope. Or to help you get better service out of the scope you have.

Going steady with your scope and tripod

Choose a good quality tripod that is rated to hold at least 2.5 times, or better yet 3 times, the weight of your tripod head plus your scope with eyepiece and any accessories you plan to use (such as a digital camera and digital camera adapter). The extra capacity lets you turn the scope from side to side and forward and back without overtaxing the tripod head.

The maximum load, or payload, of a tripod is normally listed as part of its specifications.

A weighty question

How much should your tripod weigh? Weight is a double-edged sword. In general, thicker legs make for steadier (and heavier) tripods, provided that the material and design are the same. On the other hand, lighter tripods are easier to carry.

Carbon fiber tripods have greater strength and lighter weight than aluminum tripods. Carbon fiber tripods by Gitzo are the industry standard for steady, lightweight tripods. They generally cost much more than aluminum tripods.

The height of delight

How tall should your tripod be? If you are using a straight-through scope, you'll need a tripod that extends (including the head) at least as high as your eyes.

For an angled scope, the tripod can be several inches shorter, because you look downward about 45 degrees into the eyepiece. That's one of the reasons we prefer angled scopes. With a shorter tripod, or a tripod not extended as high, the image will be less subject to vibration.

A price that's right

Price should not be your very first consideration, or you could wind up with a tripod that will never let you know how good your scope really is. It's worth getting a tripod from a trusted manufacturer.

There is great variation in tripod pricing. For some tripod recommendations, see the Tripod Advisor.

© 2010 by Michael and Diane Porter


Some help in
selecting a tripod

Tripod Advisor

Need help
choosing a scope?

The Scopes Advisor

And if you want to see the birds up close...