Sunday, March 6, 2016

Choosing A Tripod

Choosing A Tripod

When staring photography, one point of confusion is often which tripod to choose.  I have some unfortunate news for you, if the tripod you choose is used often, it will likely be inadequate.

Why?  Because tripods are an endless list of compromises and the "best" compromise is going to depend on the photographic situation at hand.  When starting out, favorite subjects are often undecided and tend to evolve with the photographer.

As tripods compromise some qualities for others, often it's the case that multiple tripods best fill varying needs.  At the moment, I have five tripods, all of which are "best" at different things.

This article briefly explains why you need a tripod at all, then looks at different tripod features and which styles they cater to.

Cheaper tripods come included with heads while more expensive ones require you to purchase a head separately.  Tripod heads have their own set of trade-offs; I opted not to cover them in this article.  If you are looking for a quick head suggestion, many people like ball heads with Arca Swiss style plates.

Why a Tripod?

A tripod holds your camera for you and is able to do so with more stability that you will be able to manage without one.  This gives you many advantages for photographs where the scene is static enough to allow for careful positioning.  Some advantages include:
  • You can take the time to tune the composition.  This means checking edges of the frame and considering if a different perspective would be better
  • In many cases, a tripod makes shutter speed a free variable.  This allows you to shoot with optimal ISO and aperture settings to maximize image quality.
  • If you would like to shoot HDR or focus stack, a tripod will keep the camera in a static position between shots
  • You have the option to do really long exposures, keeping the shutter open for several minutes, or more!  The resulting photos can be quite exciting.
  • A tripod lets you try several back-to-back shots with only one parameter changed.  For example, if you are not sure which aperture setting you want for a photo, you can try a few different ones while keeping the framing fixed.
I would say that if you shoot primarily landscape or still-life macro, then a tripod is a huge asset.  Shooting moving things tends to make a tripod less useful.

What about image stabilization?

Many cameras provide image stabilization features.  Image stabilization basically works like an unreliable tripod "on demand".  Unlike a tripod:

   - You can't 100% rely on image stabilization
   - You can't take identical shots back-to-back
   - You can't do longer exposures

That said, when taking a tripod is not possible or highly inconvenient, image stabilization can "bridge the gap".  Another nice thing about image stabilization is that there is no setup required, which makes image stabilization convenient for dynamic situations, like wildlife.

Tripod Attributes

This section talks about attributes that all tripods have.


Left-to-right: Aluminum, Carbon Fiber, and Steel
The main materials you'll find for tripod legs are aluminum and carbon fiber.  It's also possible to find steel, wood, plastic, and various other materials.

Between aluminum and carbon fiber, carbon fiber has a slight edge in weight and stiffness.  Carbon fiber also generally costs 2-3 times more for the same model.

If you are going for pixel-perfect images, you might also consider that some materials are more prone to vibration from shutters and mirrors.  I'm not an expert here, but know that materials like carbon fiber and wood tend to dampen vibrations a little better than aluminum.  This will mostly be a concern when using very long lenses or with macro work.

Outside of the legs, there are also the joints locking mechanisms which vary in quality.  As you'd expect, there is a correlation between higher quality materials and price.

Weight & Bulk

Due to varying materials and leg section counts, tripod weight and bulk are separate consideration

How much the tripod weighs mainly affects how nice it is to carry.

Intuitively, you might also think that more weight means more stability.

While this intuition is correct, it overlooks the fact that tripods with hanging hooks allow to you make them almost arbitrarily heavy.  I often use my camera bag to do just that.  Thus leg stiffness can actually make a bigger practical difference than carrying weight.

Separate from weight is bulk.  A bulky tripod may not be easy to attach to a smaller bag, even if it's lightweight.  I actually have this very situation where my lightest carbon fiber tripod can't really be used as my "everyday traveling tripod" simply because it's too bulky to fit on my bag.

Leg Section Count

Four leg sections verses three.
Fewer leg sections lead to an inherently stiffer tripod but also one that has more "bulk" than one with more sections.  Basically, each leg joint serves as a point where additional flex can occur.  Money can partially fix this with stiff carbon fiber and higher-end joints but nothing quite matches the stability of no joint at all.

Maximum Height

Center post extended (taller) and not extended (shorter).

The trade-offs of bulk vs leg section count combine to determine a tripod's maximum height (without the center column extended).  Said another way:
  • With fewer leg sections, you'll have either a bulkier tripod or a shorter maximum height.
  • More leg sections allow for more height, but compromise relative stiffness
Beyond the maximum leg height, additional height can be achieved via an extending center column.  Extending this column compromises tripod stability by raising the center of gravity.  If setting up in windy conditions, you'll want to take care with a high center of gravity or your equipment might take a tumble.

Minimum Height

Two ways to get the camera low, each with it's own trade-offs.

The minimum height of different tripods varies.  The main factor here seems to be cost and complexity.  Simply not allowing a height lower than the center column length keeps things cheap and simple.

Many photography applications have little need for low heights.  If you shoot landscape or macro, however, you should give this feature consideration as it will allow for those creative "wow" angles that can make a difference in your results.

