It is widely understood that tripod is the best support for your camera and that it will increase the quality of your pictures dramatically. Among the professionals it is believed you have to carry it and have it available at all times – without exceptions.
Within this article:
- Why to use a tripod?
- Which tripod should you buy
- Parts of a tripod
- Integrated or removable head
- What are you going to shoot?
- What camera do you use?
- How heavy is the camera?
- Tripod needs to be sturdy
- Tripod feet
- Tripod needs to be portable
- How tall should tripod be?
- Tripod needs to be easy to adjust
Why to use a tripod?
Tripod, well a good tripod at least, can keep your camera completely steady: no shaking of your camera whatsoever. This is something you cannot do when holding your camera with your hands, or when your camera (or lens) have image stabilization technology turned on either (btw, when using a tripod, image stabilization technology should be turned OFF!).
So tripod keeps your camera steady. What does that mean?
Images are sharp.
No shaking of your camera = sharp images. If you are holding your camera with your hands only, you will create shaking (and that softer images), no matter how steady you are. Additionally, the only way to get the best out of your lens, to really see how well it can perform, is to place it on a steady tripod. To that respect: you can impose shaking with your hands even if your camera is on a tripod, therefore, use a self-timer or a quick release to capture images.
It is possible to take sharp images in difficult lighting conditions.
Taking sharp images in the low light conditions, i.e. at night, during sunrise or sunset, or when you don’t want to use a flash indoors to capture that nice soft light coming through the windows, is difficult without the use of longer shutter speeds and keeping a camera completely steady to avoid any shaking. Additionally, longer shutter speeds are required when you want to achieve some effects (i.e. smooth running of water, road of car lights on a street at night). You need a tripod for that.
Maintaining the best quality of the image.
For the best quality of images, with as little noise as possible, it is best to use a low ISO.This is very difficult to do in low lighting conditions if you don’t use a tripod.
Using longer focal length.
Longer lenses, especially telephoto lenses, are heavier, longer and more difficult to keep steady. Additionally, they intensify any vibrations made. You can be more precise. Precision is important when shooting panoramas (you need smooth transitions) and very important whenever you are shooting multiple shots of the same scene, where good alignment is very important (HDR images, 3D images).
It is easier to control the shallow depth of field.
This is especially critical when you are using longer lenses or shooting macro photography: you are zooming very close to the subject and the depth of field is very shallow. The slightest movement can spoil the shot! Additionally, when shooting macro, it is best to use low ISO (for which you will need a tripod), and a tripod will help you be more precise when framing the shot as well.
Start thinking about the image.
Although this might seem as a disadvantage at first, tripod slows you down. And makes you think of the image more. That can only be good! It makes you more aware of different elements on the image when framing a shot and choosing appropriate composition, lighting settings, making sure the camera is levelled, and additionally it let’s you consider shooting the same scene with a filter attached (if you choose so).
Especially when you are shooting at family events, you want to be on the images as well, no? So place your camera on a tripod, frame the shot, set the self-timer (or use a quick release) and run on the scene! Additionally it is very helpful when taking portraits of other people: it is easier to frame an image precisely as you want and choose the best settings to the lighting available (without any need to use a flash).
Shoot from different angles.
Or from the same angles: when you need the background to be taken from completely the same angle, while the subject changes.
Downsides of using a tripod
- Very hard to use (if not impossible) in crowded places. Tripod legs require certain space to be extended. Many places ban it.
- It takes some time to set it up, so you can miss a moment.
In such cases it is best to use another accessory.
Which tripod should you buy?
You have realised you need a tripod. But which one should you buy? – There are so many to choose from! How can you make the decision?
This is what I am going to try to answer in this article. (It is not that difficult as people want to believe.)
Please note that this article was written with primarily DSLR owners in mind.
I will try to guide you through the process, by stating important questions that you need to ask yourself and decisions that you need to make along the way.
But first, I have to point out that there is no perfect tripod out there. With “perfect” I mean a tripod that would be ideal for any situation. You will eventually have to make a compromise.
Ideally a tripod should be light. But a light tripod:
- is less sturdy;
- can support less weight. In order to support more weight and be light, it needs to be made from better and lighter materials, therefore more expensive.
Ideally a tripod should be sturdy. But a sturdy tripod:
- is heavier. It makes it more tiring to carry around (and less likely to want to use it). To be lighter and sturdy, it needs to be made from good materials, which makes it expensive.
Ideally a tripod should be compact (small when folded) for easier transport.
- But then its height is smaller. It can be made higher with a center column, but that makes it less stable.
- If it is tall enough, it has more sections of legs, which means it is less sturdy.
Ideally a tripod should be tall enough to capture the images from eye level.
- But the taller the tripod, the less compact it is.
Ideally a tripod needs to be quick and easy to assemble.
The above example illustrates the features of a tripod intended for travelling. For other uses there could be other and/or additional features.
Parts of a tripod
Before I start talking about the features of a tripod, here is a quick look at its parts:
Also a quick note about the symbols the manufacturers use:
In the above example, I have listed different symbols manufacturers use to describe the height of a tripod.
Note that it is more of a rule than exception that the specifications will be described with the use of symbols, rather than text. The symbols are not standardised around manufacturing companies, but are very similar to each other and easy to recognise once you know what you are looking for. For easier understanding, I have included in the article the symbols for all the specifications that manufacturers use.
Integrated or removable head?
The first decision that you have to make is how much you want the tripod to be customizable. That mostly comes down to whether you want a tripod to come with an integrated or a removable head:
Integrated / non-removable tripod head
Simple tripods (read less expensive tripods) come with a fixed head. You cannot change it – you are stuck with that exact head. Does it fulfil your needs? Advantages:
- Simple to use.
- Satisfactory for a compact camera owner and some DSLR owners.
- You cannot remove and change the head.
- Usually of lower quality.
- When there is a problem with one part of the tripod, you need to replace it all.
Interchangeable / removable / detachable tripod head
Normal and advanced tripods (also more expensive) usually come without a head. Such heads are interchangeable or removable. It means that you buy a tripod and a head (or more heads) separately, depending on your needs. Advantages:
Buying flexibility. When you are buying a tripod and cannot afford a very good head (or you are not sure what head you would exactly need), you can buy yourself a decent head and when you are aware of your needs, get yourself another head.
- You can have more heads with one tripod, for different types of photography.
- You can share the head between different tripods or a monopod if having one.
