Tripods are sadly one of those accessories that photographers scrimp on, when they really shouldn’t. In my experience people tend to spend a lot on cameras and lenses and then choose the cheapest tripod to support them. Whilst this may make the bank manager happy, from a photographic point of view it doesn’t make any sense, as using a tripod that isn’t up to the job can result in blurred images. The basic job of any tripod is to provide stability in low light conditions and at low shutter speeds or to help with support when using heavy camera and lens combinations. They are designed to reduce the vibration caused by the mirror of the camera (and the motordrive for those trigger-happy-Trevor’s out there) by dampening the vibration through the legs and out into the ground.
Choosing a tripod can be a minefield as there are hundreds of makes and models competing for your attention, so this buying guide is intended to be an independent look at tripods, their uses and what to look for when you are thinking of making a purchase. I have also mentioned a few specific tripods to highlight the kind of usage they are best for; this is by no means a personal recommendation to buy but simply an example of the type of tripod to pick.
"It has become increasingly trendy to own a carbon fibre tripod and there are plenty of good reasons for this"
Tripods can be cumbersome, difficult to carry and can limit your ability to move and react to situations quickly. Personally speaking I prefer to shoot hand-held and raise the ISO on my Nikon D3 to 1000 when the light starts to fail. However there are times when a tripod is essential, such as for long exposures, supporting a long lens for a decent period of time (this is when I use it the most) or in very low light.
Tripods come in all shapes and sizes but they all adhere to the same basic design: three legs supporting a plate on which to attach your camera and/or lens. The legs are generally extendable via some clever locking mechanism and the better tripods amongst the melee have pivoted legs as well. Pivoted legs allow you to angle them outwards for extra support and help with reaching those awkward spots. Of course allowing the legs to pivot outwards also allows you to lower the level of your tripod and shoot closer to the ground, provided of course that you don’t have a centre column in the way.
"A centre column can be a Godsend for certain areas of photography "
Tripods provide more stability than shooting by hand but they can also be unstable if you are not aware of the centre of the tripod’s gravity. By design the mounting plate for the camera and lens is right in the centre of the legs and therefore places the camera right at the centre of gravity. The weight of the camera and lens is spread out equally through each of the legs and over the ground area between the legs. So having a wider spread of the legs will spread the weight over a greater area and thus increase the stability of the tripod. This is one reason why shooting lower to the ground is much more stable with a heavy camera and lens combination than shooting at maximum tripod height. I have worked with a few professional TV cameramen in my time, and it is interesting to see how they work when shooting. By choice they will always shoot the tripod at its default height; if they extend the legs to shoot higher then they generally place them at a wider angle to spread the weight more evenly.
The thickness and weight of the tripod legs comes into play too. In general the thicker the legs of your tripod, the more they will dampen the vibrations from the shutter, but thicker legs mean heavier tripods. Lighter tripods have less contact with the ground than heavier ones so will not only be more prone to vibration but also to external conditions like the wind.
"If you want better flexibility and stability, choose a tripod that has a base plate and a mounting screw for an external head "
This is one reason why manufacturers give a maximum support weight for their tripods; this is the maximum weight that they recommend having on the tripod to ensure decent stability at the default height. For most DSLR users with standard / zoom lens and camera combinations these support weights are pretty irrelevant as the maximum weight of your gear will be less than 2KG but for users of long telephoto lenses (i.e 200-400mm, 400mm f2.8, 500mm F4 and above) or those with large format cameras, it is essential to choose a tripod that matches your kit.
So here are some things to think about when you are looking at the Wex Photographic collection of tripods to help you pick out what will be useful for you:
These days’ tripods are made from different materials including aluminium, carbon fibre and basalt. Here are a few pros and cons about these three materials:
A few years ago no one had heard of carbon fibre and metal tripods were the norm. The decent ones were made from aluminium, as it is lighter than steel. Then some bright spark invented carbon fibre tripods and their lighter weight (albeit at a higher price) meant that the sales of aluminium tripods crashed. Then, realising that there is a place in the market for decent aluminium tripods, manufacturers like Gitzo re-invented them with lighter and stronger aluminium composites. These days it can be hard decision whether to go for a decent aluminium tripod or shell out some extra cash and get a carbon fibre alternative. On the positive side aluminium tripods are generally cheaper than the competition as they are far less expensive to manufacture. Being slightly heavier, they are, on paper, more stable. On the negative side, as I have already said, they are heavier than the alternatives so you need to decide if you are happy to carry it around with you. Also, if you are going to use it in cold weather you will only make the mistake of holding you aluminium tripod without gloves once.
