Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I am a novice in photography and my current camera (Sony alpha 230 kit) which I recently have bought is the first DSLR of mine. Soon I'd like to buy a tripod for it.

Please advise me what should I take into consideration when choosing a tripod? At present all the tripods seem similar to me and I feel that I need some help in choosing the right one.

From what I tend to shoot now, I think that the primary usage of the tripod will be landscape and portrait (outdoor) photography.

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There are some good general answers here, but you might want to add what your intended usage is (e.g. landscape, portrait, wildlife, etc...). That would help focus the suggestions a bit more and allow for suggestions about the head as well. –  John Cavan Aug 15 '10 at 16:58
    
@John Cavan Thanks John, I've edited my question as you suggested –  rem Aug 15 '10 at 17:37
    
See What are my best options for a tripod for up to $100? for Q&A on low-end options in specific. –  mattdm Dec 16 '11 at 13:21

4 Answers 4

up vote 42 down vote accepted

A tripod is really two pieces -- the tripod itself, and the head that the camera connects to and lets you aim the camera. They need to be considered separately.

The tripod's purpose is to be a rigid platform -- but portable. you end up having to make a series of compromises around cost, weight and rigidity (choose two....). Cheapest is steel, generally rigid but heavy. Then aluminum, lighter but more expensive. Then carbon fiber, much lighter, but you either pay a lot more or give up rigidity (or both).

The worst tripod is one that's so heavy you won't take it with you. The second worst tripod is one that's so twitchy it doesn't really serve its purpose as a rigid platform. That said, you can pick up some decent tripods at good cost.

I started with an aluminum tripod, upgraded to a moderately priced carbon fiber. The weight difference was about a pound, which doesn't sound like much until you haul it around for eight hours. Then the cost of a carbon fiber seems like a bargain.

Wood tripods are fairly rare now; also fairly expensive, but very rigid and heavy. For large camera rigs (medium format, for instance) useful, for 35MM, not necessary.

You want a tripod that puts the camera at a comfortable shooting height. If you aren't comfortable using it, you won't. Less expensive tripods have shorter legs and center post that raises the the camera to eye level. More expensive tripods will meet closer to eye level. That center post can cause vibration and cost rigidity (especially in a windy environment), so if you can afford it, go for a taller one.

A center post with a hook on the bottom allows you to add weight to the tripod which will cut the vibration and add stability in wind. You can use your camera bag as a weight.

Most tripods come iwth legs that collapse in 3 sections. Some are in four, a few five. The primary advantage of the more sections is that the tripod will collapse into a smaller lump which makes it easier to store and travel with. More sections means more moving parts and generally a loss of some rigidity and added cost. I'd lean towards a four-part leg unless you're backpacking, but three is fine (especially if the tripod lives in your trunk).

Tripods have a weight rating. The heavier the capacity a tripod can carry, in general, the more rigid it is. You can put a heavier camera on a tripod than it's capacity, but you might end up fighting sag and vibration. I use the weight capacity as a rough estimate of rigidity when evaluating tripods, so the higher this value the better (but as you beef up the tripod, you're generally adding weight and cost).

Better tripods can give you flexibility on positioning -- if you do macro work, being able to adjust legs or shift the center post can be helpful (Gitzo tripods are good at this, for instance).

For someone just starting out, I'd recommend an aluminum tripod; it'll be a good starter unity that won't cost you a lot until you know what you really need, and not expensive enough that you feel too bad upgrading when you're ready. I'd plan on paying $100-140 for the legs to get into a price range with good quality and rigidity without paying for capabilities you find out you don't need.

Tripods like the Induro AT114 ($125) or the SLIK PRO 700DX ($100) would be good starting points. If you want to start with carbon fiber, the Slik 614 ($224) is a good starting point.

You then need a head on the tripod. It's purpose is to connect the camera to the tripod and allow you to aim the camera but hold it in place once it's where you want it to be.

There are basically two main styles of head: pan head and ball head. Pan heads use multiple hinges to allow you to adjust the camera in different planes. ball heads use a ball in a socket (similar to your shoulder) so that you have freedom to adjust the camera with a single locking mechanism. A third mounting mechanism is the gimbal, used primarily on really large (500mm and larger) lens.

I much prefer ball heads. You'll need to decide over time what you prefer, but most pro photographers rely on ball heads for most purposes.

Heads have a weight capacity just like the tripods do. If you put a heavier camera on one than it's designed for, you may find it sags or won't stay in position. You shouldn't overpay for a big head you don't need, because it'll cost you money and weight. But if you get one too small, you'll end up frustrated trying to make things work reliably.

A question with heads is "quick release or not?" -- there are a number of quick release options available where you attach a plate to your cameras and it allows you to attach and detach the camera swiftly. You want a quick release system, bceause screwing your camera onto tripods and taking it back off again gets old quickly. Which one depends on which head you want to buy. There are a few standardized setups for quick releases, the one most pros seem to use is the "arca-swiss", but it can also be pricey. I've standardized my quick release on the manfrotto RC2 plate, and it works pretty well; it's not as rigid as the arca-swiss mount but it gets the job done pretty well. I've only found a couple of situations (like my 12x100 astronomical binoculars) where the weight creates problems (those binoculars are huge and tend to be aimed at awkward angles). One reason I like the RC2 -- it has a switch that lets you lock the quick release in place. there's nothing quite like having your quick release release at the wrong time...

