Choosing the right tripod might seem overwhelming when faced with so many options but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s look at some important features to consider when shopping for yours.
Before going any further, I’ll share a quote I heard somewhere along the way. “Good tripods aren't cheap and cheap tripods aren't good."
With that in mind, if you’re going to invest in a tripod, do so once! Spend some money the first time you buy one and you’ll never need to shop for another one again. Skimp on price and know that you will buy a more sturdy tripod down the road.
MATERIALS – Aluminum or Carbon Fiber are the main materials that differentiate the weight and price of tripods. Aluminum is heavier but less expensive than carbon fiber.
Although pricey, carbon fiber is very strong yet very lightweight. If you can afford one it’s well worth it as a heavy tripod is likely to be left at home. Within the carbon fiber category there are different degrees of strength and quality depending on the brand.
HEIGHT – When choosing a tripod, choose one that comes up to your neck when the legs are extended (unless you’re married to a Chiropractor who can adjust your back after working bent over with a tripod that is too short). Forget about extending the center column, that is the least stable part of a tripod and should only be used if absolutely necessary. When shopping, look at the specs for the height when column is down.
Three-leg section tripods are usually more rigid and stable than a four-leg section one because of the diameter of the lowest leg section.
Also consider how low to the ground a tripod can go. Shooting at ground level can offer a whole new view of the world and many subjects call for that angle. Some tripods allow you to remove the center column or extend it and move it vertically. Decide if this is a feature you need.
The mechanism for extending the legs is a personal preference. Some people prefer clamps, others prefer the twisting locks.
MAX LOAD – This term refers to how much weight the tripod can hold. Consider your gear, especially your longer lenses. Putting heavy gear on a flimsy tripod will cause the photos to be blurry. In addition to the weight a tripod can hold, you’ll also want it to be rigid so there will be zero vibration when using it with longer lenses or in windy weather.
RECOMMENDATIONS – There are many brands but my favorite for quality, service and support is the Manfrotto brand (previously called Bogen). Their 055 or 190 series come in many price points from $180 to $500 based on material, height and the other features that they offer. The 055 series is taller than the 190 series.
Gitzo (also a Manfrotto brand) is top of the line. Available only in carbon fiber, the Gitzo tripods are super strong and sturdy. Prices range from $600 to $1000 but they’ll last a lifetime and then some.
TRAVEL TRIPOD TIPS - Avoid buying the shortest most lightweight tripod just so you can take it with you when you travel. There are options available for travel tripods so get one that also works for your gear and your height.
Manfrotto offers a travel tripod series, look at the specs to make sure the height, max load and the sturdiness works for your gear.
MeFoto is another brand worth a look for a travel tripod. If you have an SLR look at their RoadTrip or GlobeTrotter tripods. ILC (interchangeable lens cameras also known as Mirrorless cameras) owners, you might have more options because these weigh much less than the SLRs. Consider the MeFoto BackPack tripod… if the 45.7 max height works for you.
If your lens offers Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization, turn it off when on a tripod. A floating element in the lens (which corrects for movement when handholding) may give blurry photos if used on a tripod.
Always use a cable release, a remote trigger or even the camera’s self-timer when using a tripod – just pressing the shutter release button can cause the camera to move or vibrate.
TRIPOD HEADS – The head is the component that gives you control of positioning the camera so give this careful consideration. Many professional tripods don’t come with a tripod head allowing you the flexibility to choose the right one for the type of photography you shoot.
• Architecture requires precise camera movements so a three way head is best. These allow you to move vertically, horizontally and on axis independently.
• If you shoot video, a fluid head is best as it moves very smoothly with no sudden stops.
• For other types of photography the ball head works great, with just one knob to adjust the camera position, it’s quick and easy to line up the camera and shoot.
There are other types of heads; geared, gimbal, panoramic, etc., but those are for more specific situations and might be discussed in a future article.
As with tripods, consider materials and the weight as well as the max load.
Within the Manfrotto ball-head line, look at the Compact or Midi options. The 496RC2 or 498RC2 are good choices assuming your camera and lenses are not too heavy. The 054 or 055 series heads are also worth a look. A good choice for a three way head is the Manfrotto 804RC2.
A little pricier, Acratech and Really Right Stuff are two other brands that offer quality heads and are definitely worth a look.
When you buy the head, check that it comes with a quick release plate (the part that attaches to the bottom of your camera and locks on to the head).
Once you had a few options in mind, it’s time to visit your local camera store. Nothing like being able to see, touch and feel. (See RESOURCES: Photography Stores and services)
Using a tripod opens a whole new world of shooting possibilities and is one of the most useful accessories to add to your gear… choosing the right one is just as important.