Choosing a Tripod :: Digital Photo Secrets

Choosing a Tripod

by Becki Robins 6 comments

A lot of photographers just don't like tripods. If that's you, I can certainly sympathize. Tripods are a pain. And once you've got your camera and tripod firmly planted in one spot, you don't have a lot of incentive to undo everything and then move to another spot. But despite all their drawbacks, you really do need a tripod.

Without a tripod, you'll miss out on creative motion blur images. You'll also have no wonderful, unique low-light photographs, no landscapes with killer clarity and depth of field, no light painting. Without a tripod, you're limiting yourself far, far more than you are when you use it in any one location.

But not all tripods are the same. So let's find out what features are available that might actually be of use (or not) to you, personally.

When do you need a tripod?

Well, that's a silly question. You need it for low light photography, right? Yes! And then some. In fact once I've covered the entire list of reasons why you might need a tripod, your head might be spinning a little. The list is longer than you might think it would be (and I've probably missed some things, too). Are you ready?

1. Low light photography, as you already knew. When your shutter speed drops below 1/60 or 1/30 at the very least, you generally need to mount your camera on a tripod in order to prevent camera shake. That's because when you take photos at very slow shutter speeds, your camera will not only pick up on the motion in the viewfinder, but any motion that comes from your hands as well. You need a tripod at these slower shutter speeds because that's the only way to keep your camera steady. Having the ability to mount your camera on a tripod also means that you can use smaller apertures for greater depth of field, and lower ISOs to eliminate noise.

2. Macro photography. When you get very close to your subject (macro close), you lose depth of field. In fact at those macro ranges, you can measure your depth of field in terms of millimeters, which means that any very slight change in camera position may completely change your focus point. The tack sharp stamen inside a flower may become a blurry blob, and instead you'll get a tack-sharp clump of pollen on the opposite side of the stamen. For focusing precision at macro ranges, you need to have your camera mounted on a tripod so that your focus point will remain exactly where you want it.

3. Telephoto shots. Big, heavy zooms need tripods, even if they have image stability built into them. There are a few reasons for this—first, it's a lot harder to keep a big, heavy zoom stable through an exposure than it is to keep a small lens stable. Second, at those very long focal lengths, it's not just your subject that's magnified, it's also the movement of your camera. That's why without a tripod you'll get camera shake even at fast shutter speeds. Third, it's a lot harder to keep your subject in the frame at long focal lengths, unless you've got a tripod to help stabilize your camera. And finally, those super fast shutter speeds you would need to achieve at longer focal lengths may not even be possible low light shooting conditions, because there just isn't going to be enough light. If you want to keep your ISO down and your aperture reasonably small, you need to have a tripod on hand so you can shoot at a slower shutter speed.

4. Landscapes. Classic landscapes are almost always shot with a very small aperture and a very low ISO. Otherwise you won't get that crisp detail from foreground to background, and you may get noise that gets in the way of clarity. Unfortunately that also means shooting at slower shutter speeds, because even in daylight there might not be enough light to handhold your camera at f/22, ISO 50.

5. HDR, Panorama and trick photography. When you shoot a series of images that you plan to combine later in post processing, you need to have the framing lined up exactly the same way in each shot. It's difficult to do this without a tripod, even if you've got a very steady hand. To get those edges to line up with precision, it's a lot easier to put your camera on a tripod, that way you can run through the series of images without fear that any one of them will be misaligned.

6. To do the impossible. Well, maybe not the impossible. But tripods can be useful for achieving camera angles and positions that would have been really awkward for you to achieve without them—for example, photos that are very low to the ground.

7. Getting in the shot. If you ever want to join your family in those all-together photos, you have to have a tripod. Otherwise you'll always be the guy behind the camera, and you'll never be in the photo album.

8. Painting with light and motion blur. Any time you want to capture motion blur, car trails or any other scene that requires a slow shutter speed, you really need to have a tripod. Otherwise those perfect streaks of light and motion will have a vibrating look to them. That can be cool, too, but if you want anything in your frame to be tack sharp you can only do that if your camera is on a tripod.

Which tripod is right for you?

That depends, of course, on what sort of photography you plan to do with it. Here are a few things to think about.

1. How long am I going to be lugging it around? If you do a lot of hiking or you often spend long days at festivals, fairs or other events, you probably don't want to carry a heavy tripod around with you all day. If you think you do, borrow one from someone first, because the chances are pretty good that by the end of the day you'll have changed your mind. The weight of a tripod is important if it's something you're going to be carrying around with you all the time. Carbon fiber tripods are the lightest, and they're also exceptionally sturdy. But they can be expensive, too, so consider that factor as well when narrowing down your choices.

2. How much weight can it support? Weight matters in other areas, too. If you have a DSLR, you need to buy a tripod that's designed to support the weight of a DSLR (some of them are made for point-and-shoots, so make sure you are aware of the distinction). As a rule of thumb, make sure that the tripod you buy can support at least 1 ½ times the weight of your camera and any lens you may one day use for it, and that includes the 500mm zoom lens that you've had on your wish-list for the past few years.

3. How tall does it need to be? If you're a tall person, you need a tall tripod. If you don't have one, you're going to end up with a stiff neck and a sore back from spending all that time stooping over, looking into the viewfinder. Some tripods gain additional height from a center post—that's an addition in the middle of the tripod that slides up and down. You may find that using a center post isn't a whole lot better than handholding your camera in certain situations (shooting in wind or with a very long focal length lens), because that center post provides a lot less support than your tripod's legs do.

