Photographic Tripods

Photographic tripods, used as a "normal" photographic tripod head, are usually seen as the most obvious low-cost way of mounting binoculars. Unless the binoculars have angled eyepieces, photographic tripods and heads are not ideal observing platforms because it is extremely difficult to use them for observing at high elevations. Because photographic tripods are so widely used for their intended purpose, they are mass produced and are readily obtainable at relatively low cost. However, all tripods are not equal, and one that is suitable for binocular observing should meet several criteria.

• The tripod should be high enough to permit observations of object near the zenith while you are standing. If you try to observe near the zenith from a seated or reclining position using a tripod and normal photographic head, it is a near certainty that your legs and those of the tripod will, at some stage, need to occupy the same location; the consequences are, at best, infuriating. This requirement automatically eliminates the vast majority of photo tripods.

• The height of the tripod head needs to be adjustable so that, for a single observer, the height of the eyepieces of the binocular can be changed over a range of a minimum of 150 mm (6 inches) for straight-through binoculars and 250 mm (10 inches) for those with 45-degree angled eyepieces. However, this is not the total distance through which the tripod head must move. As the binoculars are angled upward, the eyepieces get lower by an amount that is the sum of the distance from the eyepiece to the mounting bush and the distance from the mounting bush to the altitude bearing on the tripod head. To this must be added the difference in height between the tallest and shortest observer who will use this setup in a single observing session (but this latter requirement can be reduced if some sort of simple observing platform, such as an up-turned milk crate, is available for shorter observers). This height adjustment requires some form of center post. The only usable types are those with a handle and ratchet for adjusting the height; those that work on friction alone are difficult to use for our purposes.

• The tripod head needs to enable observation near the zenith. Many of the more robust heads only enable, when they are used as intended, an elevation of about

60 degrees (Figure 6.10). However, many of them allow a depression of 90 degrees. If this it the case, it may be possible to use them reversed (Figure 6.11). If this is the case, any handles will also need to be reversed and you should ensure that, in doing so, they do not obstruct or interfere with any locking or friction knobs that you will need to use when you are observing.

• The altitude bearing of the tripod head must be sufficiently robust and have sufficient friction to bear the turning moment of the binoculars when they are pointed near the zenith. The great majority of photographic heads are not designed to accommodate this sort of turning moment, which is rarely encountered using a consumer compact or single lens reflex camera, and are inadequate for the task. Consequently, it is usually better to consider a robust video head with fluid motions. Test it to verify that it is sufficiently robust and has sufficient friction control to enable the binoculars to be pointed at the zenith without changing aim when you release the handle. All photo tripods that I have encountered that meet the previous criteria for the tripod itself have the facility to enable the heads to be interchanged, so this need not be a concern. Indeed, for most of these the tripods and heads are sold separately.

Figure 6.11.

Reversing the video head makes the zenith accessible.

Figure 6.11.

Reversing the video head makes the zenith accessible.

Even if the tripod and mount do meet all the criteria above, they can still be difficult to use, especially when you are observing near the zenith with binoculars with straight-through eyepieces (unless you are an accomplished limbo dancer). The neck-strain induced by using such a system for near-zenith observing from a standing position is extremely uncomfortable for most observers and very soon results in fatigue. The experience of keen kite flyers, who also spend long periods looking up into the sky, is that this posture can induce neck problems. Hence, it is unsurprising that many who use tripod-and-head arrangements soon seek a different solution. This brings us into the realm of proprietary binocular mounts and observing chairs.

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