The Ultimate Guide to Tripods for Photographers

Aug 18, 2022   9 min read

Tripods for photographers are what easels are for painters. Sure, you could do without them if you absolutely need to, but they make the job much easier!

If you’re looking to get your very first tripod, settling on a choice can be quite challenging. After all, things can get complicated between the weight, height, and the various head types on the market.

Knowing a tripod’s features inside and out can make all the difference in preserving your gear and taking your shots to the next level.

Why Bother With a Tripod?

Let’s get one thing out of the way: tripods can be a hassle to deal with. No one really wants to add this kind of bulky load to their gear, especially if you’re looking to become a travel photographer.

Yet, it’s a common practice for professional photographers to own not one but multiple tripods. So, why is that?

Owning a couple of lightweight travel tripods like these, a studio tripod for static portrait photography and even a heavy-duty tripod for use with longer lenses isn’t uncommon among dedicated professionals.

Overall, the range of benefits you get from a tripod seriously outweighs the hassle.

To clarify things a bit, let’s take a look at a few photography techniques that are just simply better with a tripod:

Long Exposure

Shooting at dusk is a must-try for any photographer, but whenever you’re doing a low-light photoshoot, you’ll often need a long exposure. This way, you’re slowing the shutter down to several seconds or even minutes.

Keeping your camera as still as possible is the key to getting a noise-free image with a longer exposure.

While some photographers have particularly steady hands, not everyone is as blessed. Even those who could handle a shot or two without a tripod might get tired and shaky after a while, and there’s only so much that a camera’s image stabilization can do in that case.

So, propping up a sturdy tripod will help you ace your long exposures—that and some patience!

Action Panning

A successful panning can give you a very cinematic shot, and tripods can sometimes be useful here, too.

As you might know, panning requires you to swiftly move the camera horizontally before the shutter goes off. This keeps the subject sharp in focus, with a “motion” vibe in the background.

Some people manage to get this done just fine with hand-held cameras. Others, not so much.

For this technique, tripods can do more than just stabilize the camera. Instead, they could help you get this swift motion without blurring.

Not all tripods can do that since different heads are better optimized for panning than others, so look out for one with a ‘fluid’ head, or at least a ball head that can be adjusted easily on the horizontal axis.

Tripod guide - man with a tripod offshore

Close-ups and Macros

You don’t always need tripods for fancy techniques. Sometimes, it’s the basic ones that need a stability boost.

For instance, when you’re doing close-ups or macro photography, even the slightest vibration will ruin the image’s sharpness.

If your macro shots are outdoors, there’s also the wind to worry about. So, all-in-all, it’s a handy tool to consider when you want to get up close to your subject.

Here are 7 Tips to Keep in Mind When Picking the Right Photographer’s Tripod

Before you commit to a tripod, you might want to consider a few factors. Here are the seven most important tips you’ll need on your way:

  1. Aim for Two-Piece Tripods vs. Integrated Heads
  2. Get the Right Head for Your Photography Style
  3. Consider the Leg Material and Cost
  4. Acquaint Yourself with the Lock Systems (Flippies and Twisties)
  5. Don't Give Center Columns Too Much Credit
  6. Balance Weight With Portability
  7. Pamper Your Tripod

Aim for Two-Piece Tripods vs. Integrated Heads

When you’re shopping for tripods, you’ll notice two general categories: two-piece and all-in-ones.

All-in-ones are typically more of an entry-level setup that you’ll have to replace quickly when your skill sets level up.

There’s nothing wrong per se with integrated heads. In fact, they’re usually more affordable. However, they offer much less room for customization and thus limit your feature range.

On the other hand, getting the tripod legs and heads as two separate pieces will allow you to switch and swap as you see fit. So, if you have the budget for it, take the step up and skip all-in-one models altogether.

Get the Right Head for Your Photography Style

Speaking of tripod heads, you’ll come across pan-tilts, ball heads, three-ways, gimbals, geared, and even hybrids. In short, the possibilities can be overwhelming if you don’t know what to look for.

To narrow your options, think about what photography you do the most. Is it mainly video or stills?

For video photographers, pan-tilts are almost a staple for accuracy and fluid motions. They offer two axes of movement: panning right and left with tilting up and down.

Meanwhile, ball heads and three-ways are better suited for stills since they add one more axis. The difference here is that the ball heads are faster and more compact than the bulky but precise three-way heads.

Alternatively, you can consider a hybrid piston or joystick head. These are incredibly fast, but a bit heavy and might be slightly unstable with extreme angles.

A gimbal head, on the other hand, might be a bit too expensive for beginners. Plus, they only really shine with particularly long lenses. So, it might not be a smart move to get it as your first tripod head.

Keep in mind that quick release (QR) attachments for all head styles are pretty much the default nowadays. So, that’s one common denominator you don’t have to worry about.

Consider the Leg Material and Cost

The top two materials on the market are carbon fiber and aluminum.

Carbon fibers usually come with a hefty price tag, but for a good reason. They’re lighter and can absorb more vibrations.

If you’re on a budget, you can get aluminum ones, but they’ll be slightly heavier when transporting them around.

That said, it’s crucial not to put all your focus on the main leg portion and forget the nitty-gritty details: the feet.

It would be much better to get a tripod with replaceable feet, especially if you do a lot of outdoor photography. This way, you can easily swap the good-old rubber feet with suction pads for slippery floors or even metal spikes for snow!

Acquaint Yourself With the Lock Systems (Flippies and Twisties)

There are mainly two lock styles: flips or twists. There’s really no wrong way to go here, but you might prefer one over the other with experience.

