A Beginner Photographer’s Guide to Choosing the Right Tripod for Your Camera

A Beginner Photographer’s Guide to Choosing the Right Tripod for Your Camera

What are the things that you should look for in choosing a tripod?

Tripods are, without a doubt, one of the most essential accessories for any photographer. Though not all photographers use tripods all the time, most photographers would agree that it’s always better to have one in case you would need it. May it be for doing self-portraits at home or when you travel, shooting videos, photographing landscapes with long exposures, or simply as a way to keep the camera in place during any shoot, a good tripod is definitely a worthy investment.

So how do you find the right tripod for you? If you’re a beginner who generally shoots anything and everything and you still don’t know which specific field of photography you will pursue, here are a few factors that you should consider when it comes to choosing a tripod.

Payload

No matter what kind of photography you do and how often you do it, the most essential factor that you should consider for a tripod is its capacity to securely hold your camera. Though most novice photographers generally use a standard-sized camera and lens, for the sake of security, you should always make sure that the weight-carrying capacity or payload of your tripod can hold your camera with ease. If you’re certain that you will be getting heavier gear in the future, it would be beneficial if you also consider that in order to avoid having to get a new one altogether when you do. Generally, a good tripod from any trusted brand can carry most average-sized set ups but to do a quick check of the payload would trouble you much less compared to suffering any untoward event that would literally cost you your gear.

Material

Aluminum or carbon-fiber. That’s all you really need to decide on. While most experienced photographers would easily tell you to go for the latter, there are benefits for either of them. Aluminum tripods are generally more common for one simple reason. They are always more affordable than their carbon fiber versions. Carbon fiber tripods are generally lighter by about 20% to 40% than their aluminum counterparts depending on the overall size of the tripod. Another benefit of a carbon fiber tripod is that it is less prone to oxidation which makes it a good tripod for people who shoot anywhere near bodies of water or under the rain.

Weight

Travel tripods can be very handy when getting to the location requires a bit of a trek. Even aluminum versions of travel tripods are light enough to carry for lengthy walks.

Generally, one would think that lighter tripods are always better and that’s correct most of the time. Having a lighter tripod would mean less to carry on long travels and treks, they would be easier to move around on-location, and they can potentially cost less when it comes to shipping or checking them in when you're flying out. However, there’s a certain limit to how light a tripod should be. Having a tripod that’s too light might put your photos or even your gear at risk. This applies mostly when shooting on a windy day or shooting with your tripod legs submerged in a body of water with a significant current. A tripod that’s too light can easily be knocked down by the wind or water current or at the very least, shake the camera enough to blur your shot especially when shooting long exposures. Pick a tripod that meets the balance between light enough to carry around and heavy enough to withstand the environment.

Height

If you were to have just one tripod for everything you shoot, your tripod’s height is something you should definitely consider. Generally, your tripod shouldn’t be too short for you. It wouldn’t hurt to have a tripod much taller than you are if you have an actual need for that height but if not, the extra leg length that you never use might mean extra weight for you to carry, and even extra cost when you purchase. A tripod with a maximum height about a foot taller than you are should cover most of your needs in general.

Lock Mechanism

Twist locks vs clip/lever locks

Some photographers would debate over this simple feature. Some photographers prefer clip-type locks because of how quick it can be to lock and unlock the legs. Other photographers say it’s easier to use twist-locks because you can unlock all the sections of a tripod leg with one twist. Another benefit of using twist-locks is the fact that they are generally thinner and could mean smaller overall width for your tripod especially when folded up. All these are valid simply because the governing factor is the photographer’s preference. If you’re out to get your first tripod, it would be best to actually touch and try both variants to see which one you would be more comfortable with.

Heads

Ball-type tripod heads are most common for a very simple reason. They are easy to use and quick to maneuver. Ball head generally only need one main knob to unlock the ball and position your camera as you compose your shot. They are very good for any kind of photography that would require fast adjustments.

In shooting travel and landscape photos, especially when shooting rapidly changing light conditions, I often use simple ball heads for more time efficient adjustments.

