Your Next Tripod: The 8 Most Important Features :: Digital Photo Secrets

Your Next Tripod: The 8 Most Important Features

by David Peterson 4 comments

Tripods are used for a menagerie of photographic purposes. Projects like self-portraits, extended exposure work, and low-light situations are just a few genres that require a tripod because it adds the necessary stability that just can’t be matched by hand holding your camera. Because of their importance, it’s vital to know what to look for before making an investment in a tripod that can’t meet your needs. Here are some things to think about before you take the plunge.

Usability

Pick a tripod that is easy to use; go into the store and play with the tripod. Check out the leg locking mechanisms and how easy they are to lock in place. Bear weight on the locked tripod and wiggle it around to check how sturdy and stable it is. The leg locking and extension mechanisms on the tripod legs should be easy to fold and extend. They should also be easy to lock and unlock but be completely stable when in the locked position. If you can’t open the product in the store or have to buy online, be sure to pick a store with a no questions asked return policy in case the tripod isn’t exactly what you need.

Sturdiness and weight

In order for a tripod to be useful it has to do its intended job and go where you go. Tripods are typically made of either aluminum or carbon fiber. Both types have their pros and cons. Carbon fiber is really light weight - many weighing only three pounds. They are very strong, won’t bend, are unlikely to break and don’t rust. They also come with a hefty price tag. Aluminum tripods are considerably less expensive but heavier by up to an additional three pounds. Some photographers will swear their added weight is worth it as it makes them more stable, especially in windy situations. If you shoot in cold weather frequently, aluminum tripods can be uncomfortable to handle. I have one of each type and my carbon fiber goes with me on location (unless I’m doing an outdoor extended exposure) while my aluminum tripod usually stays in my studio.

Height

A tripod actually has three separate heights, maximum, minimum and transportation. The maximum height is the tallest point at which the tripod can be utilized. The minimum height is the shortest point at which the tripod can be used. Something else to consider is the height of the tripod when it is completely broken down and folded up for transportation. Depending on your needs, the high, low, and transportation heights will differ. For example, if you are tall you may need a taller tripod to avoid having to crouch all the time.

Weight Tolerance

Another thing to consider is how much weight a tripod can bear without tipping, collapsing or bending. Different tripods can steadily maintain different gear weight thresholds. If you shoot with heavy, telephotos lenses, the threshold will be an important factor to consider. Often this information is on the box under the specs which makes it easy to find. If you don’t know how much your gear weighs, now is the time to weigh it.

Head Type

There are two kinds of common tripod heads. The first type is a pan tilt head which operates on two separate axis. One axis allows you to move the camera up and down while the other axis moves side to side. Each axis can be shifted independently without moving the other. I like the ability to alter one axis without affecting the other. This is particularly handy when working on projects such as panoramas or slightly altering landscapes.

A pan tilt head

The other type is a ball head. The ball head is known for its ability to be quickly adjusted and locked into place. It swivels on a single ball joint giving it a range of motion not easily found with a pan tilt head tripod. They are compact and lightweight. They are also more fragile than a pan-tilt head. Scratches and minor trauma to the actual ball can ruin it. It’s also difficult to replicate shots or pan consistently.

A ball head

Boom

Some tripods have the ability to remove the center post which can then be turned upside down and re hung to suspend the camera under the tripod legs, using the center post as a boom. This allows you to shoot very low to the ground, without splaying the tripod legs to extreme angles. If you shoot close to the ground or want to use extreme angles for anything from landscapes to portraiture, having the boom feature gives you more versatility and range. This feature is also used for filming stability when shooting video close to the ground. It often allows you to achieve otherwise impossible angles.

Accessories

Many tripods have accessories that while not completely necessary will make tripod use considerably easier. The first of those accessories is a level. Many tripods have a level built into the side. The level is used to show the degree of the angle you are shooting at so you can replicate it. If you are shooting landscapes, it’ll help you nail a straight horizon line with almost no effort and far less trial and error than without. There are bubble levels for tripods that you can purchase separately which can be added to the hot shoe, where an external flash would usually snap in, but if you use the hot shoe for the level, you can’t use it for an external flash.

Another accessory that will make the use of a tripod easier is a quick release plate. A quick release plate is a part of the tripod that comes off the tripod head and screws into the tripod jack on the underside of your camera body. The camera can then be placed on the tripod and locked into place quickly. It can also be removed just a quickly so you can switch from handheld shooting to tripod shooting in a matter of seconds.

Price

Tripods can range anywhere from $150 up to over $1000. If you purchase a good one there is a pretty good chance you’ll never have to buy another one again but be sure to think about how much you’ll be using it and what you’ll specifically need it for before making a big purchase.

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Comments

  1. Jack Hall says:

    I have a Slik Pro that I use for travel and I love it. The Pro weighs 3.2lbs and folds down to 19" and will just fit into a carry-on bag. It does not do so hot with a heavier SLR, but I use it with my Panasonic FZ70 which is my "travel camera" The FZ70 has 60X(!) zoom- the equivalent of 18mm to 1200mm, a pile of megapixels (16mp I think, but not sure), and a REALLY good lens. It weighs about 8-10 ounces. My non-travel camera is a Nikon D-7001. Although I HAVE used it on the Slik Pro, the little tripod is really at its limit with such a heavy camera. At Best Buy, I got a Rocketfish carbon fiber tripod for just over $100 and I have been VERY happy with it aside from the weight compared to the Slik Pro. Another tip for sharp photos with a DSLR is to use the "mirror up" option. On my Nikon, that is only available (as far as I know- still learning the camera) with the IR remote. I take a lot of night photos and I use this option all the time. Hope this is of help

  2. Wayne Duke says:

    I totally agree with Dave Oliver, the Gimble Head is the way to go. More money than most setups but once you have used one you won't go back to anything else. Mine is permanently set on my Gitzo tripod, which handles my big lenses (600mm) for wildlife and most of my outdoor shots. As for a center post, I don't like them on tripods, most are just not steady enough when extended and vibration is your enemy.

  3. Peter Grave says:

    David,thanks for the tips,Have picked up quite a lot of usefull info.I just purchased my second tripod,the first one being total rubbish.The second one i purchased was from Kogan which is quite solid with al;uminium construction ,2 levels ,pan tilt head & quick release plate and the price with freight was $99 aus.I was a bit iffy about buying it but read a couple of reviews on it which were good and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of it .This may help someone with limited funds like me. Regards PG

  4. Dave Oliver says:

    Great advice, and as for price, I wonder if there is anyone out there who went and spent big on their first tripod?? I have three :) and reckon I will probably end up buying a fourth when I can afford it.
    One thing you didn't mention directly was the Gimble Head, which is similar to the Pan and Tilt I guess, as it operates on two separate axis. I use one when photographing surfers.
    The Gimble Head is fantastic to use and allows you to track moving objects easily and certainly saves your arms from holding a heavy zoom lens for a few hours at the beach.
    You can set it up so that your camera and lens are balanced and the whole lot pans and tilts smoothly.
    Just my two pence worth.

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
8 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.