How to: Choosing the Right Tripod

Over the last month or so I’ve spent a lot of time researching tripods via manufacturers spec lists, online video and written reviews and even testing some at various camera stores. There’s so much to consider when choosing a tripod, from something as little, and seemingly insignificant, as the feet to as large as the tripod's overall height. I wanted to write this guide and hopefully assist some of you guys in choosing the right tripod for yourselves.

Benefits of using a tripod

As a landscape photographer, a tripod is one of the most important pieces of gear in my kit. It started out as something I hated lugging around, but has since become an extension of my body, quite literally, and is something I can no longer live without. Some of the reasons you might consider using/buying a tripod are:

  • Shooting longer exposures that cannot be shot handheld whilst keeping your ISO down and aperture reasonably small i.e. night time, early and late hours of the day etc.

  • Shooting multiple exposures that will later be aligned in post. e.g. exposure blending, focus stacking, star trails etc.

  • Frees your hands to change filters, settings etc.

  • Allows for much finer compositional adjustments.

Here’s an example of when shooting with a tripod is an absolute must. I wanted to slow the shutter speed down to a point that it would blur the water enough to add a sense of movement to the scene. This would have been a blurry/shaky mess if I was to shoot this scene, hand holding my camera, with a slow shutter speed.

Weight and Construction

One of the most important factors in choosing a tripod, for me at least, is weight. Unfortunately, the lighter the tripod, the heavier the price tag. Most of the time you will have to decide between an aluminium or a carbon-fiber tripod.

The lightest tripods are made from carbon-fiber. Apart from weight, they also have the advantage of being more durable, they transmit less vibrations and they will not corrode. They do however, come at a much higher price, but for me, that price was absolutely worth it.

If carbon-fiber is a little out of your price range and you’re not fussed on some extra weight, then an aluminium tripod might be for you. They're quite stable, especially when faced with high wind areas. However, they're much more susceptible to higher frequency vibrations. Aluminium is also prone to corrosion if shooting in or near the ocean, but like carbon-fiber it will not rust.

Height

A general rule of thumb is that your tripod’s overall height should be no lower than your height less the height of your ballhead + camera. For example, I’m 184cm tall, my ballhead and camera height totals roughly 22cm, so my tripod's maximum height should be no lower than 184-22=162cm. Another good measure is that your tripod alone should reach, roughly, the height of your chin. The reason for this is that you will avoid crouching down to look through the viewfinder. Of course, this is only a guideline and doesn't mean that you won’t have success with a lower tripod, maybe just a sore back.

Another thing to take into account, in regards to height, is the tripod's folded height. This is important for several reasons. The first and most obvious reason being that a smaller folded tripod is easier to transport than a larger folded tripod, obviously. The second thing to consider about the tripod's folded height is that generally, the smaller the tripod folds up, the more likely it is to have 4 leg sections, than 3. I’ll go into more detail about leg sections below.

Legs

It’s no secret that most tripods, if not all, are made up of 3 telescopic legs. Some tripods however, extend with either 3 or 4 sections, meaning that there will be 2 or 3 locks, respectively. There are benefits to both 3 and 4 leg sections and you’ll need to outweigh the pro’s and con’s for each depending on your needs as a photographer.

Tripods with 3 leg sections are known to be slightly more stable. They also require less time to unfold to their fullest extent due to the fact that there are less locks to unlock (6 locks compared to 9). One downside to having less leg sections, compared to a tripod of the same height with more, is that each section will be longer, resulting in a significantly larger folded height.

Tripods with 4 leg sections are known to be slightly less stable, only slightly. They require a little extra time to fully unfold (25% longer, no big deal). On the plus side, they are able to be closed to a smaller folded height, making them much more compact for travelling.

Each leg section has it’s own lock so that they don’t accidentally come open during travel, but most importantly so they don’t collapse during use. These locks come in two forms, twist-lock and lever-lock. This basically comes down to personal preference. Though, cheaply made tripods will generally perform better with lever-locks as opposed to twist-locks. While professional tripods are good either way. I’ve used both systems in the past and find that on a decent tripod, twist-locks are the way to go. They are easier to clean and faster to operate.

