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The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Tripod


You need a tripod for long exposures

Picture the scene – Bangkok airport and I’m settling into seat 16H on my short Thai Airways flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. The lovely hostess hands me a hot, scented towel as I shout ”Bollocks” while slapping myself firmly on the forehead.

She gives me a justified look of disdain while I apologize for my outburst and then start begging her to contact Lost & Found as soon as possible. You see, I’d stupidly left my gorgeous carbon fibre, ball head tripod, in one of those plastic trays into which all airports now force you to empty your worldly goods before being forced through the X-Ray machine.

I’d somehow managed to wander through Bangkok airport, grab a snack, check my email and then board the plane without even realizing I’d lost one of my most essential pieces of equipment. I blame it on the terror filled drive through downtown Bangkok the night before while trying to find our hotel, it was a late night.

I realize I will never see that beloved tripod again.

Night Photography requires a sturdy tripod

So I touch down in Siem Reap, Cambodia and the first thing I do is go shopping for a tripod. Siem Reap has seen some major development over the years but it’s still a galactic black hole when it comes to tripod shopping.

The best I could find was a $45 Yunteng tripod with a plastic video panning tripod head that has one of those long handles that poke you in the eye every time you try to look through the viewfinder.

It was like going back in time to the very first tripod I’d ever bought. The next four days of shooting were an exercise in rage management as it took me five times longer to set up my shots. If it hadn’t been for my ever present tuk-tuk driver and his calming influence, I would have bent that tripod over my knee and tossed it under the wheels of a bus for good measure.

No wonder so many beginner photographers quit at the tripod using stage.

A good tripod makes ALL the difference

When buying a tripod, if you go for an El Cheapo one, two things will happen:

  1. You’ll spend so much time messing around getting your camera in position that by the time you’re ready to take the shot, you’ve already lost the will to live.
  2. You’ll realize that the $45 you spent could have gone towards a proper tripod that you now know you’ll have to buy anyway.

I realize that for total beginners, spending around $400 on a tripod seems like a major financial commitment but I’ve seen so many of my workshop students struggle in frustration with shoddy tripods that it breaks my heart. When I lend them one of mine, it’s like a ray of sunshine for them. At that point they realize their cheap tripod is now junk.

Long exposure - Why You Need a Good Tripod

Speed is important

You might think that if you’re using a tripod to hold your camera in place, that means you’ve got plenty of time to frame your shot. Sometimes that’s true but more often than not, the scene changes quickly, especially when you’re dealing with nature. Weather and wildlife won’t wait for you to get your tripod set up.

Things to consider when buying a tripod and tripod head

1 – How fast do the legs telescope?

I can’t stand those rubber twist leg locks that you have to loosen and then tighten. I much prefer quick release grips that flick open and quickly drop those tripod legs. Securing the extended legs requires a quick push of the thumb and you’re done. If your tripod has four telescopic extenders with threaded grips you’ll still be setting up your shot while I’m at the next shooting location.

Tripod Comparison

2 – How fast does the ball head adjust?

Once your tripod is in place and secure, it’s time to position your camera. For me, the best ball heads are those that only require one lever to loosen and tighten. That means that with just two turns of the lever I can position my camera in exactly the right position.

It’s also important to get a ball head that allows you to quickly switch between landscape and portrait aspect. A lot of cheapo tripods have those flippable mounts that you have to loosen first then tighten once in place. These are usually abysmal as you struggle to get just the right position and then the flimsy flippable part wobbles from the impact of just your breathing.


3 – Easy quick release

The thing that infuriated me the most with my temporary $45 Yunteng tripod was the quick release clip which mounts the camera on to the tripod head. I longed for my well oiled Manfrotto head with its trusty quick release clip.

Mounting the camera on the tripod head should be quick and easy. When shopping for a tripod, get the store clerk to demonstrate and then try it out yourself multiple times until you feel if it’s right for you. Some of the smoothest looking quick release plates I’ve seen are made by Really Right Stuff.

