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There are numerous reasons every photographer should own a tripod. However, with the number of tripods available today, seleting the right tripod can be a daunting task, especially for beginners. To help photographers walk through the tripod buying process, I have created this “The Photographers Guide to Buying A Tripod.”
After reading this guide, you should be able to easily narrow down your search to a small number of tripod that will be right for you. Not only will the guide walk you through all the factors to consider when buying a tripod, but it also includes an in-depth overview of the various tripod components. There is even a table of contents to help you find exactly what you need.
This guide has been written primarily for still photography for full size cameras therefore portions of this article may or may not be pertinent to iPhone or video tripod needs.
Photographers Guide to Buying a Tripod Overview
Before I list reasons every photographer should own a tripod, let me state that I believe these reasons to be true only if the tripod is a good tripod. The wrong tripod can place your expensive camera gear at risk of damage and is not worth owning.
But how do you know what constitutes a good tripod? Stay with me and find out.
Benefits and Disadvantages of Using a Tripod
Tripod Material Comparison
Most tripods today are made from one of the two following materials; aluminum or carbon fiber. In most cases, I recommend purchasing a carbon fiber tripod when a person’s budget allows for the cost. However, depending on what you photograph, the aluminum tripod may be best such as if you are a storm chaser.
|Tripods are heavier
|Tripods are lighter
|Prone to impacts from weather
|More resistant to damage from weather
|Less conductive to electricity
|Tends to conduct electricity
As can be seen in the above table, the material a tripod is made out of does make a difference in the tripod performance.
Although it is great to carry the lightest tripod possible, if your budget is limited, this is an area where you can compromise. For instance, other factors such as a tripod carrying weight capacity should not be sacrificed in order to buy a carbon fiber tripod over an aluminum tripod.
How to Calculate Tripod Maximum Load Capacity
Determine the maximum load capacity of a tripod for your specific equipment by performing the following steps:
Tripod Maximum Load Capacity Formula
Most photo equipment sites will show the load capacity of each tripod such as illustrated on this BH PhotoVideo site.
How Much Should My Tripod Weigh?
This one is easy- You want the lightest weight tripod possible that you can afford provided it has a weight capacity for your heaviest gear, is at an acceptable height as calculated below, and fits the other criteria listed in this post.
Now depending on how much hiking you do, lighter tripod weight of course becomes increasingly important. However, on a personal note, I would still rather carry a heavier tripod that supports my gear and is at the right height for me than a lighter trip that will not safely hold my gear.
Tripod Height – How Tall of a Tripod Should I Buy?
Never buy any tripod that positions the camera’s viewfinder below your eye level height. If you do, you will spend all your photography time hunched over and potentially end up with back and neck problems. Besides, there are enough times when we choose to photograph below eye level and I would rather save my back pain for those situations.
I recommend buying the tallest tripod you can afford that also meets the other criteria in this guide. The benefits of taller tripods quickly become evident when you are photographing from a hillside, pond, or other lower surfaces.
How to Determine Tripod Minimum Height Requirement
Tripod Height Calculation
For example, assume the distance from the ground to my eyes is 60″ and the distance from the camera’s viewfinder to the top is 8″, my minimum tripod height would need to be 52″. Please notice that I subtracted the height of the ball head and part of the camera.
However, if the tripod has an integrated head, please check that any posted tripod heights do not include the head. If the posted height includes the head, do not subtract the second line. Simply use the ground to eye level height. Now add at least 6″ to this number for a cushion. (Note I am not talking about my actual height, just the height to my eyes).
Lastly, be sure when you shop for tripods that the listed height does not include the center column being extended. Center columns are never as stable as the three tripod legs and we only want to use heights from the ground to the top of the base of all three legs.
Now let’s take a look at the various tripod components and the decisions that will need to be made.
Tripod With or Without Attached Head?
When purchasing a tripod, one is first faced with two decisions regarding heads: Integrated Head or No Head.
Buying a Tripod with an Attached Head-Things to Consider
Tripods Sold with Heads vary greatly from flimsy models that are difficult to use to reasonably good tripods with heads that can be changed out. The main benefit of these tripods is that they usually cost less than having to buy a tripod and head separately.
Things to Consider When Buying a Tripod with a Head
Examples of two vastly different tripods, both sold with attached heads.
Buying a Tripod and Head Separately
Tripods sold without heads are generally better quality tripods. In fact, I recommend everyone consider purchasing tripods in this category as long as your budget will allow it. Just remember to add the cost of a tripod head into your budget.
Now that I have hopefully convinced you to buy a tripod and head separately, you need to know how to choose from the various types of tripod heads. So let’s take a quick look at some of our tripod head choices.
Types of Heads for Tripods
Ball Heads– These are the most widely used heads on tripods. The heads use a ball from which to move the camera around into a wide range of positions and allow simultaneous horizontal and vertical movements. Although this ball head is quick and easy to use, it does not provide the precision controls one may desire such as for creating panoramas. I have tried a number of ball heads and without a doubt consider this the best ball head out there and the one I use today: Really Right Stuff BH 55. If you are looking for a lighter ball head, I also recommend the RRS BH 40.
Pan and Tilt– The pan and tilt head is the second most popular type of head for photography which separates vertical, horizontal, and panning camera movements into three controls. These distinct adjustments are designed to provide more control over each movement on a plane without impacting the other planes. The con to this type of head is that it takes longer to adjust. A economical and great choice for a pan and tilt head is this Manfrotto 3 Way Pan and Tilt.
