When I first started out in photography I can remember reading an article about tripods in which the author (a well known and accomplished photographer) specifically stated that “your tripod will become your best friend, therefore it is important to buy a good one”. Despite these words of wisdom I chose to ignore them and when I bought my first tripod I ended up buying a cheap, nasty and light weight model with a head that would barely support the camera body, let alone the camera body and a telephoto lens. Whilst buying the tripod I had the opinion “it’s a metal frame that you stick your camera on to take pictures so how can models differ so much?” This attitude was all wrong as I soon found out. When buying a tripod there are many things to consider.
All other things equal, larger tripods are often more sturdy than smaller ones. However, you need to know exactly how big a tripod you can use in the situations you mainly shoot in. For example, if you mainly shoot indoors and in small, tight corners where space is an issue a large tripod is not going to be feasible.
In addition, you also need to think about storage and carriage space. Do you have the room to store the tripod when it’s not being used? Can you carry the tripod comfortably between shoots?
The majority of tripods are made out of carbon fiber or aluminium. Carbon fiber is stronger and lighter than aluminium, however it is also much more expensive therefore this needs to be borne in mind.
Different grades of aluminium are used in producing tripods therefore this also needs to be considered. Small tripods, specifically aimed at the ‘traveller’ are often made from a lower grade and are not as strong as other tripods. This is fine if all you use are small and relatively light lenses, such as the EF 70mm – 200mm f/4L IS USM, however if you use long and heavy telephoto lenses and zooms, such as the Canon EF 100mm – 400mm f/4.5 – 5.6L IS USM, these travel tripods are not strong enough to adequately support this heavy equipment.
You are going to be carrying your tripod around therefore it is important you get one that you can comfortably carry around for a few hours. Heavy tripods are obviously more robust and durable. In addition, they are more stable and less likely to be kicked over, however this is no good if you can’t carry the thing. A compromise is going to have to be made here and you should choose the heaviest one you can carry for extended periods of time.
Fortunately, many tripods have a hook on the central column on which you can suspend a kit bag to add a bit more weight and increase stability. However, it is worth noting that not all tripods have this feature therefore you need to check before buying a specific model. A further way of increasing the stability of the tripod is to ensure the camera and lens is over a leg and not between two legs.
You may think that it is the tripod body that is the be all and end all, well you would be wrong. The tripod head is equally as important, therefore you need to look at the head supplied with the tripod or the range of heads that are available to fit the tripod. Some cheaper tripods have pre moulded plastic heads and whilst these may be ok with light camera bodies and light lenses they are seldom any good for larger and heavier types of lenses as the cheap plastic adjustment knobs just don’t lock everything securely in place, rendering them virtually useless.
It is also worth noting that some of the pre moulded plastic tripod heads cannot be changed for one that is more durable and useful. So, if you have bought one of these you are stuck with the tripod head supplied.
A tripod is going to be used and abused therefore it is going to wear up regardless of the materials used in its manufacture, the overall build quality, how well it is looked after etc. As a result it is advisable to ensure that there is a ready supply of spare parts so the tripod can be repaired as necessary.
The parts that are most susceptible to wear and tear are the moving parts, such as the various knobs, screws and hinges that are used to vary the position of the camera and lock it in place.
Money and the availability of funds is often a big contributor on many purchases. When buying a tripod avoid cheap and cheerful models as this is going to be false economy as you are very likely to buy a decent tripod in the future, therefore you may as well spend the money in the first instance.
So, when buying a tripod stay clear of the cheap and nasty models, especially those with plastic moulded heads. In my experience you really do get what you pay for when buying a tripod so it is worth saving up a little longer and spending a bit more for a good quality version, however there is no need in spending hundreds of pounds (or dollars) on the top of the range professional models as a middle road, heavy duty make, such as Giotsio or Manfrotto, will be more than adequate.