Last week I did something I’ve never done before…I faced the crowds and the stores in search of a bargain. Well, actually, I was working with a client – helping her choose some new photographic equipment. Amongst other things she was looking for the best tripod and was totally overwhelmed by the choices available to her. While shopping with her I could only come to the same conclusion that it is bewildering to even the seasoned photographer when buying a tripod and trying to figure out the best tripod for your needs. So I decided to put together this short guide in case any of you guys are heading out to shop for this vital accessory.
Do I really need a tripod?
Anyone who considers themselves a serious photographer really does need a tripod. I know, I know! They’re heavy and awkward to lug around but if you REALLY want that shot, that award winning, hang on the wall, amaze your friends shot, then you need to think seriously about using a tripod. Especially if you are a landscape photographer or shoot in low lighting conditions. For landscapes shot with a very high f number eg f/22, you absolutely need a tripod to steady your camera. In low light conditions, its absolutely pointless trying to achieve slow shutter speeds (anything slower than the focal length of your lens) without a tripod’s help. Macro photographers will also
drive themselves slowly insane without using a tripod and even in studio portrait shots its always useful to have a safe place to put your camera during takes. For still lifes, mounting your camera on a tripod allows you to change various settings while keeping the distance/ focal length exactly the same. This can save a lot of hassle when your trying to get the shot just right.
Anytime you go shopping for new photographic equipment you know your going to be dropping some (quite a bit of ) cash. Tripods are definitely not one of the cheapest photographic accessories but there are a wide variety of price points available. Your budget will dictate several things such as weight, added features, ease of use and functionality. One thing I will say is however try to extend your budget as much as possible because trying to use a cheap tripod could well put you off photography for life! For one, you don’t want to put your expensive camera body and lens on a flimsy – one puff of wind will knock it down- tripod. Also getting fingers pinched in difficult to maneuver leg hinges will drive you to distraction. Be prepared to spend a little more than you though you’d have to.
Is the best tripod, the heaviest?
Not necessarily as a heavy tripod that stays in the closet is no good to you compared with a light one that you are more inclined to bring with you! That being said you need a certain degree of stability – that’s the whole point right?! You can generally choose from Aluminium tripods or Carbon fibre tripods. My student ended up opting for the carbon fibre version of a Manfrotto she was looking at which was about $200 more than the aluminium one. She felt that given the amount of traveling she’d be doing with it, and all of the new weight restrictions on airline luggage limits it would be worth it to save the few pounds.
Aluminium tripods are heavier but can still provide decent support. If you’ll mostly be using your tripod in the same place then these would be fine. If your buying your tripod online – I highly recommend Amazon, do a weight comparison and physically get out the equivalent weight of bags of sugar or free weights if you have them, to see how heavy 5 lbs really is.
Separate Legs and Ball Head
Entry level tripods are generally a single unit of legs that are permanently attached to the head, which has a removable plate that can be screwed into the base of your camera. These are cheap and cheerful and can serve the beginner in photography very well. As you go up through the models of tripods you will notice that the legs and the heads can be purchased separately. This is to give the photographer more choice in the type of tripod best suited for his needs.
Check out the type of hinges on your tripod legs. They need to be able to released and locked quickly and easily (without pinching your fingers!) I like the quick release hinges as opposed to the screw-type ones as they maneuvered more quickly. Check and see how high the legs extend without raising the center column and also how low to the ground they go. This ability is really useful for macro shots, product photography and shooting sweeping landscapes with a great perspective. Added features here can be the middle column extending out to the side or inverting so that the camera is almost at ground level. The Manfrotto 055XPROB is an example of legs that have these features.
The head is the top part of the tripod which holds the camera and allows you to adjust it’s position. Again, here you have a few choices to make and again it will depend on the majority of the type of photography you shoot. If you do a lot of architecture and landscape photography a three-way pan head would be suitable for you. This allows you to fine tune and adjust each axis of the head individually. Great for precision but a little slow to use.
I much prefer the Ballhead type head. These are as they sound, like a ball and socket joint which allow you to manuever your camera in any direction quickly, easily and most importantly smoothly. My student opted for a grip action or joystick grip ball head which is super easier to manipulate and she loves it!
As like all things in the photographic world there are so many choices available and each person has a variety of needs I recommend that you do you research before running out and buying a tripod.
- Think about the things I’ve outlined above
- Think about the types of photography you’ll mostly be using it for
- Think about it as an investment
- And compare several products till you find the right one for you.
A great place to start is by checking out the Manfrotto range. I’ve been using (and selling) Manfrotto for 10 years and I find them excellent with a great range suitable for the beginner to the seasoned pro. You can check them out here at Amazon.com.
Happy (steady) snapping!