- When there is a problem with one part of the tripod (for example, legs get warned out from usage), you can buy a new tripod, but you don’t have to buy new heads (and vice versa).
- Be sure that the tripod you buy can hold the head and vice versa (if it does not, you can buy a head fitting).
- Usually bigger and heavier.
- More expensive.
Some companies are selling a tripod and a removable head in form of “kits” (what is included will be stated in the specifications).
What are you going to shoot?
What kind of photography will you do?
Family events, around the city, shooting panoramas, cities at night, macro photography, sport events or in the mountains?
When you know what and where you are going to shoot (the type of photography that you will do), it will give you a better idea of the most important features the tripod should have.
The most common mistake the novices and the first-time-tripod-buyers do is that they don’t really think of what they need. Well, I cannot blame them. If you are just starting, it is difficult to know exactly what you need, and especially, what (and how) you will be shooting in the future! Nevertheless, you just need to have at least an idea.
If you don’t know what features you need, you can easily buy the “wrong” tripod: it could be too heavy (ouch, my back!), too light (watch out that wind!), too short (ouch my back & neck), too slow to assemble (there goes that shooting moment), not precise enough or any other reasons. You will be forced to eventually buy another one, ending up in spending more money than you would in the first place.
Therefore, take a moment and think of all the situations and subjects when you might use the tripod! They don’t need to be exactly precise just now, but when you will be reading through the next sections of this article, you can recognise what features are the most important to you. To help you, I have written some guidelines on different types of photography:
- Macro photography: You will need to get close to the ground, so look at minimum height characteristics. You will also want greater freedom of movement.
- Sports photography: If shooting with heavy telephoto lenses, you will need a sturdy tripod to be able to hold the camera and the lens. It should also be easy to move around (the head and the tripod itself), since there will be a lot of action from all directions. You want to set up the tripod quickly. Consider if you will have enough space to set it up and whether you should consider a monopod instead!
- Panorama and Landscape photography: You will be walking around so a tripod that isn’t heavy is a must. Your back will appreciate it! In the nature it is also very likely to encounter wind, so it should be sturdy enough. You might also want to shoot panoramas, so you need a panoramic head and ability to slide it gently from side to side.
- Low-light (night) photography: It is important the tripod to be sturdy to allow longer exposure times.
- Studio photography: Precision is usually the most important here. You don’t need to be concerned about the weight; it is even preferable that it is heavier to be able to support heavier lenses. Therefore you don’t need to be concerned about materials. Make sure the height is right. How easy it is to move around (all the shoots may not be from the same location)? How easy it is to adjust the angle?
These are of course not all the features that might be important to you, but only guidelines that you might want to consider about specific type of photography.
Last but not least, don’t forget that there is no one-fits-all tripod. If you are very serious about photography and you are going to use tripods for two very different purposes/situations, you might have to buy more than one!
What camera do you use?
What camera do you plan to mount on the tripod?
There are two important differences between compact and DSLR cameras regarding tripods: weight and size.
Compact cameras are much lighter and smaller than DSLR cameras, so they will do fine with a lighter tripod (but not too light for the wind to move it if shooting outside!).
If you own a DSLR camera, buy yourself a good steady tripod. It needs to be able to hold the camera and lenses with no problems in any conditions. The worst case scenario: the camera and the lens topples down the tripod on the ground and breaks. Yupiii!
How heavy is the camera?
Now that you know (at least approximately) what you are going to use the tripod for, you need to ascertain how heavy your camera is. This is important in order to determine how much weight you can put on the tripod.
Specification: Load capacity / weight load
Different tripods are constructed for different load capacities, from 1kg to 25kg .
How to calculate the weight of your camera system:
- Weight the camera:
- If you own a compact camera, weight the camera (or check the weight in its manual) and any other accessory that you might use with it. A small compact camera typically weights around 150g (5.3oz), while a more advanced compact camera typically weights around 500g (17.6oz).
One thing to note though is that the tripod manufacturers don’t really use the same criteria of how to calculate the load capacity (there is no standard). Therefore use it only as guideline, and make sure you don’t skip the step 3. when doing the calculations.
Additionally, when using the tripod it will be important that it remains stable not only in the static (balanced) position, but also when you pan and tilt a camera in any direction, when the centre of gravity is changed. It should remain stable all the time. Therefore testing a tripod (and head) before buying is always a very welcomed idea.
Tripod needs to be sturdy
Tripod needs to be sturdy in order to do its job. This is the most important criteria of a tripod for sure! It allows you to get the best performance out from your lenses, taking the sharpest images that you have always wanted. To achieve that (the only way really) is to have your camera completely steady, without ANY camera movements.
What we often like to forget is that not only a tripod itself should stand stable on the ground, but it should also be strong enough and stand stable while carrying the weight of the camera and the lens:
As well as retain any pressures – either from your hands or any natural pressures, like the wind:
So what affect a tripod sturdiness?
- leg locks;
- material and design,
- number of sections of legs,
- leg tips.
Whatever you do, don’t judge by the looks. It may look sturdy, maybe it is, but it just might not be! The most reliable way to know is simply to test it: extend the tripod to its maximum height, mount the camera and press with your fingers at the top of the camera. Does it move?
How to improve sturdiness of a tripod
First, don’t extend the centre column.
Second, use spiked tripod feet (I talk about tripod feet in greater detail further on in this article – just keep reading!).
Most often you will want to increase tripod’s stability against the wind, especially if using a lighter tripod. What are your options?
Firstly, you can hang an additional weight on a tripod hook.
A (usually) retractable hook attached to the bottom of a tripod’s centre column is a built-in accessory found in some tripods.
Its main purpose is to hang different kinds of counterweights for additional stability of a tripod:
- in windy conditions,
- when you use longer and heavier lenses (that shift your gravity point),
- when you use a centre column at different angles.
To use it, retract a hook and hang a bag filled with stones, rocks, sand or even water. Don’t carry the weight around with your: fill it up at the location with the material available at the sight. A bag can be:
- a specially designed bag for such purpose, usually called a weight or stone bag;
- a plastic bag;
- a cloth bag;
- a mesh bag (usually used when selling potatoes, onions, lemons, oranges..);
- or even your camera bag!
If you don’t want to use a bag, you have another possibility:
Thrust another hook or a tent stake in the ground and connect it firmly to a tripod hook with a cord. Make sure the cord is strained!
