Experienced landscape and wildlife photographers know that the tripod is the #1 most essential piece of gear. Although most photographers know how important a tripod is, far too many photographers foolishly put off the purchase of a professional tripod for years and instead buy 5 junkers before finally choosing to buy something of good quality. Once you buy a professional tripod, you'll be amazed at the difference in sharpness of your images. Trust me… the tripod is essential!
However, not every photographer needs an expensive tripod. For example, when I shoot portrait photography, I rarely shoot on a tripod. Other than portraiture, I use a tripod 100% of the time.
I would venture a guess that this is the most popular tripod among amateur photographers. When I run photography workshops, I can guarantee that there will at least be 3 or 4 of these Manfrottos on every shoot. My personal opinion of this tripod is that it is the best tripod for the price. It is steady enough for smaller DSLR cameras and lenses, but I wouldn't trust it with larger lenses. While the Induro AT413 is much more rugged and stable than this tripod, the Manfrotto is much lighter weight, so if that is important to you this could be the perfect tripod. Buy this tripod on Amazon.com.
Better: Induro AT413 Tripod
For not too much money more than the basic Manfrotto 055XPROB, you can get the Induro AT413, which is absolutely rock solid. It is built like a tank and will last a lifetime. I have taken my Induro tripods knee deep in salt water, stuck in the mud in the Everglades, hiked with it to the top of mountains, dropped it on the cement, etc. You can tell how sturdy this tripod is by checking out the specs… it supports up to 44lbs (20kg).
The only drawback to this tripod is that it is quite heavy. Buy this tripod on Amazon.com.
Best: Induro 8x CT-414 Tripod
This tripod is extremely similar to the Induro AT413, but it is made of carbon fiber (read: LIGHTER!) than its sister tripod. It is solid as a rock, light, durable, and can support up to a ridiculous 55lbs (25kg). For most photographers, you'll never want another tripod. Buy this tripod on Amazon.
Bestest: Gitzo GT2540F Tripod
For photographers, the Gitzo GT2540F is like a Ferrari. No tripod could dream of comparing to this beautiful piece of machinery. You'll have to rob a bank to pay for it, but you'll thank yourself for years to come. It is light weight, solid as a rock, durable, and easy to use. Read more about this tripod.
If you're interested in tripods, you'll probably like this article where I explain the pros and cons of each of the major tripod brands.
Best Ball heads
It is very rare for a tripod to come with a ballhead. Usually, you'll have to buy a ballhead separately. The ballhead attaches to the top of the camera and allows the photographer to adjust the composition easily. There are hundreds of cheap ballheads on the market. It can be difficult to know what is high quality without actually trying them out yourself. Fortunately, I've done the legwork for you.
There are obviously more types of heads than just ballheads: fluid heads, pan heads, joystick heads, etc. All of them have certain advantages, but every still photographer I have ever met uses a ballhead. For the ballhead section, I'm only recommending two heads: better and best. The reason is that the “better” head that I mention here is so terrific for its price that it covers both “good” and “better.”
Better: Vanguard SBH-300 Ball head
As I've already mentioned, this is an INCREDIBLE ball head for the price. I once used this ball head with a 600mm lens and it did a great job without any creep. I have also used this ballhead for exposures of several hours for night photography and still saw no creep. For $100, you will not find any ballhead that can compete with this piece of awesome.
There are two minor drawbacks to this ballhead: (1) it is heavy, and (2) you have to crank it down quite a bit to get perfect stability. Some other ballheads have a lever that only requires a half turn to lock. Read more about this cheap ball head on Amazon.
Best: Anything made by Really Right Stuff
If you have the money to spend on the best ball head that money can buy, then you'll want something from a company called Really Right Stuff. Their gear is top notch. Here's a link to one of their most popular ballheads. It costs $500, but it is fantastic.