Choosing the Best Camera Tripod

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Tripods are the difference between a pro photographer and an enthusiast, a good picture and a great picture, frustration and enjoyment.  Most people start off leaving the tripod in the closet with their “salmon” colored dress shirt that their girlfriend assured them was not pink.  Then as they progress and desire tack sharp images they realize the tripod is the missing component.  Then they dig the tripod out of the closet, the same tripod they got bundled with their camera and lens.  You know the one, 2 parts metal alloy and 1 part plastic and a whole lot of weight.  Soon you realize that your tripod is more of a burden than you anticipated and your desire to upgrade will find you… right here, reading this article.

Tripods range from inexpensive to you’re nuts if you pay that very expensive, heavy to light, and functional to slightly dysfunctional.  You can buy a tripod that is fully assembled and all the components come with it, or you could buy it à la carte where you’d buy the legs and then choose a head that met your needs.

Why You Need One

Long Exposure Photography (Tripod Required)
Long Exposure Photography (Tripod Required)

If you have been bitten by the photography bug then you’ll understand when I say there are not enough hours in the day to photograph everything you want to.  Well tripods allow you to shoot through the day and all through the night.  As you learn your cameras limits you’ll realize that with a quick adjustment of the shutter you can make a moonlit night look like a bright afternoon.  If you don’t use a tripod thought, it will look like a bright, earthquake shook, afternoon.  The tripod is instrumental in getting the sharpest photos your camera is capable of taking.  Night, dusk, dawn, or long exposure photography all require the use of a tripod if you want to have sharp photographs.

 

Complete or à la carte

Ball Head
Ball Head

Buying a tripod using the à la carte method has its advantages and disadvantages.  The all-in-one method is generally less expensive and faster.  Buying the tripod à la carte gives you more flexibility in what head you choose (pan and tilt or ball) which can have a direct impact on weight and ease of use.  Neither type of head is really better than the other but for ease of use I prefer the ball head.  I can understand the argument for the pan/tilt head as well, the little handles would make shooting a panorama a breeze (something I don’t do).

The ball head on the other hand is smaller and easier to pack tight and carry while hiking or traveling (something I do extensively).  I find that adjusting to weird angles with the ball head is quicker due to the fact that once you loosen one screw the camera can be shifted to any position or angle in a second rather than having to adjust for each direction using separate handles.

pan/tilt head
Pan/Tilt Head

 

Size and Weight

Do you travel a lot?  Every try lugging your tripod on a ten or twenty-mile hike?  The weight of your tripod will directly influence whether you take it with you or leave it back at the house with your salmon shirt.  The same goes for just about any of your gear, the longer and harder your journey the smaller and lighter the gear you choose to bring with you.  Here are a couple of things to keep in mind so your tripod isn’t the first piece of gear you sacrifice before your journeys.

Every tripod lists it’s fully extended dimensions, fully folded dimensions, and weight on either the store (think Amazon) page or the manufactures website.  What you want to find is a middle ground, you want a tripod you can hook your camera up to and extend to a height you don’t have to crouch over to see through the viewfinder.  So measure the distance from the ground up to your eye level and that will be the minimum height your tripod should extend to.  Next you are going to want to consider how you’ll be transporting your tripod.  Travel a lot?  Then you want a tripod that can be folded small enough that it will fit into your luggage (somewhere around 15″ or smaller).

A good weight to shoot for is somewhere around 4 pounds or lighter.  Tripods can be made out of all types of alloys and plastics.  The best tripod is not always the lightest one.  The lighter your tripod the more susceptible to wind shake you will be.  If you want a really light tripod then you’ll need to make sure there is some sort of hook on the bottom of the middle column so you can hang something with weight on it, light your camera bag, to hold it steady when there is a breeze.

A lot of quality tripods can be converted into mono-pods, one-legged tripod, quickly to create an even smaller footprint.  You can use the mono-pod while hiking or traveling if weight is of utmost concern.

Legs Locks

Screw Tight Leg Locks
Screw Tight Leg Locks

There are two main flavors here, you can have legs that extend by loosening screw tight leg locks or “quick release” clasp like leg locks.  I use screw tight because I believe they are heavy-duty and less likely to break but everyone who uses the screw tight looks in envy at the guy with the quick release snaps.  So which one is better?  Twist locks can be more durable, for this to be the case you have to make sure the tripod says water and dust resistant (they will have water and dust seals).  If the tripod is not water and dust resistant your twist locks will become difficult to tighten and/or loosen.

Quick Release
Quick Release

If you are looking for extreme durability then twist locks will edge out quick release (you can argue that in the comments) because quick releases are typically made out of plastic to keep the tripod light and they tend to get banged up and hung up on things, while the screw tight is made out of the same material as the tripod (aluminum in some cases) and are lower profile.  A really good twist lock tripod can be loosened and tightened in one twist.  For a review of the tripod I use with screw locks and a ball head check out this article; The Most Versatile Camera Tripod of 2012.

Conclusion

Aluminum, basalt, steel or carbon fiber… these are your choices.  Ball or tilt head, quick release or screw tight leg locks, these too are your choices.  Price range will be the main determining factor regarding the quality of tripod you end up with.  You don’t need to spend $300 dollars to get a great tripod, the best tripod is the one that works best for you.  I used a $30 tripod for two years and my photographs didn’t look any better or worse than they do on my $250 tripod.  Honestly, if you are resourceful, and money is tight, you could tie a few sticks together and use that if it’s sturdy you can pick up a second-hand tripod at most Salvation Army stores or similar shops.  You could even post on Facebook that you are looking for a tripod and nine times out of ten you’ll have a friend who has an old one collecting dust that they’d gladly give you.

Share what you look for when you are tripod shopping in the comments.  Any tips for others?  What type of leg locks do you prefer?

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1 Comment

  • The biggest concern I have with the tripod that I picked up a couple years ago is that the ball head is not robust enough for my bigger lenses. It suffers a little from droop when I set it up. Makes composition a challenge, but I have gotten good at compensating. I had to get one that was light enough as I do hike, kayak and travel with it! There may come a time where I will get another one that is more robust…but for now…it’ll do! It suits as best as it can.

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