A good starting point for ballheads would be something like the Manfrotto 495 ($85). it's a solid basic unit. My primary head today is the Mnanfrotto 498 ($130), one step up from that. It's solid and reliable. I do plan on upgrading it (to a ballhead from Really Right Stuff with an arca-swiss mount) at some point, but that's a fairly major financial investment.

My current tripod is a slik 3 piece carbon fiber with the manfrotto 498. It's only major flaw is that I get a fair amount of vibration in windy situations because I have to raise the center column to get to eye level. Weighting the center column helps, but moving to a beefier tripod is the long term change at some point (on the other hand, switching to a higher end carbon fiber tripod and the RRS ballhead is much closer to $1000 than $100. It's an investment purchase).

my first tripod was a slik aluminum tripod with a manfrotto pan head. It was a good, solid starter tripod and I still carry it and use it for my spotting scope or if I need to have two cameras on tripods at the same time. It is (amusingly enough) more rigid than my 2nd tripod -- but a lot heavier. So it lives in the trunk. It would make a good starter unit for any photographer taking this step and the equivalent current products are listed above (the only items I listed I don't own are the induro tripod legs, but I've talked to enough photographers swearing by them and the really right stuff heads that I trust recommending them and they're the units I'm planning on purchasing next)

Don't overspend to start, because you don't need to. Don't underspend because you'll get something that you'll have to fight to do what you want. And remember that since the tripod and the head are separate, you can mix and match -- and you can upgrade each piece separately as you find out what you need and want.

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Couple other things to note about heads: Some "quick releases" truly & fully release without a safety catch, meaning if you don't have a solid grip on your camera and lens, it drops to the ground (a Manfrotto did this, and I almost lost an $1800 lens.) Might want to also mention the different kinds of heads. Ball heads are nice general purpose, a gimbal head provides much smoother and more precise angling and panning, panning heads are great for panoramic shots, etc. Some heads have bubble levels in multiple planes, some don't, etc. –  jrista Aug 15 '10 at 16:38
    
The newer Manfrottos all seem to have a lock for the quick release lever (mine does) to avoid accidental release of the lever. Of course, you do have to remember to flip the lock, I sometimes forget. –  John Cavan Aug 15 '10 at 16:56
    
@John: depends on the plating system. RC2's have a manual lever, but the RC4, the extra lock is automatic. –  Alan Aug 15 '10 at 21:42
    
@Alan, thanks, I didn't know that. I've had no problem with mine, I've been known to cart it around on my shoulder, but it's the manual lock. Perhaps I'd need to be cautious with the RC4 plates? –  John Cavan Aug 15 '10 at 22:27

Excellent comments.

One consideration not mentioned: What happens if you regularly stick your tripod legs into mud, seawater, or Mono Lake? Benbo makes tripods with the big tubes on the bottom, so the sliding mechanism doesn't get fouled (as long as you don't go in TOO deep). With a conventional design tripod one must carry it back with lower tubes extended until it can be washed off or later disassemble it for (tedious) cleaning. Benbo tripods are heavy and need getting used to, but my love of tidepools is no longer challenged. Or, Birdsasart.com sells condom-like devices for tripod legs.

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I realise that this comment comes very late, but it pains me as a fellow Benbo lover to point out that simple, cheap PVC overtubes (a length of pipe and a pipe cap) solve the problem neatly for tripods with their leg segments on backwards. They still don't get the flexibility of a Benbo, but five bucks will get them hip waders for their 'pods. –  user2719 Dec 22 '11 at 3:13

Great list Rowland!

I'd add stability. Some of the cheaper tripods out there have a tendency to shake after you've touched them (when you trip the shutter release). If you find your self in a situation where you don't have your cable release with you a jittery tripod can really mess you up.

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This might be better as a comment on Rowland's answer. –  Alan Aug 15 '10 at 17:58

There are several factors to consider, and their relative importance will depend on what you intend to use it for, but they are:

Weight

If you're going to be carrying your tripod long distances for landscape photography, you don't want something too heavy.

Maximum Load

Tripods are rated for a maximum load -- if you have an interest in nature photography, you may want to allow for heavier lenses. Bear in mind that the maximum loads quoted are normally exactly that, and a tripod might not be as stable as you'd like around those weights.

Working Height

Normally one of the last things that people consider, but for plat macros, you'll want to be able to get very close to the ground, whereas with more formal portraiture, you'll want to get up quite high.

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+1. You might want to add that maximum load ratings typically consider "is it going to collapse" rather than "is it stable", so people often choose a tripod with a max load significantly higher than they will actually need for greater stability. –  Reid Aug 15 '10 at 15:02
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+1. Maybe a couple of words about different heads? –  Karel Aug 15 '10 at 15:12
    
+1. Might also want to note that maximum height excludes any additional inches that may be added by a tripod head, which itself may add 3-4 inches. –  jrista Aug 15 '10 at 16:30
    
+1: Ditto what @Karel said. –  Alan Aug 15 '10 at 17:58

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