Buying a Tripod: Everything you need to know
Tripods are one of the things that will never leave a photographer’s arsenal. But not everyone has the right knowledge when buying a tripod. There are several factors to consider that are overwhelming to some.
Buying a tripod is as easy as ordering online through BHPhotovideo, Adorama, or even direct from manufacturers like ProMediaGear. What’s difficult is choosing the perfect model for the kind of photography that you are practicing.
For a beginner, it expands their learning experience. A $50 tripod might work for them. But for professional photographers, this accessory helps in nailing that once-in-a-lifetime shot. They may spend $1000 on their tripod. But if it helps them capture that eagle in action, then that justifies the hefty price tag.
What is a Tripod?
The tripod is one of the first pieces of equipment that a photographer purchases after their camera and it is for a valid reason. Owning one has a lot of advantages, but it has some quirks as well.
For those unfamiliar, a tripod is a three-legged stand that supports the camera and other equipment. There are different kinds of tripods, but every model has the same purpose - to keep the camera stable while shooting.
The tripod consists of four parts.
- Legs - the tripod legs are the backbone of the system. The most common materials used for the legs are aluminum, basalt, steel, and carbon fiber. The legs also retract and extend to adjust the tripod’s height depending on the environment.
- Head - this is the part that holds the camera or other equipment in place. There are several kinds of heads. But for photographers, ball-heads and pan-tilt heads are widely used. Meanwhile, videographers prefer fluid-heads for smoother tracking.
- Center Column - this part extends the tripod higher. It is essential for photographers who love taking high angle shots. There are center columns that can turn upside down for low angle photos as well.
- Feet - the feet are equally important as the legs. Without stable feet, the tripod will wobble and fall. Excellent tripods have grippy feet by default. But there are tripods with interchangeable feet for indoor and outdoor use. Some tripods have detachable foot spikes that bury on the ground to prevent unwanted movement.
What are the pros and cons of using a tripod?
Using a tripod has a lot of benefits. Here are some of them:
- Sharper images - using a tripod is more stable compared to your hands. Tripods prevent micro stutters that affect photos taken with a slow shutter speed. It also allows photographers to take images with a wide depth of field without worrying about camera shake.
- Less noise - the ISO is often adjusted depending on the lighting condition. The downside to this is it adds grain to the image. But using a tripod allows the use of a lower ISO giving a cleaner-looking image.
- Heavy lens support - there are lenses out there that are heavier than the camera body. For example, the Canon EF 500mm f/4 lens is a massive piece of glass. Handheld shooting can easily tire a photographer. But with a tripod, the lens is mounted and it's easier to shoot.
- Better framing and composition - some shots that cannot be taken without the help of a tripod. You can extend your arm to reach difficult places, but that does not ensure great composition and framing. Using a tripod solves that problem. Plus, you can take your time to frame the shot.
- High Dynamic Range (HDR) photos - taking an HDR image requires the camera to be in the exact position in several photographs.
- Self-portraits - with the rise of social media, selfies became part of human nature. Tripods help in taking a self-portrait with a camera timer or a remote shutter.
- Night photography - shooting at night is difficult due to the lack of a proper light source. For example, you cannot take a photograph of the Milky Way without using a slow shutter speed. With a tripod, a lower ISO is possible while taking a long exposure shot.
- Long exposure photos - photos of falls or rivers that look silky smooth use a slow shutter speed. Is that achievable on a handheld shot? Definitely not. Otherwise, it will be a blurry mess. A tripod keeps the camera stable for these types of photos.
- Hold accessories - shooting portraits involve flash and flash modifiers. These accessories are attached to light stands. But what if you need an extra stand? The tripod works the same as a light stand. You can use extra flashes, reflectors, LED lights, and other accessories.
That is a long list of advantages and that is not the end of it. There are a lot more advantages that you can experience while shooting with a tripod.