- Tripod hook can be used for other purposes as well (remaining completely to your imagination):
- If you have an additional camera, hang it there to have it always available at hand.
- If the ground is wet or muddy, hang your camera bag to not get dirty.
- Use it as a drying hanger to dry wet clothes.
You got the picture by now, right?
Similar to hooks, some companies sell aprons that are attached to tripod feet and can be filled with stones, rocks or sand to add more stability for a tripod.
Of course you can store other objects inside an apron as well: other cameras, flash cards, filters, lenses, hoods, batteries, anything really that you might want to have at hand while shooting.
Usually made from nylon.
Thirdly, you can use a bean bag. I have talked about beanbags in detail in the article about support accessories, so I won’t go into detail about it here.
If you have a tripod and a beanbag, you can additionally stabilize a tripod (if needed) by placing a beanbag over a lens. This can be especially useful when using longer lenses.
Support tripod legs with sandbags or rocks
Fourthly, it can also help to stabilize tripod feet by either supporting it with rocks or sandbags.
Tripod stands on tripod feet.
In order the tripod to be steady, they need to be made from quality material and be able to hold a tripod on different types of ground (for example, if you are shooting outdoors, the ground is likely to be uneven, even wet and muddy) without slipping and without damaging it as well (when shooting indoors).
There are different types of feet available, depending where you are going to shoot – the surface the tripod is going to stand on:
Neoprene / rubber feet
Most tripods have pads made from rubber (of different qualities!). They are suitable for inside use and studio shooting where the surface is hard. They also prefer much better than other types of feet on concrete floors.
For the best grip, the rubber should be rugged and shouldn’t skid. With extensive use, they can get loosened (= lost) and can get harder (= more slippery). It is best they are of removable type in order to replace them with another type of feet when needed.
If rubber feet are removable, you can replace them with a spiked feet (usually by screwing them on tripod feet). Whenever you are shooting outdoors, when the surface is uneven and soft (i.e. muddy, wet, grassy or sandy), the best is to use feet with spikes. They are also very good on ice, but not on fresh snow (unless they are long).
They are made from stainless steel, metal, also from aluminium and some from titanium. Never use them on soft surfaces, like wood, or indoors. They can damage the floor!
The disadvantage of spikes is that they are made from metal and can therefore start to rust if they are exposed to water (especially sea water). Always clean and dry them after exposure.
Rubber feet and spiked feet combined
Often times, the rubber feet and the metal spike feet are combined. They are referred to as retractable spiked foot or reversible rubber/metal spiked feet or just reversible feet. Spikes are built into the foot, hidden underneath the rubber pad and can be brought out when needed by rotating/spinning a rubber cap.
When you are using a rubber pad, make sure the spike is all the way inside. It is very easy to damage the sensitive surfaces with it!
Snow / sand shoes
If you are shoot on soft ground, i.e. snow, sand or mud, get snow shoes. They are covering wider surface and therefore spread the weight of the tripod over a larger area, increasing stability. Usually they are made from rubber.
They have different names: disc feet, suction cups, big foot adapters for soft ground, suction cup feet, retract feet, etc. They don’t come with the tripod – you need to buy them separately. Make sure the tripod feet are removable. It is also possible to make them yourself from a tennis ball by cutting it in half and installing it on the foot.
Tripod needs to be portable
This is a very important feature for anyone who is going hiking or generally carrying a tripod around with them for longer times. The only time this is not an important feature is when you do studio work. What makes the tripod portable:
- It should be light.
- It should be compact.
Tripod should be light.
Consider two characteristics:
- Weight of a tripod.
- Construction material.
Specification: weight of tripod
It simply means how heavy the tripod is.
The heavier the tripod, the more stable it is. The taller the tripod, the heavier it is. When you are on a field for longer times, carrying it around on your back, just then you will realise how important this feature is.
When you will first see a tripod in a store and lift it up (probably all excited by the look of a new gadget) I can almost guarantee you every tripod will feel light to you: it won’t feel as much effort to lift it up at all. Yeah, exactly: lift it up. That is not the same as carrying it around! You will feel the real weight when you will be using it. And that is when you will FEEL the difference. It is very simple: more you will be moving around, more you want your tripod to be light.
Oops! But have I not just said a moment before that the heavier the tripod, the more stable it is? And you do want a stable tripod, right? So how can you have both?
- First, buy a tripod made from better materials. They are lighter and stronger (and also much more expensive). Such example is carbon fiber.
- Secondly, you can add additional stability with weight bags (see the part about tripod stability above).
Another point to consider: Let’s say you buy a tripod that is a bit heavier (and a bit cheaper as well). And then you go on a trip and realise that you have not enjoyed it so much because you came back with a soar back. Are you going to take that tripod again with you? It is always better to have a lighter and a bit less sturdy tripod with you, than a very good and heavy tripod lying around at home. Period.
Another solution would be (and this often happens to those who are more serious about photography) is to have two tripods: one that is light to carry around and another heavier one that you use at home or when you don’t shoot too far away from your car.
How heavy the tripod is determined by the height of a tripod, quality of its design and quality of materials used. This is what I’m going to look at now.
Specification: construction material of tripod
When thinking about the construction material of a tripod, one usually thinks of the material the tripod legs are made of (because it is the heaviest part of a tripod and contributes the most to the steadiness of a tripod), therefore when talking about materials, I will talk about the material of tripod legs.
Tripods can be made from various materials. At first they were made from metal and wood, nowadays from aluminium, with introducing of some new excellent high-tech materials like carbon and basalt.
One thing to keep in mind though is that for sturdiness of a tripod, it is not only important from what material the tripod is made of, but as well how the materials themselves were made and the construction / design of a tripod.
For instance, not all tripods from carbon fibre are designed and constructed in the same way, therefore the quality and performance between them (read manufacturers) can vary significantly! The same goes for aluminium that has been significantly improved with the use of new technology.
As for other parts of a tripod are concerned, they are made of light and strong components like magnesium, which is about 30% lighter than aluminium (but still heavier than carbon), rigid, sturdier than aluminium and cheaper than carbon.
The most important features materials influence:
- load capacity,
- rigidity (it should hold the camera and its weight steady),
So how to choose?
- When the light weight is critical (and you can afford it) consider buying a tripod from carbon fibre.
- When weight is not critical though, aluminium tripods provide a very good compromise between price, weight and rigidity.
