One of the first purchased accessories, and essential for landscape and low-light photography, there is a bewildering array of available tripods from £20 to well over £1,000.
The general rule is:- Stability, lightweight or low cost, you can have any two from the three! A decent stable lightweight tripod will be expensive and a cheap tripod will either be heavy or not very stable! Then along with thinking about the tripod legs, you need to think about what type of tripod head you want, and the type of fixing plate to the camera. As I said, it can be bewildering……..
So hopefully I can offer some helpful words of advice:-
On the whole you get what you pay for, so the more you spend, the better quality tripod you will get. And don’t be tight! The tripod is the piece of equipment that stops your expensive camera and lens from crashing to the ground, a cheap Chinese plastic tripod might have seemed like a bargain but would you really put £2,000 worth of camera kit on top of it.
How are you going to use the tripod? If it’s for a telescope at home then it’s weight won’t really matter, but if you are hiking up mountains then every extra kilogramme counts. Equally it’s folded size will matter, some only fold to 60-80cm, others will fold down to less than 35cm. Do you want it to fit in your backpack or on your backpack?
Dismissing cheap plastic tripods (as you really aren’t going to use one of those, are you?), then the choice is Aluminium or Carbon Fibre, one is lighter than the other, but has a price premium. Check weights carefully though, as for many travel tripods the Carbon Fibre version might only be a couple of hundred grams heavier than the Carbon Fibre one, yet might carry a price premium of £50-£100 or more.
How high do you want to be able to raise the tripod, and how important is stability at full height. Generally the thicker the tubular sections of the tripod are the more stable it will be, especially at height. For best stability have a tripod either without a centre section or don’t raise the centre section. Thicker tubular sections often carry a weight penalty, and as we know from above light weight costs. Also the less sections that you have the more stable it will be (and the faster it will be in use), but the penalty will be folded size.
Consideration also needs to be given to the weight of the equipment that you will be putting on the tripod, a mirrorless camera with a landscape lens, has a different weight criteria to a wildlife photographer with a heavy DSLR and 500mm lens.
Another consideration is the type and quality of the leg locks, take care of selecting the right type, some don’t like the lever clip style locks, others don’t like the rotational locks. The quality of the locks is also important, poorly made and your tripod may collapse in use.
Heads and Tripod Mounts
Lower cost tripods tend to have a fixed, Pan-Tilt or Ball head, as you progress up the food chain, you can select the type of head that you require to fit to a given set of legs. Often these are interchangeable between manufacturers, as they tend to have standard fittings.
Ball Head – A Ball and Socket joint, a simple control, sometimes difficult to align as all axes move when the ball is loosened, but conversely they can be fast in operation. More expensive Ball Heads allow a pan-rotation of the whole assembly.
Pan-Tilt Head – allow independent rotation of the camera around 2 or 3 axes, using locking lever arms. A typical entry level head, bulkier than the ball head, and not as fast to operate but popular with video use with fluid versions.
Geared Head – The Landscape or Macro photographer’s dream head, allows minute adjustment of each axis, the penalty though is weight, these tend to be heavy in comparison, lightweight heads are available but they often have smaller payloads.
Gimbal Heads – designed for long telephoto lenses, excelling at fast motion tracking, the Wildlife photographers friend.
Panoramic Heads - these enable the camera/lens to be rotated around the nodal point rather than a rotation around the fixing on the base of the camera, a specialist head.
Most heads have a plate for attachment to the camera and then this plate clips into place on the tripod. Again metal plates will be better than plastic ones. If your tripod is for occasional use then these will be fine, but if you are a regular tripod user or have multiple camera bodies (and multiple tripods), then consideration should be given to a quick release place/grip type system. Arca-Swiss developed a quick release system based on dovetailed plates, these system has been widely copied, and plates/grips are available for most cameras either from the camera manufacturer or through third parties and many tripod heads are Arca compliant.
So what do I use?
I have several tripods, each has a different use, and I’ll explain my selection process here.
Tabletop/Portable, sometimes when travelling you just need something stable to get that low-light or long exposure shot. A simple tabletop tripod (such as the Manfrotto Pixi), can be placed on the floor, a wall or even a table! I also have a couple of Joby Gorillarapods, which use flexible legs that can either be straightened to use like the Pixi or wrapped around railings, posts, etc to get a stable camera position.
Travel Tripod, lightweight, compact, can fit into airline cabin luggage, can fit inside a medium sized rucksack. Doesn’t go very high, and certainly isn’t stable at height (not one for use on a windy day). I have a 3LT Punks Vyv (the aluminium version, not much heavier than the Carbon Fibre version - now replaced by the 3LT Corey), its fitted with an Arca compatible ball-head, I have Arca compatible plates for all my cameras.
Main Tripod, I wanted something lightweight and stable, although its physical quite large, I wanted to be able to attach to the outside of the camera rucksack and still feel comfortable in the hills and on mountains. I wanted a fast compact head with an Arca compatible fitting. So I invested in a Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 (3 section carbon fibre) with MHX-Pro Ball Head with an Arca compatible quick release fitting (Q6 variant), I also added the spiked feet option, which enable either spikes or rubber to be used. This was not cheap, but it’s good value for the type of tripod that it is. Another reason for selecting the Manfrotto is that I prefer the level leg locks to the twist type. Is it overkill for my camera system, probably, but it is a superb stable platform, that isn’t too heavy to carry about. My previous main tripod was a 10 year old Aluminium 055 with a geared head, so heavy you wouldn’t want to take it more than 50m from the car!
Where to buy?
Tripods are very personal things, if you don’t get on with it you won’t use it, if it’s too big or heavy then you will be reluctant to take it from the house, if its just not stable enough then when you do take it to that windy hilltop, it won’t be any good, and again it will end up living in the corner of the garage!
I would recommend going to a bricks and mortar store, they will have a selection of tripods, and if they don’t quite have what you are looking for then they can order it in. Try before you buy, you wouldn’t buy a car without going to see it, do the same with your tripod.