PHOTOGRAPHER’S GUIDE TO SELECTING A TRIPOD-Revised

The number one question I get asked when teaching photography workshops is “what tripod should I buy”.  With the hundreds of tripod models available today it is no wonder that choosing the right tripod can be a daunting task.  The decision is especially confusing for new photographers who likely lack the experience to know what to look for in a tripod.

My “Photographer’s Guide to Selecting a Tripod” will hopefully take the guess work out of tripod shopping for new photographers.  In this post I cover the different types of tripods including analysis of materials, leg options, heads, and tripod feet as well as height recommendations. After reading this post, you should be able to go on line or visit a store with a list of your specific needs for a tripod and only look at the tripods that work for you. 

But before we even begin to shop for a tripod, let’s take a minute to establish why photographers should spend money on a tripod.

Why Every Photographer Should Own a Good Tripod

Pros- The right tripod can: 

      • Hold the camera steady
      • Improve image composition
      • Allow for use of slow shutter speeds as well as smaller apertures needed for Depth of Field
      • Allow for multiple exposures aka HDR
      • Provide increased stability and image sharpness
      • Make night photography possible
      • Provide stability needed for time lapse shooting
      • Allow for creative long exposures

Cons- The wrong tripod can:

      • Cause camera breakage if too flimspy
      • Slow down image captures by taking too long to set up
      • Decrease image sharpness due to vibration if used on shaking surfaces such as boardwalks
      • Become an expensive dust collector if not used
      • Be an overall pain to use thereby taking the joy out of photography
      • May not always be the best solution in small tight spaces or in areas with large crowds

During years of teaching workshops, I have repeatedly observed students struggle to compose images on tripods that were difficult to adjust, unstable and not the right height for the particular photographer.   No wonder some photographers hate tripods!

Now that we have looked at the reasons for owing a good tripod, the remainder of this post is designed as a guide to help alleviate the confusion out of selecting a tripod.  

1. Where And What Do You Plan To Photography?

What:

    • Identify the main subjects you plan to photograph. Why? Well factors such as tripod weight and ease of set up will likely matter more to a travel photographer than a studio photographer.  Clarifying what you plan to photograph will greatly help you come up with a checklist of features specific to your particular needs.
    • Now identify the type of cameras, lens and flashes that are used in your photographic specialty.  These items will  greatly impact your tripod selection especially as when it related to the amount of weight a tripod must hold. For example, an architectural photographer may use a tilt shift lens while a wildlife photography will use a 500-600 mm lens with flash.  The weight difference between these setups is substantial.

Where:

    • Will your photography require a lot of travel or hiking?  Is so a compact tripod becomes more important.
    • Maybe you photograph salt marshes and oceans.  If so, the tripod material and locking mechanisms should be a factor in your purchasing decision to prevent corrosion.

This list could go on and on but you get the idea. Please take a few minutes to complete the What and Why in detail before proceeding.

2. Which Tripod Type is Best?

A. Tripods with Attached Heads

Tripods with attached heads vary greatly in quality from flimsy models that support very little weight to quality compact travel models worth consideration. Heads on these tripods may not be changeable so be sure to inquire before purchasing. For example if a particular tripod has a tilt and pan head and you prefer a ballhead, you may be stuck with the tilt and pan head.  

To upside to these tripods are that they generally cost less than purchasing tripod legs and heads separately.

Below are two tripods sold with heads that have vastly different weight capacities as well as different types of heads and legs.

Above images from Manfrotto and Road Trip Sites.

B. Tripod Legs Only.  (Need to factor in the cost of a head into the tripod budget)

Tripods without heads are generally higher quality tripods with a greater variety of choices in styles and options than tripods with attached heads.  In addition to the wider selection of options, the ability to select or interchange tripod heads that meet your specific needs is a major reason I encourage everyone to buy tripod legs only instead of tripods with heads attached. 

3.  Tripod Legs – Things to Consider

A. Number of Tripod Leg Units

Let’s start with the number of units in each leg of a tripod.  Typically your choices will be between 3 and 4 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, the disadvantage is that the tripod with 3 leg sections may not be as compact as a tripod with 4 leg sections.  

For example:

3 Leg Section Benro Tripod max height-70.5 and folded length of 26.8

4 Leg Section Surui Tripod max height 70.9 and folded length of 20.5.

For a tripod that is about the same height, the number of leg sections make a 6″ difference in it’s folded length.

