The number one question I get asked by workshop attendees is “what tripod should I buy”. While there is no one correct answer, there are some helpful guidelines to consider. I want to interject that while I believe every photographer should own one good tripod, I believe it is better to handhold than use a bad tripod. For the benefits of using a tripod, please see my blog post “Why Use A Tripod”.
During the last 6 years of teaching workshops, I have repeatedly observed students struggle to compose images on bad tripods. These tripods were difficult to adjust, unstable and most were not the right height for the particular photographer. So, I decided to dedicate a series of posts to tripods.
Before we discuss my guidelines, let’s quickly look at a few different tripod choices.
The first tripod is by Induro, has 4 leg segments, no center post, and it a very sturdy and functional tripod. The second tripod is by Manfrotto, has three leg segments as well as a center post and different locking mechanisms on the legs and is a reasonable good quality tripod. The last tripod is a very inexpensive tripod with a head attached. The leg segments are very narrow and therefore, not very stable. This type of tripod, regardless of the manufacture, should be avoided. The total weight capacity of this particular model is only about 3lbs!
6. Essential Questions to Answer before Purchasing a Tripod
1. What do you plan to shoot?
Start by defining the subjects you plan to shoot most often. Why? If you are a studio photographer, the weight of a tripod and the ability to collapse it may not be your top priority. However, a travel, landscape or citiscape photographer will care greatly about these features.
Now identify the type of cameras, lens and flashes that are used in your photographic specialty. These items will greatly impact your tripod selection. An architectural photographer will almost never use a heavy 500mm like the wildlife photographer.
2. How tall should my tripod be?
There are no right answers, only wrong ones. Never buy a tripod shorter than your eye level height. Why? Do you ever experience neck and back pain? Tripods shorter than your normal eye level height require you to spend time bent over looking through the camera’s view finder. The Live View feature on a camera may help this problem, but bending over will still remain an issue. There will always be times where we need to shoot lower for a particular scene, so let’s save our backs for those occasions.
A tall tripod can always be lowered but a short tripod can never go higher. Over the years, I have found myself placing my tripod on downward slopes of hills and streams that were significantly lower than where I was physically standing. The additional height made the difference in my ability to compose images from these spots.
Minimum height recommendation- Measure the distance from the ground to your eyes. This is the minimum height that a tripod with legs extended and a tripod head combined should reach. Yes, include the tripod head since the head on the tripod does add height and this is where your camera will sit. Please do not include the center column in this calculation. The camera is more stable when placed on all three legs.
To illustrate this calculate let’s use a man who is 5’11” and his eye level height is 5’6″. The man may be 5’11’’ tall but he is not looking through the camera’s viewfinder from the top of his head so eye level is the key. Of course as previously stated, I always want more height than the minimum so use this number as your starting point and don’t look at any tripods shorter than this figure.
3. How much weight does the tripod need to support (maximum load capacity)? This is not the actual weight of the tripod but the amount of weight the tripod supports.
To determine the amount of weight (maximum load capacity) the tripod must support, add the weight of your camera, your heaviest lens, and an external flash unit and then add at least another l or 2 lbs to that figure. Using a tripod that does not support the weight of your equipment is an accident waiting to happen. Why would anyone spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on equipment then place it on a $50 unstable tripod?
Now narrow down your choices to models that can support your equipment and are tall enough. This should weed out a number of tripod brands.
4. Should I buy an aluminum or carbon fiber tripod?
One major factor in this decision is deciding how heavy of a tripod are you willing to carry? Carbon fiber tripods weight less but cost substantially more than the aluminum tripods. Also carbon fiber tripods have less vibration which helps reduce camera shake thereby improving image sharpness.
This is an area where there are good tripods in both materials and it is OK to choose the least costly tripod. The one caution I would throw out is that if you plan to hike substantial distances on a frequent basis, tripod weight does become a factor. Here again, identifying what you plan to shoot will be helpful. A studio photographer may not have to contend with tripod
5. What types of legs are best?
There are three decisions to consider when looking at legs:
- Number of units in each leg
- Types of locking mechanisms
- Leg angle adjustment locks
Number of Units
Let’s start with the number of units in each leg of a tripod. Your choices will be between 3 and 4 leg sections with an occasional choice of two leg sections. The advantage of purchasing a three leg unit versus a 4 leg unit is having fewer units to release when setting up for a shoot. However, individuals needing fairly tall tripods may want to purchase a 4 leg unit instead of a 3 leg unit for portability purposes. Let me explain. Let’s say for illustration purposes that a 6 foot tall tripod with 3 leg units will collapse to 2 feet long and the same 6 foot tall 4 leg unit tripod will collapse to 1.5 feet long. The four leg tripod is ½ foot shorter making it easier to fit in a suitcase or on a backpack. This decision will be heavily influenced by the available models within your given height, weight and budget requirements and is less important that the weight and height guidelines.
There are a number of ways the tripod leg units extend and collapse with the two most popular methods being the lever release or the twist and lock. The first unit below is an example of a twist and lock while the second unit is an example of the lever release. Although the lever release may be faster, not sure about this, my concern with this type of lock component is that all the parts are on the outside of the tripod. This exposes them to the elements (I include photographers in elements) which increases the risk of failure and breakage. Twist and lock units have all the locking mechanisms on the inside which decreases the risk of breakage. Years ago, I had many problems with the level releases on my tripod that kept breaking and this was a good tripod so I am now a strong proponent of the twist and lock levers.
Leg Angle Adjustment Locks:
These locks are at the top of the tripod and are used to allow the legs to extend out sideways. These locks are critical in allowing a photographer to place the tripod completely flat to the ground. Carefully check these locks to be sure they are easy to use and are not highly breakable..
6. Tripods with or without integrated heads?
I have not discussed heads for tripods yet. There are three basic types of heads; pan and tilt, ball head, and gimbal. My believe is that tripod heads are separate pieces of equipment and deserve their own guide. I do, however, recommend purchasing tripods and heads separately. Most heads that are integrated into a tripod lack are not adequate for serious photography with many being difficult to maneuver. I am sure you are now thinking, how do I decide on a ball head. Stay tuned for a future post on ball heads.
Guideline Review and Other Tips:
1. Minimum Height- Must be no less than your eye level without the center column extended.
2. Maximum Load Capacity. Must carry the weight of your equipment plus a little extra for added security.
3. Locking Mechanisms on Legs are best if they are Twist and Turn.
4. Does not have a ball head as part of the actual tripod
5. Removable center column
6. Right material for type of photography
7. Fits your budget
8. Feet- Oh, we did not talk about feet. For most uses, the feet on tripods are standard rubber balls but several end tripods do allow for interchangeable feet. This feature is handy for those photographing icy or otherwise tricky conditions where feet with spikes come in handy. This is a nice feature but not one I consider mission critical for most people.
There are several good tripods brands that will meet all these criteria and will last for many years. I do not want to endorse any one particular brand, I will provide some names to consider but understand this list is not inclusive by any means.
In closing, I encourage everyone to view a tripod as one of your most important pieces of equipment and invest as much money as your budget will allow on it’s purchase. If you can’t afford a good tripod, I recommend handholding your camera and saving up for the right tripod. I know many will disagree with this recommendation but I am basing this advice on years of watching too many people struggle with bad tripods.