Photography for Beginners Part 20: Buying a Tripod

Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.

Part 19:  Accessories Continued

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A tripod is a necessary piece of photography equipment for anyone who wants the sharpest images possible and/or for doing long exposures. In this tripod buying guide we’ll discuss the various features to consider when purchasing a tripod.

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Tripod Buying Philosophy

There’s a common wisdom among photographers that everyone buys five tripods. Some, or possibly all, of the five are because you don’t buy a good one or the right one to start with. And instead of jumping directly to the right one the next time, you buy one that is only slightly better or different.

I’m on my fourth tripod, starting with the first one I bought when I was 19. None of my tripods have been replaced because they no longer worked. They have been replaced because of my ignorance about tripod features and resistance to spending over $35.

So don’t make the same mistakes I and almost everyone else has. Do your research, be prepared to spend more than you want to, and carefully consider your specific needs. If you do that you can skip wasting money on the first few tripods and get a decent one you’ll use for a long time.

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Tripod Mounting Screws

If your camera has a small threaded hole in the bottom it can be mounted onto a tripod. Unless you read product info to the contrary (rare), cameras and tripods have a standard size screw and hole. All standard cameras will work with all standard tripods. You don’t have to worry about matching up specific camera models to specific tripods.

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Tripod Prices

Tripod prices can be a problem if you’re on a tight budget. The way to look at it is that what you spend on a tripod should reflect what you spent on your camera gear. The more expensive your gear is the more you should spend on a tripod.

My advice on price assumes that you will use a tripod for more than just an occasional family photo, your camera is larger than a compact point and shoot, and that it would be a painful financial hit if your tripod failed and dumped your gear on the ground.

When you start researching online for recommendations you quickly discover that experts say you need to spend at least $200 or you’ll be riding the five tripod train or risking your gear. That’s difficult to swallow when we’re talking about an accessory that may only be used a few times a year.

But difficult to accept or not there is truth to it, so if you can afford to spend $200-800 take the advice and run with it. The advantages of high quality tripods are they’re very sturdy while weighing less, they aren’t likely to fail and damage your gear, and the heads don’t creep out of position even with heavy lenses.

If $200+ is out of the question, there are some decent options available for more reasonable prices. Tripods under $200 are best suited to those who don’t have heavy gear and who don’t use a tripod frequently or in harsh conditions.

My most important piece of advice in this buying guide is: ignore all tripods with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of under $50.

They are junk. You might as well flush your money down the toilet. Wait to make your purchase if you need to save up more money. Otherwise, I can almost guarantee you’ll be shopping for your next tripod after you’ve used it a couple of times. (Personal experience speaking here.)

Be wary of tripods in the $50 to $100 range. When you’re looking at product listings they all look and sound really great, but if you’re not careful you can spend $60 and end up with a tripod that isn’t better than a $30 tripod. Many of these companies come and go. If you need spare parts in the future you want to know the company will still be around. Buy a known and trusted brand.

Some recommended brands to look for in the $50 to $150 range are Benro, Dolica, Manfrotto, MeFoto, and Slik.

You can use customer reviews on websites like Amazon to help, but realize the majority of customer reviews for inexpensive tripods are written by those who are less knowledgeable and are buying the first or second of their five tripods. Look for reviews from those who sound experienced and have actually used the tripod for a while in real world conditions.

My current tripod is the Slik Pro 330DX, which is an older model I bought for my bridge camera four years ago for about $85. For my uses it has been a good purchase. I only use a tripod a few times a year so I don’t put the demands on one that a heavy user would. It’s pretty sturdy, quick and easy to use, and not too heavy. It is a bit short, however. (So am I, heh.) If I were buying one today to use with the more expensive camera gear I’ve acquired since then I would set a higher budget, but so far it’s still trustworthy.

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Designs to Suit You

Using a tripod is a hassle. They are awkward to carry, you often have to bend to use the viewfinder, some are difficult to finely adjust which is irritating, and using one slows everything down.

In the sections below I’ll discuss details for the various aspects and parts of a tripod. There are choices to make for every category. The better you tailor your choices to your tastes and needs the more likely you are to be content using your sometimes troublesome purchase.

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A Tripod Should be Two Separate Parts

Cheap tripods have a head that is permanently attached to the legs. You don’t want that. Only buy a tripod that has a removable head.

