When I conduct landscape photography workshops, the first thing I notice is the expensive equipment that many of the participants have. Brand spanking new 5D Mark IIs, 70-200mm lenses, etc. It amazes me how many photographers buy so much gear before they finally listen to the oft repeated but seldom followed advice to buy a professional tripod and a decent ballhead.
I know what you don’t do it. They are expensive and I’d rather have a new lens. Can you just trust me on this one? Do not buy another piece of photography gear until you buy a solid tripod. There is a reason why you hear every professional photographer on planet earth repeat this advice: it actually affects the image, unlike buying a fancy new lens which still won’t give you sharp photos because it’s handheld or on a junky tripod.
The $150 tripod you bought from Best Buy (or wherever else) is not a professional tripod. I have tested them all, and they simply don’t deliver. So what tripod should you buy that won’t break the bank? Here are some things to look for.
#1. Brand. Sorry, don’t mean to be a brand snob, but there are only a few brands that do this right. My personal favorite tripod brand is Induro. It’s a lesser known brand, but they have terrific products at competitive prices. You can also trust Gitzo and Really Right stuff, but you have to be made of money to afford a decent one. If you’re on a budget, I would choose Induro first and Manfrotto second. Manfrotto is actually owned by the same parent company as Gitzo, but the tripods are quite different. Manfrotto is a hit and miss kind of company. They have great stuff and they have some real junk.
#2. Height. This is one of the most forgotten aspects of purchasing a tripod. I like a tripod that can reach 10″ taller than I am. This helps me when I want to shoot from a creative high angle, and is also handy when shooting on a slope where your tripod is under you. Most people skip this one, but I recommend you take a serious look at the height before buying. For me, the taller the better.
#3. Leg locks. There are two types: snap lock and twist lock. It’s really personal preference, but if you shoot wildlife at all, you’ll want twist lock. Nothing worse than finally getting close to an animal only to scare it away with SNAP SNAP! I prefer twist locks.
#4. Materials. Carbon fiber and aluminum are the most common types. Carbon fiber is light and rigid and expensive. Aluminum is heavy and bulky and cheap. A third option which has recently entered the market is basalt. Basalt fits somewhere between carbon fiber and aluminum since it’s cheap but fairly light. If you can find a good basalt tripod, you’re in good shape.
#5. Weight. Don’t underestimate just how heavy these things can be. It is a serious pain to lug a tripod on long walks. Buy one that you’ll actually carry around with you.
#6. Maximum load capacity. Tripod manufacturers advertise how much a tripod can carry and still hold steady. Here’s a general rule. Take whatever number they give you, divide it by 3, and you have an accurate number. If you have a camera/lens combination which weighs 7 pounds, then you should get a tripod which advertises the capability of holding up to 21lbs. Sorry for you kilo people. I have no idea what that means to you.
#7. Color. Seriously. It has to be black. Do you want to look ridiculous being the one dude with a silver/gold tripod? I think not. It’s like wearing flannel… ya just don’t do it.
SO WHICH ONE SHOULD I BUY?!?!?! Here are a couple good tripods to get you started on your search. I can unreservedly recommend these ones.
Induro AT-313 for around $180: http://amzn.to/fIoZG2 (I consider this to be the best tripod deal on planet earth. High quality stuff)
Manfrotto 055XPROB for around $200: http://amzn.to/gaXfWy (Another great option.
You should also consider choosing off-brand tripods from reputable sellers such as Digital Camera Rookie.
This page, as well as many others on Improve Photography, contains affiliate links to Amazon.com. I get a portion of the proceeds if you buy from these links. It doesn’t cost you any extra and it doesn’t affect my recommendations because I could recommend any product on Amazon (and what ISN’T on Amazon?!?!) and I get the same percentage. It’s just a way to pay for this site.