Some people report that aluminium tripods do not dampen vibrations as well as carbon fibre tripods, but I have used a Gitzo Pro Studex aluminium tripod for a long time and I have never found much difference. Here it is a question of the quality of aluminium tripod that you go for. Most TV camera crews use aluminium tripods like the Manfrotto 350 MVB to support heavy TV cameras, as they are so stable. Admittedly for a small camera and digital SLR combo this would be complete overkill, but for a photographer with heavy kit, aluminium tripods are more than just a viable option.
A relatively new player on the tripod market, basalt tripods are made of a glass fibre inner core with basalt layered over the top. They can be thought of as a lower cost alternative to carbon fibre and to be honest this is their only real advantage. In terms of rigidity they do not compare to the qualities of either carbon fibre or aluminium tripods.
It has become increasingly trendy to own a carbon fibre tripod and there are plenty of good reasons for this. They are rigid, light (20-30% lighter than aluminium), won’t stick to your hand in the cold and won’t over expand in the heat. In terms of rigidity a decent aluminium tripod will still have the slight edge, especially when used at head height in edgy conditions, but since I shoot generally low down this is not such an issue for me. Carbon fibre tripods do have a reputation for being brittle in the cold or when dropped and have been known to shatter. This however is the exception rather than the norm and I have used them many times in ultra cold conditions.
Personally, I have always hated tripods that come with a centre column as they can introduce a lot of instability in an otherwise stable environment. All is ok whilst you have the centre column at its lowest and locked tight, but as soon as you start to raise it up the locking becomes a bit dodgy. At that point vibration is not dampened as it should be and the enemy of every photographer, Mr Camera Shake, appears on the scene.
"Each leg can move independently of the other, allowing the tripod to be set in some weird and wonderful positions "
Another problem with centre columns is that they do not permit you to shoot low to the ground, again a limitation for all types of photographer. Of course a centre column can be a Godsend for certain areas of photography, such as macro photography where fine adjustment is necessary. These days there are some very clever centre columns for macro photographers that allow horizontal and vertical shooting. In this case a centre column will be invaluable and vibration will not be so much of an issue as you are generally working with light equipment. I tend to choose tripods without a centre column or one that has the capacity for the centre column to be removed to give me as much flexibility as possible. In my experience most tripods that come with centre columns have them fixed so be aware of this before you buy.
Some tripods come with integral tripod heads and they are useful if you want a hassle free life. The downside of all of these heads is that they generally use non-standard mounting plates and the heads themselves are of a very basic design. If you are on a budget then these type of tripods make good financial sense but if you have a bit more to spend and want better flexibility and stability then choose a tripod that has a base plate and a mounting screw for an external head.
Leg locking mechanism:
There are two basic methods of extending and locking your tripod legs; either a twist grip or a spring-loaded lever. The twist grip is the neatest and safest, but it can be difficult to use when wearing gloves, can freeze in ultra cold conditions and needs to be treated carefully in water. The Gitzo G-Lock system addresses some of these concerns and so far I have had no problems with it. The other type of lock system is a spring-loaded lever, which is very easy to grip and quick to use. The downside is that is has metal components that can rust and that will happily trap a finger in its mechanism with VERY painful results.
Most tripods have the ability to set the angles of the legs in two or three positions that for most of us works fine. Some areas of photography, macro for one, require a more flexible and creative approach. Uniloc and Benbo make tripods that allow each leg to move independently of the other, thus allowing the tripod to be set in some weird and wonderful positions. A single lever controls the movement of the legs; when you want to move the legs you undo it, set them and quickly tighten the lever again. Some photographers swear by them, I swear at them. The problem that I find with these is that if you are not careful the tripod can collapse when the legs are unlocked, which will send all your equipment crashing into the ground. I should know, it happened to my 500mm lens and after that I took the saw to the legs.
Like I said some photographers absolutely love them and if you are a macro photographer they are of great use to you; everyone else stay clear!
If your tripod comes with a spirit level then this will be useful although be aware that they can smash quite easily, so it is often better to buy an external one. Some tripods come with a hook that you can use to support a bag of rocks underneath. This might sound ridiculous, but for those of us working in very windy conditions or in water, it is amazing how this technique can vastly increase the stability of the tripod.
Before I go any further, a small word to the compact camera users who are reading this. Most tripods that are suitable for a digital SLR will almost certainly be overkill for your needs. I would choose a Joby Gorillapod as they are very small, light and flexible yet stable enough to easily support a compact camera. The only downside is that they sit very low to the ground so if you want a higher shot you will need to put it on something – and this is what the Gorillapod’s bendy, gripping legs are designed for. If you are desperate for a traditional tripod then choose the cheapest and lightest you can find, as you won’t need anything else!