With all the positive things considered, there are downsides to it as well but, it does not outweigh buying one. Some of the downsides are:
- Weight - this is the main reason why photographers leave their tripod behind when going out. Some tripods are lightweight and easy to carry. But these cost a lot more.
- Space - unless you are a landscape photographer, tripods are a bane to stuff into luggage when traveling. Some companies like Crumpler make camera bags with a dedicated space which is a good thing. But it still takes up space.
- Limited movement - using a tripod means that you are stuck in one place. Using it in a crowded place is also challenging as other people may bump into it. There is a reason why landscape photographers love their tripod - they take their shots carefully. But for street photographers, a handheld camera is better for those snap and go moments.
- Price - an excellent tripod can go up to $1000 for the legs alone. Add in a ball-head and a center column, and it can go up by $300 or more. There are cheap tripods out there but do you want to risk your $1000 camera on a flimsy tripod?
These are just some of the cons of using a tripod. However, these are minor issues compared to what a tripod has to offer. In the end, it is better to have one at your disposal instead of scrambling to get a tripod when you need one.
Buying a tripod: things to consider
As mentioned earlier, it is easy to get into a camera shop and pick a tripod within your price range. But that is a common beginner’s mistake. There are quite a few things to take note of before spending your money on one.
Weight limit - the weight here is different from the disadvantage earlier. The weight limit is the max load that the tripod can carry as tested by the manufacturer. Say you have a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens on a Canon 1D X Mark III, which is a heavy setup wherein a regular tripod is not enough.
What you need to do is weigh the gears that will go on the tripod. Once done, multiply that by 1.5X. That should be the minimum weight rating of the tripod you are getting. If you have enough budget, a tripod with a weight rating that is twice your maximum equipment weight, that is better.
The higher weight rating means it can withstand heavy lenses, plus all your weight when using the camera.
What if it has a low weight rating? The tripod may work for the first few tries. But in the long run, the stress accumulates, and it is bound to fail. No one wants that to happen especially on gears that cost thousands.
Maximum tripod height - The rule of thumb when buying a tripod is it should match your eye level. It is not ideal to bow just to look at the viewfinder. If you need more height, then the center column will do its job.
Keep in mind that it is always better to get a tall tripod than a shorter one. The legs can be adjusted to match your eye level. But a shorter tripod cannot be adjusted higher.
When buying a tripod, take note of the ball-head that you are getting. Check the total height with the ball head, it should reach your chin. Once the camera is attached, the viewfinder will end up at eye level.
Leg sections - this part is essential for those who love traveling. The more leg sections a tripod has, the more compact it will be. It makes it easier to bring anywhere.
However, there is a downside to these types of tripods. With more leg sections, the bottom part of the tripod gets thinner thus making it more unstable.
Talking about the bottom leg, there are tripod feet with rubber ends. These are perfect for indoor settings with smooth floors. Spiked feet are available to prevent slippage outdoors.
The leg sections have locks as well. The most common types of leg locks are the twist-lock and flip-lock systems.
Carbon fiber tripods often come with twist-locks. Other types use flip-locks. However, there are aluminum tripods with twist-lock systems as well.
In comparison, twist-lock systems are quicker to use. One twist can unlock a tripod leg section. But for flip-locks, you have to do it one by one.
Tripod Weight - this pertains to the tripod disadvantage mentioned earlier. The tripod weight is considered before buying. If a tripod is too heavy, you might end up leaving it at home and not see the sunlight ever again.
Get a tripod that you are comfortable carrying around for long periods. It might be more expensive, but surely, you can bring it anywhere. It is better than buying a cheaper heavy tripod that will be left behind.
Materials used - Carbon fiber tripods are the best of both worlds. These are tough and lightweight and are proven to take a beating. But these tripods are expensive and can cost at least $500.
Another option is aluminum tripods. These types of tripods are a lot cheaper but heavier than carbon fiber tripods.
