There is probably no more agonising decision in photography than buying a tripod. You only have to search an online photography equipment store to see what a bewildering range there is to choose from.
Certain types of photography - such as shooting in low-light - benefit from the use of a tripod.
The basic function of a tripod is to keep a camera steady. However it’s remarkable how many fail to do so. The size and weight of a tripod has a lot to do with this as does the size and weight of your camera. Placing a large camera on a lightweight tripod isn’t ideal. The top-heavy nature of the combination is more likely to lead to instability and therefore unsharp images.
Long, heavy lenses can tip cameras forward even on a tripod. The use of a tripod collar makes the camera-lens combination more balanced.
At this point you’re probably thinking that I’m advocating buying the heaviest tripod possible. To a certain degree I am. However, carrying a tripod that feels as though it’s been constructed from steel girders and industrial-grade components isn’t fun. Therefore a compromise is usually necessary (after all you wouldn’t want the weight of your tripod put you off using it). Fortunately, tripod manufacturers generally show the recommended weight of camera (plus lens of course) that’s suitable for a particular tripod. Using this information it’s possible to match a tripod’s specifications to the camera that you use.
Carbon-fibre is my material of choice for a tripod, though it is an expensive option (Image © Benro).
The height a tripod can be extended to affects its weight to a certain degree. The ideal tripod is one that brings your camera to eye-height without using the centre-column. Unfortunately, using a centre-column is another factor that can make the camera-tripod combination top heavy. However, a tripod that’s all leg is usually also cumbersome and awkward to carry. Again, there’s compromise to be made. Think carefully about the type of photography you enjoy. The height a tripod extends to is less important if you enjoy getting down on your knees to do fungi photography (in this instance the angle the tripod legs can be splayed out to will be a more important consideration).
Traditionally tripods were made using either wood or aluminium. Now you can buy carbon-fibre tripods. Carbon-fibre is a wonder material. Lightweight yet strong, carbon-fibre tripods are also usually very stable. I’ve used a carbon-fibre tripod now for over eight years and I wouldn’t be without one. So that’s settled then. You need to buy a carbon-fibre tripod. Well...Once again there’s another compromise looming. Carbon-fibre tripods are typically twice the price of an aluminium equivalent. The compromise on this occasion is cost. Is it worth spending the extra if you only use your tripod occasionally? Probably not.
Buying a tripod needs to be thought about in a remarkably scientific way. It’s worth writing down your requirements and selecting the model that’s closest to those requirements. Think about weight: How far will I be carrying my tripod? What camera will I use with the tripod? Then height: How tall am I? What sort of subject will I typically shoot? Will I need to use the centre-column? Finally cost: what can I afford? Is it worth spending extra on carbon-fibre if it means I’ll use my tripod more?
When you’ve satisfactorily answered all those questions that’s the time to buy a tripod. Of course, then you’ll have to to think about the type of head that’s suitable for your needs; a subject that I’ll come back too in a future blog post. In the meantime I’m off to give my tripod some TLC. Writing this has made me realise just how invaluable it is…
If you would like to learn more about photography why not join me on my 4 week online photography course An Introduction to Digital Photography.