Tripod buying guide – selecting the right tripod for you
Most out-of-focus pictures are due to camera movement, it isn’t because you focused in the wrong place or your subject moved. It is because your camera moved. It doesn’t take much, especially as your use longer telephoto lenses. That is why I shoot over 90% of my photos with my camera on a tripod. I’m a believer that you can’t have a tripod that is too good. A solid tripod is a must in my photography world, a flimsy tripod is a waste of money. I’ve heard people say that any tripod is better than none and I couldn’t disagree more. A flimsy tripod gives you a false sense that you are getting sharp pictures but then you get back to your computer and you see your photos are a little fuzzy. If you’re not using a tripod, hopefully you know the camera could be shaky and you do some things to keep the camera as steady as you can, use image stabilization with your lens and then not be surprised later.
So make sure you have a solid tripod, but first there are some things you need to consider before making a considerable investment.
- Is the tripod strong enough for your camera and lens?
- How tall are you?
- How small does the tripod get?
- How much does it weigh?
- Do you shoot much at ground level?
- Do you want twist or flip leg locks?
Is the tripod strong enough for your camera and lens?
There are two factors when determining the load, the tripod legs and the head.
The head is what connects your tripod to your camera. Many tripods don’t come with a head and that gives you more flexibility to have the right head for you. There is a clear standard in heads and that is a head the uses an Arca-Swiss type quick release. Any quick release lets you quickly remove your camera from the head by using a plate that stays on your camera. That way you don’t need to screw your tripod to your camera every time you want to put it on. Many companies make heads and plates that are compatible with the Arca-type release – don’t buy a head that isn’t compatible.
There are several ways heads can be adjusted to let you frame your shot, just believe me when I tell you you want a ball head. Some others may be quicker to adjust or cheaper but it won’t be long until you aren’t happy with them. Get a ball head, I’ve used them all, get a ball head.
Now that you know you need an Arca-type ball head, then it just a matter of size. The bigger the head the more weight it can hold. You don’t want a small head that sags and creeps once you attach your camera. It sucks to be looking through the lens and see the scene you carefully lined up slowly slide out of view. Heads are rated to the weight they hold, don’t skimp here or you’ll be sorry. You need to factor in the size and weight of your camera, the heaviest lens you have (or will have soon) and if you put a flash on your camera. Usually a telephoto is your biggest lens and it is the one that needs to be the steadiest since the telephoto magnifies camera movement. If you are a long lens shooter, then get a head that is one size bigger than you think you need. If you are shooting mostly wide angle or use a small camera like a mirrorless or micro ⅔, then you can get away with a smaller head.
Many of the same factors need to be considered when thinking about the tripod’s legs. Are you shooting lots of telephotos, is your camera/lens combination heavy? One thing to look at when evaluating a tripod is how thick are the smallest legs at the end of the tripod. If it looks like a pencil coming out the bottom, then it isn’t going to be very sturdy. If the tripod has four or five sections of legs, then take a close look at that last section, it is likely to be pretty small and thus shaky. My main tripod (the Sirui R-5214XL) has only three leg sections and the bottom one is huge. The tradeoff is the tripod doesn’t pack up very small, but being sturdy is more important to me than convenience.
How tall are you?
Since humans are naturally lazy (me included), we tend to shoot a lot of photos at our standing height. So make sure your tripod goes that high, if you are out shooting all day it can be tiring to constantly bend down to look through your camera. You need to factor in the height of your head and camera. Some tripods give you extra height by using a center column that you can raise. You are then using a tripod with a monopod attached to the top. A center column can be OK, just make sure it is steady and it should be the last resort for getting height out of your tripod, always fully extend the legs before cranking up the column.
How small does it get?
If you travel much, you my want to consider how small the tripod will become when collapsed. Some tripods fold to get really small so they will fit in a backpack or suitcase. If you mainly shoot when travelling in your car, compactness may not be a concern for you.
How much does it weigh?
Did I mention humans tend to be lazy? Carrying a lot of gear all day can wear you out, if you dread carrying something you tend not to take it with you and then you don’t have it when you need it. Tripods can be a pain to carry but I always do, so I trim weight where I can. Most tripods are made of either aluminum or carbon fiber. Both are strong and sturdy but carbon fiber is much lighter and more expensive. If you don’t usually walk far from your car when you shoot, save money and get an aluminum tripod. If you are carrying the tripod a lot, dig deeper in your bank account and go for carbon fiber. Be sure to think about how much your head weighs too, it can be as much as the tripod.
Do you shoot much at ground level?
That’s a strange thing to ask but you want to think about it before making a big tripod investment. Some tripods go flat to the ground so you can lay on your belly and shoot. Others have a center column that won’t let you get closer than a foot or so to the ground. Most tripods have legs that will splay out to let you get low. Make sure your tripod matches your shooting style.
Do you want twist or flip leg locks?
Twist locks give you more control, you can tighten as much as you like each time. They can take more time to lock in and they can require more hand strength. Flip locks can wiggle loose over time and you have to use a tool, usually an allen wrench, to tighten them back up. But they are much faster to setup your tripod and once you have the tension adjusted to your liking they are easier to lock your legs. Play with both and see which you like.
The real key to a good tripod is making sure it is what you need now and in the near future. Tripods are a big investment but good ones last a long time. Really think about you shoot, how you would like to shoot and get the right tripod. You won’t regret it.