Buying a Tripod

This article discusses some considerations to keep in mind when buying a tripod. This posting was prompted by a recent reader question. As regular readers know, I am loathe to use a tripod and only do so when I have no other option. Having said that, I do own a half dozen tripods along with various tripod heads and camera supports. In the past I used this equipment when shooting client videos, and for the occasional still image.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photographs have been added to serve as visual breaks.

Eye of the Wind, Monument Valley, Panasonic DMC-FZ28, 5 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-100

Why buy a tripod?

Before investing in a tripod it is important to identify precisely why you need to buy one. Some common reasons include:

  • To support heavy camera gear.
  • To photograph in low light conditions when slow shutter speeds are required.
  • To provide stability when shooting video.
  • To support specialized gear such as sliders, jibs and gimbal heads.
  • To enable pod casts and other self-portrait shooting.
  • To use for macro photography.
  • To capture multiple images when creating HDR and other types of images where identical framing is required.
  • Pre-framing a photograph waiting for action to occur such as a bird coming in to land at a nest.

Once COVID is behind us, I will likely sell most of my tripods and camera supports as I no longer need them. The IBIS performance and computational photography capabilities in my current camera gear is such that it has made tripod use pretty much redundant for me. I may keep a couple of tripods/heads should I decide to set up a video studio in my basement so I can do future pod casts and produce on-camera videos.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 32mm, f/5.6, 1/60, ISO-3200

System thinking.

Always think of a tripod as only one part of a camera support system. You will also need to consider what kind of tripod head and other camera supports that you intend to use with the tripod. For example, when I was buying a tripod for my client video work I considered the camera and lenses that I would be using, as well as additional camera supports like a slider or jib. This is critical since tripods are weight rated and we need to ensure that the tripod is designed to handle the total weight of the gear that we will be using on it.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-720

Challenges using a tripod.

When buying a tripod some folks overlook some of the challenges associated with using one. These challenges include:

  • Additional weight and bulk.
  • Time to set up and move. This can result in missed photographs.
  • Difficult to use in public areas, or are sometimes banned in public venues.
  • Potential camera and lens damage when a tripod is not used correctly.
  • Investment. A good quality tripod system can be expensive.

Be sure you are willing to deal with the challenges of using a tripod before you invest in one.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 66mm, efov 177mm, f/5.6, 1.3 sec, ISO-160. Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Decision factors.

There are some basic factors that need to be considered when deciding what tripod to buy. The first is weight rating. As mentioned earlier it is important to estimate the maximum total weight that you intend on using on a tripod. After that is done we also need to consider equipment stability. Choosing a tripod and head that only meets the maximum weight of our gear will not do the job.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/8, 1/200 sec, ISO-160. Monument Valley, Utah.

Buying a tripod system that can handle double or triple the maximum weight of our gear produces a much better result. Often we are using heavy, long lenses or camera supports like sliders and jibs that can extend away from the centre point of a tripod. This creates additional torque on a tripod head. Buying an undersized head can result in our camera gear slowly moving and changing our composition after it has been tightened down on the tripod head. This can be quite frustrating. Buying cheaper, undersized gear is false economy.

Purakaunui Falls, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 6.7-13mm, f/3.5-5.6mm @ 8mm, efov 21mm, f/8, 1/4, ISO-160

Another important factor when buying a tripod is height. Buying a tripod that is too short for your height can result in you having to slouch or crouch down to be able to see through the viewfinder/EVF of your camera, or view the rear screen from a good angle. This can be very tiring. If a tripod is not comfortable to use… it will collect dust. Choose a tripod that is comfortable to use when you are in a normal standing position. At times it may be necessary to make a compromise. For example a photographer may want quite a small tripod if it will be used primarily for travel.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/16, 1/2, ISO-160

The weight and construction of a tripod are also important purchase criteria. Generally speaking tripods will be either made of a composite like carbon fibre or metal. Carbon fibre tripods will be lighter and stronger but will cost more. It really comes down to personal choice, intended use, and the degree of portability that is desired. Most of my tripods are made of carbon fibre.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 32mm f/1.2, efov 86.4mm, f/1.2, 1/4000, ISO-160

Once you decide on the construction material that suits your needs, the next factors to consider are the number of leg sections, locking mechanisms, and foot style.  Depending on the height and collapsed size of a tripod it will typically have between 3 and 5 leg sections. The more leg sections that a tripod has, the smaller it will be when contracted. The trade-off is that tripods with fewer leg sections tend to be more stable and are better able to support weight.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6@ 33.6m, efov 90.7mm, f/11, 1/2, ISO-160

