Picking a tripod can be a mind numbing experience. Should you buy a cheap one, or an expensive one? What are the advantages of more expensive tripods? How much weight should the tripod be able to hold? How lightweight should the tripod be? Should the tripod be made of aluminum or carbon fiber? Should it have a center column or a top plate? And on and on.
Tripod’s run the gamut from oddly cheap to oddly expensive, and the question most people are probably asking is this: How much should someone spend on a tripod anyway?
Like many things in life there are plenty of good, solid tripods that will get the job done for not too much money.
The problem is sorting through all the options to find the tripod that actually fits that description.
What to look for in a tripod
What you need to look for in a tripod depends on what you intend to use it for. If you’re looking for a travel tripod you’ll probably want something around 4lbs in weight. If you’re looking for a video tripod you’ll probably want something more sturdy but not necessarily more expensive. And if you’re looking for a birding tripod to securely hold a 600mm lens, you’ll probably need something sturdier and lighter than average.
Tripods typically employ a rigid tube structure where tubes are nested inside one another allowing the tripod to be collapsed down for easy transport or extended out for holding the camera at a good height for yourself. The tubes on the tripod are usually made of aluminum or carbon fiber, both materials are good options for different use cases.
Properties of Aluminum tripods
Aluminum tripods have several advantages, first and foremost being that aluminum is cheaper and nearly as performant as carbon fiber. Aluminum is also typically more durable than carbon fiber. It can take a few nicks and scratches without having the overall performance affected. There are a few disadvantages to aluminum tripods though… For one, aluminum tripods tend to be a bit heavier, and because aluminum is cheaper, it tends to be the metal of choice for low end tripods. Aluminum also tends to flex under load to varying degrees. Often tripods that are aluminum will not be super stable at their maximum height.
Properties of Carbon Fiber tripods
Carbon Fiber has several advantages over aluminum. The first being that it is more rigid. Carbon fiber tripods are slightly better at resisting vibrations and twisting forces. Carbon fiber is also lighter than a comparable aluminum tripod. The fact that a carbon fiber tripod can easily hold 40-50lbs while being only 5lbs on its own makes them an attractive choice for anyone who does photography on the move. The downside of the high rigidity is that carbon fiber is a brittle substance. It’s a bit like diamond. Diamonds are extremely tough and hard but also very brittle. Of course, diamonds are made of carbon so their are some similarities there. Carbon fiber performs very well and it’s not quite as resistant to accidental bumps and drops. As we all know “s*** happens” so I feel that this point matters. Carbon fiber is a highly performant choice for a tripod but it needs a little extra care compared to metal tripods. Studios looking for long term investments may prefer steel or aluminum designs for their ability to survive many years of mishandling.
When buying a tripod you’ll want to get one that can get to a comfortable height for you personally. This usually means a tripod that has a max height within 6-8 inches of your height. While it may seem like a good idea to get a smaller tripod to save on weight, for many uses you’ll be annoyed by having to use a tripod that is too short for you.
Tripod leg sections
Tripods typically have 3-4 leg sections. The advantage of more leg sections is that the tripod usually extends out to a higher maximum height, and it can still be collapsed down to a smaller size for easier transport.
The disadvantage of more leg sections is that it takes a little longer to setup and take down your tripod. This is why some companies make specialty tripods with only 2 leg sections. While these tripods don’t collapse down as much they’re super fast to setup quickly.
The happy medium is a 3 section tripod which offers a good blend of decent maximum height and easy usability.
More leg sections usually means more weight as well, so that is another tradeoff to consider here.
Tripod leg lock types
Most tripods have one of two main types of leg locks. The first type is a flip-lock. A flip lock is simply a lever that uses an asymmetric hinge to pull the lock tight on the tripod leg. The other type is a rotating compression fitting. Most higher end tripods use the rotating compression fittings. These are a little less bulky, and since they’re hand tightened, they’re theoretically more secure than a flip lock. One issue with flip locks is that they can loosen over time requiring periodic tightening with a screwdriver or allen wrench. Compression fittings avoid this problem all together.
Tripod center column types
A common trick to increase the maximum height rating for some smaller tripods is to use a center column. This type of tripod is usually slightly less rigid than a tripod with a top plate or bowl.
Some tripods have the ability to switch between top plate and center column.
Personally, I prefer tripods with a top plate as it is usually more rigid, lighter weight, and more flexible in use. For instance, my tripod has interchangeable top plates. So if I want to switch my tripod head from a photography ball head to a video fluid head, I don’t have to fiddle with attaching and reattaching the heads each time. I can simply pop off the plate the head is attached to and put the other head on with no tools or fuss.
