What is a tripod? What function does it serve? Do I need one?
Most new photographers understand what a tripod is: a set of legs that can be attached to the bottom of your camera body or the bottom of your lens to support your gear while you shoot. However, many beginning photographers misunderstand why having a tripod is very important. Having a tripod is so much more important than simply providing a way to set up your camera and use the timer for shooting selfies.
Whether you are shooting very wide landscapes, tight macros, or anything in between, tripods are vital to be able to have complete freedom with your exposure settings and still produce razor-sharp images. Even if you have an image-stabilized lens (IS if you shoot Canon, VR if you shoot Nikon) you are not likely ever going to get sharp images hand-held at shutter speeds of about 1/30″ or slower – especially if you are zoomed in tight on your subject. With a quality tripod, you can set your shutter speed as low as you like without fear of having the camera move or shake during the exposure. A good tripod will not only support your camera gear, but will lock it down tight so it does not move while you are shooting.
Choosing a Tripod
If you've tried to look for a tripod you've likely discovered that they come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and price ranges – so how do you know which one is right for your shooting style, camera gear, and desired results? There are several important factors to consider when you are deciding which tripod to purchase:
- How tall can it extend? Nearly every tripod on the market today comes as a set of 3 legs with a center column. When you are considering tripods based on how tall they can become, remember that this is measured from the floor to the top of the center column fully extended. Also remember that a fully extended center column will be less secure than one that is extended only halfway or not at all. When you are looking for a tripod, pay attention to how tall they can extend, and limit your choices to ones that can get tall enough that you won't have to bend over to look into the viewfinder for every shot. Your back will thank you.
- How much weight can it hold? Quality tripods will always list a maximum weight limit they can support, though these numbers should only be used as a general guideline, and they tend to vary greatly. Here are some rules of thumb: If all other things are equal on paper between 2 tripods you are considering, and one claims a weight limit of 20 lbs and the other 40 lbs, you can be reasonably sure that the second tripod will ultimately be sturdier. If you are asking yourself: “Who has 40 lbs of camera they want to lug around!? That's nuts!”, you are absolutely right: But tripods today are designed to hold not only your camera body, battery grip, flash, remote trigger, and long zoom lens, but also to have a sandbag, jug of water, or other weight suspended from the bottom of the center support column to add extra stability. With all that extra weight, suddenly 40lbs is possible.
- How much does it weigh? How much a tripod actually weighs is a delicate balancing act between stability, strength, and portability. There are ultra-portable tripods that barely weigh 1 pound, but can only support about 10 lbs and only extend to about 4 feet tall. These are great for the outdoor hiking enthusiast who does not want to carry a large, heavy tripod on extended hikes, but still wants to have a quality tripod for those awesome landscape opportunities that seem to require long treks up a mountain or into the woods. At the other end of the scale are tripods designed for use in studio situations where weight is not a concern: you'll set up the tripod once and leave it. These are generally the tallest and heaviest tripods, able to support the most weight and provide supreme stability.
- What is it made of? Today there are 2 basic choices in materials for tripods: aluminum, or carbon fiber. Aluminum is much less expensive than carbon fiber, but it is also about 30-40% heavier, and not as durable. There are 2 kinds of aluminum: casted and forged. If you are looking at an aluminum tripod, try to find one made with forged components, as they are less brittle than casted, and weigh a little less. Carbon Fiber is lighter than aluminum, but is roughly 3 times stiffer and features 10 times more tensile strength (i.e., how hard you can pull on it before it breaks) than steel. As a result, carbon fiber tripods are very light and very strong, and stand up to a lot more abuse.
- How small can it fold? Similar to weight, how small a tripod can fold has a direct effect on stability. Many tripods today offer legs in 3, 4, 5, or even 6 segments – the more segments in the legs the smaller a tripod can fold while still being able to extend very tall. However, a tripod with 6 leg segments has more joints than one with only 3, and more joints provide more places for those legs to flex and bend. As with weight, the larger tripods have fewer leg segments, and the smaller, more portable ones have more.