4. How big is it when it's folded up? Some tripods fold up into neat little packages, and others take up a bit more space even at their smallest. Think about how you're going to be traveling—will the tripod fit in your luggage or will you need to check it separately? If you're going to be hiking with it, is it compact enough to keep in your backpack or will you need to carry it over your shoulder?

5. How stable is it? If you're going to be shooting on uneven ground, in windy conditions, this becomes more important—though it's still a pretty big consideration even if you're only going to be shooting on pavement on completely windless days. Stability will protect your gear—an unstable tripod can topple, taking your DSLR and lens with it. In general, tripods that have fewer sections (the parts that slide in and out as necessary to add height) are more stable than those that have more sections. Also look for that hook that hangs down between the legs—you can use that to add some stability to your tripod, either by hanging your camera bag there or even some sandbags purchased specifically for that purpose.

6. What kind of head does it have? This is important because the tripod head can mean the difference between smooth operation, and awkward operation. A pan-tilt head is the variety you will find in most inexpensive tripods—this system uses two or three perpendicular axes, which allows for your camera to be independently rotated. A pan-tilt head typically has two handles, one for vertical movement and one for horizontal movement. Each axis can be locked independently. A ball head, on the other hand, has a ball and socket joint, so there is typically only one lockable control. They are generally much smoother and simpler to use than a pan-tilt head. A tripod with a gimbal head should be your choice if you have a very heavy lens—they're designed to help balance those longer lenses with your camera, and are really the only way to go if you're going to be shooting a lot of sporting events or wildlife.

Conclusion

Once you have successfully answered all six of those questions, you should have a pretty good idea of what to look for in a tripod. I always like to recommend reading consumer reviews, too, such as the ones you'll find on Amazon.com. Now, you do have to take some of them with a grain of salt, because keep in mind that not everyone who bought a tripod on Amazon.com knows as much about them as you do. But in general those four or five star ratings (as well as the one and two star ratings) are a pretty decent indicator for how good or how bad any tripod is likely to be.

You can spend a lot of money on a tripod, so make sure that you have a really strong indication for needing one before you spend all that money. If it's something you just think you'll be using every now and then, you may not want to spend the excess of $500 that a really good tripod package will cost you. If, however, wildlife photography, landscapes or low-light photos are your photos of choice, it's time to start saving your pennies. Remember that a good tripod, well-chosen for your particular style of photography can not only save you a lot of headaches down the road, it can also save your equipment.

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Comments

  1. norman graves says:

    I find a monopod is a lot better than nothing and with a screw on handle can be used as a cane
    and no problem having with you.

  2. Jim says:

    I agree with all your comments and reasons that a tripod is a definite must for a serious photographer. The only addition would be that the old formula of 1.5 times the weight of your equipment is woefully insufficient if you want real stability for your equipment. I've never seen a tripod/head combo rated at less the 30 lbs do much for the serious user. Same goes for the center column....might as well hand hold your camera if you're going to crank that up. Simpler to just buy a tripod without one and get the right height to begin with including head/legs.

  3. PAUL E LESAGE says:

    A $50 tripod is not a tripod. That is a Walgreen's quality piece of gear. Re-read the part in the last paragraph about saving your pennies for a good one...many, many pennies. It's a great investment and will rarely need to be replaced or upgraded if you buy the good one first. Change lens, change cameras, but the good quality tripod lives through them all. All the bad ones that I bought would have paid for the good one.

  4. Lesley Kittson says:

    Hi David, just wanted to say thanks so much for this post, "Choosing a Tripod" as it is something I have been thinking about and wrestling with for a little while now! Being on quite a tight budget I had decided that i would try to do without a tripod, however.......I have completed and am still managing to take part in some of your fabulous photography "dashes", the last one I completed being Macro photography! I dont have a dedicated Macro Lense but luckily have a lense which allowed me to get fairly close up, but not having a tripod was a definite disadvantage for a few of the reasons mentioned above! I think I will have to try and save some pennies up! Do you think it is possible to get a reasonable tripod for approx $100 (Australian dollars) and are there any particular brands you would recommend???Thanks for your advice and amazing help in all things photography! Everything you do and the time you spend getting all the tips and tutorials, videos and dashes organised and user friendly for all of us out here is greatly appreciated!!

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Lesley,

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I enjoy writing these tips and am glad you're enjoying them.

      Yes, you can definitely get a tripod that is good enough for around AU$100. Manfrotto is a great brand, but there are lots of others. Just follow what the article says and look for something sturdy.

      David.

  5. Zvi Harduf says:

    I sign every single word!
    I have purchased a tripod, for the equivalent of ca $50, several years ago, and never used it, until I discovering, last May, a pair of Common Maynas building their nest inside a metal pipe protruding from an old building's wall.
    These little monsters are super quick, and I gradually gave up A.E.Bracketting, "Sports" status, higher ISO etc., for shutter priority, 1/500 sec, "continuous" shooting at medium rate, and, yes, my tripod, which caused me all Ms. Becki's troubles:I had to lubricate its moving parts with WD40, to achieve their smooth movement, purchase a remote USB shutter-release remote controller, to enable shooting without touching the camera and waiting for the wind to calm. All these enabled my superzoom to get rather reasonable pics at 1200 mm zoom.

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About Becki Robins
Becki Robins is a Californian who has a strong background in photography including an associate in arts degree in commercial photography. She has been a hobby and professional photographer for more than a decade and has taken thousands of photos, some of which have been published and won awards. Becki is also an excellent coach of the Photography Dashes.