Really Right Stuff Quick Release Plates

4 – How heavy should my tripod be?

This is a personal choice based on your exact needs, and how much you can carry. There’s always a trade-off between portability and sturdiness. Heavier tripods will laugh in the face of a strong wind, while super lightweight carbon fibre tripods will vibrate. You can always attach a rock filled bag to the central stem of your tripod to give it more stability in high winds.

5 – How big should my tripod be?

Again, this depends on your travel plans. Since my recent loss at Bangkok airport, I’m now considering buying a smaller tripod that will actually fit into my camera bag. A smaller tripod won’t be anywhere near as sturdy, but for the Siem Reap shoot it’s not as if I had to face high winds and extreme weather, so smaller would have been okay.

Very tall photographers will most likely have to shop for tripods that cater to their height. Sure, you can always extend your tripod’s central column, but that’s always a last resort as you’ll find it induces major wobble from just your hand contact with the camera.

6 – How much should I spend?

Here’s another important thing to consider. If like me, you’re a bit of a Gormclops, don’t buy the best that you can afford. I abuse my tripods by shooting in the ocean, rivers, deserts and mountains. If I’m lucky, I’ll get two years out of a tripod (assuming I don’t leave it in the airport) so it just doesn’t make sense for me to spend big money when I can get a very capable tripod for under $400, that already comes with a good ball head.

7 – Do I need a bubble level?Camera Bubble Level

Although not essential, it’s nice to have an accurate bubble level on the tripod stand itself, and one on the tripod head. If you’re lucky enough to have a digital level inside your camera (like my Sony A7R) you probably won’t use a bubble level much. If you have neither, you can always attach a bubble level to your cameras hot shoe attachment as pictured here (see photo right).

Why do I even need a tripod?

If you want tack sharp images (see my article on how to get super sharp landscape images) with the best possible image quality, accept that a tripod will become a part of your anatomy. For long exposures, a tripod is essential. If you shoot weddings, portraits, action and events, a tripod may just get in your way.

Which brands should I buy?

I’m not going to recommend one brand over another. I advise that you try out as many tripods and heads as you can. It’s fine to read reviews but you need to get hands on to decide which tripod and head combination works best for your needs. A specialist camera store should have a much wider choice of consumer and pro level tripods to choose from.

Enough Yunteng Bashing

Cheap Yunteng TripodTo be fair to Yunteng, I got the sturdiest tripod I believe it’s possible to find for a measly $45. It didn’t fall apart, was light, and in all honesty the tripod head was made for video, not stills. I got exactly what I paid for. I’ll keep it in my studio as a demonstration tool for showing people the difference between a $45 tripod and a $400 tripod.

What features do you look for in a tripod? Do you have any horror stories or recommendations for our readers?

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Gavin Hardcastle is a fine art photographer, writer and instructor from BC, Canada. Become a better photographer today with his free photography guides and photography tutorials. You can learn from Gavin directly at his global photography workshops in some of the worlds most spectacular locations. Upgrade your post processing skills with his online video tutorials for Photoshop and Lightroom.

  • Donald Wright

    I agree with everything except the comment that quick release leg extenders are faster than rubber twist lock… I can loosen all the stages of my twist lock RRS tripod at once by grabbing all three and unlock all with one untwist motion…then quickly tighten each one.

    So sure, you may prefer it…and I prefer twist lock…to each their own… But I don’t think speed is really as big of a difference as you make it out to be…

    I also wouldn’t call it “The Ultimate Guide To Buying A Tripod”. “Some Quick Points To Consider When Buying A Tripod” is more like it…

    Still…some good points. Thanks.

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  • Guest

    Having owned a Manfrotto 190XProb tripod for 4 years with the “quick release” tabs and recently upgraded to a Gitzo Traveler with the rubber twist locks, i can definitely tell you i can you the twist locks are way faster- i can grip all 3 locks in my hand and open each leg with one half turn, vs having to pop open a lever 9 separate times. I can release all 3 legs in literally 3 total seconds. It would take 3 times longer to open all 3 on the Manfrotto.