Other materials include basalt and steel. The basalt tripods are a mix between carbon fibers and aluminum when it comes to strength and weight. On the other hand, steel tripods are way heavier but durable. The added downside is it can get rusty.
Center post - there are several debates whether a center post is helpful or not. A center post extends the tripod height. Is it great for high-angle shots? Definitely.
But why do people hate it?
The center post is similar to having a monopod. It is unstable. Despite being mounted on the tripod, the extended height makes the camera susceptible to camera shake.
If possible, it is better to have a tripod without a center post. If your tripod comes with one, then do not worry. Just keep it on its lowest point unless you need the extended height.
Extra stability - once a tripod is all set up, it should withstand gusts and other elements. However, that is not always the case.
Some tripods are heavy yet unstable. A simple knock should not be enough to topple it down.
Some manufacturers include hooks in the center. Sandbags or camera bags are meant to be attached there for added weight and support.
What tripod head should you get?
There are different types of tripod heads. The three most common ones are ball-head, pan-tilt, and fluid-heads.
Which one should you get among the three? It depends on personal preference.
Pan-tilt head - this is usually included on cheap tripods. If your camera kit comes with a tripod, this is most likely the kind of head it has. Pan-tilt heads control horizontal and vertical movement via two handles.
Ball-head - it is the most common type of tripod head used by advanced users. It offers better horizontal and vertical control. Plus, you only have to work with one knob to make adjustments.
Fluid-head - this is commonly used by videographers. It looks similar to a pan-tilt head. As the name implies, there is a fluid inside that ensures a smoother horizontal and vertical movement.
Gimbal-head - this is a niche product. It is often used by photographers who use very large and heavy lenses. The gimbal head balances the camera without restricting movement. Sports photographers or wildlife photographers use this kind as it is perfect for action shots.
Should you go for a quick-release system?
There are two quick-release systems out in the market today. The most popular one is the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System. The majority of manufacturers have adapted this to their products as it is quick and easy to use.
The second system is the Manfrotto quick-release system. It comes in either the RC0, RC2, and the RC4. Quite confusing? That's why the Arca-Swiss is the most recommended one.
It is recommended to go for a quick-release system such as the Arca-Swiss. These products have great build quality. It is also compatible with a lot of products such as L-brackets.
ProMediaGear has adapted the Arca-Swiss system on their products. As an added extra, their L-brackets and custom-fitted plates are compatible with Arca-Swiss heads.
But all the pros of the Arca-Swiss comes with a price. These types of tripod heads are more expensive. However, if you are going to take a photography career then it is a worthwhile investment.
“I am ready to buy, what should I get?”
Now that you have read about the tripod parts, tripod heads, and other considerations, it is time to hunt for your next tripod.
Every photographer must have gone through the phase of getting a cheap tripod and realizing soon that it does not fit their needs.
While cheap tripods can support a DSLR or a mirrorless camera with the kit lens, they can get overwhelmed once you attach a battery grip, flashguns, LED lights, and other accessories.
With flimsy tripods out of the equation, one might opt for a tripod that cost around $100. While that is not a bad start, these tripods are heavy and difficult to carry. It may prompt you to sell that tripod and go for a more expensive carbon fiber tripod. The upgrade goes on and on.
That is not a bad thing as the tripod grows as your skill develops. However, if you have the budget, it is best to go for the best Arca-Swiss tripod system you can afford.
An excellent tripod lasts a lifetime. But these systems can go up to $1000. Is it justified for a beginner to get one? Definitely not.
However, if you are looking for a travel tripod or professional work then the $1000 is a cheap purchase. Here is the reason why.
Buying cheap tripods and realizing that it does not fit your needs is more expensive in the long run. You get a $75 tripod, sell it to purchase a $200 one. But then it is still heavy. You put up the $200 on eBay and get another one for $600.
In total, you end up spending $875. This could have been a one time purchase. Plus you do not have to go through the selling and buying a tripod all over again.