- Avoid tripods made from plastic or steel.
Nevertheless, get yourself the best tripod legs you can afford.
From best to worse: To not confuse you too much, I will give pros and cons of each of the materials separately as well:
At first, most tripods were made from wood. Now more or less only wood enthusiasts still buy them. If you are one of them, check out these companies: Ries, Berlebach, Stabil, Brom (I have not been able to find their website).
|big load-bearing capacities||weight|
|high isolation value||costy|
|excellent in their ability to reduce vibration (better than aluminium!)||don’t like humidity|
This is the most common and the most popular material tripods are made from. They provide a very good cost-value ratio. With the technology advancement they have been significantly improved and are lighter than ever.
|quite light, but ->||compared to carbon, about twice the weight|
|good support: strong and durable, can take hard knocks without falling||not as rigid as carbon – transmits vibrations|
|low price (half the price of carbon)||low insulation value: in cold weather your hands will feel very cold at touch (make sure to buy them with leg warmers – or make them yourself)|
This is the most expensive and the lightest material. If you are going to be carrying tripod for longer times (and if you can afford it), it is the best material for the job.
|very light (overall weight reduced by 30% without sacrificing strength)||more expensive than aluminium (twice the price)|
|excellent stability and strength||more easily damaged: be careful when sharp objects are around|
|very good vibration absorption (better than any other material)|
|more comfortable to hold in cold weather (compared to aluminium)|
New high-tech materials
Alongside aluminium that has been improved significantly with the development of new technologies, there were also other materials developed. For example, Gitzo offers materials such as basalt and Soulid 238:
- Soulid 238 (introduced by Gitzo in 2006) is a technical compound, 30% lighter than magnesium, but just as strong, with outstanding vibration absorption properties. It is resistant to corrosion and oxidisation as well. It is mostly used for other parts of a tripod (not tripod legs).
- Basalt is made from a molten basalt rock. It is about 20% lighter than aluminium and has similar properties as carbon: high thermal and dimensional stability and light weight. It is between aluminium and carbon fiber in performance and price.
Note that I have not listed the construction material of a tripod as something that makes tripod easier to carry around. It is true that the lighter the tripod is, the easier it is to carry (and this depends hugely on the materials used), however, even more important factor is its bulk – it is much easier to carry around if smaller bulk, but heavier:
Tripod needs to be easy to carry around
There are two specifications to consider when it is important the tripod is easy to carry around:
- Maximum closed height of a tripod.
- Number of leg sections.
- Leg tube size.
Specification: Maximum closed / collapsed height / carrying length of a tripod
This is simply how long the tripod is when folded. Or how big bulk it is! The smallest tripod can be as short as 20 cm when folded, while the longest tripod can be 80 cm or even more. Big difference!
If you are travelling or hiking, it is welcomed a tripod’s folded length fits into a suitcase or on a backpack.
Specification: Number of leg sections
This specification tells you of how many sections an individual leg of a tripod has.
Most commonly, there are 3 or 4 sections of the leg, but you can also find tripods with one, two, five and even six sections.
Usually the ones with three sections are the most preferable, but if you are travelling or hiking, you might want to have four-section-leg-tripod (check your backpack/luggage dimensions!).
Leg sections have two purposes:
- They allow the legs to be folded and therefore make tripod more compact and easier to carry and store.
- With sections of the leg the height of the tripod is adjusted.
Most often these apply:
- More sections the tripod has, the more compact it is when folded.
- More sections the tripod has, the higher the tripod. This is usually true, but not always! Always refer to maximum height of the tripod (with center column down) for this specification.
- More sections the tripod has, the more locks it has, and the longer it takes to assemble. Leg locks are also considered the weakest part of a tripod.
- Less sections the tripod has, the more stable the tripod is.
- Less sections the tripod has, the less chance dirt gets into the leg.
Specification: Leg Tube Size
The diameter of leg tubes can also answer you why less sections the better:
The lowest section of the leg is the thinnest because it needs to collapse into the other sections, and is therefore the least stable. For that reason, whenever you are extending the tripod, first extend the widest top sections and in the end the the lowest section of the leg!
Accessories for portability and/or how to carry a tripod
Again, this is not important if you are going to do studio work. But whenever you are travelling and/or hiking, you want to transport the tripod in the easiest and the most comfortable way possible.
Carrying tripod with your hands: use tripod leg warmers or leg wraps
Whenever you want to have a tripod ready at any moment, for quick reaction to take a shot, you will have to carry a tripod with your hands.
For that to be comfortable, tripod should have (a must really if you own an aluminium tripod) tripod leg warmers. They have generally two functions:
- The most obvious one is to prevent your hands from holding tripod leg directly with your hands. That can be especially unpleasant in cold weather.
- Additionally, they protect your skin against bruises when carrying a tripod in your hands or over your shoulder.
Don’t forget you can always make them yourself!
So how do you carry a tripod with your hands? There are numerous ways, try them and see which one feels the most comfortable to you:
- The simplest way is to just hold a tripod by its leg so the tripod is in vertical position. This is usually comfortable for shorter distances (your hands will get tired, but then it also depends on your strength and the weight of the tripod itself).
- Put it over your shoulder, again in somewhat vertical position. Remember the tripod warmers I have mentioned above? You will appreciate having them!
- It is also possible to spread the legs of a tripod and hold it over your shoulder or on your shoulders (like you would carry a child: two legs in front).
Using a tripod strap
A strap is just that: a strap. To use it, place a tripod inside the loops on both ends and hang it over your shoulder or over your chest.
|One of the easiest ways of carrying a tripod.||When walking (especially for longer distances) tripod is hitting your back, resulting in broises. Use it for shorter trips!|
|Tripod is ready to use when needed.||There is no room to carry a backpack as well. Where will you put the gear and personal belongings?|
Using a backpack
To tie a tripod on a backpack, make sure the backpack has either a strap for a tripod or a tripod pocket.
|Great for hiking and travelling: put whatever you need in a backpack (including camera gear) and tie the tripod on the backpack.||It is a bit time consuming to tie tripod up and down the backpack, therefore it is not the best solution if you need tripod at hand all the time.|
|If the folded length of a tripod is much longer than the size of a backpack, it will not be so convenient to carry.|
If you already own a backpack and it doesn’t have a tripod strap or a tripod pocket, but it has a strap for around your waist, try carrying it by sticking one leg into the strap.
