Choosing the Right Tripod
Tripods come in many different sizes, are made from many different materials, and come at many different price points. Which should you choose? For many photographers, different needs, desires and budgets will lead to different choices, but there are several things to consider, and several things that I feel are essential in choosing a good tripod. There are two parts of a tripod, and if you’re getting something good, you’ll likely buy them separately: Legs, which are the tripod platform and the three supporting legs, and the head, on which the camera sits and is positioned. For both, there is one hard and fast rule:
Don’t Cheap Out
This is the number one rule in purchasing a tripod. It doesn’t mean you can’t get great value for your money, but it is essential to not go for dirt cheap tripods. When choosing a budget for a good everyday tripod, I think the absolute lowest number that you should really consider is about $400 for the head and legs combined. This is a good starting price point if you’re OK knowing you’ll likely upgrade that set later on. If you go for a quality carbon fiber tripod with a good ball head, you’ll likely start around the $700 range, which is about what my main tripod and head cost together.
If you read a lot about photography, you may have come across a rather good article by Thom Hogan that states, “You can spend US$1700 to buy a good tripod and head, or you can spend US$1000 and do the same thing.” It’s definitely worth a read. The point is: those $30-$50 aluminum tripods with the joined legs and plastic pan/tilt heads? They are complete and utter junk and should never be purchased. Just stay away…far away.
While I don’t think it’s essential to spend $1000 on your tripod, the points he makes are very good. Skimp now, and you’ll eventually upgrade later, by choice or by necessity. Buy good quality now, and your tripod will serve you for years and years…maybe even decades. Not only will good tripods last, but they are much more stable, are often easier to work with in the field and will be a joy to use rather than a frustrating experience. So let’s dive in.
The legs are often what people refer to as the tripod proper. They include three legs with telescoping sections to adjust height, a platform for the head, and may or may not have a center column for further adjustment of height (or positioning in the case of some models). There are two key features that every set of legs should have:
First, they should be independently adjustable. Any tripod set that links the legs isn’t going to work well in the field, and almost all of them that do (except for some specialty huge sets of legs) are super cheap. The legs should be able to be set to different angles, and should have at least three different angle settings, from about a 25 degree angle, to essentially horizontal, to allow for level positioning on a variety of terrain. Often, you’ll be on a slope, or a ledge, or some other area where one or two legs need to be out at a more severe angle than another leg, and this ability will make all the difference for both stability of the shot, and the security of your gear.
Second, the legs should either have no center column, a short center column, or a long center column that can be positioned horizontally. This is key, as it will allow you to set the tripod low to the ground. If a long center column can’t be removed or positioned horizontally, the lowest you will be able to set up is around 2.5 feet above the ground. With a short column, no column, or horizontally positioned column, that height can drop to around 4-6 inches, when the height of the ball head is considered. For the absolute greatest stability, a set of legs with no center column is best, but for what I shoot, I find the difference between no column and a column that isn’t extended to be negligible, and when there isn’t wind, the minor quick height adjustment that a center column provides can be valuable. I very rarely shoot with the column extended, however.
Two key consideration when choosing tripod legs are the height and the number of sections in the legs. More sections in the legs means a smaller size when collapsed, but also means a bit less stability while in-use. For my main tripod, I’ve always preferred three section legs (meaning two extending leg locks). Two locks are faster to set up in the field and the whole tripod remains very sturdy even when the legs are fully extended.
My travel tripod uses 5 leg sections, which allows it to fold up to only 15″ in length, which is fantastic for airplane travel, as it easily fits in my carry-on bag, but the legs flex a bit more than I’d like when stability is key. However, that’s one of the reasons I own two tripods: my main pod is great for most everything I regularly shoot, and the compact size of my travel tripod is handy for the times I’m flying, especially if photography isn’t the primary reason for my trip.
Height is very important in choosing a tripod. I prefer to have my main tripod be able to put the camera at or very near my eye level when standing, without the center column extended. This allows me to shoot from a stable platform without stooping, and it gives me freedom of composition with regards to camera height.
