If you’re like me, the last thing you want to be lugging around all day is a big heavy tripod in addition to the rest of your gear. And if you’re moving around between different locations a lot, it’s such a pain in the butt to be constantly setting up and tearing down.
But I do it anyway.
A good tripod is probably the most important piece of camera gear you’ll ever buy… much more important than that fancy new filter. And how many different lenses do you really need anyway?
Like any other photography equipment though, there’s a whole slew of different features and options available, and with price ranging from as little as $20 all the way up into the thousands, it’s important that you choose the right tripod for you. That’s what this guide to buying a tripod aims to do.
What are the qualities of a good Tripod?
Especially for someone just starting out in photography, it may seem excessive to spend $300 on a high-quality tripod when it’s so tempting to head down to Walmart and pick one up for $19.99. Both models look similar and they’ll both hold your camera, so what’s the difference?
Any tripod under $50 is almost inevitably made from plastic. That includes all the little knobs and adjustment levers. I guarantee you the first time you drop it, or you try to travel somewhere with it in your checked luggage on an airline, it’s going to break. I know this for a fact because I’ve had it happen to me…. twice!
With a higher-end tripod you’re not only paying for more durable materials, but you can also buy replacement parts for them separately. If something breaks on your Walmart tripod you pretty much have to go out and buy a new tripod. If something breaks on your Manfrotto 190X (a mid-range tripod), you can go down to your local camera shop and order a replacement part.
A tripod’s only task is to support your camera so that you can take a steady shot so stability is something that should be your prime consideration when buying a tripod. There are a few different factors that affect stability.
First is weight – in general a heavier tripod will be able to absorb vibrations, counter the wind, and resist movement much better than a lighter model.
The second stability consideration again goes back to quality. On cheaper tripods there’s often quite a bit of play in the control knobs, so that even when everything is tight you can still physically move the camera up and down or side to side a bit. Higher quality heads lock everything in tight.
Finally, height obviously plays a role in how stable your tripod is, or more specifically, the height to width ratio. When buying a tripod, you’ll want to extend it all the way to its maximum height and test stability. A good tripod should be able to resist a fair amount of lateral force before wanting to tip over.
My general rule for gauging if a tripod is stable enough is to imagine your $2,500 camera and lens sitting on top on a windy day. If you wouldn’t be comfortable walking away and leaving it alone, then it’s not stable enough.
This one really goes hand-in-hand with both stability and durability, but for the absolute sharpest, clear photos, you want a tripod that has very little to no vibration. Even the slightest movement in a long-exposure shot will ruin the photo.
Speed & Ease of Use
There’s a wide range of different tripod leg styles and heads, each with different mechanisms for extending and locking into place. The last thing you want is to miss an opportunity for a great shot because you couldn’t set up your tripod fast enough.
This may or may not be an issue for you though. If you’re shooting primarily in a studio with a tripod that rarely ever moves, it’s less of a consideration. But if you’re doing a lot of traveling and constantly setting up and tearing your tripod down, you want something that’s easy to use and quick.
When buying a tripod, I recommend fully extending and retracting it in store so that you get a good feel of how quickly you’ll be able to do it out in the field.
What to look for when Buying a Tripod
Now let’s look at some specific examples of how to find a good tripod that is both durable and stable, allows you to take excellent photos, and is quick & easy to use.
Height & Size
The first thing to consider when narrowing down the range of possible tripod options is what size you need.
- Do you need a short, portable tripod that can easily fit in a backpack or in your luggage?
- How tall are you? If you’re tall is it more important that you have a tripod that allows you to look through the camera’s viewfinder at a comfortable height?
- What types of photos will you be using the tripod for? Are you going for a look where the camera is mere inches off ground level? In that case you might want a mini tripod.
You should ask yourself these questions before you even enter the store and find yourself enamored with a model that’s completely the wrong size for what you intend to use it for. Keep in mind that height reduces stability in general, so you’ll want to get the shortest model that meets your needs.
If you’re looking for a standard size tripod for general use, one to consider might be the Manfrotto 190X series.
Weight & Material
Tripods are generally available in three different materials. Low-end tripods that you typically find at Walmart and the big chain stores are usually made from plastic. Mid to high-end tripods are usually constructed from aluminum or carbon fibre.
The problem with plastic tripods is that they are often very light, flimsy, and break easily. You’re going to get a lot of play when trying to set your camera up for a level shot. Plastic tripods are also very light which is a plus if you’re carrying it around a lot, but not so good if you want a tripod that has some heft to it to reduce vibration and movement.
Aluminum tripods are what the majority of professionals use. They are durable, heavy enough to resist vibration / movement, and are usually made from much higher quality components than cheaper models. They’re also middle of the pack price-wise.
Carbon fibre tripods combine the advantages of plastic and aluminum. They’re very lightweight, but exceptionally strong and durable. Carbon fibre tripods are also by far the highest price, usually about double the price of an equivalent aluminum tripod.
My own personal preference is aluminum. I recommend buying the heaviest tripod you can comfortably manage as this extra mass will make it more stable and less prone to photo-ruining vibrations. Your pocketbook will appreciate it too.
