You need different tripods for different situations, but you don’t need to spend big on them. I’ll show you three tripods I use that can cover you in almost any setting and won’t break the bank.
The High-End Tripod
When you live in one of the top four countries on Earth most at risk of natural disasters, you soon learn the value of a solid tripod. If you Google “riskiest places in the world for natural disasters,” you’ll see that Japan is in the top four, along with China, the Philippines, and Bangladesh. Having lived here for 15 years, I’ve seen it all: earthquakes, typhoons, mudslides, torrential rain, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions, sometimes all in 12 months! Indeed, barely more than 100 km up the road, Shinmoadake is currently erupting and gushing huge fireballs and ash into the sky above. Quite the sight!
So, having a tripod that can handle almost any situation Mother Nature can throw at you is extremely important. That’s where the Vanguard Alta Pro Series comes in. This tripod has absolutely everything I could ever need when it comes to sturdiness, versatility, durability, and most importantly, stability. I’ve owned mine for more than five years, and I really can’t see a reason I won’t own it for another five.
I live very close to the ocean here in southwest Japan and I’m also surrounded by high mountains and verdant valleys. Therefore, I’m often out shooting with water rushing around my ankles or perched high up on rocks with river torrents smashing and crashing inches from my gear like in the picture above. And this tripod has never failed me.
One thing I really love about the Vanguard is its ability to maneuver into a 180-degree angle or completely parallel to the ground. Very often, when you want to use a tripod very low to the ground, the center column gets in the way and prevents you from getting as low as you want. Then, you have to try and contort your tripod into all sorts of crazy angles and configurations for it to do what you need.
But with the Vanguard, you simply pull the center column up and then flip the switch and fold it over. Then, it releases and allows you to place it at whatever angle you want. You can also manipulate the ball head and position your camera whatever way you want. It’s extremely convenient and incredibly helpful when you’re shooting in uneven or rocky terrain.
Another thing I really like is the hook at the bottom of the center column. Surprisingly, many tripods still don’t have this feature, but it really is a lifesaver for two reasons. Firstly, it allows you to add extra weight to the tripod. When you hang your camera bag off the bottom of the center column hook, it adds stability to the tripod, which further helps keep the camera stay still. This is extremely important when you are out shooting in particularly inclement weather. Secondly, it keeps your bag safe and dry and away from potential disaster. As I said, I shoot a lot in and around water and deep, rocky valleys. Being able to keep my bag up off the ground or free from danger is very reassuring.
The best part is that the Vanguard series comes in at $160. I have the aluminum version, and granted, it’s a little bit on the heavy and bulky side. There is a carbon fiber version available, but its size is pretty much the same. And it’s only marginally lighter, so I don’t really see the point of forking out an extra few hundred dollars for it.
If I know that I’m going out into conditions that require a strong, sturdy tripod and I know I won’t be moving around from location to location too much, I always take the Vanguard.
The Travel Tripod
You can see from the picture below that the Manfrotto Be Free tripod is almost half the size of the Vanguard. It’s designed for travel and easy mobility, and I must say, it’s incredibly convenient.
When it’s folded up and packed in the bag, it’s roughly the length of your elbow to your outstretched hand. It’s very easy to carry around your shoulder or simply attach to the side of your camera bag. It also has a sturdy ball head that is very easy to manipulate. It easily takes the weight of my Canon 5D Mark IV and most lenses as well as my 7D Mark II with almost every lens I own. It folds back on itself, which is how it becomes so compact. The legs and center column are much thinner than the Vanguard, which also explains why it’s so much lighter.
If you know you’re going to be walking around for the day and you don’t want to lug something big and cumbersome around, then this is the perfect tripod for you. Admittedly, it’s a little bit lightweight to take out in typhoon conditions, but that’s why you have the Vanguard. The Manfrotto Be Free is my go-to tripod whenever I travel for extensive periods of time.
I’ve taken it around Greece and Europe as well as across half of Japan and my home in Australia. Mine has definitely seen better days and the little rubber stoppers on the bottom of the legs have long since fallen off. But it still gets the job done as well as the day I bought it. And for $150, you really can’t go wrong.
The only real criticism I had of the Manfrotto Be Free was that it didn't have the little hook on the bottom of the center column to hang your bag from. But the newer versions now have that, so you're good to go. Manfrotto make a lot of great tripods, but for me, the aluminium Be Free is all I need.
The Fit-In-Your-Pocket Tripod
Sometimes, I just can’t be bothered taking all my camera gear out with me, including tripods. I love getting out and about in nature, and I really enjoy going for rides on my bike or walks with my little daughter. At those times, the last thing I want is a camera bag full of lenses perched upon my back or a tripod swung across my shoulder. But I do want to take some photos because it’s impossible to take a good photo if you don’t have a camera or a tripod that enables you to take some long exposure shots. So, what do I do?
I use the Cullman Magnesic Copter. I love this little tripod because I can fit it in my pocket and it doesn’t weigh me down. Yet, it allows me to take long exposure shots of otherwise boring water during windy afternoons.
Before I got this nifty little tripod, I would go for evening rides along the coast without my camera because I wasn’t excited by the water and didn’t want to carry my gear around. And as sure as night follows day, I would always come across some scenes where I wished I'd had my camera and a tripod. Then I found the Cullman Magnesic Copter and I got the best of both worlds. I could go for a leisurely ride or walk along the beach with just a camera and lens around my neck and I could have a tripod at my disposal tucked away in my pocket.
Of course, as it is so small, you need to rest it up on a wall or something like that, but it’s never too hard to find something. And it takes the weight of my Canon 5D Mark IV with my Canon 16–35mm f/4L IS lens very easily.
It has a screw in function that you just attach to the bottom of your camera. And it also has a little ball head that you can use to adjust the angle of the camera. All in all, it’s incredibly convenient, and for $35, it’s an absolute no-brainer.
These Three Are All You Need
So there you have it: three tripods that give you exactly what you want from a tripod — stability. These three will get you by in almost any situation imaginable. And you don’t need to make yourself broke to get any of them.
What tripods do you use and recommend in a similar price range?