There are lots of different materials with which to make a tripod, but the two most common are aluminum and carbon fiber.
Aluminum is a relatively lightweight and very strong metal that has been used for decades for tripods. Aluminum tripods can be extremely stable and generally are affordable. A decent aluminum tripod from a good manufacturer with plenty of height and solid leg sections can run as little as $250. The big downside is weight. Compared to their carbon fiber brethren, aluminum tripods are pretty heavy. I still have my first tripod, a Manfrotto 3021BPro Aluminum pod. It served me pretty well for about 4 or 5 years, but I simply got sick of the weight and left it at home more often than not.
Carbon fiber, on the other hand, is significantly lighter and has comparable strength with a much thinner leg wall. Carbon fiber also has the added benefit of transmitting fewer vibrations through the legs, so you’ll get a stabler platform with a carbon fiber tripod as well, though in most cases, the difference won’t be noticeable. However, it could have an impact with long glass if it’s windy, or if the legs are in a moving stream.
The down side to carbon fiber is cost. The ‘bargain brand’ carbon fiber tripods of good quality start at around $400 for a set of legs and move up from there. Moving to the high-end with something like the Really Right Stuff TVC-33 will set you back $925 just for the legs. Is carbon fiber worth the price? In my opinion, yes. The weight savings alone is worth the extra expense (though in my case I got my legs in a clearance sale and paid similar to what I’d have paid for a good aluminum tripod.)
Also worth considering is the type of leg lock that is used. Some people really love flip lock levers, while others strongly prefer twist locks. I was originally in the former category, but have been converted to the twist-lock line of thought. I find twist locks to be faster in the field, as it’s easy to simply unlock everything on each leg with one twist. Tension also doesn’t need to be periodically adjusted since the amount of locking force is determined when you twist the lock down.
There are a lot of good tripod brands, with many manufacturers at a range of price points creating very high quality stuff. The top of the line may have a bit finer workmanship, but I don’t know if it’s worth that extra cost in many situations. Some would argue otherwise. The top-tier manufacturers are Gitzo and Really Right Stuff. Both have extremely good reputations for reliability and craftsmanship. They are also extremely expensive. A number of other brands sit ‘below’ the top two in reputation, but have tripods that are extremely competitive. Benro, Feisol, Induro and Sirui have made a positive impact in the space, producing relatively high quality products at much lower prices. Manfrotto is a maker that spans from the low-end to the high-end, and generally makes good gear as well. Some would argue that brands like Benro and Induro make stuff that simply wont last. These makers are new enough to the mainstream that their pods haven’t been stress tested for decades in the field to see whether that’s the case, but in my experience with Induro, it’s not something to worry too much about.
My own main tripod is an Induro CX-213 carbon fiber 3 section tripod with a center column that can be moved horizontally. I’ve had these legs for about 5 years now, and they are still in fantastic shape, operate smoothly and quickly and provide a very stable platform for my shooting. If I were shooting with f/2.8 supertelephotos, I may want something a bit more robust, but for my mirrorless kit, even with some heavy adapted glass, it is more than enough. The current model that is similar to mine, the CT213, is only $389 for the legs. I’ve had no complaints at all with reliability or wear. While there are nicks and dents here and there in some of the metal fittings, and some scuffs on the carbon fiber, it operates and locks like it did the day I brought it home.
My travel tripod, is from MeFoto, which is a brand of Benro. These little tripods come in a range of sizes and a wide range of different colors as well. I have the RoadTrip, which is a 5 section pod that goes up to about 46″ without the column extended, and supports my mirrorless kit well. The 5 sections compromise stability when its windy, but I’ve had great success in calm environments. I chose the aluminum version of the RoadTrip, since it’s already quite light, and it isn’t my main pod.
My two tripods aren’t the ‘best’ tripods out there, but they were carefully considered and fit my budget, while providing durable, solid pods that fit how I shoot. There are a lot of choices out there, and research is essential, but as I’ve outlined above, knowing what you want can help a lot. So now let’s move on to heads.