Behind a camera body and lens, a tripod may be the next most important piece of photography equipment you can buy. Some would even argue that a tripod can improve your photography more than any other piece of gear. That's debatable, as a flash could also fill that slot, but it really depends on the genre of photography that you primarily shoot. For landscape photography, I believe a tripod is essential. If astrophotography, or any other type of photography that uses longer exposure times, is your forte, then a tripod is mandatory for getting the shots.
This article isn't really about when or if you should use a tripod. That is dependent upon your workflow and whether you feel that a tripod would be beneficial for improving your photography. Some people never use and/or just don't like using a tripod, and that is fine. Rather, this article is for those who do use tripods, and especially for anyone who may be in the market for one. It can be daunting looking at all the choices on the market. Tripods come in so many sizes and at such a wide variety of price points. Can there really be that much difference for something that just holds your camera while taking a shot? Hopefully, this article will help to answer some of those burning questions.
Types of Tripods
There are several different types of tripods, each dependent upon the application for which they will be used. The nomenclature may vary, but generally speaking, the various types include pocket tripods, tabletop tripods, travel tripods, full size or medium duty tripods, and studio tripods. Although each type specializes in a given application, there can be some crossover from one type to another. The principles discussed in this article can mostly be applied to any of the tripod types. However, to keep things simple and more consistent, this article will apply primarily to full size tripods. This type of tripod is commonly the weapon of choice for landscape and nature photographers.
The Tripod Conundrum
A tripod really isn't a complicated piece of gear. It has three legs connected at the top by some kind of central hub. Those legs can generally be adjusted to various heights and can be composed of a variety of materials. The objective of a tripod is simply to hold a camera and lens steady while capturing an image. Sounds pretty straightforward. In fact, you might think that any tripod would work just fine, as long as it will hold your camera and lens. That may be true to some extent, but there is more to it than that.
You've probably heard the saying, “buy cheap, buy twice.” Perhaps a better quote, credited to John Ruskin, is: “It's unwise to pay too much, but it's worse to pay too little.” That basically means that you could purchase the cheap tripod, and it might work just fine, at least for a while. However, eventually you will find that the cheap tripod is lacking or may even become unusable. Either out of necessity, desperation, or both, you will be forced to buy another tripod. Thus begins the arduous decision-making process all over again. Do you buy another cheap tripod, spend a little bit more for (hopefully) better quality, or go for the high dollar ticket item that you hope will be your last tripod purchase? It's a predicament that's not made any easier by the seemingly endless selection of tripods to choose from.
Cheap vs. Inexpensive
“Cheap” and “inexpensive” are relative terms. Even though it would seem that the two are interchangeable, they could actually have different meanings. For instance, it is possible for something to be inexpensive without being cheap. Conversely, something could also be cheap, but not necessarily inexpensive. That sounds contradictory and confusing, but can be particularly applicable in the tripod conversation.
As alluded to before, tripods come in at such a wide range of price points. You can get one for $50 or less or spend well over $1,000. As with most things, the old adage “you get what you pay for” generally holds true, but maybe not always. The $20 tripod you get at a Walmart or Best Buy is certainly inexpensive. It's also cheap, as in very cheaply made. The materials are low quality and it is not built well. It might work fine for a few outings, or it could break the first time out in the field. Someone may comment that they have one of these that has lasted for years, and that is great. I would contend that that is the exception and not the rule.
There are also many tripods available that are relatively inexpensive, but are not cheaply made. The build quality is much better and you are much more likely to get a few years of trouble-free use. There are a few options from manufacturers like Manfrotto, Vanguard, and Induro that would fit into this category. Check out the Improve Photography Recommended Gear Page or this article by Jim Harmer for some examples. You'll have to pay a bit more than the department store tripod, but still won't have to empty out the bank account.
My first ever tripod was this one, purchased from Amazon a few years ago. It is relatively inexpensive, although it didn't seem like it to me at the time. There were tons of great reviews, but the build quality wasn't great, it was heavy, and it wasn't much fun to use. There are certainly many better options that are in the same price range.
What Makes a Pro Tripod?
This is where things can get really tricky. The word “professional”, when speaking of gear, can be very subjective. The intent of this article is not to create controversy or debate about what makes a piece of gear professional or not. These are my thoughts on the subject, based on research and personal experience. I recently purchased my first professional quality tripod. After having some time to use it, there are some obvious differences between it and the other tripods I have owned.
Professional quality tripods will have a decidedly better build quality than lower-end models. They are constructed of much better materials and conform to higher quality assurance standards. Although the most common build materials are carbon fiber or aluminum, most professional tripod legs will be constructed of carbon fiber. Because of a higher strength to weight ratio, carbon fiber tripods are typically lighter than their aluminum counterparts. Carbon fiber also has better vibration damping characteristics, which can be helpful for maximizing image sharpness. In short, you can feel the difference in build quality of a professional tripod. It is much more stable, stiffer, and is constructed of much better components.
A higher-end tripod with top-notch build quality is simply going to be more reliable, especially over the long term. While less expensive or cheap tripods may work fine for a while, they will likely have some kind of issue sooner or later. With proper maintenance and care, a professional tripod should provide years of service. I expect my new tripod to still be going strong at least 10, if not 20 years from now. That means that I shouldn't have to buy new tripods along the way.
This is a biggie and cannot be overstated. I mentioned before that my first tripod wasn't really much fun to use. A tripod that is not easy or fun to use is one that doesn't get used. I found myself leaving that tripod behind more often than not, and trying to make do without it. Some of my images probably suffered because of that. A tripod that is better built and more reliable is most likely going to be more enjoyable to use. That means you would be more likely to use it, which is a good thing.
Obviously, you shouldn't just use price to make the determination that something is professional quality. However, you really do get what you pay for in most situations. A superior quality product that is extremely reliable comes at a price. If a tripod touted as “pro quality” at a low price sounds too good to be true, it probably is. With that said, there is a wide price range for even tripods that would be considered professional quality. These tripods may range from $400-$500 and on up.
So…Does it Really Matter?
There are many questions in photography that are invariably answered with “it depends”. The answer to this question is not much different. A professional landscape photographer, who is frequently out in the field and traveling the globe shooting in all weather conditions, should have a professional quality tripod. They rely on their photography, and on that tripod to a great extent, to provide a paycheck. The tripod they use has to perform and not be a hindrance to their work.
What about for the rest of us mere mortals; the weekend warriors who are passionate about our photography, but are primarily doing it as a hobby? To be honest, I did make some nice images that I quite like with my very first tripod. I just didn't want to use it because, quite frankly, it was a pain to work with. A tripod, much like a camera and lens, is a tool. It is used to possibly improve our images, and is an absolute necessity to create some images. It should be user-friendly and perform flawlessly when you need it. A tripod shouldn't get in the way of your photography. If it does, then you are using the wrong tool.
For me personally, it does really matter. I'm happy that I finally bit the bullet and purchased a pro-quality tripod. It has been a joy to use and is truly a work of art compared to other tripods I have owned. What's more, I have the peace of mind knowing that it will be ready to perform when I need it, for many years to come. In my opinion, it would be best to skip all the iterations of cheap tripods that only last a short while. Instead, save up and spend a little more for the best tripod you can afford. You won't regret it, and you may even find that it's the best investment for your photography.
I'm not trying to sell any particular tripod brand, but if you are interested to know which one I chose, check out the Youtube link below. Admittedly, this is probably way more tripod than I'll ever need, but I decided to go for broke. Literally! There are certainly less expensive options that are also excellent choices. By the way, I'll apologize in advance for the poor audio.