Feet

A lot of higher-end tripods come with detachable and interchangeable feet. Some for indoor use i.e. rubberised caps and some for outdoor use i.e. stainless steel spikes/claws. 9 times out of 10, the rubberised feet that come standard with your tripod will do just fine, but it sure is nice to have the option to change to something with a little more bite if you’re shooting in slippery conditions.

Centre Column

Almost all entry level tripods will come with a centre-column. The only real advantage to having a centre column is to give your camera that little extra height. Some will also allow you to push your camera out over the legs, which is actually quite handy for macro work. On the downside though, they can significantly reduce stability as they are far more prone to vibration. For that reason alone I would strongly recommend against getting a tripod with a centre column. They also make it impossible to completely flatten your tripod - which is super handy when shooting at ground level!

You need to ask yourself if a little extra height is more important to you than better vibration control in your tripod. For me, it’s a no brainer. Stability will always win. The reason you buy a tripod in the first place is to keep your camera steady, the introduction of a centre column will only reduce stability, especially when the centre column is extended. If however, you're shooting exclusively at relatively fast shutter speeds and shorter focal lengths, then the stability issues that a centre column presents will be far less noticeable.

If, after all that, you decide you still want a centre column, look into brands that have removable columns or at least shorter posts. That way, down the line, when you realise that they are more of a hindrance than an aid, you are able to remove it.

Tripod Heads

There are a few choices to consider when choosing a tripod head, but I’ll only be talking about two of them in this post. The first, and probably most popular, is called a ballhead. This is basically a ball and socket joint that gives you quick yet precise adjustments of your camera. Then there’s the pan/tilt head which allows for very fine adjustments of pan, tilt and swivel movements individually. There are also heads specific to photographing wildlife/sports, shooting panoramas and even video. But that’s a post for another day.

Ballheads will always be my weapon of choice when it comes to shooting still images, purely for the fact that they are extremely quick to operate. Also, depending on the size of the internal ball, they can have a seriously strong hold.

The main advantage of a pan/tilt head is having precise control over each movement. Having never used one, I can’t comment on their practicality, but I can say that they are slower to operate and, as they’re made up of multiple sections, they’re more likely to have vibration issues.

As illustrated in the image above (and accompanying caption), you can see there isn't a lot of difference in price between these ballheads. The only obvious difference is the size of the internal ball. The Sirui (middle) has a much larger ball of 54mm which means that it has a much stronger hold and maximum load capacity. Easily the best value ballhead for the money! Like, probably ever...

The choice of head really depends on the kind of images you are shooting. Pan/tilt heads seem to have more of a place in a studio, where you might be shooting products/still life and need more precise control over camera positioning. While ballheads, on the other hand, seem to be better on location where there is less time to fiddle and potentially more strength needed to combat the elements (wind).

Recommendations

Like I said in my introductory paragraph, I’ve been researching tripods extensively for well over a month now and I’ve come to find that these tripods and heads listed below are definitely some of the better quality/value options out there. While I can only personally vouch for a few of these options, I’d highly recommend doing as I did and watching/reading reviews on the products before you consider purchasing them.

Tripods

Heads

Travel/Compact Combos

I made this comparison chart (linked below) that really helped me outline some of the most important factors in choosing the right tripod and ballhead. In the end, I went with the Feisol CT-3372 + Sirui K40x. And yes, it is ok to mix brands!

TripodComparisonChart.pdf

When you’ve spent thousands of dollars on camera equipment, the last thing you want to cheap out on is a flimsy no name tripod from some Chinese distributor on eBay. Just like most things in life, and this is especially true when it comes to tripods, is that you get what you pay for. Invest in a decent tripod from the get go and you’ll save money in the long run! Don’t be fooled into thinking that a decent tripod is more important than a decent head or vice versa. They are both as equally important and deserve as much consideration as the other. The best way to find the right tripod for you is to head to your local camera store and try them out for yourself.

I hope this mini-guide has been helpful to at least a few of you and has pushed you in the right direction in choosing the perfect tripod. If you have any questions or would like to share your tripod experiences below, please go right ahead - I’d love to hear from you all!