But that is quite a stretch as $1000 is a hard purchase for a tripod. So here are some other options.
I’m a beginner and I don’t have one - for those who just got their camera and still learning. Get an aluminum tripod with a ball-head and a quick-release system. Get an Arca-Swiss type if possible. It will help you in your photography journey and will still be compatible with other Arca-Swiss accessories in the long run.
Advance user: I own one, but I want to upgrade - it is quite tricky to suggest for these kinds of photographers. But the best thing to do is to save up for a carbon fiber Arca-Swiss tripod. For sure, you will benefit from other Arca-Swiss accessories like flash brackets in the long run.
While saving up, this is also the best time to evaluate whether your equipment merits a new tripod. It is also worth checking if your shooting style requires you to have a tripod or it is just an occasional accessory.
What are the best tripods right now?
There are a lot of good tripods out there at different price points. It is challenging to recommend the “best” tripod as every photographer has their preference.
But as mentioned earlier, you may grab a tripod for around $150 and you are good to go. It is then up to you if you are going for a pan-tilt or a ball-head option.
The Manfrotto 290 Xtra Aluminum 3-section tripod is a great entry-level option. It retails for around $200, but you cannot go wrong with it.
It is from a reputable tripod brand with years of experience. This tripod comes with a 3-way pan-tilt head that is smooth and easy to use. The max height is 67.5, which is not bad for an average adult.
The 290 Xtra folds down to 70cm. However, the weight compensates the length as it only weighs 5.6lbs.
The only downside is the max weight limit. It can only carry equipment of up to 8.8lbs. This is perfect for entry-level cameras with their respective kit lenses. However, do not expect that it can carry a Sigma 150-600mm lens, or else, it will be a disaster.
In summary, be sure that it is from a reputable brand such as Benro, Manfrotto, Gitzo, Slik, and many more. Check for actual customer reviews as well.
The good thing with entry-level tripods is the number of great choices. You cannot go wrong with these brands.
For top-of-the-line models, ProMediaGear has several models worth considering.
ProMediaGear TR344L Pro-Stix Carbon Fiber Tripod
The TR344L Pro-Stix Carbon Fiber Tripod is available for around $1,100. It is one of the best models out there. This tripod has 34mm four leg sections with a max height of 179cm and a folded length of 60cm. It can easily carry heavy cameras up to 60 lbs, all while weighing only 1950 grams.
Other features include interchangeable mount, spiked feet, spirit levels, and twist-lock mechanism.
ProMediaGear TR424L Pro-Stix Carbon Fiber Tripod
This big brother of the TR344L has the same 10X Layer Carbon Fiber legs with aluminum twist locks. It has the same anti-slip feet and steel spikes integrated into the legs for outdoor use.
However, the difference comes in the leg thickness. The TR424L Pro-Stix Carbon Fiber Tripod has four 42mm thick legs. This makes it suitable for heavy setups up to 125 lbs. There is also an added spring-loaded apex with a safety mechanism.
The TR424L Pro-Stix is a little bit longer though at 67 cm. Due to the leg thickness, it is also heavier at almost 3 kgs.
ProMediaGear is selling this tripod for $1,350.
These two models are great options for heavy-duty use such as landscape and wildlife photography. Anyhow, do not partner these tripods with a regular Arca-Swiss ball-head. It defeats the purpose of having a sturdy tripod if the head cannot support the camera setup.
The company has a variety of ball-heads ranging from $400 - $500. All of them are Arca-Swiss compatible. Just choose one that can support the total weight of your equipment.
Tripods last a lifetime
Camera manufacturers release a new model every year or two. The lenses come and go as well. If there is one piece of equipment that can outlast all of your camera gear, then that should be the tripod.
Planning to change camera systems? The tripod stays. Are you going to shift from photography to videography? The tripod still works.
Buying a tripod for your DSLR or mirrorless might seem expensive. But, it easily provides long-term use and that is what makes it a worthy purchase.