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How to Buy a Tripod
At first glance a tripod seems like a simple device. Three legs and some way to bolt a camera to them. Of course, as soon as you start trying to buy your first tripod, confusion sets in. Tripods come in a wide variety of design and an even wider range of prices. What makes a $1000 tripod better than a $25 tripod? Which do you need?
Tripods serve a single purpose: to hold the camera study with no movement what so ever. They have become less critical for photography as camera light sensitivities have risen. In fact, the right tripod for many people is no tripod. But, if you are making long or multi-exposure photos, particularly for astrophotography, a good tripod is a must. You must have a tripod capable of holding the camera study with no shake or you will fail to make sharp photos some or all of the time.
Anatomy of a Tripod
Tripods have 3 main components: the legs, the head and the quick release system. For more expensive tripods, these are sold separately to provide flexibility and customization. For the cheapest tripods, they are often a single inseparable unit.
The choice of legs is the most important when buying a tripod. They are literally the foundation on which everything rests. The legs must strong and stiff enough to hold your camera firmly and should collapse to a length convenient for carrying and storing. They are often the most expensive portion of a complete tripod. Common materials are aluminum, carbon fiber and wood.
The “gold” standard these days is round carbon fiber tube because it is incredibly strong and light. Well designed aluminum legs, those using aluminum tubes, not U channels, are a good budget alternative to carbon fiber. They will be heavier for the same size and strength.
Besides the material, you should consider the length of the legs and the number of segments. Fewer longer segments makes the tripod stronger and lighter, but larger when collapsed. Four segments is common and is a good compromise between size and strength. Many travel tripods have five segments to allow them to collapse to a smaller size.
Tripods with an extending stem should be avoided in favor of tripod legs that are tall enough to put the camera at eye level by themselves. The neck is a source of unwanted flex and vibration when extended.
The head sits on top of the legs and allows the camera to be panned and tilted. Heads come in a variety of designs, each with it’s own strengths and weaknesses. Which is best depends on what you are doing.
The most common head is called a ball-head because a large metal ball sits in a housing. A locking screw squeezes the ball, locking it in place. When loosened, the camera can be swiveled in any direction and then be locked back down. Ball heads allow for the maximum flexibility with minimum complexity and weight which is why they are generally the default option.
Another common option is the multi-axis heads, where each axis of rotation is controlled by a separate knob or handle. These heads allow for precise adjustments of just one axis, for example, just adjusting pan without changing tilt. They are also generally stronger and able to support larger cameras without flex or accidental movement. They are slower to use since aiming the camera requires working the three axis independently.
There are many other varieties of heads, each designed for doing something specific. Start with a ball head and switch to something else when you know you need it.
The Mounting System
Sometimes called quick-plates or attachment plates, all good heads utilize a way of quickly detach the camera from the tripod without having to screw and unscrew the head from the camera body. The defacto standard for still photography is the arca-swiss plate. They are simple, relatively inexpensive, available in generic designs (simple flat plates that bolt to the bottom of any camera) to specialty plates design for only one camera (for example, a 90 degree bracket). Many companies make them and heads that use them. That means your plates will work with future heads and also that there is competition and options.
Of course, many brands use proprietary plate deigns. These should be avoided if possible. Getting extra or replacement plates will be hard and there will be few options so they will be expensive. Proprietary plate designs are almost never available for special situations, such as 90 degree brackets.
The Bottom Line
If money is no object, or if you are serious about your long or multi-exposure photography get “the right gear” to start with. Buy a set of carbon fiber legs without a central stem. Then pick an appropriate ball head sufficiently heavy to easily hold the largest lens and camera you are likely to own. You’ll be using this tripod many cameras down the line. It is a lifetime purchase. Such a setup might cost $1000, but carbon fiber is getting cheaper and there are many newer brands that offer excellent legs and ball heads for less. It isn’t the price but the design and materials that matters.
Hint: I wish I had done this; I’d be several hundred $ richer and own 3 fewer tripods that I never use.
If cost is a major concern (and when isn’t it?), go for a set of aluminum legs without a stem. Pick out an affordable ball head the will support your camera. Because the system is modular, you can upgrade the ball head later. A good set of strong aluminum legs will work just as well as carbon fiber even if they are heavier.
Aluminum travel tripods are a tempting options due to their low price. They often come with workable ball head included. They are not a good idea though unless your camera is very small and light. My first “real” tripod was a travel tripod. It is also no-where near as stiff as my Gitzo carbon fiber and I had many images ruined due to camera shake. To make decent long exposures, I had to use it with the stem down and often the legs only partially extended. This limits the camera to no more than 3 feet off the ground. Even in this configuration, camera shake due to wind and other outside disturbances was a serious problem.
When you find that you can’t get sharp long exposures, it is time to upgrade. You’ve hit the limit of your equipment and need better.
Avoid at All Costs
There is a shameful trend in the photography world and it happens on-line and in brick and mortar camera stores alike. It is “the starter package”. Frequently, first time camera buyers are enticed with a package that comes with “everything you need.” Ignoring the other “free” extras thrown in (usually not free and often not needed), these starter kits often come with a starter tripod. These tripods are worse than useless. They are often the same tripod sold at Walmart for $25 and aren’t worth even that much.
Why is this tripod so bad? The legs are made from light weight aluminum channels (U shapes) which are neither strong or stiff enough for even the lightest camera. The connection points are cheap plastic (plastic isn’t always bad, but in this case it is). The head on these tripods is often integral and can’t be removed or replaced and uses a proprietary plastic quick plate. It is plastic and totally inadequate to holding a camera (Think dropped and broken camera; I’ve seen it happen). The design can’t be tilted to arbitrary angles making it impossible to level the camera.
Avoid this type of tripod at all cost.
To be usable a tripod must:
- Be strong. It should feel strong, not flimsy
- Have a head capable of pointing the camera in arbitrary directions, not simple “horizontal” or “vertical”.
- Have a strong quick release system that will not drop the camera or break.
My Current System
My current main tripod setup is a set of carbon fiber Gitzo Systematic legs plus leveling base with a Feisol ball head. If have a variety of arca-swiss plates from a variety of companies including 90 degree brackets for my main cameras. Occasionally I switch the ball head out for a Jobu spherical panorama head. As you can see, good tripods are modular and you can mix and match components from any manufacturer. That is part of the advantage of these systems.
While expensive, this combination has been unbeatable and I fully expect it to be a lifetime setup.
I don’t get paid or sponsored by any of these manufacturers and they are just one option. There are others great options..
If you’ve stuck with me this long, there is another tripod I use just for fun:
He is a self taught experiential learner who is addicted to the possibilities that new (to him) gear open up. He loves to share the things he has worked out. Andrew started with a passion for landscape and night photography and quickly branched out to work in just about every form of photography. He is an ex-software developer with extensive experience in the IT realm.