You can still buy the head and legs as an assembled set for a single price if you want, but you can instead choose to buy them separately so that you have the head and legs that best meet your needs. The legs and head don’t even have to be the same brand.

If you’re shopping in the under $150 range you’re likely going to buy legs and head together as a set. But because they are separate pieces you can later decide to upgrade or try a different kind of one part without having to buy an entire new tripod. Or if one part wears out you can replace just that instead of the whole thing.

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Height

Height when the legs are fully extended is important to how comfortable a tripod is to use. If you’re a tall person with a short tripod it means crouching or bending over to manually focus and frame your composition. Though if your camera has a flip screen it helps alleviate some of this because you can flip it out and look down at it, which is what I often do.

When looking at product listings note the height measurements and make sure you know what they are specifying. If the tripod has a center column the max height is usually given for when that column is fully extended. Since you never want to raise the column unless you have to you want to know the max height with the column down.

If you’re trying to determine the best tripod height for you so that your viewfinder will be near your eye level keep in mind that your camera on top of the head adds a few inches.

A related measurement to extended height is collapsed length. Some people want or need the folded up length to be under a certain measurement for travel or convenience. There are exceptions, but generally the taller the tripod is the longer the folded length is, so you might have to decide which measurement to compromise on.

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Weight

Total weight of the tripod (head and legs) can be important to how willing you are to carry the tripod around.

If you mostly keep the tripod in the car and don’t carry it long distances very often, then weight can be lower down on your priority list. But if you’re taking it backpacking or carrying it through Europe it should be at or near the top of the list.

Weight is related to sturdiness. The heavier a tripod is the less it will be affected by wind or vibrations and the more difficult it is to accidentally knock over.

One way to compromise is by using a lighter head with sturdier legs. A tripod head can add significant weight.

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Size

Overall size is different than just the extended height. Before narrowing your choices down to brand and models you need to decide if you want a compact tripod, a mid-size tripod, or a large tripod. Each has their own benefits and drawbacks.

Compact tripods are fantastic for hiking and air travel, and enticing if you prefer minimalist equipment for everyday use. Compact tripods are small, light, and easy to carry. The drawbacks are they tend to be short, aren’t terribly sturdy, and don’t hold up as well with heavy or longterm use.

Mid-size tripods are the jack-of-all-trades. They don’t have standout advantages, but they don’t have significant drawbacks either. For the average hobbyist this is usually the best category to consider because such tripods provide a good balance between size, weight, and sturdiness.

Large tripods are tall with extremely sturdy legs. They can be a beast to carry, but are more comfortable to use for tall people, handle heavy gear with ease, can take lots of abuse, and can be used reliably in more extreme conditions like on a windy ridge or in moving water.

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Legs

There are a few things to consider for your tripod legs. One already mentioned is how long and short they are when extended and collapsed.

Another is how many sections they have. Legs with four sections usually collapse down to a shorter length which makes them more compact for packing and carrying. But they take longer to set up, aren’t as sturdy, and have more potential points of failure. If you don’t need a compact tripod then legs with the traditional three sections are a better choice.

The material legs are made from matters also. Part of what makes the expensive tripods so desirable is the legs are made from carbon fiber. Carbon fiber legs are much lighter and tend to dampen vibrations better.

Aluminum legs are much more affordable, and often make for a sturdier tripod, but they are heavier. Some manufacturers make legs using an aluminum alloy which reduces a bit of weight while still keeping the prices down.

Leg section locks are another thing to consider. There are two main styles, though there can be some variations.

Twist locks are rings on the legs that you twist to loosen and tighten for extending and collapsing the legs. Twist locks make the legs sleeker, with nothing sticking out to catch on things when stowing or carrying around.

Some people prefer the twist action for unlocking and locking the legs, but others find it to be too slow, and also too easy to miss that a leg might not be fully locked. When sand or dirt gets in them they won’t work right and have to be disassembled and cleaned.

Flip locks are little levers (usually plastic) that flip up and down to loosen and tighten. They tend to be quicker and easier to use and they leave no doubt about if the legs are fully locked. But the locks stick out a bit from the legs and can catch on things, and while pretty reliable, the plastic levers can break off.

