However simple a three-legged camera support system sounds at first, buying a tripod isn’t an easy choice. Do the $300 models really offer more than the $50 ones? What kind of head do you need? What’s the real difference between the three leg sections and five leg sections? Can a lighter tripod perform just as well as a heavier one?
While the sheer number of options is overwhelming at first, it is possible to narrow down the field based on your shooting style and budget to find a tripod that will fit seamlessly into your gear kit. What seems like simply three legs and a head really has a lot of different parts and aspects to consider—some features may add stability, others portability or fast set-up. Here’s what you need to consider before buying a tripod.
The Tripod System
Tripods are sold either as complete sets, or as separate leg and head systems. The top-of-the-line options are typically sold as separate pieces, allowing further flexibility for the photographer to choose what’s really going to work well for them. Of course, that also turns one decision into two. It’s simpler and typically cheaper to purchase a complete system together. Whichever option you prefer to purchase, the important thing is to make sure both the head and the legs will work well for your style.
Along with the legs and head, tripods also have feet which are at the bottom of the legs. The feet help grip the floor. Most tripods have built-in feet, but some advanced options include swappable shoes to adjust based on what surface the tripod is resting on, offering extra stability for icy or slippery conditions.
Some tripods use a centre column at the top of the legs. The center column gives the tripod a little more height. Some models include a centre column that rotates, which typically allows for a wider height range than options without. The downside? With the camera resting on just the post, it’s not as stable as when it’s resting on all three legs.
A tripod system includes a head, legs, feet and sometimes a center column, but there’s a bit more to these four components that should be considered.
Factors To Consider
In order for a tripod to be comfortable to use, it should extend up to your eye level, so taller photographers will want a bit more height to their tripod.
But don’t just consider the maximum height—how low can that tripod reach? Macro photography, or simply shooting from a low angle will require the tripod to reach low heights as well. Some tripods have an excellent height range starting at just a few inches from the ground (often achieved through a reversible or rotating centre column), while others start at a few feet off the ground.
Where some tripods are designed only to hold small point-and-shoot cameras, others are designed to hoist heavy professional systems. Make sure the tripod you’re considering will at least support your camera body, your heaviest lens, a flash and accessories. If you buy the head and legs separate, the head should be able to support the same amount of weight or more, but not less. To avoid needing a new tripod when you upgrade to a larger body or heavier lens, it’s a good idea to go a few pounds over your current gear on the maximum weight supported.
There are two weights to consider when buying a tripod; the weight the tripod can support, and the weight of the actual tripod itself. Tripods can vary quite a bit in their overall weight, from just a few pounds to hefty systems over a dozen pounds. A lot of that weight variation is from the type of material used. Many budget and mid-range tripods are made of aluminum, which is sturdy, but also rather heavy. The heaviest tripods are constructed from steel, but these aren’t as common. The best material for tripods is carbon fiber, because while it is sturdy and doesn’t rust, it is also lightweight. Of course, carbon fiber tripods are also a bit more expensive.
If you do most of your shooting in a studio or are looking for a tripod for product photography, you can save some money by going with a heavier aluminum tripod. But if you’re looking for a tripod to take dreamy, long exposure landscapes or other on-location shoots, the convenience of a lighter model is worth the higher price tag.
Along with considering how much weight the tripod will add to your gear, it’s a good idea to consider how much space it will take up too, particularly for air travellers. Will the tripod fit within the carry-on requirements for an airline? Will it fit with your current camera bag? Again, photographers who shoot close to home won’t need to put a priority on the folded height, but it’s an essential consideration for travelers.
In order to reach a small folded height, the legs are often divided into more sections. So more leg sections are good, right? Well, not exactly. In general, fewer longer leg sections offer more stability, where tripods with 5-6 leg sections tend to be more susceptible to wind, introducing small amounts of camera shake. So choosing often becomes a matter of whether stability or portability is the most important factor, though some tripods with three leg sections can still be quite compact.
Tripod legs typically lock into place through one of two different types of locks. Lever locks simply flip to lock the leg in place, while twist locks turn the leg sections to secure the height.
Lever locks are simpler to operate, but are also more prone to breaking. They can be faster to set up, though that’s not always the case. If you’re buying a budget tripod, look for lever locks. While twist locks on the advanced systems often work great, twist locks on basic systems often don’t work as well, sometimes requiring a very firm twist, otherwise they may unlock during use.
Many advanced tripod systems offer good twist lock systems, however. The twist locks are more durable and give the legs a slightly slimmer profile without that protruding lever. Twist locks on high end brands like Gitzo and Induro tend to work well and are fast and easy to set up too. Unlike a lever lock though, you can’t just take a quick glance to ensure the legs are locked in place.
Some tripod heads sit right on top of the three legs, while others rest on a center column. The center column adds height, and some models allow the center column to flip 90 degrees to the side of the tripod, or even 180 degrees for shooting very close to the ground.
The center column can introduce some instability, however. The weight of the camera is more secure resting on three legs instead of on one leg that sits on top of three legs. However, that doesn’t mean you should rule out any tripod with a center column. If you don’t extend the center column, that risk of instability isn’t there, and the column is always there if you do need some extra height.
The tripod head is what allows the camera to move while resting on the tripod, which is essential for techniques like panning, and easy adjustment of the composition. There’s a few different types of tripod heads, however.
- Pan-Tilt heads are the most common, all of them can move horizontally, while some can pan vertically as well. These options are the most affordable.
- Ball heads allow for panning and adjusting in more directions, thanks to the construction of this type. They’re much more versatile, but also more expensive.
- Gimbal heads are designed specifically for using with long, heavy lenses at 300 mm or more. The design makes moving the camera nearly effortless, despite the weight of the big lens.
While ball heads are the most versatile and a great option for shooting action, the more budget friendly pan-tilt options will do for applications that don’t require as much panning, like landscape work. Gimbals are specialty heads, for use with long, heavy lenses.
To avoid taking several minutes to attach the camera to the tripod with the screw and threading, look for a head that has a quick release plate as well. This feature allows the camera to be taken off (and put back on) with a quick lever.
The height, weight, portability, legs, column and head are all essential to consider when buying a tripod. There are a few extras that can be nice bonuses, however, like:
- Interchangeable tripod feet
- Bubble level
- Adjustable leg angles
- A bag hook
- Built-in monopod
Cost: How much should you spend on a new tripod?
What’s worse than forking over a hundred dollars or two for a good tripod? Paying $20 for a tripod that tips over and wrecks all your expensive gear. The cheapest tripods are best left for the cheapest cameras. But, that doesn’t mean you have to fork over $600 for a tripod. While the $20 options are unstable, there are sturdy options for around $100 that can still steadily handle a DSLR. These more budget friendly options don’t have as many features and aren’t as portable, but still get the job done. If you’ll be doing a lot of travel or hiking with your tripod, you may want to wait and save up for a lighter model—your back will thank you later.
Tripods are essential for applications like long exposure and panning effects, and handy for a couple dozen other shots too. But buying a tripod isn’t an easy task with so many options. Consider your shooting style and how often you travel, then consider the tripod’s height, support weight, portability, leg options, head type, center column and other extras. A tripod should fit your style, just like your camera.
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