Many professional-caliber tripods include a small hook beneath the center column in order to hang a weight. Why do you want more weight below the center column? It not only lowers the center of gravity and makes the tripod harder to knock over, it can help make it resistant to movement from wind or even from the photographer making adjustments to the camera.
Sure, you could carry a dumbbell with you expressly for this purpose, but that’s not the brightest idea. A better plan might be a sandbag—a 5- to 15-pound weight that’s useful for lots of things, from stabilizing light stands to positioning a camera when there’s no tripod around. But, still, this means carrying 5 to 15 pounds of extra weight. That’s no good. Instead, some sandbags are designed to easily unzip so you carry the canvas sack empty and then fill it with rocks or sand to provide the weight once you arrive on location. This is certainly a practical approach, as it means you’re only carrying the added weight of the fabric. But it’s still not the most efficient method, in my opinion.
Instead, why not use your camera bag as the weight? It’s already on hand, and you’ve got your selected camera and lens already mounted to the top of the camera, so the bag with a few lenses in it, or maybe a backup body as well, adds just enough weight to make your tripod a little more stable. Just be sure your big, heavy bag isn’t too heavy for the tripod. As long as its weight remains within the specifications for the maximum carrying capacity of the tripod, you’ll be fine. Plus, this method has one more bonus: It keeps your bag of gear off the ground, where it’s likely to stay cleaner.
A Lighter Alternative
Instead of carrying a weight or a camera bag to hang from the hook, you could always carry a string. There’s an old DIY camera-steadying tip that involves tying a string to a bolt affixed to the ¼-20 tripod socket on the bottom of your camera, holding the camera to your eye and stepping on the bottom of the string to pull it taught, stabilizing the camera. It works well, actually, and the same approach can work for your tripod. Simply tie a thin piece of rope from the center column hook and let it hang down so that a good 10 or 12 inches is dragging on the ground. Then, if you need to stabilize the camera in wind, for instance, you can simply step on the string in such a way as to pull it taught so the added tension pulling the tripod toward the ground will make it less susceptible to vibration—particularly vibration caused by wind.
When To Use The Hook?
Standard operating procedure is to employ the hook and weight in situations where the tripod might move even though you don’t want it to, such as if a strong wind is blowing, for instance. Be careful, though, that the wind doesn’t make your weight or camera bag swing and sway, which actually has the reverse effect and won’t make your setup more stable, but actually could bump one of the legs during an exposure. If this is the case, consider using some of your camera bag’s straps to secure it to the tripod legs in order to prevent swinging. More likely than wind, though, is movement of the tripod caused by the photographer—either from accidentally bumping a leg, which would certainly move an unweighted rig, or from working with the camera itself. If you compose and get your camera exactly where you want it, any adjustments to camera settings, or especially changing lenses, increase the odds of slightly moving the tripod. This is especially true when using the tripod on a smooth floor—like slick concrete, tile or even wood. Those odds are decreased by a weighted tripod, simply because it’s harder to bump out of position. In each case, the ability to weigh down the tripod becomes more valuable when the tripod is lighter in the first place. If it’s a big heavy tripod, you probably won’t be running into too many stability issues, no matter how hard the wind blows.