Tripod load ratings
Tripod load ratings is one of those things that is as useful as it isn’t. For the most part the load ratings simply mean the tripod can hold the load without falling down or breaking. If a tripod says it will hold 5lbs, don’t expect great performance with 5lbs of weight on there. It’ll probably be a bit wobbly that that much of a load.
Most highly rigid tripods will support 20lbs or more. Above 40lbs or so there’s probably not a whole lot of actual difference between the tripods. Most likely these are simply variations in how the weight is reported. For instance, a tripod might hold 125lbs with 1 or 2 sections extended, but probably not very secure with that weight at maximum height. On the other hand another manufacturer might just state the load bearing figure at maximum height while at lower heights the tripod may be much more sturdy than the specs state.
Let’s just say this, 40-60lbs on a tripod is a lot of camera, lens, and associated gear.
Nobody is putting that much weight on these tripods, it’s really more of a statement on how rigid the tripod is.
Tripod weight is another mysterious rating. My tripod that only weight 6.5lbs actually weighs over 10 lbs with the top plate and ball head installed. And it’s easily over 20lbs with the levelling ball and a fluid head installed. In this case the company isn’t being disingenuous, it’s just the reality of the situation. Many ball heads weigh as much or more than the actual tripods they’re attached to.
A common issue I’ve seen is listing the weight of a tripod that uses a center column as it’s weight without the center column. So they may show the weight of the tripod without the center column but also list the maximum height as the height with the center column. While both statements are true on their own, they aren’t true at the same time…
When discussing tripod weight it’s one of those things that can’t be avoided to an extent. If you want a tripod that is solid and usable for full size cameras even the best carbon fiber tripods won’t be less than about 4lbs with a ball head attached.
Typically ultralight tripod’s don’t hold a lot of weight, or they don’t extend to a convenient maximum height. Some of them are actually under 40″ which is barely more than 3 feet. It may still be usable, it’s just not convenient, and there are issues with that for some kinds of photography. The lowest maximum height I would go for is 60″, which is 5 feet. If you’re the type who does a lot of tripod photography such as panoramas, long exposures, birding, or videography, I would avoid ultralight tripod’s due to their instability. If you’re taking a tripod along as a just-in-case-you-need-it type of thing for selfies or photos of you with your friends, then by all means go with the ultralight option if you like that.
Tripod center hook
A useful provision for anyone using big lenses is often to weigh the tripod down using a center hook. This is another reason I prefer the top plate style tripods. With a top plate style tripod you don’t have to worry about adjusting the center column or having the center column drop on you due to the weight on the hook.
Center hooks are useful because most tripods with a big lens on them are very top heavy with all the gear attached. The center hook is a way to hang some weight on the tripod which helps counteract the forces involved in manipulating the camera and lens while on the tripod.
Tripods often have different kinds of feet. Some tripods are essentially made to be used on flat surfaces only, while others have rubber feet that are slightly grippy, and many also have metal spikes that can be used as stakes to stick in dirt for more security.
The most flexible option is simply rubber feet, those will usually be relatively secure on a variety of surfaces.
Some tripods offer the ability to switch out the feet in the field which is a nice touch.
Tripods come in a wide array of prices ranging from $29.95 for a questionable Amazon brand to $1,500 for fully fitted high end carbon fiber tripods.
Whether or not you want to spend a huge amount on a tripod is entirely up to you, but personally I have found that larger and pricier tripods are actually less of a hassle than smaller less expensive tripods. This is simply due to the rigidity, weight, and build quality. A large solid tripod with a solid ball head is a nice stable platform for doing photo work of all kinds.
For instance, smaller or cheaper tripods may droop slightly with big lenses on them. This could make aligning a shot and locking the lens in place a bit of a pain as the tripod will sag after the lens is positioned. Cheap tripods may have unreliable features or parts that fall off. Even prices as high as $300 are still considered cheap for a carbon fiber tripod. In the lower price ranges I’d avoid carbon fiber options and look at aluminum tripods instead. Very often companies will make a carbon fiber version and an aluminum version of the exact same tripod to fit two different price points.
More expensive tripods simply are better made, it’s just how the world works. Part of what you’re paying for is that you’ll probably never have to buy another one assuming you don’t lose it or drop it off a cliff.
So, either you try to save money and potentially deal with minor problems every time you use your tripod, or you can just buy a solid tripod right out of the gate and eliminate any and all tripod related issues.
That doesn’t mean run out and spend $1,500, but if you do it’s a virtual guarantee said tripod will be a great performer.
If you have anymore questions, I welcome you to join our LPS Photo Club where we will answer questions on a one to one basis. Thanks!