Three-way heads, on the other hand, are good for when you only want to make an adjustment on a certain axis. Making precise adjustments on a ball head can be quite tricky because unlocking the ball would allow for movements towards any direction. Geared precision heads are like three-way heads except they have precision knobs that are calibrated for very small and precise adjustments. The disadvantage of these are of course that they take more time to adjust.

Fluid heads are of course more popular among video shooters. They come with an arm that lets you control the movement of the camera smoothly and the mechanism allows for smooth panning and tilting movements for shooting videos.

Application

When shooting rough landscapes, I choose to use a more heavy duty tripod. In this case, my Manfrotto 055CXPro4

Overall, if you know what kind of photography you will be doing with your tripod, this would be the single most important determinant. If you shoot portraits or products in a studio, a simply but heavy duty tripod should be enough for you. If you mostly shoot when you’re traveling, a light but sufficiently high travel tripod would be beneficial. If you shoot with unusually high or unusually low angles, a tripod with a 90-degree column can give you more flexibility. And if you shoot landscapes in harsh environments, a heavy-duty carbon fiber tripod would give you the right security for your gear.

Finding the right tripod is as crucial as finding the right camera for your needs. A properly chosen tripod is one of the best investments that any photographer can and should make. With proper maintenance and handling, the right tripod that can last decades before any need to be replaced.

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6 Comments

Jerome Brill's picture

Step 1. Find a tripod that serve a specific need.
Step 2. Find another tripod that served another need.
Step 3. Realize that only two tripods is not enough.
Step 4. Buy just a head that you can swap between the two sets of legs but never be truly happy until you have a different tripod for ever need.
Step 5. Later try to explain to your friends why you have so many tripods

Raymond Craig's picture

This is so true. Especially as a video shooter I hate swapping heads back and forth.

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

You speak the truth so well. Lol

Ian Browne's picture

Some good sound advice there
It used to be said the first purchase after the camera should be a good tripod; but sadly they were not seen as a sex purchase. Today there are lots of pretty legs around however they are still not on the must buy list .
Stability aside; I often find I come home with far less files but more usable photos if the tripod is used. Likely something about slowing down.
Imo; nothing beats the Vanguard tripods when it comes to going down low and dirty -- can be a bit of a Rubik cube but the time is usually well worth it .
When it came to pure muscle, nothing matched the manfotto 055 that was 'my' abused tripod for over 30 years . Needed some muscle to carry it also :) .

Bryce Milton's picture

Tiltall & done! A steady, immortal set of gams - If it was good enough for Ansel Adams, it's good enough for us ;-) https://tiltallsupport.blogspot.com/2011/01/field-guide-to-tiltall-flock...

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

I also have so many legs in the corner over say 50 years or so. But when I got into it and learned, I mean played A LOT, I found after study of many others on the todays Tube that a center post/column should be the leveling type when you learn to do panoramas (which happens soon) for to level a pair of sticks and the ball head all can look humorous to others. I carried a 190L for about 10 years (good legs are expensive) but paid for a leveling center and video head (some $ more) still heavy!! But Manfrotto came out with the BeFree small lightweight but later came out with one with a video head with a leveling center post (always on backorder if that says anything). As time goes by younger minds make better things as the corner by your door gathers more sticks. Now for the bad news my camera maker started with in camera body stabilization and now I carry sticks out of habit (just in case) but even in blue hour sunsets I make the shots, I even went to a canyon did bracketing shots while others put up their sticks when I forgot my plate adapter in my car (did not put on my camera). I started with film and you needed sticks but today great new young minds make life better and on sticks you have to turn off all the IBIS and IS you paid $ for, of if you notice prime lenses still have NO IS. An old idea, I used a heavy duty binocular harness with a bungee cord to my belt one time I went spelunking, sticks not allowed, the old noodle works sometimes, also good for carrying a long lens on a long treke (always at the ready). Hum! That's also a 35 Whelen, I take my camera with me when harvesting deer, only take the old and leave the young so they can have some more fun, many many walk by!!!