For one, many photographers find the twist collar models quieter and more compact. However, it’s not uncommon to forget to tighten them, especially on legs with many sections. As a result, it could collapse and take the camera with it.

Meanwhile, flip locks are tough to miss, but they can bulge and snag on clothes or cables.

In short, if you get a tripod with twist collars, set a closure pattern (like closing from the upside downwards) and follow it religiously to avoid skipping a collar along the way. With flip locks, you’ll have to be mindful about leaving a mess around the tripod.

Regardless of what lock you choose, keep those safety precautions in mind:

Push down on the tripod before putting your camera on it. If a leg is going to collapse, you probably want to know before it takes your expensive gear down.

Always set up one leg directly under the lens. This way, the load will be balanced out properly.

Consider getting a collar if you use long lenses. It’ll help center the weight on the tripod.

Don’t over-tighten the sections. It could wear the twist collars out with time.

Don’t Give Center Columns Too Much Credit

More often than not, you’ll find brands that boast an incredible maximum height. Usually, that’s all due to the center column. While it might be nice to get an extra foot or so on your tripod, that’s not always the best route for stability.

It’s a nice feature to have, but don’t buy a tripod with the mindset of “it’ll be long enough if I extend the column” since it’ll reduce the quality of most of your shots.

So, what should be the tripod’s actual height sans the column extension?

In most cases, getting something that’s around a foot shy of your own height will work fine. This way, when you add in the head and the camera, it’ll be at your eye level without needing to prop up the center column at all.

However, for people who do garden macro photography on lower items, like flowers and leaves, the maximum height will probably not be much of an issue, anyway.

Balance Weight With Portability

Usually, people dread getting heavy items in their photography gear. However, weight is a desirable feature on a tripod since it translates to stability. In fact, some people even opt to hook up extra loads on the central column.

That said, you also want something you can carry around without throwing your back. So, on average, you could draw the line at a maximum of six pounds.

For instance, the Manfrotto 475B is a beast of a tripod at a little over four pounds without the head. That’s why it could be a wise choice if you have a heavy camera since it can hold up to 26.5 pounds.

On the other hand, smaller DSLRs can do just fine with something that handles 15 pounds.

Keep in mind that you don’t really want to hit the maximum weight limit on your tripod. Just because it can hold it up doesn’t mean it’ll be sturdy. So, aim for about double the load capacity that you actually need.

What you should avoid at all costs is a flimsy and thin tripod. Sure, it’s cheap and highly portable, but at a major downside. Not only will it wobble for days, but it could also collapse and ruin the lens. At best, these shaky legs could handle something lightweight, like a GoPro.

Pamper Your Tripod

If you’re willing to splurge, a few tripod accessories can be worth a shot.

For one, you can get something as simple as a hammock to hold your gear or just fill it with stones to weigh down the tripod for extra stability. You can also get a remote shutter to reduce the vibration from physically touching the camera.

For outdoor shots, you can get an umbrella bracket to snap on the tripod.

Remember that even if you get a bubble level for your tripod, you’ll probably resort right back to the camera’s own level. This is particularly true when you want to avoid off-kilter videos. Stills, on the other hand, could be fixed in post.

Here are 5 Handy Alternatives to Traditional Tripods for Photographers

Maybe you gave traditional tripods a shot and realized they’re not your cup of tea. Maybe you just want to expand your gear kit a bit.

Either way, it’s only reasonable to wonder about the possible alternatives. For the sake of curiosity, if nothing else.

So, aside from the obvious hand-held technique, let’s take a look at five nifty gadget categories that could replace a tripod in the right setting:

1. Monopods

Monopods can score one point over tripods in crowded places, but they’re usually not as stable as the real deal.

2. Suction Cups

In cars or even desktops, a suction cup mount can be a highly portable and affordable way to prop your camera up.

3. Platforms

If you do a lot of outdoor photography, you can hook something like a Platypod platform to a tree in lieu of a tripod.

4. Clamps and Magic Arms

A camera clamp with a magic arm can save you in a pinch for tabletop shots. However, it won’t help with the table vibrations one bit.

5. A Good-Old Stack of Books

When you’re in a rush and looking to prop up a camera on a desk real-quick, just stack some books under it. It might sound a little amateur, but if it works, it works.

FAQs

Let’s jump right in with some frequently asked questions.

What’s the average cost for a photographer’s tripod?

You can get tripods for as low as $20 and as high as four-figure price tags. However, a moderate level would be around $300.

How do you maintain a tripod?

To keep your tripod in tip-top shape, wipe the dust down with a microfiber cloth.

For beach photoshoots, if the tripod gets exposed to salt water, rinse with tap or distilled water and dry it out before storing it. Otherwise, the legs will rust very quickly.

Are tripods compatible with all cameras?

Since quick release (QR) is the default with almost all tripod heads out there, you don’t have to worry too much about compatibility.

Just remember to buy extra QRs because no matter how hard you try, you’ll end up losing them!

The Takeaway

So, while tripods are crucial for techniques like panning and long exposure, the gist is that there’s no one ‘best’ tripod for all photographers. Instead, you’ll just have to set priorities based on your own needs.

For instance, video photographers might pick pan-tilts over a ball head. Similarly, someone on a tight budget will steer clear of carbon fiber legs, but a photographer willing to splurge will get two tripod sets: one for the studio and one on the go.

Either way, remember to take good care of your 3-legged friends to keep them lasting longer!

Mark Condon
CEO Founder | Shotkit.com

 

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