10 Keys to Remember When Choosing a Tripod

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1. The Golden Rule for Tripods

“Tripods can be stable, cheap and light but you can only choose two of those.”

A light and stable tripod is expensive.
A light and cheap tripod is unstable.
A stable and cheap tripod is heavy.

 

 

2. Aluminum vs Carbon Fiber (weight)

Aluminum is heavier and cheaper than carbon fiber. If you use your tripod for hikes or if you travel a lot carbon fiber is a better choice. In terms of stability aluminum tripods are heavier and move less in windy conditions. Carbon fiber absorbs vibrations better than aluminum so they are better for telephoto lenses.

 

3. Leg diameter is Important

The diameter of the widest section of the tripod is the critical factor in terms of stability, the wider the legs the more stable the tripod will be. When you compare tripods make sure to check this often neglected specification.

 

4. Central Column vs Not

The central column adds two things to the tripod: height and instability. For studio work, where flashes are used, the central column is a good idea to make sure the tripod is at eye-level with the subject. For landscape or nature work where stability is critical the central column is not needed.

The central column can also become an obstacle if you plan to shoot at ground level, some tripods can pivot the column to allow a ground level position but that’s not the same as just using the legs.

 

5. Number of Sections

There are tripods with 2,3,4 and 5 sections. Three and four section tripods are the most common variants. With more sections the tripod can have a smaller folded height but it will also take an extra time to deploy. This is just a personal choice and I believe it’s not as critical as other factors.

 

6. Manufacturer

A tripod failure is rare but probably catastrophic, you can lose your tripod, camera, lens, filter and other accessories if a leg breaks, bends or folds accidentally. Make sure you buy a tripod from a known manufacturer, imitations abound but would you trust them to hold all your gear?

 

7. Maximum Height

This is important if you are a tall photographer and also if you shoot in studio and you do portraiture/fashion shots to put the tripod at eye-level with the subject. If you use live-view a lot the maximum height is not so important because you can look at the LCD even if it’s lower than eye-level.

 

8. Base Plate Diameter

Another often neglected specification. The base plate is where the tripod head will be placed. Small base plates are less stable and provide less friction surface for the head so it can accidentally unscrew and rotate. A very large plate can be a problem if you use small ballheads as the camera might touch the plate when you use it in a 90 degrees angle. Check the diameter of your heads before buying a tripod.

 

9. Minimum Height

For landscape or macro shooters this is critical, for portraiture or fashion shots probably not. The minimum height will determine how low you can put your camera to take a ground level shot. This often implies opening the legs at 180 degrees. If the tripod has a central column it can limit the minimum height you can achieve.

 

10. Folded Height

This is important for your backpack if you hike or for the carry-on suitcase if you travel. Some tripods can get really small when folded while others are bigger.

 

Bonus: Lock Type

The most common mechanisms are flip locks and twist locks. Twist locks have a faster deployment time and are unobtrusive, flip locks can get tangled with backpack straps. If you use gloves or mittens make sure you can open and close the locks with them, it´s a critical factor!

Photo: Feisol Carbon Fiber Tripod.

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  1. Nathan Griffin

    Great write-up. So true about the adage pick two of the three: cheap, light, stable. I have had good luck with my slightly heavy aluminum Gitzo.

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  2. Matthew Gore

    Nice, brief article. I’ve got to say, I’ve been a photographer for twenty years and I’ve broken a few tripods, but I’ve never even heard of a catastrophic tripod failure. cheap ones get wobbly…and the leg locks get loose or break, usually during travel, but the legs never just Snap during use… And even legs with bad locks don’t just suddenly fall down. You get bad pictures, though.

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