Pistol Grip Head– This head works like a ball head but has a lever on the side instead of on the top. I used this head for a few months as a beginner and found it did not stay locked into place very well and therefore am not a fan of this type of head. If I was to use one again, this is the one I would consider: Vanguard Pistol Head
Gimbal Heads– These heads are primarily used by wildlife photographers and are designed for heavy lens. The camera and len are placed on the side of the tripod and not on top of the tripod. The head provides easy fluid movements for tracking subjects which are primarily wildlife but can be any moving subject. A very popular gimbal head is the Benro GH2. Note: Do not confuse a gimbal head with a gimbal stabilizer that is used for video.
Tripod Legs and Columns
The number of adjustable columns on each leg of a tripod vary from three to four, each having a number of pros and cons. So now let’s evaluate which leg columns will work best for your specific photography.
Three Column Tripods
Four Column Tripods
The advantage of a three-column tripod over a 4 column tripod is that it will be quicker to set up for a shoot and has fewer sections to adjust. However, for travelers, the 4-column tripod with be more compact and fit into suitcases or backpacks easier. There is no wrong choice here, it all depends on if and how you travel as well as what you shoot.
Take a look at this 3 to 4 tripod column folded length comparison:
3 column Benro Tripod has a maximum height of 70.5 feet and a folded length of 26.8 feet
4 column Surui Tripod has a maximum height of 70.9 feet and a folded length of 20.5 feet
Tripod Center Column
Under most circumstances, I do not recommend placing a camera on a tripod’s extended center column. Why? One leg will never be as stable as three legs and placing thousands of dollars of camera equipment on an unstable environment does not make sense. So why am I even spending time talking about tripod center columns here?
Tripod Center Column Uses
When shopping for a tripod, be sure to purchase a tripod that has the option to remove the center column if at all possible. If the center column can’t be removed, you will not be able to place the tripod flat on the ground.
Tripod Locking Mechanisms
There are two main ways the tripod columns extend and lock: Flip Lock and Twist Lock.
Flip Lock– Flip locks are literally locks that require a flip of a lever in order to make an adjustment and can be quick to use. The downside of these locks is that they are located on the outside of the tripod legs which increases their exposure to the elements such as sand. When I had flip locks they broke constantly.
Twist Lock- Twist locks require a twist of a (knob) in order for an adjustment to be made. The mechanisms are located inside the (knob) thereby securing them from the elements. Lets take another look at our two tripods. The tripod on the left has flip lock mechanisms while the tripod on the right has twist locks.
So which locking mechanisms are best? That depends on who you ask but as a rule, I recommend twist and lock mechanisms. I do know some popular photographers who opt for tripods with flip lock mechanisms solely based on speed of use. In the end, it’s a personal choice although the better tripods mostly offer twist and lock mechanisms.
Tripod Leg Angle Adjustment Locks
Leg angle adjustment locks do exactly what their name implies, they adjust the angle of the legs from almost vertical to horizontal depending on the tripod. They are located at the top of the tripod and are used to adjust the spread of the legs.
I consider these locks to be the most dangerous part of a tripod.
Fingertips can easily get damaged if care is not used when opening and closing these locks. If at all possible, visit trade shows and open and close these locks on any potential tripod you may purchase to evaluate each tripods leg lock adjustments.
Leg Adjustment Lock
Legs spread as horizontal as possible
Does your tripod have interchangeable or fixed feet?
Most tripods come with rounded rubber or plastic tips at the ends of the trip legs. However, some tripods offer interchangeable feet increasing stability on a variety of surfaces. To see examples of some of the available tripod feet, take a look at what Gitzo offers for feet choices.
If possible, purchase tripods with interchangeable feet so you can easily go from sand to snow photography without worrying about your tripod slipping on ice or sinking in the sand.
Tips for Shopping for a Tripod
Now that you have reviewed all the elements to consider prior to buying a tripod, this is what I recommend for starting the tripod review process.
How to Shop for a Tripod
Popular Online Photography Stores
Tip: When filtering criteria such as the height of a tripod be sure to check all boxes above the minimum height to see all available tripods. Otherwise, with certain vendors you will only see the tripods that match a specific height, etc.
Popular Tripod Brands
Above I have provided several links to tripods and ball heads in this Photographers Guide to Buying a Tripod to help you evaluate the criteria I have covered in this post. I have also provided some input on brands that I know from experience make good products. However, tripods, and related gear are constantly changing and I do not stay current in real time on all the changes. So please do your homework to find the right product for you based on my list of criteria which will stay the same regardless of the brand. To get you started, here is a partial list of several of the more popular brands of tripods on the market today for your information.
Final Thoughts on Buying a Tripod
Purchasing a good tripod is one of the best things you can do to improve your photography and allows access to compositions not possible by handholding. Yes, it is costly and requires some thought but do you really want to put that $4000 camera and $2500 lens on a $70 tripod? I certainly hope not. If you don’t have the funds to buy a stable tripod, I recommend handholding your camera. It is the better alternative to a cheap and flimsy tripod.
I hope the above guide helps you navigate the decisions involved in buying a tripod and would love to hear your thoughts on if the guide was helpful to you.
Thanks for joining me on this Learn Photography topic and don’t forget to check out my Road Trip Friday photo destinations where I put my tripods to use.
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