Using a tripod bag / case
Tripod bags and tripod cases are very resistant, durable and perfect for storing a tripod especially when travelling with an air plane. They are not very comfortable to carry though, so they are not good for i.e. hiking.
A quick note about taking tripod on an air plane:
- In most cases you should not be having any problems travelling with a tripod as a carry-on luggage (inside USA and most other countries) as long as the tripod length does not exceed the maximum allowed carry-on dimensions. However, some countries do prohibit it (such as Italy).
- If your tripod has spiked feet and you want to have tripod as carry-on, remove them, the security won’t like them.
- It is always best to remove tripod head when travelling.
- If you check-in the tripod, make sure it is safe from any strokes.
How tall should a tripod be?
How tall a tripod should be is a very important feature but is completely subjective as well. If you don’t mind bending, you don’t mind bending. It’s up to you.
You are concerned about three things:
- How tall is the tripod when standing (with the center column down).
- How tall is the tripod when standing with the central column fully up.
- How small can the tripod be when standing.
Let’s look at each separately:
Specification: Maximum / total height of a tripod with center column down
First, you are concerned about the maximum height of the tripod when standing with the center column down.
There are different heights ranging from the smallest around 17cm (6.7in), to the tallest at more than 2.5m (8.2′).
The sizes of tripods can be categorized into different levels:
- The compact level tripods are very light, but might be uncomfortable to use: you will need to stoop to use them. They are appropriate in particularly for macro work or low-level photography.
- The standard level sized tripods are popular because they are light and relatively small when folded. But they are only about 1.3m (4’’3’) tall.
- The eye level tripods are probably the best tripods to own. The height of them is about 1.5m (5”). They are the most comfortable to use.
- The over-head level is when a tripod is taller than you. Such tripods are mostly used in studios and at various events.
The general rule is that the taller the tripod, the more it weights and the more expensive it is. My condolences to all the tall people out there! ; )
When you think about the height of a tripod, you have to also consider:
- How tall the tripod really is depends not only on the tripod height, but also the height of a tripod head and a camera body. Add those two up in order to get a better picture of the height. For example: a tripod’s maximum height (with center column down) is 140cm (4.6′), height of a tripod head is 9cm (3.5in) and the height of your camera is (up to where the viewfinder is) 7cm (2.7in). Therefore the total height of a tripod is 156cm (5.1′). If you are about that height, you won’t have to bend in order to compose a shot. To conclude: whenever you are determining the maximum height of a tripod, always subtract the height of tripod head and your camera (which is usually about 15-25cm/6-10in).
- When thinking how tall you are and how tall the tripod should be, don’t forget that your eyes are not exactly on the top of the head, therefore deduct the forehead from your calculations.
- Especially DSLR cameras have a LCD screen at the top of the camera as well – if you are using it while shooting, you would want to see it when the camera is mounted on the tripod.
- You can increase the height of the tripod with the use of center column, but that is not recommended to consider when you are buying a tripod for reasons discussed in the second part of this article, when talking about the center column. Whatever height you choose, it needs to be comfortable for you to use, without extending the center column at all!
The above calculation assumes you are standing on the level ground. If you are shooting in nature the ground is rarely completely levelled and you will probably stand on a higher level than a tripod itself (at that times you would wish you had a higher tripod, even higher than you!).
When you are shooting on uneven terrain (i.e. mountains), it comes very helpful if the angle of the legs of a tripod can be adjusted separately (I talk about this in greater detail later on).
Another exception would be when you are shooting upwards (trees, air planes, birds, roofs). In this case you will also want a tripod to be as tall as possible for less bending.
The most comfortable height with no doubt is the eye level. Compared to standard level tripods are a bit bigger and heavier, which makes standard level tripods a nice compromise between comfort and price. However, if you are going to use tripod a lot, especially hiking where the ground is not equal, I recommend the eye level height. It is generally easier to bend a little bit than to be too short for the composition you want to take. You will never regret having one.
A quick advice here: It is true that when shooting from eye level you don’t have to bend. That is surely very comfortable! However, that will also make your photography boring (everything taken from the same level), so do change the angle of view as much as you can and sometimes get as low as possible!
Another suggestion: If you are shooting from the same place (especially for longer times), i.e. events, birds, don’t stand up all the time! Grab a chair!
In the end of the day, what tripod level is best for you will depend on what kind of photography you do! I have talked about how important it is to determine what features you really need in the beginning of this article.
Specification: Maximum height of the tripod with extended center column
Secondly, you are concerned about the maximum height of the tripod when standing with the center column extended.
Note that not all tripods actually have a center column.
Specification: Minimum height of the tripod
Thirdly, you are concerned how small the tripod can get when standing.
It varies drastically from tripods that can go down to only few centimetres, to the ones with the minimum height of up to 50cm.
This specification is important for anyone doing macro photography.
Other features that can get you closer to the ground:
What is a center column or center post
Tripods can either have a centre column or not.
The standard usage for center columns is to extend the height of the tripod (upwards) for about 35cm (depending on the model) without any need for tripod leg readjustment.
They come in different sizes: short, medium and long.
So what do you need to consider about a center column:
- Its diameter. It will determine how strong the tube is. The wider the diameter, the heavier the center column is.
- The size of a collar (what eventually holds the center column). The wider and longer it is, the more stable the centre column.
- How do you move it.
- How do you lock it.
There are generally two mechanisms to move a centre column:
Rapid / lift type / smoothed centre column
It is perfect for outdoor photography. Advantages:
- easy to use.
- Precision. You have to adjust the height with your hands.
- You need to give support to the camera with your hands while making the adjustments.
When you want to adjust the height, hold the camera with your hands, unlock the lock, position the camera in desired height by pulling center column up or down and then tighten the lock to secure the position.
There are two types of rapid center column locks (locking mechanisms) available:
- The first is a large adjustment ring around a center column. To adjust the height of a center column, spin the ring around until it slowly unblocks the column. Don’t forget to hold the camera (if attached) while doing that!
- The second locking mechanism are wing nuts or locking knobs. Again, you spin them in order to unblock the center column. Pay attention that the locks are tightened well when securing the center column!
Additionally, some tripods with a rapid centre column have a REVERSIBLE center column, which can be (as the name suggests) reversed downwards between the legs of the tripod.
This allows you to take a shot from top down for some macro shots, as well as ability to shoot from low angles that the minimum height of the tripod doesn’t allow you.
