A tripod is a vital tool for many photographers. There is a wide range of tripods available in every price range. You can invest as little as fifty dollars or go as high as fifteen hundred dollars. There are some things to watch out for, regardless the price range.
A tripod serves as a crucial piece of equipment. It stabilizes your camera and lens in a chosen position. It doesn't matter if you're using a 16mm wide angle lens weighing only 500 grams or a hefty 800mm lens weighing 5.5 kilograms. It allows for long exposures without issues or enables incredibly precise macro photography with substantial magnification. Moreover, it comes in handy for group portraits where you need to be in the shot too.
There is a tripod for every conceivable use, and this determines the type of tripod you need, up to a certain extent. It might be easy to just recommend a thousand-dollar tripod with the assurance that your camera will be secure in every situation. But that would be bad advice.
After all, it would be foolish to invest in such an expensive tripod if you only use it a few times a year. In fact, even budget-friendly tripods can be a suitable choice as long as you consider a few factors. In this article, I will provide some key checkpoints without steering you directly towards the most expensive tripod.
The Obvious Considerations
There are a few fundamental considerations when it comes to tripod advice. Firstly, consider the weight it can support. A general rule of thumb is three to four times the maximum weight of your heaviest equipment. If this is 5 kilograms, I always recommend choosing a tripod and ball head capable of supporting at least 15-20 kilograms.
While this might seem excessive, it will help minimize vibrations. Additionally, if you tend to use your camera backpack as a counterweight at the center column, this extra capacity becomes valuable.
Another crucial factor is how you intend to use the tripod. Is it for studio work, or does it need to accompany you on a long hike? For the former, a large, heavy, and sturdy aluminum tripod will suffice, while a lightweight carbon tripod is preferable for the latter.
Will you be using the tripod in conditions with wind or near water? Is videography the primary use, or will it be primarily for macro photography? These considerations will steer you towards a specific type of tripod.
Price is, of course, a consideration. What is your budget for a tripod that meets your needs? As mentioned, the most expensive one isn't necessarily the best for you. True, it will perform the task impeccably, but it doesn't make much sense if you're using a small compact camera on a heavy duty $1,500 tripod.
On the other hand, a $50 tripod might be an excellent choice if it's only needed occasionally, provided you choose carefully. After all, stability is the key. You don't want your costly equipment tumbling to the ground. That’s why you have to check some key points before buying.
What to Look Out For
I've come across some surprisingly good cheap tripods. They're compact, lightweight, and quite robust. I wouldn't hesitate to use one from time to time. That's precisely what these tripods are designed for: occasional or low-stress use.
If you're in the market for a tripod, always check the key points I mentioned below. It doesn’t matter if your tripod will be an expensive or a cheap one.
Leg locks come in two types: the twist lock and the lever lock. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and you should choose the type that feels most convenient for you. In other words, try both before making a decision.
A consideration that’s much more important is how securely the legs lock in place. Does it offer a firm lock that keeps the legs at the desired height, or do they slowly sink down? Remember, sinking occurs only under a constant downward force. This means you should test this with your heaviest camera and lens combination, or even with a camera backpack suspended from the center column.
Do the twist locks or lever locks operate smoothly? Do you need to apply a lot of force to lock or unlock the legs, or is it with a simple flick of a wrist? If you plan to use the tripod near water, you might want to consider whether the legs can be taken apart for cleaning.
The Base Plate and Ball Head
A common issue I've observed with many basic tripods is the ease with which a ball head can be unscrewed from the tripod itself, sometimes unintentionally. If you constantly need to check if the ball head is securely in place, there will come a moment when you forget.
The ball head is the component to which your camera attaches. You must be certain that the ball head is always properly secured. Even if there's minimal risk of your camera falling, a ball head that is not fixed in place won't maintain your camera in a stable position.
Another crucial consideration is the operation of the ball head itself. Typically, there are two or three knobs, each serving a different function. Ensure these knobs function seamlessly. They should be easy to lock and unlock without excessive force.
When you lock the knobs, it should be a secure lock. The panorama knob should keep the ball head fixed in the desired direction, while the ball head lock itself should hold the ball in the correct position. If it fails in this regard, you'll find it challenging to use the tripod in a convenient manner.
The Camera Plate Itself
Most ball heads now incorporate an Arca-Swiss connection plate. This small plate is screwed to the bottom of your camera, allowing for quick attachment to the ball head. This plate must be securely fastened, without any play. I don't need to explain the potential consequences if the camera plate comes loose.
Fortunately, various third-party camera plates are available. You're not restricted to using the one that comes with the tripod head. Seek out one that stays securely in place, or even consider an L-bracket if the one you received with the ball head fails to do so.
Don't Be Misled by Price
As mentioned at the outset of this article, an expensive tripod doesn't guarantee it's the best one for you. Therefore, it's essential to visit a store and try out different tripods yourself. You might discover an affordable tripod that presents none of the aforementioned issues and meets your requirements.
However, when searching for an inexpensive tripod, don't assume you can overlook one single issue as mentioned in this article. While you might save money with a budget tripod, it could jeopardize your expensive equipment if you accept certain shortcomings.
I'd like to ask if you have any additional tips to share when it comes to choosing a tripod. Please feel free to share it in the comments below.