Every tripod is rated in its capacity for weight that it can support. You should consider not only the weight of your existing camera and lens, but also any future lenses that might be on the horizon. It’s important not to exceed the tripod’s capacity or else you stand a much higher risk of it becoming unstable or falling over.
Tripod Head Types
The tripod head is the part that actually connects your camera to the tripod legs. Higher end tripods offer a lot of options for the head, and most even let you swap the head out for one that matches your exact personal requirements. I’m going to talk about the three types of heads that are the most relevant for 95% of us.
A ball head is literally a ball in a socket, much like the shoulder-joint in your body. It allows 360° movement and allows you to lock it in place at any position you want. While this will give you the most flexibility and allow you to very quickly set up for a static, level shot, these are not very well suited for panning horizontally as you might want to do when shooting video, for example. This is because there is no mechanism to actually restrict movement to a single plane — you’ve got 360° movement all the time.
Pan & Tilt Heads
Pan & Tilt tripod heads have separate locking mechanisms for both the horizontal and vertical axes. This allows you to adjust each independent from the other. Because you’ve now potentially got to make more than one adjustment to get your camera to the proper position, it may take slightly longer to setup than a ball head.
On the other hand, if you’ve got one axis locked in to where you want it, you can adjust the other. This is particularly useful when shooting video, as you can pan horizontally without worrying about elevation changes.
Pan & tilt heads are also less expensive than ball heads, all other things equal.
If you’re using a very long or heavy lens, you’re going to want to use a gimbal head. This allows you to support the camera / lens assembly at its center of gravity and avoid situations where the weight of the lens is cantilevered out too far, increasing the risk of it tipping over. To use a gimbal head, your camera lens needs to have a tripod mount collar.
Tripod legs usually have three sets of tubes that fit inside one another, allowing you to extend each independently to choose your desired height. Extending the legs is the most time-consuming part of setting up the tripod for a shot, so it’s important to consider what type of leg-locking mechanism you want.
There’s two main types:
- Twist lock legs are those that you need to physically rotate (twist), extend, and then rotate in the opposite direction to lock into place.
- Lever type locks are a bit quicker. Each section of leg has a small lever that you open, extend the leg, and then push down to lock into place.
You should also pay attention to what type of feet the legs are mounted on. Rubber feet are best for indoor setups and when you are on a flat, solid surface. Spikes are another option if you’re primarily shooting out in the wild.
Bells & Whistles
In addition to the mandatory components we’ve already looked at, there’s a number of other nice-to-haves that you will want to consider. These can prove super-useful in many situations but add cost to your overall purchase.
A bubble gauge allows you to instantly see whether your camera is level or not, allowing for easy correction. I personally consider this to be a must-have when I’m shopping for a tripod, as it saves time fixing skewed shots on post-production.
Some pan & tilt heads have a fluid inside that acts as a dampener. This allows you to move the head in a very slow, controlled manner. You’ll want this feature if you’re planning to shoot a lot of video with your tripod, because it looks much more professional to be able to pan smoothly.
Geared Center Column
If you’re planning to use your tripod with a very heavy camera setup, you’ll want to make sure that it has a geared center column, as opposed to a standard friction fit. This will allow you to crank the column higher with the camera installed in place, rather than having to remove it, adjust, and reinstall.
Specialized Leg Locks
Some manufacturers have come out with some patented, quick-release methods of extending and locking the tripod’s legs. Some of these allow all three legs to be extended using only a single button, while others allow you to simply pull the legs downward and they automatically lock at whatever location you pull them to. These features are usually only found in very high-end tripods, however, and you will definitely pay a large premium for this convenience.
Some tripods have an additional arm for holding accessories. This may be useful to you if you need to hold a flash or some other component and don’t want to carry a separate stand around with you.
When shooting on rough terrain, it’s convenient to have a tripod that has multi-angle legs. This allows you to lock the legs into different angles independently to accommodate the uneven surface you’re shooting on.
With the above information you should be able to go out now and make an informed decision when buying a tripod. I’m going to share with you the tripods that I personally use and can recommend.
My favorite tripod, and the one that I would recommend for most amateur photographers, is the Manfrotto MK190X3-2W, which combines a very durable aluminum tripod with a really great fluid-dampened pan/tilt head. Manfrotto is one of the industry leaders in tripod design, and I really don’t think you can go wrong with this one. It includes some coo features, like quick-release legs that allow you to extend using only one hand, a bubble gauge, and legs that allow the entire tripod to reduce down to very low levels for some interesting shots.
For travel I really like the Manfrotto Befree series of portable tripods. These fold up small enough to fit in your carry-on bag and are light enough to carry around with you all day without getting too tired. As an added touch, they’re available in several different colors – if you’re into that sort of thing.
And finally, for a pocket sized tripod, I use the Joby Gorillapod. It’s easy to carry around in your pocket and allows you to attach your camera to a post, tree branch, and of course support it on a level surface if need be.
What tripod do you use or are considering buying? Is there a particular feature or consideration that is most important to you? Let me know in the comments!