- First take off the hook (if there is one).
- Release the locks and remove the centre column.
- Put it back inside from the bottom.
Furthermore, there are also tripods with a rapid centre column that can be placed HORIZONTALLY.
This feature can be useful when:
- you want to look downwards at the subject (close up work, especially combined with wide spread legs of tripod); this is also a way to create a copystand out of a tripod as well (to read more about copystand, read my support accessories article);
- you want to lean over a wall or a river.
Problems can occur if you don’t use a steady tripod and too heavy camera. It can easily happen for tripod to lose balance and overturn. To prevent it, extend a center column only for few centimetres (and not all the way) and/or use weights to counter balance the weight of the camera.
It’s not over yet! There are also MODULAR centre columns which allow you to adjust the centre column at any desired angle.
Geared center column
It is popular with studio photographers or whenever precision is important.
- Precision is their greatest advantage. However, this depends on the quality of its design and construction! Avoid cheap tripods with geared centre column as their quality (and precision) can be questionable.
- There is no need for supporting the camera while adjusting the height – can be done with the use of only one hand.
- They are much steadier in holding heavier equipment.
- slower to use,
- built quality.
The height is adjusted by turning a crank on the side:
There are two types of geared center columns:
Usually, when the tripod is »geared«, it means it has rack & pinion styled gear system. To tighten the position, they can have additional locking adjustments rings.
There is also a worm (helical) style gear system. They are very secure in terms of slipping, as well as locking.
What to consider when doing macro work
Whenever you are doing macro work, it is best to have a shorter center column – simply, to not be restricted with its length when lowering tripod to the ground.
It is also very helpful if the centre post is REMOVABLE / DETACHABLE (this feature is also referred to as ground level set). Firstly, it allows you to get closer to the ground by spreading tripod legs, and secondly, it can be removed, maybe even left at home if not needed and with that you save some weight.
There are also TWO-SECTION center columns or SPLIT center columns which can be taken on two to get closer to the ground.
Important thing to consider about center columns / posts
When I was writing about the maximum height of the tripod I was recommending not to include the height of centre column when determining the maximum height of a tripod.
Stability. It’s one of the center column weakest attributes and a much talked topic. The stability of the tripod comes from the fact that it is standing on three legs. And these legs are the reason why tripod is much steadier than a monopod (a one-legged tripod). So what has that to do with a center column?
Well, think about it: when you extend the center column, camera is supported only by one tube: it is like attaching a monopod on top of a tripod. That makes the camera much less resistant to any vibrations and reduces the steadiness of the tripod as a whole as well, especially if you have extended the center column all the way. This is also a reason why some (especially professional) tripods don’t come with a centre column at all!
I would not extend the center column at all or only for few cm (if necessary), unless the tripod is of a very good quality or your camera is light.
Whenever you want to adjust the height of a tripod, it is much better to adjust the height of tripod legs than extending center column (unless for few centimetres).
I’m not saying not to use one. They are very useful: it is always good to have a backup of some height cm in case you would need them. They are also much quicker to use and adjusted than readjusting the tripod legs. The coins are the stability as well as some extra weight.
Tripods need to be easy to adjust.
If you are shooting outdoors or at events, you want the tripod to be set up (&closed) and adjusted as quickly as possible to not waste time and/or miss any good opportunities for the shot.
What makes tripod easy to adjust:
- Type of leg locks.
- Leg spread.
- Leg bracing.
- Attachment plate: is a camera quickly removable from a tripod head or not.
Specification: Type of leg locks / locking mechanism
With leg locks you secure the length of tripod sections (legs).
Tripod leg locks are one of the most important parts of any tripod, therefore you should consider that:
- They are the weakest part of a tripod: if leg locks are weak, tripod cannot be sturdy.
- Fewer leg locks tripod has, more sturdy it is. This corresponds well with what I have discussed in one of my previous articles: less leg sections a tripod has, more sturdy it is.
- Fewer leg locks means less work (therefore quicker) to adjust the legs.
There are two basic types of tripod locking mechanisms: twist locks and clamp (flip) locks. There are also wing locks, but rarely used.
Before describing the types of locks I want to point out couple of things:
- Quality of locks depends on the manufacturers and not the type of locks itself. If the tripod is cheap, locks will be cheap (=prone to failure). You will use them a lot so make sure they can survive constant use. If you buy tripod from good manufacturers, locks should be good.
- Both are simple to use. It only comes down to what YOU find easier to operate.
- So TRY them OUT before buying a tripod. I hope I don’t need to stress too much again to try the locks of specific brand of tripods you are looking at the moment – and not at the type of lock of just any brand (they can really differ in quality significantly).
- Why is it important that you like them? Simply, whenever you will want to extend or collapse the tripod legs, you will need to use them (and that will happen a lot). It should be easy and they should feel comfortable to you. Imagine to open (and close) 9 locks each time you want to extend (and close) the tripod (if having a 3-section tripod; 4-section tripod have even 12 locks) while hating it!
- The descriptions of the locks (pros and cons) are general and may not be relevant to all manufacturers.
They come in variety of other names: twist system, internal twist lock, rotating locks , collar lock..
|nice when carrying: they won’t stick to other objects||generally take longer time to open/close; EXCEPTION: Gitzo’s twist G-locks can be operated just as quickly as clamp locks because they need only a quarter turn to open/close|
|durable, provide very good stability||easier to get dirty with sand and muck (usually it is possible to clean them)|
|no need for adjustment, don’t get loose||more expensive|
How they work: rotate the lock to unlock the legs, pull out the legs to desired length and lock the legs by rotating the lock to the opposite direction.
Tips for faster operation:
- To open, grip all locks on one leg at once (with your palm) and twist to release the locks. Now pull the leg in desired length and tighten each lock separately.
- It is the easiest to start releasing the locks from bottom-up (if you are doing one lock at the time). But this is contradicting with the best stability rule (so keep it in mind), which only apply if you are not extending all the legs all the way: for the best stability of a tripod, first extend the widest top sections and in the end the the lowest section of the leg (if necessary).
- When you are tightening the locks, it is easier to do it from up-down.
- Some Gitzo tripods have an ALR (Anti Leg Rotation System) that allows to open even a 5-section tripod in less than 15 seconds. To do that, loosen all the twist locks (on all legs), pull the legs down and tighten the locks.