One last aspect of legs is how many positions they can be in. Obviously all tripod legs can use the normal position that is achieved by spreading the legs apart after they are extended. But most tripods have additional options.

Tripods that allow more than the normal position have some type of catch, lock, or mechanism at the top of each leg. These position locks allow you to spread the legs farther part.

Some leg position locks only allow preset positions. Three to five positions is common. Some tripods have free range so you can position the legs at whatever angle you want while still being able to lock them into place.

Being able to spread the legs very wide provides more stability and lets you shoot closer to the ground for a different perspective or to get the correct angle for things like foreground elements or low growing wildflowers.

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Head

No matter what type of head you get it should be metal, not plastic. Metal heads are heavier and more expensive, but even higher quality plastic heads aren’t worth it. Metal is much less likely to break or deteriorate so that functionality is lost. More importantly for everyday use, metal moves smoothly. Plastic tends to be “sticky”, often making it difficult and frustrating to precisely frame a composition. (The reason I ditched tripod #3 and bought #4.)

There are several types of tripod heads available, but some of them are expensive niche products so I’m just going to discuss the two types typical photographers use.

The three-way pan head is the traditional type. Some photographers mistakenly think of them as being more for video, but they are very practical for stills. A 3-way pan head has two (occasionally 3) handles that stick out that you use to position the camera.

The major advantage of this type is that it’s much easier to make tiny adjustments to get everything exactly right when leveling the camera and framing the composition. This is especially true when using a long and heavy lens because the handles provide leverage to counteract the weight. Another advantage is that 3-way heads tend to be of a better quality than ball heads of the same price.

The drawbacks are that they have handles sticking out so they aren’t as compact (though the handles can be removed) and they don’t have the full range of movement. The lack of range of movement is problematic if you’re shooting something overhead like the moon when it’s high in the sky, or a tall building when you’re close to the base of it.

There are a few 3-way pan head models that have knobs instead of handles. They are more compact and have more range of movement because there are no handles to get in the way, but you don’t get the leverage handles provide with heavy lenses when making precise adjustments.

If you decide to buy a pan head you must make sure it’s a 3-way and not a 2-way. Two-way pan heads definitely are for video and don’t allow for adjustments in all directions.

Ball heads are now the most popular heads for still photography. They are compact, quick to use, and allow almost complete range of movement. The drawbacks are that in order to avoid creep you often need to invest in a higher quality head, and it’s more difficult to make small and precise adjustments with them, especially with heavy lenses.

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Quick Release Plate

You definitely want some type of quick release plate. My first two tripods didn’t have them, and the lack was my reason for purchasing tripod #3. I think pretty much all tripods over $50 have them, but make sure.

A quick release plate is removed from the tripod head and screwed onto the bottom of your camera as you hold it securely in your hands. Then the plate with your camera on it is attached back onto the tripod head.

This is a safer and easier way to mount your camera than by spinning it around onto the screw on top of the tripod. It also makes things quicker for taking the camera on and off the tripod. You can leave the plate attached to the camera while moving from location to location.

Most tripod brands have their own proprietary quick release plates. So if you lose it or it breaks you’ll need to buy a replacement that fits your specific tripod model. Some photographers buy an extra plate when they buy the tripod so they always have a spare in their bag in case one is lost, accidentally left behind, or malfunctions.

Tip: More than once I’ve started to use my tripod only to discover I don’t have the plate with me. So frustrating! The surefire way to avoid this is to always put the plate back on the tripod head the moment you remove it from the camera.

There are three things to consider for quick release plates. The first is that if you buy an off-brand tripod, replacement plates may not be available in the future. This is another reason to stick to established brands.

The second is how the plate screws onto the camera. Some plates have a flathead screw with a slot. That means you need a coin or tool for the slot to tighten it. Some plates have a D-ring or tab on the screw so you can twist it with your fingers to tighten, no tool needed.

Some slot screws can be converted to a D-ring if there’s space underneath the plate for the ring to fold out of the way. If there’s enough room, it’s a matter of simply buying a D-ring screw and replacing the flathead screw with it.

The third consideration is whether you want a plate that is attached to the head with a lever lock or a knob and screw clamp. Levers are easier and you know when it’s locked in place, but they can be more prone to failure. Screw clamps take more effort and you have to make absolutely certain you tightened it enough, but when you do they are extremely secure.

