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Tripods – a guide to choosing one

There are two things worth bearing in mind throughout your search for a new tripod:

  • choosing a tripod is always going to mean a compromise. No single tripod is best at everything, regardless of what any manufacturer might tell you. For example, some will be the extremely strong and rigid while others may be more suitable for carrying on long treks. What works best for you is entirely personal.
  • a wise person once said, "A tripod is only useful if you have it with you." If it's too big, too heavy, or too awkward to carry then chances are you will leave it behind. Regardless of how brilliant that tripod is, when you leave it at home it's about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

So it’s just three legs holding our camera still, isn't it? How complicated can that be? Well, when it comes to choosing a tripod, it seems there are many more things to consider than you might at first realise.

Here are ten of my top points to consider:

  1. Purpose: what will be your tripod's main use? Do not overlook this one!

  2. Budget: sadly, for most of us, this will be a major deciding factor, if not the primary one.

  3. Weight & folded size: if you have to carry your tripod great distances or take it on flights, these could be hugely important.

  4. Maximum height: you need to decide how important it is for your tripod to reach eye-level or higher, and whether you need that to be with or without the use of a centre column.

  5. Minimum height: be aware of how low to the ground your tripod can securely hold your camera.

  6. Leg sections: how many? More sections reduces folded size, but also rigidity, and slightly increases weight.

  7. Leg section fasteners: there are two main types, twist or clip. Some people prefer one, some the other.

  8. Versatility: how easily can you set the tripod to hold your camera exactly where you want it? Are some positions just impossible?

  9. Load limit: how much weight will you be loading on to your tripod? (Don't forget to include the weight of the head.)

  10. Rigidity: although last on this list, it is often the one that photographers will rate as their main deciding factor. After all, what’s the point of a tripod if it doesn't actually hold your camera steady?

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, and most of the points are related to others, so it is not as simple as just ticking each one off. Compromise is what we inevitably have to accept.
Think about what will be your greatest use for your tripod. If it's for studio use, or you will not need to carry it far, weight and size might not worry you at all. If you want to climb mountains with it, you will want something quite differnt.

Budget might affect quality, or perhaps weight and size. Quality usually costs more but a tripod made of cheaper, heavier materials may still be a high quality product. Eventually, you will probably have to decide if you are prepared to accept more weight to get a lower price. (Who says you can’t get more for less?!)

Carbon fibre tripods are highly desirable. The material is lighter, stronger, and more rigid than the conventional aluminium previously used. Carbon technology (if we’re to believe all the techno-blurb) continues to advance, providing us with ever-stronger and more rigid materials which weigh less. Inevitably – you’ve guessed it - it’s quite a lot more expensive, sometimes doubling the cost of the equivalent tripod made of aluminium. Another downside is that if my Manfrotto had been carbon fibre and not aluminium, the leg would probably have shattered completely given the force with which it hit the rock. With aluminium, I at least still had something that got me through the rest of the day.

Some tripods, especially those designed with travellers in mind, have legs that fold back on themselves, covering an extended centre column and head. Cleverly, this reduces the folded length of the tripod. However, tripods of this type usually come with a ball head already supplied, and if you change the head, you might find that the tripod will not fold so neatly, so be aware of that.

...Tripod heads? Hang on, those weren’t on the list! That’s true but I’ll say a little about those separately at the end.

How high do you need to go? That’s your decision but I like to have a tripod that can hold my camera at eye-level. I’m relatively short so I have a bigger choice than a tall person. You need to bear in mind that raising a centre column will introduce a bit more “wobble” so, for ultimate steadiness, a tripod that reaches your desired height without using a centre column is a good idea. Some people even prefer a tripod with no centre column, which also helps with weight reduction.

How low do you need to go? Depending on the tripod design, you might be restricted to something close to the height of a centre column, so about 20 inches perhaps. Without a centre column and with legs that fold out almost to horizontal, this might be reduced to a very few inches. Alternatively, some central columns are reversible, letting you fix your camera at ground level, albeit upside-down. Or, it may be possible to relocate a centre column so it extends horizontally, again greatly reducing the minimum height. Beware, though, of over-balancing tripods when hanging a camera on a sideways-mounted centre column. (Some allow you to attach a counter-balance weight to the other end to deal with this.)

More leg sections generally mean less rigidity and strength, as each section has to be narrow enough to slide into the one above. So, the bottom of a 5-section leg will be thinner than that of a 4-section leg, which in turn will be thinner than that of a 3-section leg. The advantage of more sections is to increase maximum height or reduce the folded length.

The fixings for leg extensions are very much a personal preference. If possible, borrow or try out tripods with both types of fixing to decide which you prefer.

Versatility is all about the tripod design. Being able to fix the position of your camera exactly where you want may be crucial to you. If you can’t, you may have to compromise on the shot you take. Some tripod legs can be moved to just one, two, or three set angles. More rarely they are completely variable and you fix them at the angle you want, usually for each leg independently. Other tripods may have clever ways of altering or extending the use of a centre column. If extreme versatility is important to you, take very careful note of these sometimes ingenious solutions.