- Some Gitzo tripods have a G-lock. This locking mechanism is incredibly rigid, strong, safe and fast to operate: to lock or unlock it requires only a quarter twist.
They have many other names, for instance: snap locks, locking knobs, lock collar, thumb lock, quick levers, flip pressure lock, flip lock, click lock, flip lever, clamp lever, clamp lock, speed release…
|faster to adjust than twist locks||in cheaper tripods of bad quality (one of the first parts that will break); especially avoid plastic ones|
|easy to use in any weather (including with gloves)||may require some strength to open and close (watch your fingers!)|
|may require adjusting of lock tension (come with a tool)|
|when carrying a tripod, they can catch/stick at things|
|less stable than twist locks|
|easy to get dirty with sand and muck|
How to use: To unlock, unsnap the locking lever, pull out the leg to the desired length and lock the leg by pressing back the lever.
Tips for faster operation:
- Unlock all the locks, shake it a bit and the legs will “fall out”. Snap them back in the position.
- As I have mentioned before at twist locks, for the best stability of a tripod, first extend the widest top sections and in the end the the lowest section of the leg.
They are similar to clamp locks, just that instead of flipping the lock, you rotate it.
These are the slowest and cheapest of all locking mechanisms available, therefore seen mostly on studio tripods, when quick setup is not that important.
How do you know how far you need to pull out the other two legs?
You extend one leg and lock it into position. How do you know how far you should extend the other two? There are few techniques you can use:
- The easiest technique is to extend the legs to the desired height while they are still folded (before spreading them). This will allow you faster operation (with both twist and clamp locks) as well as to quickly assess how far you should extend the other two legs.
- Use fingers for measuring: lock one leg to the desired length and then with your palm measure the distance between the locks and apply it to other two legs.
- Draw a scale on tripod legs.
This is the third time I’m going to repeat it (but it is very important, so again): for the best stability of a tripod, first extend the widest top sections and in the end the the lowest section of the leg (if not extending tripod legs all their length). To remind you why I stress this out so much, read the section above where I explain how leg sections affect tripod’s sturdiness.
Specification: leg bracing / cross-bracing
Tripod can either have leg braces or not.
There are two types of leg bracings:
- The ones, where the bracing is attached to the tripod legs and the bottom of the center column.
- The ones, where the bracing is attached to the tripod legs and to the ring around the center column, with a brace lock, allowing legs to be locked at the chosen even spread. Note that this does not allow legs to be positioned at any angle individually, but influences all legs together.
More often than not, this applies:
- They are found on cheaper tripods to prevent tripod from spreading its legs wide open. Therefore, more often than not, bracing is a synonym for “cheaper” and “of lower quality”.
- Usually they do improve stability, although not that notably on cheaper lightweight tripods.
- Better tripods, especially professional models don’t have them (and don’t need them).
- Studio tripods, however, usually do have bracing. Because such tripods are usually higher and require bigger load capacity, bracing provide them that.
- Stability of the tripod should not be judged on whether it has bracing or not, but rather on its design and construction materials.
- The most obvious limitation is how far out tripod can spread its legs. This is especially important when doing macro photography when you want to get as close to the ground as possible by spreading tripod legs wide open (“all the way”).
- Another limitation, which can be especially annoying on uneven terrain is that you cannot adjust angle of the legs individually.
- Because of the limitations listed above, tripos with bracing are best to use in a studio, at home or whenever you have even ground. If you want to use tripods in nature, it is best to look for ones with individually adjustable leg angles.
Specification: Leg spread / leg angle
Can tripod legs move independently?
That is, can the angle of each tripod legs be changed individually and independently to one another?
This is a very helpful and necessary feature for anyone shoting outdoors where the ground is rarely completely even. And not all tripods have it!
Individually adjustable leg angles allow you to:
- get closer to the ground by spreading the legs to 90-degree angle (for low-level and macro photography);
- setup tripod quicker and more secure on uneven terrain or indoors (i.e. stairs);
- setup tripod when you don’t have much space available.
On uneven terrain:
This is obviously not possible if tripod legs have braces.
There are generally two types of systems:
Ratchet or stop system
Ratchet or stop system allows you to position tripod legs under (usually) three steps – angles.
On different models there are various ways to change the leg angle, most often you press&hold the button or pull up the lock release.
At which angles these stops are, depends on the manufacturer.
Naturally, the bigger the angle, the lower the tripod gets. You can lock all the legs at the same angle, or set each leg’s angle independently according to the (uneven) terrain.
This system allows you to lock the legs independently at any desired angle from 0- to 90-degrees. Great flexibility!
Again, on different models there are different ways to do it, usually there is a button to press or there is a clamp lock.
For the quickest operation, first position the legs at the desired angles and then lock the legs.
Make sure the tripod has a good center of gravity
When you are shooting on even ground, the centre of tripod’s gravity is usually not a problem (unless if using a really long lens or a horizontal center column).
However, when you are shooting on uneven terrain, when you need to position tripod legs individually, you have to pay attention of the tripod’s center of gravity as well when positioning the legs – otherwise you run the risk of tripod falling over!
Levelling a tripod and a camera to the ground
Whenever you are shooting sunsets, landscapes, panoramas, architecture, whenever you want the horizon to be perfectly straight, you need to make sure the camera is levelled to the ground. That is particularly true when you are shooting on uneven terrain, with independently adjustable legs, or use horizontal center column.
Hmm… I didn’t mention the importance of tripod being levelled to the ground, but yet I have included it in the title. Why?
Because just because the tripod is levelled to the ground, does NOT mean the camera is levelled to the ground as well. And you are shooting with the camera, that’s why making sure the camera is levelled is more important!
O.K. How can you make levelling?
- accessory: bubble level;
- accessory: levelling base;
- accessory: panning clamp;
- “levelling” tripod that has levelling already built in (e.g. Gitzo’s levelling tripods);
- levelling center column (e.g. accessory from Manfrotto/Bogen).
Useful accessory: levelling bubble / spirit level
Bubble level helps you level the tripod, the tripod head or the camera to the ground. There are various types of bubble levels:
- bubble level of horizontal axis: this is useful for aligning horizons;
- bubble level of vertical axis: this is useful when aligning vertical objects, like buildings, trees..;
- bubble level of both horizontal and vertical axis, often called two-way or double axis bubble level;
- three axis bubble level: alongside the horizontal and vertical axis it also measures the applicate axis for even greater precision;
- bulls eye bubble level: this is a circular bubble level that allows you to level all 360° at once; most often found as part of the tripod or tripod head; be sure to try them out before buying to see whether you can level with them: some people find it easy, but some hard!
