Which Tripod Should I Buy?
“Which tripod should I buy?” It is a question I hear a lot from my students.
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 designs, materials and prices. There are tripods for $25 available at big box stores, $200 travel tripods, walking stick tripods that looks like the monsters from War of the Worlds, simple stemless modular legs and many other options.
What makes a $1000 tripod better than a $25 tripod? Should you get a carbon fiber tripod or an aluminum tripod? Do you even need a tripod?
Do You Need a Tripod?
Tripods serve a single purpose: to hold the camera study with no movement what so ever. Once upon a time, they were absolutely vital for many types of photography. Film and digital sensors were not very light sensitive and a photographer often needed long exposures. However, as digital sensors have gotten more and more light sensitive (higher usable ISO) they have left the best low light films in the dark (pun intended). Using a tripod is not required much of the time. In fact, the right tripod for many people is no tripod.
When Should I Use a Tripod?
A tripod is required sometimes. A tripod is helpful sometimes. And sometimes, a tripod is a hindrance. Here are examples of each.
A Tripod is Required
- Astro-Photography, Star Trails, Milky Way Photography
- Light Paining Photography and other Long Exposure Night Photography
- Long Exposures of Water
- Multi Exposure Photography such as Focus Stacking, HDR Stacking or Image Compositing
- Any Photography where Repeatable Camera Position is Required
A Tripod can be Helpful
- Landscape Photography
- Super Telephoto Photography (e.g. birds, planes, etc)
- Very Heavy Cameras (e.g. medium or large format)
- Stitched Panoramas
A Tripod is a Hindrance
- Single Exposure Day Time Photography (i.e. regular old photography)
- Event Photography
- Anything Fast Paced
This is not a comprehensive list. But, many times I’ve seen people purchase a tripod without really knowing what they plan to use it for. Like any tool, you should buy it for a purpose. That way, you know you need it. Your purpose also informs the type of tool you need. Tripods are no exception.
Looking at the “Tripod Required” list above, notice that all of the examples involve very long exposures (1s to 1hr), or multiple exposures to be blended or stacked where alignment is critical. Star trails are a great example of photography that uses both very long exposures and stacking. A tripod (or some other improvised camera support) is absolutely required to take star trails.
Even when not making very long or multiple exposure photographs, a tripod can be helpful for holding a heavy lens or by allowing for incremental change or setup and wait. A great example of “setup and wait” is making sunset photos. You can run and gun, but often, a landscape photographer will scout and find a composition before sunset, set up their camera, getting the framing and focus just right. Once everything is perfect they just wait for sunset. When the sunset starts, they need only tweak their exposure to make the final image.
There is a cost to using a tripod. They weigh something and you have to carry them. They also take time to setup and move. When light conditions are bright enough to shoot hand held and just making regular old single exposure photos (what most photographers do most of the time), a tripod can slow you down and tire you out for no real benefit.
Is a tripod needed to make the photos you have in mind? If you need a tripod, buy the stiffest tripod you can afford. After all, if you need a tripod, you need it to hold the camera absolutely study without shake due to wind, or camera shutter.
Anatomy of a Tripod
Tripods have 3 main components: the legs, the head and the quick release system. For more expensive tripods you purchase the components separately. Component systems offer the most flexibility. 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 round aluminum tubes, not U channels, are a good budget alternative to carbon fiber. They will be heavier for the same size and strength but also much less expensive.
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.
The tripod legs should be tall enough when fully extended to place the camera comfortably at eye level. You should also be able to splay the legs out to a wider and lower stance for flexibility.
Avoid tripods with extending stems. Buy tripod legs tall enough to put the camera at your eye level by themselves. Tripods with an extending neck are usually lighter and cheaper, which is appealing, but the extending neck is a source of unwanted flex and vibration when extended. I’ve found that a tripod with a neck is almost worse than no tripod.
Good Features to Look For
- A wide stiff central hub. The wider and stiffer the hub, the more sturdy the tripods will be.
- Round tube legs. Tubes are the strongest simple form for most materials. Square tubes and especially U channel legs will be much weaker per weight.
- Legs that can easily be extended and firmly locked so they won’t slide in our out.
- Legs with some system for changing their angle to the hub so the tripod can be used upright or with the legs spread wide.
The head sits on he legs and pans, tilts and levels the camera. Heads come in a variety of designs, each with it’s own strengths and weaknesses. Which is best depends on what you are doing.
A ball-head is the most common type of head. A large metal ball sits in a housing and a locking screw squeezes or releases the ball. You can swivel the camera in any direction with the ball loosened. Ball heads allow for the maximum flexibility with minimum complexity and weight which is why they are generally the default option.
Multi-axis heads are another common option. A separate knob or handle controls each axis separately. You can make precise adjustments to the axis individually. 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.
Many video tripods come with a “fluid head” which has independent horizontal and vertical pan. Fluid heads work well for video (what they are designed for), but do not allow enough flexibility for still photography in my opinion. We use different tripod heads for stills than video because each discipline requires different features.
Other specialty heads exist for specific purposes. Start with a ball head, the universal still photography option, and switch to something else when you know you need it.
Good Features to Look For
- Separate Horizontal Pan Axis with Separate Locking Knob.
- Large Easy to Grip Locking Knobs
- Tension Adjustment for the Ball
- Arca-Swiss Style Connection
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 and relatively inexpensive. You can purchase generic plates that will attach to any camera or lens, or you can buy specialty plates design for one camera or lens (e.g. a 90 degree bracket).
Many companies make arca-swiss style mounting systems. That means your plates will work with future arca-swiss style heads and also that there is competition and are options. You can use the same plates on multiple heads and tripods
Of course, many brands use proprietary plate deigns that only they make and sell. Avoid proprietary plate designs if possible. Getting extra or replacement plates will be hard and there will be little or no competition so they will be expensive. Proprietary plate designs are almost never available for special situations, such as 90 degree brackets.
Good Features to Look For
- An Arca-Swiss Style Quick Release Plate
- A Camera Specific Plate to Securely Hold Your Camera
- (optional) a 90 Degree Bracket so you can Easily Shoot Booth Portrait and Landscape Orientation.
To Level or Not To Level
Most tripod legs come with a simple fixed plate that you screw the ball head to. This works fine for most situations. Some systems (like my Gitzo) have an option to add a leveling base. This is a plate that lets you tilt the base of the ball head. For still photography this is normally not required since the ball head can easily compensate for any tild in the position of the legs (for example on sloping ground).
If you are shooting with some specialty heads (for example, a spherical panorama head) a leveling base is a good option since it allows you to level the pano head without having the fiddle with the tripod legs. Video tripods have leveling bases since fluid heads do not allow leveling, only pan and tilt.
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 most.
Hint: I wish I had done this; I’d be several hundred $ richer and own 3 fewer tripods that I never use.
Buy a set of aluminum legs without a stem if cost is a major concern. 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 buy 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 come with a starter tripod. The tripods are often worse than useless and are the same as the $25 tripods sold at big box stores.
Why is this tripod so bad? The legs are 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). You can’t remove the head on these tripods. They use 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). You can’t tilt the camera to an 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
I use 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.
None of these manufacturers sponsor me. They are one option. There are others great options.
If you’ve stuck with me this long… I use this tripod a lot too:
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.