Need a new tripod? Perhaps you’re not sure what to look for? Our complete tripod buying guide explains all the options to help you find the best one for your particular style of shooting.
Tripods can often be a much-overlooked item in the photographer’s arsenal. So simple in design – essentially, they comprise just three adjustable legs and a method of attaching a camera to the top of a centre column – yet there are many times when using one can mean the difference between securing a great shot and missing a golden opportunity altogether. In this respect, tripods should be treated just like any other item of camera gear – i.e. you should choose wisely when purchasing and, with frequent use, understand how to get the best out of them, specific to your requirements.
From the outset, there is one simple fact which you should be aware of: not all tripods are made equal. Yes, they all share a series of common basic features but this can be where the similarities end. From price to build quality, weight to portability, picking the right model for you is a process best approached with a little research.
In this guide, I’m going to give you a basic overview of what’s out there. Of course, not all designs and specifications will suit every photographer (or their budget), but there will be something that is right for you. With a little thought and some pre-purchase fact-finding, you can be sure of spending your money wisely when the time comes to invest in a sturdy tripod.
Why should you buy a tripod?
Just like investing in a new lens, flashgun or set of filters, the purchase of a tripod will open up a whole new world of creativity and visual opportunities for you and your image making. If you don’t currently own one, there will come a time when hand-holding your camera or trying to brace it against a wall or other seemingly-sturdy structure just won’t be enough. In fact, you might already have discovered this – in which case, you’ll know there’s nothing more frustrating than being unable to steady your camera suitably, especially when photo opportunities are fleeting.
Now, I should say that in such situations, a tripod is not always going to be necessary; there are various techniques and products which you can employ in order to capture sharp photographs. However, if the situation permits (or dictates) you’d be foolish not to use such a solid platform for your camera. There are times, of course, when a sturdy tripod is absolutely essential. Photographing star trails at night, the sea at dusk and the hubbub of a busy city centre; these are just three examples of occasions when long exposures will almost certainly be most effective for conveying the mood of a scene.
Aside from the camera-supporting role they play, tripods also allow you to really consider the scene in front of you. By removing the need to hold the camera constantly, they will allow you to step away, move around, compose and interact with your subject much more freely, whether that be for a portrait, a still life or landscape.
Types of tripod
As you might imagine, there is a wide variety of tripods available on the market, covering virtually every conceivable shooting situation that the photographer might face. The following list covers the two main types of construction, with a brief overview of what sets them apart.
The majority of tripods are constructed from metal, with aluminium being the preferred material. You’ll find that this level of tripod benefits from durable fixtures and fittings, with leg release catches, centre column locking mechanisms and foot covers included as standard. Some even boast water-resistant seals to the legs, freeing you from worry when heading to beaches, streams, rivers etc.
As you slide up the price scale, you’ll also find that the type of leg varies, too. Whereas cheaper, lighter-weight, smaller models will feature adjustable flat sections in their construction, other examples will favour a tubular design. The latter – as well as being stronger and less likely to flex under pressure – is arguably more comfortable to hold and operate in colder weather.
At the top end of the scale, with the sort of prices you might expect, we have carbon fibre tripods. Due to their super-durable construction and light weight, these are perfectly suited to photographers looking to get maximum camera stability whilst carrying the minimum amount of weight. For this reason, they are favoured by many adventure, travel and sports photographers.
Features to look out for
Tripods come with a range of features – here are some of the key ones to look out for:
Number of leg sections
Regardless of the maximum height that a tripod reaches when fully extended, it is typical to find between two and four extendable leg sections as standard.
If you’re the sort of photographer who likes to venture out and about in cooler temperatures, you might want to consider picking a tripod which includes leg covers as standard. These tend to be non-removable, non-porous, high-density foam in construction and can usually be found on one or all of the legs. They don’t really add much padding for carrying, but can be a welcome feature on the colder days of the year.
There are various ways to ensure your horizons are straight at the time you take a picture. If your camera doesn’t have a built-in electronic level, a handy feature to look out for on a tripod is a built-in bubble level (similar to those used in DIY spirit levels).
These are worth having if you intend to use a tripod on uneven ground where getting additional anchorage is important. They are a retractable feature, often revealed by a twist of the tripod foot. They can be hidden when not required or when working on a surface which would otherwise be damaged by their extension.