There are various positions where bubble level is typically placed:
- Mounted on a tripod’s body: it helps to align a tripod.
- Mounted on a tripod’s head: it helps to align a tripod head.
- As an add-on accessory: attached to camera hot shoe (where you would attach a flash device; it aligns the camera) or at the bottom of the tripod’s center column (it aligns the tripod).
Most tripods have a bulls eye bubble level built in on their body, usually just above one of the legs. Here is a quick tip on how to quickly level it:
- Extend the tripod legs and make tripod standing on the ground as visually levelled as you can.
- Look at the bubble and rotate the tripod so the bubble points into the direction of the tripod leg that is below it.
- Slowly lower that leg until the bubble comes in the centre.
Useful accessory: levelling base
Bubble levels can do a sufficient job, but if precision is very important to you, try a levelling base.
Levelling base is a simple add-on between the tripod and the tripod head that allow you to perfectly level your camera with the ground. It has its own bubble level to help you level it.
What is special about it (compared to the bubble level) is that it allows you to do down to degree-precise adjustments.
But now I have to warn you and point out that:
- It is true that levelling base makes everything that is above the levelling base levelled.
- You also don’t need to have tripod levelled to have levelling base levelled.
- HOWEVER, just because levelling base is levelled, does not mean the tripod head (if attached) is levelled (how do you know when the head is in neutral position?). Of course if you don’t attach a head on the levelling base but attach camera directly, you don’t have this problem.
- Additionally, don’t forget that this is an extra accessory which means an additional weight (around 0.6kg / 1.3lb) and additional cost!
Useful accessory: panning clamp
Panning clamp is an add-on device that comes between the tripod ball head and the camera.
So far I know Arca-Swiss is making them. From their description: With the clamp mounted on your (any!) ballhead, loosen the ball and adjust the clamp until its spirit level indicated the clamp is level; lock the ball into position. Now you have the camera perfectly levelled!
Recommended workflow on levelling a camera
Remember, importance of levelling is ONLY important when the shot you are making NEEDS precise levelling of the camera. Does that make sense?
Let’s look at some workflows on how to level the camera, depending on what you have at hand:
Level with a BUBBLE LEVEL:
Level with a LEVELLING BASE:
Level with aPANNING CLAMP:
Level with a LEVELLING TRIPOD or a LEVELLING CENTRE COLUMN:
Remember, just because the tripod is levelled, doesn’t mean the camera is! So always make sure you level the camera in the end as well.
A bit more about levelling..
No, I’m not finished yet! Couple of quick reminders:
- When you have managed to have your camera levelled, do be careful how you jump around the tripod: slightest movements and bumps can make tripod out of level. This is especially true when tripod is not standing on stable ground, i.e. mud (not the best place to go level tripod in the first place anyway).
- I have added this part about levelling of the camera already in the article about tripods for a very good reason: you have to think about it in advance! For example, not all models of tripods accept/have levelling bases or levelling center column, so check it out before you buy it. Of course you won’t have such problems if you are buying a bubble level.
- Last but not least: There are certain situations when having camera levelled is a must, HOWEVER the fun of photography is experimenting, so don’t take all the pictures levelled (and boring) but experiment with different angles and points of view! There is a reason why tripod heads CAN move to various directions and angles! Make full use of that!!!
If you have experience levelling the camera (tripod), let me know how you are doing it!
In this last article in the series of articles about tripods I am giving some more guidelines on how to make your tripod choice.
Another (very important!) question that you need to ask yourself:
How much are you willing to spend?
Tripod prices range from as little as €40, all the way to €500, even more! The same goes with their quality: “you get what you have paid for” unfortunately comes true here.
I don’t recommend getting the cheapest tripod there is, because it will most likely not be strong enough, not steady enough and be purely built. It is definitely tempting to do that, especially with your first tripod!
However, soon you will be disappointed, your needs will expend and you will find yourself buying another tripod. In the end, you will spend much more money than you would if you bought a tripod that would fulfil your needs from the beginning.
Additionally, you need to consider that most tripod (at least the better ones) are usually sold without tripod heads. Therefore when calculating the cost of a tripod, consider you need to buy a tripod head as well! (Most manufacturers do however offer the possibility to buy a kit, which includes a tripod as well as a tripod head.)
Having said all that, I do need to point out that how much you should spend SHOULD hugely depend on how much and how important photography is to you and what kind of features you need. There is absolutely no need to buy a very expensive tripod (when much cheaper tripod would do the job good enough) and then let it lie around somewhere in the closet. Yes, buying a tripod does need some thinking and compromising.
Search for tripods and test them
Now that you know what features are important for you (it is also good idea to write them down and prioritize them) and how much you are willing to spend, it is time to look for actual tripod models with such characteristics. To make your choice easier, I will prepare the comparison Excel sheet with some of the models.
When you make a short list of the models you want, test them! Why is this important? You will be able to feel for yourself how certain features (e.g. locks, height, weight, adjusting…) feel. Different people like different things and many things about tripods are completely subjective, therefore try it out! You need to like it otherwise you will not use it!
Things that are the most important to consider and the most quickly to start to irritate you when they don’t fulfil your needs
- Tripod should be sturdy. That is reason why you have agreed to be carrying it around in the first place! Only with a sturdy tripod you can get sharp images.
- It should be quick to adjust: you don’t want to miss the right moment or spend too much time adjusting it.
- It should allow you to be flexible: taking photos from different angles and positions.
- It should be light and fit on the backpack (if travelling around and hiking).
- Your camera system becomes too heavy for the tripod to carry. Make sure that you determine the weight of all the cameras, lenses, flashes or anything that you would want to put on a tripod. The tripod specification that you should be looking at here is the maximum load capacity.
- Bad grip when shooting in the nature – helps if tripod feet can be removable.
And remember, tripod should last a lifetime!
If you are just a bit serious about photography, get yourself a “good enough” tripod from the beginning.
The last words..
Buying a tripod is always a compromise. You just cannot have it all. That’s why it is important to think what features you want and how you want the tripod to behave before making the choice and final decision.
I hope you have found the article useful!
Note that all images and text are copyrighted. Please respect that. If you would like to use images in any way, contact me.