The mechanisms that tripods use to allow for lower heights are:
  • Reversable center column
  • Split Center Column
  • Extra Center Column
  • 90 degree Center Column
  • Rotatable Center Column. 
These are all described in the features section later.

Maximum Load

Maximum load is how much weight a tripod says it can carry.  One problem with specifications here is that they are "marketing" numbers and it's hard to know what they are referring to.  In any case, I'd recommend simply making sure you have some margin to work with and read user experience reviews.

Mounting Screw

There are two standards, 1/4-20 (smaller) and 3/8-16 (larger).  The former is generally reserved to smaller tripods that also come with heads.  Most other tripods will use 3/8.  It's possible to convert one to the other quite cheaply with adapters although doing so suggests that the tripod and head are not well-matched in capacity. 

Tripod Features

These sections briefly describe different features that a tripod might have and offer suggestions on why you might care.

Center Column Features


An invertible center column allows you to mount the camera under the tripod.  This is a great way to use the tripod as a "copy stand" alternative to scan film or photograph small items from above.

This can also be used for low-to-the ground shots, although the fact that the camera is located in the center of three tripod legs can sometimes hinder camera positioning.  There may also be the inconvenience of having to operate the camera upside-down.

90 Degree Orientation

Creative Potential: Excellent  Stability: Not Excellent

These type of tripods (mainly by Manfroto) allow the center post to be positioned at a 90 degree.  The design of these tripods allows this maneuver to be done quickly.

This position can be useful for macro shooting where the camera legs would otherwise impede the best camera position.  It also allows for nice close-to-the ground shooting with more convenience and fewer compositional limitations than the inversion approach.

Yet another use case is overhead shots where the camera is pointing straight down.

Note that a 90 degree mount is inherently less stable than approaches that keep the camera centered between the legs - you'll need to take care when using it.


Some tripod designs allow the center column to be "swung" at a variety of angles, not just 90 degrees.  This is a really flexible feature offering the benefits of 90 degrees and more.  The stability downsides of a 90 degree tripod do not improve here and in fact may be worse.


I used to own a splittable center column.  Now I own half of one...

Some tripods have threaded center columns that can be split into two parts.  When the column is separated, the tripod to go much lower but there are drawbacks:
  • It's possible to leave the detached center column at the photo site.  I did exactly that with mine.
  • There are temperature concerns.  Metal expands and contracts based on temperature.  Screw together your center column outdoors, bring it inside where the temperature is quite different, and now you need tools to get it apart again.


Some tripods are boxed with two center columns -- a long one and a shorter one for low shots.  I think this approach is somewhat inconvenient for most people because keeping track of and switching this extra part is burdensome.  If you have clever logistics in place and don't mind the extra hassle, then it can work out.

Weight Hook

This tripod lets you attach accessories to the bottom post, including hooks for bags or weights

A hook or screw at the bottom of the center column gives you a place to put your camera bag or something else heavy to give the tripod more weight and a lower center of gravity.

The downside is that the hook can make the column more difficult to remove.  The hook location also may be too close to the ground to hang weights in some cases.

Leg Features

Retractable Spikes

Retractable spikes can make a tripod more stable in landscape shooting.  A downside is that the retraction "holes" can readily collect dirt, redepositing it randomly where the tripod is used.

Twist Locks (vs Flip Locks)

Here, I am talking about the lock for tripod leg sections.  Twist locks allow for smoother/quicker motions.  Flip locks leave no question about what the tension should be.  I consider it to be a minor difference, for the most part.

Other Features

Attachable accessories

Some tripods have secondary screw mounts where you can attach a variety of accessories, such as secondary arms.

Apex Hook

Some tripods have a hook where the legs meet (apex).  This can be used to hang weights or your camera bag.

How to Choose

You can go with a special purpose tripod or a "jack or all trades" one.  To decide, simply identify what you will be using the tripod for.  If you are not sure, then you should get a "jack of all trades" one that is moderately priced for your budget.

Use cases and Features

The following section briefly states various use cases and what features (and attributes) are important for each.


A landscape photo taken inches from the ground
  • Concerns: Carrying weight.  Maximum height.  Minimum height.  Bulk.  
  • Advice: This one is tough because many attributes offset one another.  Carrying distance will be a factor.  I recommend not skimping on a tripod for landscape use, go for carbon fiber if you can.


For this photo, I used the 90 degree arm to get a nice angle
  • Concerns: Adaptability.  Minimum height.
  • Advice: Another tough situation.  Being able to hold the camera at creative angles (such as with a 90 degree or swing arm) will be helpful for getting a nice angle.  Then again, keeping the camera stable is important too. 


Taken at home with off-camera soft boxes.  Tripod weight here was a non concern verses stability and versatility

  • Concerns: Maximum height.  Stability.
  • Advice: I chose this use case because it is so different.  Weight is rarely a concern here with many studios choosing to bolt their tripod (e.g. camera stand) directly to the floor.


The above use cases are just examples, the key point is to think through how you will be using the tripod and choose trade-offs accordingly.  Good luck!


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