Choosing A Tripod

By Roger (18 April 2016)

In my last blog (link), I told you why tripods are so useful. Now that you understand how important a tripod can be in recording the sharpest photo possible, let’s talk about what you should look for when you go out to buy one. As in all photography topics, there is a wide variety in tripod qualities and costs. If you go to our Amazon link and type in “tripods for digital cameras,” you’ll get more than 140,000 items. That list is a little long to sift through, so let's consider some things to whittle it down.

What are the most important attributes of a good tripod? Well, that is a personal choice. You need to consider the primary attributes that are the most important to you. Some things to consider: weight, component material, height, and any additional features you need/want.

Niagara Falls, a three-second exposure

One attribute I would keep out of my top ten list is price. If you buy solely on price, you'll probably regret it. Really cheap tripods are, generally, poorly made. You'll quickly leave it behind and try to go back to being tripod free. As you get more serious, you'll realize you really do need a tripod, so you'll buy one that is a little more expensive than the last one you abandoned. If you repeat this pattern a couple of times, you'll either be completely disenchanted, or you'll finally spend the money on a good tripod, and your previous tripod purchases will be wasted money. A good tripod can last more than a decade (mine is guaranteed for life). I'm not suggesting you need to buy the most expensive tripod available, but I wouldn't make price your first priority.

Tripods help in a dark bar

The most important attribute I look for in a tripod is its ability to keep my camera stable, regardless of the lens I put on the front. If you buy a very small, light-weight tripod and mount a heavy camera and lens combination, it will be inherently unstable. This would defeat the purpose of the tripod, and it won't take long for you to push the tripod into a dark corner.

You may think this is an obvious requirement, but many people don’t look at the tripod’s load capacity prior to their purchase. You need to keep in mind the lenses you use and how much weight they add to the package. For example, my camera weighs in at 3 pounds, but the lenses vary from 7 ounces to almost 5 pounds. My tripod has to keep every one of these combinations stable. I recommend buying a tripod that is capable of, at least, twice the weight you think you need. This provides an additional margin of safety and gives you room to add some heavier equipment in the future.

Notre Dame Basilica, Montreal, 2.5 seconds

The weight of your tripod can be a reason you leave it behind. The lighter the weight, the more likely you are to carry it and use it. Wood and aluminum tripods weigh significantly more than the carbon fiber tripods. However, when I bought my first good tripod, carbon fiber was not available. It is now, and I greatly appreciate the weight reduction. Carbon fiber is my current choice, until they invent something lighter and just as strong.

The construction material in your tripod has other impacts. The most common tripod materials, today, are aluminum and carbon fiber, although you can still find a couple made of wood. As I've already revealed, my favorite is carbon fiber. I think it's the most versatile. Unfortunately, it is more expensive than aluminum, but the prices have been coming down.

Why is the construction material even an issue? Well, we just talked about weight. Carbon fiber (or wood) is lighter. Carbon fiber is not impacted by water, but wood is, and salt water can be deadly to your aluminum tripod. Then there is the issue of temperature transfer. Are you going to be dealing with extreme hot or cold temperatures? Wood and carbon fiber are better because they don't transfer the temperature to your hands as much as aluminum. Most photographers who use aluminum tripods use pads and tape, on the legs, to alleviate this problem.

Consider the height you'll want your tripod to deliver. Again, the range varies widely. You can get an inexpensive Playpod (link) that will provide a very stable platform, at ground level, or a tripod that extends well above your head. Think about how you'll use the tripod and choose accordingly. I recommend choosing a tripod that, at a minimum,  is tall enough to bring the camera to your eye-level.

Tripods help in sharper portraits

Many medium height tripods feature a center post that can be extended to increase their reach or swing out perpendicular to the legs, like a boom arm. Most hardcore tripod users warn against center posts because extending the post can cause a loss of stability and increase vibration. Used sparingly and carefully, you can get along with a center post, but be aware of the problem.

Try out the different leg types; most use twist or flip locks. From my reading the most recommended is the flip locks. You just quickly flip the locks to extend or retract the legs. For some reason, I prefer the twist locks. Really, try both. You're going to constantly extend and retract the legs, so this is more important than you might think. Both work, but choose incorrectly, and you'll quickly become aggravated with your choice.

One last thing: think about how many leg extensions you want. The most common are two, three, or four. The extensions can affect the stability, so you may be tempted to go with just two. However, more extensions help reduce the folded length of the tripod – important for air travelers who want to put the tripod into their suitcase.

Lots to consider, huh? Like most things in photography, you may have to compromise somewhere to find the correct tripod for you. You may want to talk to your photographer friends to see what they like or don't like about their tripod.

In the end, I believe it is an important tool for your kit. I think it's important enough that I almost always take one on travel, and I use it frequently. Although you may think you don't want to carry the extra weight, a stable tripod will ensure the sharpest image in any kind of photography. Take it out of your closet, and show it some fun.