Lets face it, a tripod isn’t sexy! They are expensive (a good one will set you back the better part of $300+) and any new photographer, is hardly likely to have a tripod at the top of their wish list. Yet for the serious photographer, this is likely to be one of your most important photographic purchases, next to camera body and lens choice.
A tripod’s for life, not just for Christmas!
Get this wrong! and you will waste $100’s. Get it right and this piece of equipment will serve you well for the rest of your photographic life!
Its sole function is to be sturdy and provide a stable support for both camera and lens. This means it needs to be strong, which often equates to heavy! In fact, the better the tripod the heavier it usually is.
Sorry! but if you own a cheap lightweight, ‘flimsy-legged’ model with a central braced leg support you may as well bin it now! They move around with the slightest knock, or breath of wind and are therefore virtually useless. Choosing the right tripod is not that straight forward either, but if you ask yourself the 5 following question before you buy, you shouldn’t go far wrong!
Q1) What do I want to use it for?
There are 2 main tripod designs! those with a central arm and those without. Of those with a central arm, some are fixed, while others are detachable.
If you want to do macro photography a detachable central arm is best, as it allows the camera to get really close to the subject, either by suspending the camera upside down, or some models allow the arm to be attached horizontally as well as vertically.
Adjustable legs that can be set ‘near flat’, are also important,as these allow the camera to get close to the subject. Avoid the fixed central arm or those cheap tripods with the braced legs as they don’t offer enough flexibility and you will often struggle to get the camera close enough.
For all other types of photography a tripod with no adjustable arm will suffice.
Q2) Do I want to travel with it
Hiking apart, airport luggage allowances are a big issue today, so good quality, large heavy metal tripods are often out of the question. This is where we may have to compromise? The next best thing to a sturdy metal model, is one made of carbon fibre. These are still incredibly strong, but are significantly lighter than their metal counterparts.
Unfortunately! lightness doesn’t come cheap and you will need to spend upwards of $500 for a reasonable carbon fibre model.
Another consideration is what is its minimum stowaway size? Can I get it in my suitcase? 60cm or 2ft is around the recommended fold-a-way size. This then comes down to where you choose a 3 section model or a 4 section model.
Q3) What leg adjustments do I want?
One of the main criticisms of using a tripod, is that they are so slow to setup. Extending each leg individually, then locking it in place, is a pain in anyone’s book! Obviously the fewer leg adjustments the better so a 3 section tripod may be preferable to a 4 section model.
Over the years, different manufacturers have come up with faster more ingenious solutions to this problem.
Some have come up with an ‘extend-then-turn’ solution to lock the leg in place, while others can extend the legs by simply releasing a button on the head plate then locking them in place when the button is released.
Your choice will depend on manufacturer, but remember the biggest turn off to using a tripod is speed, so pick the system that best suits you.
Q4) How tall does it need to be?
Ideally the camera should be at eye level when set on a tripod, so the maximum height of the model will depend on the person using it. Remember you have the tripod head to fit between the camera and the legs but I would recommend getting as tall a tripod a possible and do not include the central adjustable column as raising this significantly reduces the stability of the model.
Q5) What camera weight does it need to support?
Finally! few people consider the camera weight, but different tripods are designed for different camera and lens weights. The heavier the loading, the more expensive the tripod. Most entry level tripods support a combined weight of 6kg or 13lbs.
A Canon D5 with battery attachment plus a 70-200mm f2.8 lens weighs approx. 3.1kg or 7lbs, but if you intend to go bird watching and upgrade to a 600mm lens, this alone weighs a staggering 5.4 kg or 12lbs so I would always advise buying a slightly sturdier model to future proof your investment.