Buying a tripod can be a daunting task. There seem to be an endless number of manufacturers and models, and enough features and specifications to make your head spin. Factor in the huge array of prices and the level of confusion goes up to another level. So, what do you really need to know before buying a tripod? Are there some things you really don't need to worry about? This article will help you demystify the process of buying a tripod.
First, let's start with a little backstory. When I first got started in photography about six years ago, I didn't think much about tripods. Most of what I liked to shoot (and still do) was landscape and nature photos. That was primarily done during the daytime, when my shutter speed was generally fast enough to hand-hold the camera. I did eventually buy a tripod – a cheap-o no-name branded tripod on Amazon. I didn't really think I needed one, and what's more, I didn't really like using it anyway. It was cumbersome and it just slowed me down. That tripod didn't get used all that much, partly because of the reasons already stated, and partly because it just wasn't a very good tripod.
Oscar Wilde said, “With age comes wisdom…”. I'm not sure that is the case for me, but I have come to realize the error of my amateur photographer ways. A tripod serves many purposes, not the least of which is that it does slow you down. That's really the beauty of it. Also, just like anything else, if you get something that is not easy or fun to use, you are less likely to use it. After using a proper tripod for quite some time now, I'm not even sure where that cheap one is anymore. As for the wisdom part, I'll keep working on that. The other half of that Wilde quote is: “…but sometimes age comes alone.”
How much does it cost?
When it gets down to brass tacks, this is what we are really concerned about when it comes time to purchase new gear. How much is it going to cost me, and does it fit into my budget? Tripods may be one of the simplest devices with the widest range of prices. After all, a tripod is simply three retractable legs held together at the top by some type of hub. The general design and overall goal is the same, so why is there such a huge price range? There are sub-$50 tripods and there are some that cost north of $1,000.
Perhaps a better question is what will be my return on investment. There is a big difference between an inexpensive tripod and a cheap tripod. Buying an $80 tripod may seem like a good idea, but if it breaks in 6 months, maybe not so much. We've all heard the old adage, “buy cheap, buy twice.” I did this, and learned my lesson. Sure, you could buy five of those cheap tripods for the price of one expensive one, but you may very well end up with a pile of broken tripods in the end and never enjoy using any of them.
Does this mean you have to buy a $1,000 tripod? Absolutely not. There are many excellent options with much lower price tags. Check out this article for more on this subject.
Weight is another obvious specification that may be of concern to you. It really depends on how you intend to use the tripod and your shooting style. If you like going on day-long hikes or backpacking trips, you will definitely want a lighter, more compact tripod to take with you. If most of the shooting you do is in a studio, or close to the car when out, then you could get by just fine with a heavier tripod.
My main tripod, which I bought about a year ago, is not light, weighing in at just under 5 pounds. However, when taking into consideration its size, it's not as bad as it sounds. I still have a smaller, lighter, and much more compact tripod that goes with me on long hikes. It is not nearly as stable in a moving stream or windy conditions, but it does the trick most of the time. Decide what works best for your needs. Just keep in mind that lighter will usually mean less stable in certain conditions. Also, don't forget to factor in the weight of the ball head.
One of the things I didn't like about my previous tripods was that they were just too short, even when fully extended. And I'm not even tall! This meant that I had to bend over to see through the viewfinder. Sometimes I would extend the center column to get a little extra height, but this can make the camera less stable and it still wasn't tall enough. This was one of the things that factored in to my purchase of my new tripod. It extends to a maximum height of over 68 inches, and that is without a center column.
Tripod height may not seem like a big deal, but it is nice to have one that will at least place the camera's viewfinder at or just above eye level. That will give you the option to lower it to a height that is most comfortable for you. Check out Jim Harmer's article about how to select a tripod based on how tall you are.
The tripod that I ended up purchasing is quite a bit taller than me after adding the ball head and camera. One advantage to having a taller tripod is when you are shooting on a slope. In this situation, you can extend the legs downslope and retract the one up the hill and still keep the camera at eye level. How often do I need this? Not often, but it's still nice to know I have options.
Bottom leg section thickness
This kind of goes along with the maximum height point. Reaching the maximum height means you need to extend all the leg sections. On some tripods, that bottom section is so small you end up sacrificing stability if you use it fully extended. I'm not sure if there is a magical number for a good diameter of that leg section, but give this a test on any tripod you buy. If you have a local camera shop, that is a great opportunity to try out some tripods first hand.
There are many situations where you may want to shoot at an extreme low angle. Shooting down low is one great way to create more interesting landscape images. It is sometimes a necessity for macro photography, particularly if your subject is on the ground. Check to see how low you can go with any tripod you are considering purchasing. The minimum height will be predicated on whether or not the tripod has a center column.
Does it have a center column?
Speaking of center columns, you'll want to consider whether or not this is something you need or want to have on a tripod. Center columns do make it much easier to make fine adjustments to the height of the tripod. The question is, are you willing to possibly give up a little in stability to use a center column? It is certainly better than hand-holding when shooting at slower shutter speeds and may be fine most of the time. However, if it is windy, you may notice slightly soft images due to increased camera vibrations. I personally would prefer to get a tripod that is plenty tall enough without using a center column.
As noted in the previous point, a center column will effect how low the tripod can be lowered because the center column will hit the ground. Some tripod models offer the option of a shortened center column to allow the tripod to get lower. Some models have a column that pulls out and rotates around the top plate of the tripod. This is an interesting idea, but one that I haven't had an opportunity to try.
The length of a tripod in the folded position is important for two reasons. First, for when you are taking the tripod on a long hike or backpacking trip. A more compact tripod will be much easier to attach to a backpack and carry with you. There are sling options to carry longer tripods, but that wouldn't be nearly as comfortable on a long hike. Another time the folded length is important is when you are flying with your tripod. You probably don't want to check it, so you will need to carry it on the plane with you. The maximum length dimension for most airlines is 22 inches for carry-on items. If you plan to fly with your tripod, be sure it will meet these requirements.
Type of leg locks
Some tripods use twist locks and some utilize flip locks to secure the leg sections. The best for you is really going to depend on personal preference. Both types of leg locks work well and are secure, as long as you perform routine maintenance and keep them clean. Flip locks may be more likely to loosen over time, so regular tightening of the hardware may be necessary, but not a big deal. I have heard of wildlife photographers who prefer twist locks because flip locks have a tendency to make more noise, which could frighten away animals. I've had tripods with both and prefer twist locks for their clean look and secure tightening mechanism.
Ease of disassembly
Whichever tripod you buy, it is important to keep it clean and functioning properly. Your shooting conditions will determine how often you need to do this. Someone who has their tripod in salt water should clean it very often to keep it from becoming a corroded mess. A thorough cleaning will require you to completely disassemble each leg section of the tripod. The easier it is to do this, the more likely you are to do it. Determining the ease of disassembly may not be easy to do. Check manufacturer websites or Youtube for tutorials on how to disassemble specific tripod models. For a general tripod (and other gear) cleaning tutorial, check out Brent Bergherm's tutorial on Improve Photography Plus.
So there you have it. Nine things to consider before buying a tripod. These are, of course, not the only thing you should consider. There are other things that may be more important to you, and some of these may not be much of a concern for your style of shooting. There are tons of great tripods available, at many different price points. Find one that works best for you and run with it. A good quality tripod will do a lot more to improve your photography than you might think.