So what tripod should I buy?
By now you must be wondering how you can choose from the vast selection of tripods that are out there. Well the first thing to do is to sit down and think about what you will use the tripod for and the type of gear that you will require it to support. Always think worst case scenario and plan for something that you might be buying in a few months, don’t just hope that it will do the job because it probably won’t. I have a collection of tripods that I have gathered over the years and choose the tripod that I need for the type of shoot I am planning to undertake. For most photographers, you will make a single tripod choice, so the point I want to leave you with is that you must understand that whatever you choose will be a compromise in one area or another. A tripod to support your heavy long lens will be expensive, heavy and overkill for your wide-angle lens, whilst a tripod for your landscapes and macro shots will be brilliant for travel and a good price, yet potentially next to useless for any kind of longer lens.
So let’s think about the gear element first. If you own what I would call standard gear, say a mid-range digital SLR (in weight terms a Canon EOS 50D or Nikon D300) and a zoom lens like a 70-200mm, then you have an enormous choice of tripods as most will do the job. In this case I would opt either for the Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 Carbon Fibre tripod or one of the Gitzo Mountaineer range such as the GT1540 or GT1541 or the Giottos 8361b. These tripods are quite light (under 2KG) with decent load bearing ability and provide good stability. The Gitzo is the most expensive and a few years ago I would always pick it, but now Manfrotto have upped their game and Giottos are the new kid on the block with great quality at a decent price. The Manfrotto is perhaps the pick of the these tripods, as it is capable of carrying a larger lens if you choose to get one.
"Giottos are the new kid on the block with great quality at a decent price "
If macro photography is your favourite then you will ideally need a tripod that has a flexible centre column to get you into those awkward shooting angles. I suggest taking a look at the Giottos 8350B or the Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 as they both have an extendable centre column which swings from horizontal to vertical. In the horizontal mode the tripod is slightly less stable due to the change in the centre of balance so be aware not to put anything heavier than a macro lens on it else instability will result!
If you are a long lens merchant then you will need something a lot more sturdy, especially if you like to have the camera high above the ground. I use a Gitzo GT3540LS Mountaineer Tripod as it offers a compromise between weight and stability. This is essential for me, as I need to able to travel with the tripod and not blow my baggage allowance.
I tried out a few tripods at Focus recently and was impressed by the Manfrotto 055 CX3 as it was light, yet offered a sturdy platform. It has a centre column (without the horizontal component of the 055 CXPRO3) but this can be removed to allow the tripod to be lowered virtually to ground level. The Giottos MTL8361B is also good and with a decent head this would do a great job too… at a fraction of the price of the Gitzo.
"I was impressed by the Manfrotto 055 CX3 as it was light, yet offered a sturdy platform "
When I need extra stability (when working in water for example or on cliffs where there is likely to be wind), I use an old Gitzo Studex tripod that is made from aluminium. An earthquake wouldn’t move it when it has a big lens attached… an overstatement perhaps, but it is the sturdiest tripod I have ever owned. Of course it is heavy to carry a long way, but technology has moved on and several companies have developed a new range of lightweight yet sturdy aluminium tripods. One good example is the Manfrotto MN161 MK2B which would keep a very big rig stable at the price of being heavy to carry.
There are heavy-duty carbon fibre tripods and the daddy of them all is the Gitzo GT5531s 6x, a very strong and sturdy tripod with big chunky load bearing legs. For a 600mm or 800mm lens this would be able to handle any situation that you ask of it, the downside is the weight and size of it but then you are asking it to support a heavy lens.
If on the other hand, you always shoot lower to the ground, perhaps at knee height then you can choose a much lighter tripod as its centre of gravity will be closer to the earth. For example when I am standing up and using a tripod I use the Gitzo 3540LS for my 200-400mm lens but when I am working low down (or when weight is an issue on a trip) I use a much lighter (and cheaper) Velbon Sherpa Pro.
If you travel then you need a good compromise between weight and stability. The manufacturers have recognised this and have designed increasingly lighter tripods just for this purpose. There are a couple of tripods that I would like to point out here that I have found to be useful – the Velbon Sherpa Pro CF-645 (now discontinued, replaced by Velbon Geo E640 Carbon Fibre) and the Giottos 8246b. Both are incredibly light, compact in size and versatile enough to take a variety of lenses, even the big boys at a push.
I have tried here to put an independent view of what to look for in any tripod without favouring any manufacturer in particular. So before you buy your tripod just sit down and think what you will be using it for to make sure that you get the best one for the job. Good luck!