An alternative to proprietary plates is an Arca-Swiss type plate. Many tripod brands sell heads that are Arca-Swiss compatible. Or sometimes you can buy an adapter to make a head compatible.

An Arca-Swiss plate is a thin metal frame that attaches to the bottom of your camera using a tool that comes with it to tighten it. The frame fits into a wide slot on the tripod head and then usually a knob is turned to tighten a screw clamp to make a secure attachment.

If you buy the plate as an L-bracket, the plate also extends up one side of the camera. This lets you flip the camera from landscape to portrait orientation while keeping the camera centered on top of the tripod head. Without an L-bracket you have to flip the tripod head to the side which makes things more unbalanced.

A lot of photographers like this system because you can leave the plate attached to the camera semi-permanently while still being able to change batteries and memory cards. The camera is slightly larger and heavier on an ongoing basis, but since the plates require a special tool to fasten it to the camera, being able to leave it there is more convenient.

Which type of quick release plate to get is a matter of personal preference and your preferences should be given considerable weight because they affect how happy you will be with actually using the tripod. Your decisions may have a large impact on the number of tripod models available for you to choose from, especially if you have a limited budget.

The reason I ended up with the Slik model I have was because I wanted three-section legs with flip locks and a 3-way pan head with a D-ring screw and a lever plate lock. At the time it was the only model from a recommended brand with that specific combination that was also in my price range. You increase your options if you buy the legs and head separately, but it might also cost more.

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Weight Rating

All manufacturers state how many pounds of equipment their tripods can safely hold. The claims should be viewed with some skepticism because there are no agreed upon standards. The weight ratings are usually for best case scenarios: short to standard focal length lens, firm and even ground, no wind.

A good rule of thumb is to buy a tripod rated to hold twice as much as the weight of your heaviest gear. With light and small gear the tripod should be rated for at least two pounds more than the weight of your gear. The larger and heavier a lens is the more margin of error you want for the sake of safety and stability.

Pay attention to the weight rating of both the legs and the head. When they are sold as a set product listings often only state one weight, so you need to dig deeper. They are often different and you need to know in order to make sure you’re getting parts suited to your gear.

The weight rating of the legs indicates general stability. How easily or not the tripod will become unbalanced or knocked over. The weight rating of the head indicates how likely it is to creep and how well it will handle large lenses. This is especially important with ball heads. You need overkill or that ball will creep.

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Spikes

Basic tripod feet are usually rubber caps on the ends of the legs and they help prevent slipping if you’re setting up somewhere like on tile floor or a wet dock. For the average hobbyist they’re good enough.

But if you end up doing a lot of shooting in places like the middle of rushing streams, windy hills, and sandy beaches, you might want spikes on the feet that stab into the ground for additional stability.

Some tripod legs have feet with retractable spikes or caps that can be unscrewed and flipped around to expose attached spikes. Some models have rubber caps that can be removed and replaced with screw-on spikes that are sold separately as an accessory.

Spikes are nice to have, but unless you often shoot in conditions where they are useful they aren’t a make or break feature in choosing the tripod legs.

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Hook

Many tripods come with a hook that extends down from the center column underneath. The hook is there to suspend weight in order to make the tripod steadier in windy conditions. You can hang things like your camera bag or a drawstring sack filled with rocks to add the weight.

Some hooks are a permanent attachment. Some are on the cap on the column so that the cap can be reversed to store the hook inside the column when not in use.

If the tripod model you choose doesn’t come with a hook it might have a hole in the end cap you can screw a hook into. It just takes a trip to the hardware store.

Like spikes, a hook is a nice addition, but unless you use your tripod a lot in windy conditions it’s not a must have feature. Especially if you’re unlikely to have anything with you of any real weight to hang from it, like a camera bag with extra lenses.

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Buying Guide Summary

The more you use a tripod the more comfortable you’ll get with it and the quicker you’ll get at setting it up, making adjustments, and taking it down, until it all becomes second nature.

To aid with that, think about how you will be using it and how you prefer to do things. This will guide the choices you make in the above categories when buying one. The more closely all the features of a tripod fit your personal needs and tastes the easier it will be to use.

The easier a tripod is to use the more likely you will be to take it with you and the less likely you will be to find yourself shopping for another one a year down the road.

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Part 21: Should You Buy a New Camera?

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