B.   Types of Tripod Leg Locking Mechanisms

There are a number of ways the tripod leg units extend and collapse with the two most popular methods being the Flip Lock and the Twist Lock.  Let’s take another look at the previous tripod comparison but now let’s look at the locking mechanisms on the legs.

 

Although the Flip Lock shown on the above Manfrotto tripod may be faster, a concern with this type of lock component is that all the parts are on the outside of the tripod.  This exposes the locks to elements and surfaces thereby increasing the risk of failure and breakage. The leg locking mechanisms on the Road Trip tripod are called Twist Locks and are contained inside the locks which decreases the risk of breakage.

Years ago, my tripods had Flip Locks and constantly broke as I live at the ocean and expose my tripod to sand and salt water frequently.  So now I own tripods with Twist Lock mechanisms and have never had another problem. Although it may take a couple seconds longer to lock my legs, it is worth it to me.

I should point out that many well known photographers are still strong proponents for the Flip Locks since they are faster to set up.  Only you can determine which locks work best for your style of photography.

C.  Leg Angle Adjustment Locks

These locks are at the top of the tripod and are used to spread the tripod legs to various heights including close to the ground.  The locks are also used to extend one or more legs to various heights as needed.  When deciding on a tripod consider two things:

  1. Locks will be not pinch your fingers and work easily.

The above locks can cause major damage to a finger!

2. Locks allow the tripod to be extended on the ground.

I It is should know that without actually testing the leg locking mechanisms it is difficult to access if the locks will hurt your fingers from a picture.  If at all possible once you decide on a tripod, find other photographers who use the same tripod and ask about the lock feature. Also consider attending trade shows and test tripods in person prior to a purchase.

4.  Tripod Center Column Considerations

Let me begin this section by stating that I strongly do not recommend photographing with center columns extended.  No matter how good the tripod is, one leg with never be as stable as three legs.

So why am I even discussing them?  Well center columns can have other uses besides height extension depending on the type of center column on a particular tripod.

The center column is either:

      • Fixed- take these tripods off your buy list now
      • Removable, Reversible, or otherwise employed.  

A.  Reversible Center Columns

Look for tripods that have a column that can be reversed.  These tripods offer the ability to place a camera towards the ground which is good for macro photography or other lower ground shooting.

Also check center columns that offer gear hook options as they allow you to:

      • Add weights to the column for increased stability especially in windy conditions
      • Hang lens hoods and other items that you may not want touching the ground.

B.  Lateral Center Columns

Center columns can also be placed horizontally and used for product shoots or any photography where the extension of a camera from it’s base is helpful.  Don’t underestimate how useful this feature can be in obtaining the perfect shot.

 Here are two examples of where I wished I had a lateral center column.

    • Salt Creek Falls in Oregon can only be photographed from one overlook that is set back a bit from the actual falls.  It also have a high wall around it.  When a camera is on a tripod, compositions of the entire waterfall and stream are difficult without a portion of the retaining wall showing in the image. The only way I was able to create a decent composition was to hand hold the camera and lean out precariously over the retaining wall.  Because I was handholding the camera I was not able to photograph the waterfall at a slow enough shutter speed to produce a silky water effect.  A center column would have extended the camera fall enough over the wall to have enabled the correct composition with a slow shutter speed.
    • When photographing a particular hot spring in Yellowstone, I needed a wide angle lens which included a portion of the boardwalk.  There was no way to obtain my desired composition again without having the ability to extend the camera out from the tripod horizontally. 

A center column extension of a tripod opens up so many photography possibilities. 

5.  Tripod Feet

Interchangeable or Fixed?

Tripod feet on many tripods are fixed and come in rounded rubber or plastic. However some tripods offer interchangeable feet or feet that convert into spikes.  

Why would anyone want to have different feet for their tripods?  Although the standard rounded rubber feet are great for a wide variety of surfaces, they may not alway provide the best stability on hillsides or slippery surfaces such as ice. Be sure to check any potential tripod for it’s different feet options.

Here is an example of a tripod in which the rubber tips can be removed to reveal spiked feet.

6. How Tall Should a Tripod Be?

 Never Buy A Tripod Shorter Than Eye Level Height

 Why? You will spend hours bent over either looking down at the display screen or through the viewfinder.  Even flip screens will not alleviate the problem.  The result will be neck and back pain. 

