One question I am often asked by my photo workshop and tour participants is how to find a good tripod. In this article I will provide info on what features to look.
Most photographers end up buying a cheap tripod and having to buy a new one immediately after. Then they buy a second one that is better than the first one but eventually need a third one that better fits the requirements of nature photography. So get it right the first time and you will only need one tripod which can last a lifetime.
There are several choices. So it is important to know what to look for when buying a tripod. Here are some considerations.
1.) Size: A tripod when fully extended should be eye level when fully extended (without the center column). So you can look thru you viewfinder at eye level without bending down. If the subject is not eye level you can always lower the tripod.
2.) Center Post or Column: Some tripods come with a centerpost. It is a single leg in the middle of the tripod that allows you to change the height of the camera by moving the centerpost upward or downward. I prefer not to have a center post or column. If you extend the center post you essential make your tripod in a monopod. Also the center post gets in the way If you drop the tripod all the way to the ground. Some tripods allow you the invert the center post to hand the camera upside down to get photos that are low to the group. This sounds ok in theory but this is a pain.
3.) Ability to full extend the legs so the tripod can drop to the ground. This helps when photographing flowers, insects, reptiles, amphibians and other close-up photography.
4.) Weight: Tripod legs are typically made of aluminum, basalt, steel or carbon fiber. Carbon Fiber is lightweight and very stable. While carbon-fiber is the best material for a tripod, it unfortunately comes at a high price tag. You want a tripod that can securely hold you gear but not excessively heavy that you feel uncomfortable carrying it.
Carbon fiber legs are between 3 and 4 pounds, while aluminum legs are between 5 and 6 pounds, depending on the size and how much weight they can support. Basalt lava legs are somewhere in-between both in terms of weight and cost.
5.) Load Capacity: How much weight can a tripod support? If you put a camera that’s heavier than the Maximum Load Capacity on a tripod, you run the risk of a piece breaking or collapsing, causing damage to your equipment. I prefer a tripod that is rated to support 2x the weight of my heaviest camera body and lens combo. Don’t forget about accessories like flash, Gimbal Heads etc. When a tripod is fully set up, it has to withstand not only wind, but accidents that might happen in the field.
6.) Three or Four Section Tripod: A 4 Section compacts smaller but a 3 section is faster to setup. I prefer a three section it may be a little longer but it is much quicker to setup. If you are driving along and you see a moose on the side of the road time matters. A 3 section tripod is more stable than a four.
7.) Collapsed Size: Can you tripod fit in your luggage. This is important especially if you are travelling and need to pack the it in a bag. This number will let you know if it’ll fit.
8.) Leg locks: They are available in Twist (twist the leg to pull it out, twist it in reverse to lock it in position), Lever (open a lever to pull a leg out, close it to lock it) and custom options.
9.) Cost: Prices vary significantly
John Slonina is a professional photographer and photo tour leader.