Load capacity is one criterion where you should NOT compromise. Make sure your tripod will safely (and rigidly) hold whatever photographic equipment you intend to put on it. Don't forget to include the weight of your tripod head! If you have a lightweight camera (and lens – don’t forget the lens!) then most tripods will do a fair enough job. If, however, you have a heavy camera or camera / lens combination, you need to be sure the tripod can cope. If you are a stickler for rigidity – and that IS what we’re after - then this is a good one to “over-engineer”.

I’ve mentioned rigidity several times above, and there really is no way to know this for sure without trying the tripod for yourself or reading (if you can believe them) other people’s opinions. Thin legs, cheap materials, poor joints, poor design, long centre columns – all these could make your tripod less rigid or more unstable. A hook underneath the centre, from which you can hang something heavy, can help, and could some day be just what you need to keep everything steady for that special shot.

One thing that doesn’t fit into any of the criteria I’ve listed is that tripods now frequently come with a sort of foam-rubber sleeve on one or all legs. This isn’t so much for the tripod’s protection as for your comfort, to stop you freezing your fingers when you pick up your tripod in cold weather! Or at least, that’s the benefit I see from it – I speak as a landscape photographer of course.

I hope by now you’ve realised that tripods are not just three legs holding your camera in position. I should perhaps mention that there ARE sometimes alternatives. A beanbag, perhaps plonked on top of a wall, can be effective. Even a folded coat could get you out of trouble when you’re caught short. However, these solutions rely upon there already being something solid close to where you want the camera positioned.

Makes / Manufacturers

I do not endorse any particular make, nor do I have any connection to any manufacturer. I have not used every make of tripod or even just held examples of them, so I cannot possibly give truly comprehensive advice. I can only give you my thoughts. It’s a widely held opinion that Gitzo is the “Ferrari” of tripods, and indeed many cheaper alternatives emulate what Gitzo designers first came up with - with varying success. Manfrotto owners are frequently very enthusiastic about how good their tripods are, which must surely say something. Giottos tripods are gaining an enthusiastic following nowadays. I have an older Giottos monopod, and like it, even though one relatively unimportant piece eventually fell off it. That did not, however, stop it from working. Whether Giottos tripods will have bits fall off, I really do not know. Probably not, if cared for. (Some owners say that they need to check screws and bolts regularly as they have a tendency to work loose.) Feisol appears to be an up-and-coming make with some impressively sturdy “legs”.

There are many other makes – Benro, Slik, Velbon you may have heard of, Three legged Thing is fast gaining fans, and there are dozens more you probably will not know. Whatever tripod might take your fancy, try to find owners’ reviews of it before buying.

I would suggest that if you are buying your first tripod, you might not want to spend a small fortune as you will probably learn a lot about tripod use once you own it, and you might well find your expensive choice wasn't the best one for you. On the other hand, a very cheap tripod will probably do little more than end up cluttering up your cupboard as it will prove pretty useless. There is a tongue-in-cheek video on YouTube, made by Hong Kong company DigitalRev, which is worth a look, if only to put you off buying a real “cheapo”. I don’t suggest you treat your tripods as seen in this video but hey, their “test” makes some good points quite graphically, even comically, and may help you understand some of what I’ve said above...
(If that link doesn’t work, just search YouTube for “Extreme Cheapo Tripod Test” )


Ultimately, my conclusion is something I said near the beginning: no single tripod will be best at everything. If you have lots of money to spend then more than one tripod might be your best option. Failing that, decide which criteria are most important to you and ensure those are met.

There is no substitute for actually handling a tripod. You will quickly discover things about them that you might never find out just by researching on-line. If at all possible, try to get hold of the ones that most interest you, whether that's by visiting a photographic equipment supplier or by asking friends if you can have a look at theirs.

Tripod Heads

Okay, let’s get back to the tripod heads I've briefly mentioned above. This could easily be a whole subject on its own but I’ll keep it brief. You won’t be surprised to discover that there are loads of different types. The majority you’ll see will be 3-way heads, ball heads, and a variation of the ball head, the pistol grip. I won’t cover more specialised types here.

The 3-way heads are pretty much what they sound like: they have joints allowing rotation in 3 directions, or axes. Each will have a knob of some kind which you loosen to allow movement, and tighten to fix the head in that axis. Some may be geared, allowing you to position the head with great accuracy. A ball head works on a completely different principle. It is basically a ball with a platform attached, and the ball moves around within a sheath, letting you move the camera (attached to the platform) in a very flexible manner. A single knob tightens a sheath around the ball, locking it in position. Some ball heads have a friction control which is meant to be set for the weight of your camera & lens. Many ball heads have a separate lock or lever for horizontal rotation of the entire head – handy for those panoramic shots. Pistol grips are essentially ball-heads but when you squeeze the grip, a trigger releases the ball inside the sheath. Releasing your grip on the trigger fixes the head position.

Which of these you prefer is very much personal preference, and each type has varying prices depending on make, quality, and strength. Make sure the weight of your equipment does not exceed the maximum load capacity, especially with ball heads, as you could have an expensive accident if you don’t. A cheap head could have the irritating habit of moving slightly after you’ve supposedly locked it in position – far from desirable when you’ve just taken great care over your image composition!





© David McHutchison (Deemacphotos)
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