In fact I recommend buying the tallest tripod you can afford but never one that is shorter than the following minimum tripod height recommend defined below. The benefits of a tall tripod come into play when you find yourself photographing from surfaces lower than where you are standing. 

Minimum Tripod Height Recommendations 

1.First measure the distance from the ground to your eyes. This is the minimum height that the viewfinder or display screen on a camera should reach.

2. Next calculate the distance from the top of the tripod to the camera display screen.

3. Finally subtract the number in 2 above from number 1 above.   This should give you the minimum height for any tripod.  

Let’s look at an example but note the numbers are illustrative and do not represent any actual distances.

Ground Level to Eye Level = 5’5  feet.  Note this is not your height but the height from where you view things at eye leve.

Distance from top of tripod to camera display screen ( this includes the height of a ball head and the bottom portion of the camera all the way to the top of the display screen)  9 inches.

5’5″ minus 9″ equals a minimum tripod level of 

Please do not include the center column in this calculation. 

 

man w camer eye height

 

 

6.  Maximum Load Capacity- Amount of Weight a Tripod Must Support

To determine the amount of weight (maximum load capacity) the tripod must support:

    • Add the weight of a camera, plus
    • The heaviest lens, and
    • An external flash unit and
    •  Ballhead 
    • Multiple the sum of above by at least 1.5.

Do not shop for any tripods that have a Maximum Load Capacity lower than this number.  Higher load capacities are even better. Using any tripod that does not support the weight of your equipment is an accident waiting to happen. 

Narrowing Down the Tripod Options:

Now that you have completed steps 1 through 6 above, I recommend going to a site such as BHPhotoVideo, selecting camera gear, then tripods.  From that screen input into their filters on the left, the following:

      • The minimum height,
      • Maximum load capacity, and
      • Style of tripod such a 4 legs or 3 legs and other pertain criteria.

The next step is to match the remaining tripod options to your tripod budget.  So here is where I recommend making the choice between aluminum and carbon fiber tripods. Although carbon fiber tripods are great, they are no good if they are not tall enough or can’t support your specific camera gear.

8. Aluminum or Carbon Fiber Tripod?

Two major factors in this decision are:

      • Budget- what can you afford to spend
      • Weight of Tripod- will a heavier tripod limit your photography opportunities? If you plan to hike for miles up a steep mountain, you will probably want the lightest tripod possible.

Benefits of Carbon Fiber Tripods:

      • Carbon fiber tripods are lighter
      •  Have less vibration which helps reduce camera shake thereby improving image sharpness.

Cons:

      • Are expensive

9.   Benefits of Tripods without Permanent Heads

I highly recommend purchasing a tripod without an attached head as mentioned above. Why?  

      • You can pick the type of head that best suits your photography style instead of what comes standard on a specific tripod.
      • The head can be changed out including using a gimbal head for heavier lens
      • The popular ballhead style tripod can be switched out for a pan and tilt head that allows more precise adjustments for architectural photography.

Different Tripod Head Types:

      • Pan and tilt,
      • Ball head,
      • Gimbal
      • Pistol Grip

Tripod heads have such an impact of the ability to photograph a subject that I am dedicating a separate post to tripod heads:  

Let’s Review Things to Consider when Buying A Tripod:

  • Identify your photographic subjects.
  • Identify the gear that will be attached to a tripod times 1.5
  • Determine the Minimum Height Requirements of a Tripod – No less than eye level without the center column extended.
  • Calculate the Maximum Load Capacity of a tripod with your identified gear. 
  • Decide on what type of locking leg mechanisms you are most comfortable with using.
  • Will you settle or a tripod with an attached head or prefer the option of choosing your own tripod head.
  • Does the tripod have a removable center column?
  • How low can the leg angle adjustments get a tripod to the ground and how easy are they to use without pinching your fingers?
  • How many leg columns do you prefer?
  • Carbon Fiber or Aluminum?
  • Budget
  • Tripod 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.

Recommended Brands

There are many 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 but will provide a partial list of brand  to consider. This list is not all inclusive by any means but should get you started.

    • Induro
    • Gitzo
    • Velbon
    • Vanguard
    • Manfrotto
    • MeFoto
    • Three Legged thing
    • Suriu

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.

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