Earlier, I mentioned the method of adding stability to your tripod by hanging a bag beneath it. Some tripods come with a hook specifically for this purpose, located on the bottom of the centre column.
Adjustable centre column
Some centre columns can be swung around, either to face the ground or through a full 180degree angle. You should look out for this if you tend to capture images low down or for copy work.
Types of tripod head
The part of the tripod where you mount your camera is called the head. There are various designs, and on the majority of tripods they are interchangeable.
These allow complete 360-degree movement of the camera. They are quick to operate and so ideally suited to photographing subjects which move fast, such as wildlife and motor sports. Some allow you to lock off one axis (for example left-to-right movement) and feature a degree scale around the base for precise positioning.
Much like the ball-and-socket design, these also offer a good deal of movement but are particularly well suited to video shooting thanks to their smooth up/down/left/right mechanism. The camera is typically locked in position by twisting control arms or knobs.
Pistol grips are an interesting design, best thought of as a ball-and-socket head with quick-release locking mechanism. As the name suggests, movement is controlled via a short grip with a trigger; they are operated vertically, with a twist of the wrist.
Quick release plate vs permanent camera fixing
One thing to be aware of when considering heads is that there are two basic ways to attach your camera to them. The first (more traditional) design involves physically bolting the base of the camera down; once it’s locked in position, the camera is secure, but the attachment process has to be reversed for removal.
Alternatively, a very popular option is what’s known as a quick-release plate (below). This is a small plastic or metal platform which is attached to the camera, before being slid into position and locked on the camera head itself. The benefit of this approach is that cameras can be interchanged quickly – ideal if you are reacting to the action and want to attach a different camera body.
Monopods and other supports
As well as tripods, there are many other variations of support which you could consider for convenience. Monopods, for example, consist of a single leg; some designs include a head and also a foot plate to aid stability. These have the benefit of weighing much less and being very compact and are often a good compromise when you want something on standby just in case you need it.
Aside from full-size tripods, you might also like to consider mini tripods (often referred to as table-top tripods), such as those manufactured by Joby. These are perfect for attaching such things as compact cameras and flashguns and take up very little space. For this reason, they are very popular with people heading off on holiday; with the camera placed on a table or wall, those people can then get into frame for self portraits in front of their all-important holiday landmarks.
Which is the best tripod for you?
This is something of a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question, as everyone has their own requirements and preferences. As a starting point, here would be my suggestions:
Best tripod for general-purpose photography
A simple aluminium tripod which extends to around 5ft will give you great support in a wide variety of situations. Pick one one which allows you to interchange heads if you think you might want to experiment in future.
Best tripod for travelling
If you’re serious about keeping the weight of your kit to a minimum, it has to be carbon fibre. These are available in various sizes, so choose according to your camera kit and travelling limitations. You may also want to look at compact travel tripods, which extend to the full height of a standard tripod but can be folded down to fit inside hand-luggage.
Best tripod for landscape photography
Pick either an aluminium or carbon fibre model with bag hook. Many landscape photographers also favour a pan-and-tilt head with at least one built-in bubble level.
Best tripod for panoramic photography
Follow the route of the landscape photographer, but take a look at dedicated panoramic heads, as well as the pan-and-tilt variety.
Best tripod for street photography
The key to street photography is to work light, fast and unobtrusively; if you do want additional support for your camera, pick a light-weight monopod.
Best tripod for studio photography
As weight won’t be an issue (because the camera is essentially going to remain in a fixed position most of the time), a solid aluminium tripod with tubular legs will do nicely.
Best tripod for still-life photography
Many tripods allow their centre columns to be positioned horizontally, and this is a feature worth looking out for as it enables precise positioning. If you’re shooting macro images (including wildlife close-ups), you might find the bag hook feature handy for adding ballast when extending the centre column outwards.
As a parting thought, consider this. When you purchase a new camera system, the rule of thumb is always to invest in the best lenses you can afford, rather than the camera body. Likewise, one of the biggest mistakes people make when choosing a tripod is to go for the cheapest they can find; this is such the wrong approach, given that your camera’s stability depends on it. As someone once said to me, you wouldn’t put cheap tyres on a Ferrari, so why compromise your camera gear by attaching it to the lowest-priced tripod? Do your research, set the upper limit of your budget and buy the best that you can afford.
About the Author
Giles Babbidge is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Hampshire. He travels all around the UK and works with a wide range of clients – you can find out more about his day-to-day activities over at his website.