Locking mechanisms are typically either twist locks or locking clips. Most of my tripods incorporate locking clips as I find these faster and easier to use. There can be a significant difference in the quality of locking clips between cheaper and more expensive tripods. Locking clips that require ongoing checking and periodic tightening can be a pain.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @208 mm, efov 562 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-4500

If you will be only using a tripod indoors then standard rubber/plastic feet may suffice for your needs. Outdoor tripods usually have retractable foot pads that reveal a pointed spike that can be used to help stabilize a tripod on dirt, grass etc.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 20.3 mm, efov 54.8 mm, f/8, 1/10, ISO-160

Angle flexibility of the tripod’s centre column can be an important consideration. Some units allow for a wide variety of angles to be used, while other tripods and only be used with the centre column in either vertical or horizontal configurations. It should be noted that for best stability a tripod should not be used with the centre column extended.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm, f/3.5-5.6 @ 9.49.4 mm, efov 25.4 mm, f/5.6, 5 seconds, ISO-160

A variety of tripod heads are available including pan-tilt, ball-head, gimbal head, pistol grip and fluid heads. Your choice of tripod head will be based on your subject matter and personal preference. For example many nature and bird photographers often use a gimbal head. People who produce videos would likely choose a fluid head that provides smooth panning and tilting motion during filming. When I was using tripods for my client video work I used a fluid head most of the time. For landscape photography and for still photography client work that was done indoors under low light I most often used a pistol grip.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6, 30mm, efov 81mm, f/5.6, 1/2, ISO-160

Remember that when buying a tripod you are making a system-based decision. You’ll need to consider what type of quick release fastening system best suits your needs. For example, many of the tripod feet on the lens collars of telephoto lenses are Arca-Swiss compatible. This would preclude you from having to add another fastening plate.

When I bought my first tripod for client work I was skewed to Manfrotto gear, so I purchased a number of Manfrotto quick release plates to affix to various camera bodies and lenses. I haven’t bought any tripod system gear for many years now. Arca-Swiss is likely the most common quick release fastening system.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR VR 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 @ ISO 160, 5 seconds, f/5.6

Stability

Ultimately you’re likely thinking about buying a tripod because you want more stability when shooting video or doing slower shutter photography than your camera gear can provide on an unassisted basis. You can increase the stability of a tripod by hanging a weight from the centre of the tripod and/or by using a wider leg spread. When mounting heavy camera gear to a tripod it is critical to consider wind conditions and the physical position of your tripod (i.e. making sure it is not tilted to one side). Many photographers have damaged thousands of dollars of camera gear by not considering these factors.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 48mm, efov 129mm, f/5.6 1/15, ISO-3200.

Borrow before you buy.

If don’t currently own a tripod and you’re not sure you really need one, it can be helpful to borrow some gear from a fellow photographer before you spend your hard-earned money. The most common mistakes made when buying a tripod are buying gear that isn’t actually needed… or buying a cheap tripod that performs poorly. Buying an expensive tripod system may be difficult to justify, but it can prove to be an excellent long-term investment. When it comes to tripods… you get what you pay for.

Technical Note:

Photographs were captured using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Some were captured handheld while others were tripod assisted. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.  This is the 1,105  article published on this website since its original inception.

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8 thoughts on “Buying a Tripod”

  1. Thanks for the very useful article. One additional reason for buying a tripod, and the only reason I bought one, is so you can include yourself in the annual Christmas or other event photo. Expensive gear obviously not needed. Best wishes for the holidays and the coming new year.

    1. Hi Terry,

      Thanks for adding to the discussion… I’m glad the article was useful for you. You make a good point that depending on a photographer’s specific needs that an inexpensive tripod may suffice.

      Tom

  2. Happy Holidays and best wishes for 2022!

    Thank you for your excellent website. Before long, we may need to invent a personal tripod to get through all this.

    1. Wishing you and those you love the best for 2022 as well Jim! I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the website.

      All we can do is stay calm, focused and responsible during these challenging times.

      Tom

  3. Tom,

    Happy Holidays to you and your family.

    The following web site has useful information on tripods. You may find it interesting.

    thecentercolumn.com

    Jack

  4. Hi Tom,

    Just wanted to wish you and yours a delightful Holiday Season.

    And thanks very much for all of the information and inspiration that you dispersed in 2021.

    Warm regards,

    Bill

    1. Thank you very much Bill… we appreciate the sentiment, and wish the best to you and your family!

      It looks like it will be a very quiet time for us this Holiday Season as we are currently experiencing a significant spike in COVID cases.

      Tom

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