Tripod Buying Guide

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Do you have blurry pictures? Well a tripod may help. Blurry photos can be a result of “camera shake”. No matter how steady your hands are there is no way to avoid the small movements your hands make when holding a camera. This movement can cause blurry photos depending on your shutter speed. If you are shooting at a shutter speed of 1/2000 you can have a pretty shaky hand and still get a sharp photo. Shooting at 1/10 and you will probably see a blurry photo even for a very steady hand. Lens or camera image stabilization technology can help, but will not do as well as a good tripod.  Check out our Tripod Buying Guide for help in picking out just the right tripod.

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Tripods are not the answer in all cases. Don’t try to use a tripos on the sidelines of a football field. Also using a tripod will not compensate for subject motion. If you take a photo of a soccer player at 1/30 it is going to be blurry no matter what tripod you use. Don’t let the price be your only guide when looking at a tripod, since a good tripod will last you a lifetime.

You need to determine what type of tripod you need for your style of shooting. If you like multiple types of photography you may need more than one tripod. Things to consider when buying a tripod are cost, material, features, weight, and size. Tripods fit into one of a couple of basic categories:

Pocket and Tabletop Tripods – These tripods are small and very portable. They are great for impromptu family or group photos that you want to be in. These can be setup pretty quickly. They are often short and designed to be used on another platform like a table, railing, or even things like the top of your car. These tripods generally do not hold a great deal of weight. Compact point-n-shoot cameras are fine, but be very careful with any sort of DSLR. They may have some type of “head”, but don’t expect anything too fancy.

Compact Tripod – These tripods generally have more features than pocket and tabletop tripods, but they are still designed to be small and portable. These tripods can hold more weight and so your DSLR will be fine assuming you don’t have a large lens attached. These tripods can generally hold 3-5 lbs. Some sort of tripod head is much more common in this class. These are good traveling tripods since they balance features with size and weight,

Full size tripod – These are designed to allow most people to stand fully upright to take photos. Tripods in this class can hold much more weight and with the right head can hold a DSLRs with very large lenses. These are the tripods used by most professionals.

Specialty tripods – These are tripods designed for very specific purposes. A macro photography tripod for example allows you to position your camera at very specific angles and pointed in various directions with the ability to get very close to your subjects.

Withing each class of tripod you will still find a wide variation in materials, features, and cost. There are very inexpensive full size tripods. These will generally be heavy and not made to withstand rigorousness use. There are also very expensive professional grade compact tripods. These will be light weight, but still very sturdy and have a large feature list.

Materials

Tripods will generally be make of either steel, plastic, aluminum, carbon fiber, basalt, or a combination of these materials. Tripods with aluminum legs are the most common tripods made today. Carbon fiber tripods are about 30% lighter and more rigid than a tripod made up of aluminum. Carbon fiber also absorbd vibrations better that aluminum. Carbon fiber is also much better in very cold weather.  Your hands will freeze to an aluminum tripod in very cold weather.  The only real downside of carbon fiber is the cost.  You need to decide if the additional cost is worth it.

Basalt are pretty new to the market. Basalt tripods are made of a glass fibre inner core with basalt layered over the top. They are a low cost alternative to carbon fiber.

Manufacturer

There are many manufactures of tripods today. There are: Manfrotto, Gitzo, Giottos, Apex, Benro, Slik, and Barska to name just a few. Most camera manufacturers have their own in-house brand as well.  Looking at the selection of tripods on most photography retail websites will be overwhelming.  There are literally hundreds to choose from.  You don’t need the most expensive, but pick a well rated manufacture.

Tripod Parts

Tripods generally have several specific parts.

Legs – The tripod legs are a critical component (obviously) to your tripod.  No only is the material important, the width and length will also affect your photos.  A wider or thicker leg will absorb vibrations better.  Being able to set your tripod legs at various angles can be very beneficial when trying to setup your camera in odd terrains.  Macro photographers will benefit from tripods where the angle of each leg can be adjusted independently of the other legs.  Unless you are specifically looking for a macro setup I would stay away from legs that move independently of each other.  They can be very unstable if you don’t lock the legs properly.

Leg Locks – These locks are used to adjust the height of each tripod leg.  There are two basic types of locks, twist grip or a spring-loaded lever.  Choosing between these types of locks are largely a personal preference though each has its own benefits.  Twist locks can be tough  to use when wearing gloves and may freeze in very cold weather.

Tripod Head – Some tripods come with an integrated head.  The higher end tripods generally have an head that is independent of the tripod itself.  Integrated heads are good if you want a simple setup or are trying to keep costs down.  If you want better flexibility as well as stability then choose a tripod that has a base plate and a mounting screw for an external head.  Lever type locks have exposed metal that can rust and it’s easy to pinch a finger in these types of locks.

Center Columns – A center column that is fully raised may create instability in your tripod so check how the center column locks.  Long center columns can also prevent you from lowing your tripod too close to the ground.

Level  - Some tripods come with an integrated level or even several levels.  These can assist you in making sure your setup is level.  Some cameras come with levels of their own and leveling a photo in post processing is very easy so I don’t consider this a needed feature.

Hook – Some tripods come with a hook attached to a center column.  This is a nice feature especially for the landscape photographer.  Attaching a bag of rocks can dramatically increase your stabilization when shooting in water or windy conditions.

Tripod Heads

I am not going to go into great detail on tripods heads in this article since this is an introductory buying guide.  Buying a tripod head deserves its own buying guide.  I do want to talk a little about these heads though becasue they are a critical component to your setup.

There are a few types of tripod heads.  There are ball heads, pan/tilt heads, fluid heads, and camera rotators.  If you buy a tripod with an integrated head you don’t have an option of swapping head so generally I recommend buying a tripod with an independent head.  Often independent heads are sold in a package so don’t get confused when making your purchase.

Ball Heads – These types of heads can be positioned at a wide range of angels.  These types of heads have the most flexibility when trying to aim your camera.

Pan & Tilt Heads – These are probably the most common tripod head.  They allow you a lot of control of where you are pointing your camera.  Many have a grip and can quickly be adjust to take photos in different directions.

Fluid heads - These heads use a sealed liquid to create a miniature hydraulic damping system that enables smooth, steady motion when moved.  These heads are often also pan & tilt heads and are excellent when you are using the tripod for video as well as photography.

Camera Rotators – These heads allow you to move your camera between horizontal and vertical orientation without changing the lens axis.  These heads may also be a for of pan & tilt heads.

Gimbal Head – These are specialized tripod head for telephoto lenses. The design allows you to rotate your lens around its center of gravity and thus easily manipulate very large lenses.

So you are ready to buy a tripod and you need help find the right one?  Your first step is to figure out what general type of tripod you want. A backpacker will need a very different tripod than a wedding photographer.  Determine your budget and start running through the specific features and materials you want.  There is no absolute right or wrong answer to “what tripod should I buy”.  One piece of advice though, don’t skimp on buying a tripod.  Get the best tripod you can afford.

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