The Top 6 things you need to know before you buy a tripod!

Coffee on and brewing:

Hey my lovely caffeine addicted camera carrying comrades!

How are you this fine day? If you recall, last blog I discussed how to achieve better focus in your images by focusing on aperture and your focus modes in your camera.

Q: What is the one key accessory you can use to enhance your focus in your photos and the topic of todays blog?

A: Tripods!

Today we will review tripods and the 6 things you should consider when buying one. But in the spirit of full disclosure if I had a relationship status with my tripod it would be it is complicated.

"It’s complicated" - My realtionship status with my tripod.

Coffee brewed and poured - let us dive in:

So tripods.

I can’t fully explain my love/hate relationship with them but one thing is for sure it is better to have them than not. I think my main issue is my mentality. I always feel it is another piece of gear to carry, it is cumbersome to use and I just get super awkward with it. Yet, when I do push through and use it, it is never as bad as I imagine and your shots are always more focused which is the ultimate goal.

So I do often leave my tripod behind on shoots preferring the freedom of movement I think I have without it, but it does limit what settings you can use while still getting focused shots. In other words, don’t be a me, be better. Embrace the tripod and reap the rewards.

But ‘what is a tripod even?’, I hear you decry. A tripod is a 3 legged pole structure that you can attach your camera to. It is used for adding stability to your photography and as a way to shoot hands free.

What is a tripod?
A tripod is a 3 legged pole structure that you can attach your camera to.

So what makes a good tripod? Ultimately you want the most compact and lightweight but also stable (read heavy) and cheap as possible but also good quality and weather proofed.

So you want a lot contradicting qualities which is why like with all photography decisions it is a compromise and being clear on your personal priorities will make sure you make the right compromises.

So what are the 6 things you need to know when deciding which tripod is right for you?

I do want to say a small disclaimer - this is a not an exhastive list of features but a selection that I think is most important for still based photographers. This is particulary relevent for the head types, there are a lot more options if you do videoing as they require much more movement etc. What I have focused on here is what I think is the essentials for those who are purely or primarily photographers of still photos.

1. Material:

Tripods are made is a range of materials but the two most popular materials are Aluminium and Carbon Fibre. Aluminium is cheaper and more stable but if weight is a key factor for you, you may want to go for carbon fibre. So if you travel and fly a lot with your tripod, the carbon fibre could be a good investment. However if you are in particulary windy or unstable scenarios often then the extra weight of aluminium is potentially more important.

2. Weight:

This ties into the material but even within the same material class, there is a range and I would recommend thinking hard about how much you will have to carry this tripod on your back or in your luggage. When you already have 10kg or more of camera gear, weight is a key factor for consideration.

But aside from the practical carrying aspect of weight, also think about stability. The heavier tripod is the more stable it will be (due to some weird maths and physics). So if you use larger lens then your set up will lean and fall forwards if your tripod is not sufficiently weighted. I would always try to bring your biggest lens to the store when you buy a tripod and ask to test out the set up, see if the tripod can balance with a large and heavy lens on it.

3. Head type:

There are a few types of connections aka heads on a tripod. This is the part that will attach to the camera. The ball head and a pan and tilt are the two most popular for photographers.

A ball head can move 360 degrees. A pan tilt can only move vertically and horizontally (90 and 180 degrees). The ball head offers more versatiliy and ease of use, but less stability compared to the pan tilt. The pan tilt offers more control over minor adjustments but less versatility over all and they tend to be bulkier.

Images of head types taken from manfrotto's website

4. Height:

You have a minimum, maximum and transport height. How short is the tripod at the lowest, some can splay the legs at a 180 angle and lie completely flat on the ground. Is this something you might use?

Also how tall can you make it, and more importantly how tall can you make while maintaining stability. Most tripods have a mddle pole you can extend up for some extra height but you lose a lot of stability by doing this.

The third height to consider is how tall is it when it is folded down and compacted for moving and travelling. Some can be extremely neat while others never go that small or compact.

5. Compacting ability/usability:

Try to have a list of scenarios ready of where and when you will use your tripod. Up a mountain, in water ways, in your small office, on your desk? By having this list ready, you will know if you need a small or mini tripod for indoor use on a desk or do you need a water proofed and sturdy/ heavy one for shooting in rivers.

Other features to consider is how easy is it to quickly release your camera from the head if you suddenly want to hand hold the camera for a candid shot. As well as how adjustable are the legs - can you adjust the legs to different heights to compensate for uneven surfaces for example?

We mentioned previously how compact does it go for travelling but also is there a middle ground when you want it half ready to go but not fully extended? Some tripods can be semi compacted with a shorter prep time when you are shooting and moving scenes throughout a day.

6. Cost:

Finally and as always cost needs to be a consideration. There is no point choosing a tripod with lots of features to discover you can't afford it. I would set your budget, then list your features in order of importance and try to find one that ticks as many as possible on your list that also hit your top two priorities.

Photography is not cheap but it doesn't have to bankrupt you either. If you make smart buying choices, a little money can go a long way.

Final sips of coffee:

There are other miscellanous features like liquid levels built in, fancy carry cases and so forth but these I see as a nice extra but not worth paying for. So don't be distracted by the bells and whistles when you just need a solid work horse.

There is no one tripod for all situations, so my best advice is think about your shooting and what lenses you use most, where you shoot the most and the subjects you shoot the most. Once you have a clear picture of this you can go into a shop/online and look at what options best suit your answers. While searching for your tripod keep in mind the 6 features highlight here and you can’t go wrong.

A tripod if chosen well, and with consideration can last a long time, so it is worth putting some time and thought into the process to ensure you get the best possible one for your circumstances.