- What other features are important to you? In recent years tripods have become much more capable. Many now feature extras that make them much more user-friendly:
- Legs that can flip through a complete 180 degree hinge, to allow for much smaller folding.
- 3 separate positions for the extended legs – regular, wide, and ultra-wide for shooting very low to the ground.
- Reversible center columns that allow you to set the camera on top or to hang it below the center of the tripod for extremely low shooting angles.
- Retractable metal spikes in the feet that allow for better grip in muddy environments.
- Detachable leg to serve as a monopod – great for shooting sports.
So what the heck is a ball head?
A set of tripod legs will not attach directly to the bottom of your camera – and with good reason: If you somehow connect your camera directly to the legs, there will be no way to tilt the camera up and down, or make sure your shots are level with the horizon when shooting on uneven terrain. So the legs provide a stable platform for what is known as a ball head. This is a small device that is mounted to the top of your tripod, and to the bottom of your camera. It is called a ball head because there is a large ball that is adjusted so that your camera can be moved around in 360 degrees with total precision.
When you are shooting, you'll interact with your ball head much more frequently than with your tripod, so getting a good quality head that is easy to use is very important.
What should I look for in a ball head?
As with tripods, there are lots of ball heads to choose from, ranging from the very cheap (both in terms of quality and price) to the very expensive. A quality ball head will provide the following:
- Sturdy and tight locking of the head – when you lock it down it should not move. On a quality ball head, when you bump the lens of your camera it may shake a little, but nearly immediately stop. A cheap ball head will oscillate for some time, and may even shake just with the pressure of your finger on the shutter button.
- Pan Adjustment. Once you have your camera mounted on the ball head, you'll use the ball part for all the tilting adjustments (forward, backward, left, right, etc). Pan is used to rotate the camera back and forth from left to right without adjusting the tilt at all. A high-quality ball head will have a very fluid pan feature that allows for extremely smooth adjustments.
- Ball Tension. With your ball unlocked, your ball head should still maintain some tension on the ball to prevent your camera gear from flopping around. Look for a head that provides separate tension and lock adjustments for your ball so that you can set an appropriate amount of tension for the camera body and lenses you use.
- Ball Lock. This is the most basic adjustment on any ball head: Point the camera where you want it and lock the ball to keep it there. A quality ball head will lock and unlock with a single twist of this knob, and the camera will stay EXACTLY where you lock it, with no drooping or settling even with a heavy lens. Once the ball is locked, trying to tilt your camera around should be VERY difficult, with no slippage even under a heavy force.
- High Weight Limit. In addition to having a good pan, tension, and lock adjustment, a good ball head will support all the weight you can give it. Similar to how tripods are rated, ball heads list both a weight limit and a ball diameter. In general, the larger the diameter of the ball the more weight it will be able to support. Remember that if you have a long lens, its weight is amplified by how far it hangs out in front of your camera – a 3 pound lens may exert 15 pounds of rotational force on your ball head when the lens is fully extended. Be sure your ball head will tightly lock down whatever gear you plan to use with it. If you are going to be using long telephoto lenses (300+mm) go for the heaviest duty ball head you can afford.
- Quick release plate. This is a small plate (usually a few inches square) of metal that is attached to the bottom of your camera body, and locks into place on the top of your ball head.
So How Much Is All This Going To Cost Me?
It is easy to find tripods for sale at your local department store or online that are very inexpensive. So why not just pick up one of these cheap options, that already include a head? The answer is simple: You get what you pay for. As with most all other photography equipment, the least expensive options are generally cheap because they are able to cut corners on quality either in materials, manufacturing, or features. Does this mean you should run out and buy the most expensive tripod and ball head you can find? No – but it does mean that you should expect to spend between $100-$300 for a quality set of tripod legs and $100-$200 for a high quality ball head.
If you are looking to save money, do it in your tripod legs, not the ball head. As mentioned earlier, the ball head is where you will be making nearly all your adjustments while shooting, and having a quality ball head is as important as having a sharp lens.
Over the years we've researched both tripod legs and ball heads, and have learned that the big name brands (Gitzo, Manfrotto, etc) are not always the best bet for your hard earned dollars. Here are some of our favorites, broken down by use case: