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A tripod is one of the most important accessories for your camera. When you hand-hold your camera, you have to use short shutter speeds and can’t keep framing identical between shots. It’s just impossible to get a sharp exposure of longer than about 1/50th of a second without a tripod. If you want to get into long exposure, night, composite, or landscape photography, then it’s an essential bit of kit.
Even though they’re crucial, most people don’t give tripods that much thought. It’s all too easy to buy a $50 tripod over a $500 one. After all, how different can they really be?
Let’s look at what you need to know about tripods.
Weight, Stability, Price
There are three things you need to consider when picking a tripod: weight, stability, and price.
If you’re planning to hike into great landscape locations, weight becomes very important. An extra couple of pounds on your back will take its toll after a few hours.
The more stable a tripod is, the better the images you take using it will be. If there’s a strong breeze you’ll get some vibration through your tripod that can ruin an image.
Price is important for obvious reasons. Yes, the best tripods are incredibly expensive, but most people don’t need the best. They just need one that’s good enough for what they’re doing.
What’s it Made From?
Lots of other sites tell you tripods come in three materials — wood, aluminium, and carbon fibre — but that’s not really true. Twenty years ago you could buy a wooden tripod but now, unless you find one in your attic, they’re impossible to get. Even so, I’ll cover them briefly here. Each of the three materials has two strengths and one weakness.
Why does every tripod guide talk about wooden tripods? You can’t even buy them anymore. Choice is Aluminium vs Carbon Fibre. #saynototrees
— Harry Guinness (@HarryGuinness) June 21, 2016
Wooden tripods are cheap and stable. Or rather, they used to be cheap and they’re now free if you find one in your basement. They’re also ridiculously heavy.
Aluminium tripods are cheap and light but they’re not the most stable. That’s not to say they’re unstable, just that if you’re planning to take photos in a gale you’ll struggle to get sharp images. For most people, a good aluminium tripod will be the best buy.
Carbon fibre tripods are light and stable but, like any material used in making Ferraris, don’t come cheap. You won’t find a good one for less than a few hundred dollars.
Don’t Ignore the Head
Outside of the awful tripod that came free with your camera, tripod legs and heads are separate components. You can buy them individually or in a kit. Different tripod heads serve different purposes. I’m not going to go into the more specialised kinds here so there are two main heads you’ll encounter: ball heads and pan/tilt heads.
Ball heads use a ball and socket joint to give you total control over where you point your camera. They’re quick and easy to use. They’re great for photographers but not so good for videographers.
Pan/tilt heads are the opposite of ball heads. They have separate locks for the pan and tilt axes. This means you can lock down one and move your camera freely in the other. They’re great for panoramas and video work but slower for photography.
As well as the two above, you can also get gimbal heads, video heads, motorized heads, panoramic heads, and a few others.
Like all things to do with photography, there are some tricks to getting the most from your tripod. Just popping it up, plonking your camera on top, and snapping away isn’t going to get you very far.
Don’t extend the legs fully unless you have to. Tripods are at their least stable when they’re fully extended. The closer they are to the ground, the better their centre of gravity and the more solid their base. Unless you need more height to get the framing you want, don’t over extend your tripod.
Don’t extend the centre column unless you really really have to. Most tripods come with an extendable centre column. Don’t ever extend this unless you really need the extra height. It pulls the tripods centre of gravity up without spreading its base. Using it dramatically destabilises things.
Add weight when you’re outside. Centre of gravity is everything when it comes to stability. The lower it is, the more stable the tripod is. One of the best ways to lower it is to hang your camera bag on a hook beneath the tripod. The extra few pounds will pull the centre of gravity down.
Clear the base. If you’re using a tripod on rough ground, clear a stable spot for each foot. Just kick the rubble or sand or snow flat so that the legs will have a better base.
Keep the head centred. Keeping the head of the tripod over the centre of gravity is more important than keeping the tripod’s legs equal. Adjust the legs to whatever length is needed to keep the tripod head level.
Some Good Picks
What tripod you go with is up to you. Once you get away from the cheap tripods, there are very few truly awful choices. Anything over $120 or so should be totally usable. There will just be differences in things like height, weight, material, and support weight. The best thing to do is find a few models that fit your budget and read the reviews (just make sure to spot the bad ones).
The Wirecutter, one of my favorite online review websites, likes the Vanguard Alta Pro and the MeFoto Roadtrip Travel Tripod. I use a Vanguard tripod so can vouch for their quality. If you don’t want to do a load of independent research yourself, you can’t go wrong with one of these picks.
If price was no object, I’d be straight out to buy a Gitzo carbon fibre tripod. Gitzo make the best tripods around. They have models that range from a few hundred dollars up to over a thousand dollars. If you’ve a bit more cash to spare, have a look at their line.
Tripods are one of the least sexy but most important bits of kit. It might be more fun to buy the latest cool gadget, but a tripod will last a lot longer and have a bigger impact on your photographs. A good tripod is an investment that will be with you for years.
What tripod do you use? Do you find it makes a difference? Let us know in the comments.