    And all tripods will vibrate to some degree. Torsion and twisting is something you have to look at as well. While my Gitzo is under 3 lbs, it doesn’t flex. At all. Cheaper carbon fibers will as well as non carbons. And as heavy (6+ lbs) as the aluminum Manfotto is, flexes and vibrates. Better more expensive tripods have ways of reducing that. Tripods with a center riser bar that the head attaches to will also cause vibrations like crazy- for folks that need long exposure shots, getting tripods without a vertical center column where the head is mounted directly to the tripod are far more stable since there’s not an extended post shaking in the wind.

    You also need to look into how strong the ball head is- many, even the decent to good ones are notorious for slippage when you are using the camera in the horizontal position (i.e. on it’s side)… no matter how hard you tighten the lock on it- that’s why many pros buy their tripod and ball head separately. You need to take a look at how much weight the head will support on your heaviest lens and consider if you plan on using a larger one in the future, i.e. 24-70. 300mm, etc. You always want a head that will support a weight heavier than your heaviest equipment to avoid camera creep even when it’s locked down. (My Manfrotto ALWAYS had creep, no matter how tight i locked it down. ALWAYS, which was frustrating when i needed to line it up to the horizon. My Markins ball head keeps my camera held tight, no matter what position it’s in. It wasn’t the cheapest, but it was def worth it in the long run as i don’t ever have to fix the shots in post.Then there is how smooth the camera can pan, rotate and move on the ball and if you can set drag tension. And which can prevent the camera from flopping over onto it’s side. And if you want to use an Arca mount or other mounting system.

    Size and weight is another big factor- i rarely took my Manfrotto out with me anywhere, even though i knew i needed a tripod because it was just so big and bulky- 23″ folded and about 6lbs. I hated lugging that thing around. Hated it. I chose to risk having blurry photos over taking that thing. I use the smaller Gitzo now- 2.9 lbs i think with the ball head attached and just barely 16″ folded. I can stick it in a backpack and be ready to go. Even a plastic shopping bag. Having a portable tripod MAKES me want to take it with me and shoot- and perhaps, that’s the most important thing to take into account when buying a tripod. If you don’t want to shoot (i.e. at night) because you don’t or can’t lug someone bulky, then what’s your true expense if you saved a few bucks on something you know you really don’t like 100%.

    I could spend several more paragraphs over what things to look for when buying a tripod, but these are the main points. The most important thing you can do is read reviews on the tripod you want, both by camera websites and buyer reviews from sites like b&h and amazon- you’ll find out from people who have used these things in real world situations and how well they’ve fared. Also be aware of discounts you can get on your purchase- amazon gives you something like $35 by just opening up an amazon card, and you get considerable points back (3x) that’s instantly converted back into credit on your site. And free shipping. B&h offers a point system but you don’t get near as much than if you used amazon. And you can save a bit of money by waiting around holidays such as Christmas and black friday, as well as other holidays during the year. I bought my Gitzo during Xmas season and got a $150 rebate back during their holiday rebate program.

  • Stereo Reverb

    Totally agree about this being a good basic primer on tripods- but there’s vastly more things to know about buying a tripod that isn’t discussed in the article. And yes, twist locks are much much faster. I’ve saved many shots i would have lost if i had the cam locks because of the amount of time it took to open them and set up the tripod.

  • Sherry

    I have found the ultimate tripod that a friend had it is a Manfrotto 458n neo-tech. No Joints to worry about just pulls right our then locks itself. Having trouble finding one though, and by the time you get a decent head it is over 600.
    It is also waterproof to 18 inches!

  • Point #1 is lost without mentioning the Manfrotto Neotec 458B tripod. Watch this video (of me, starting at 3:52) to see what I mean. Super fast!

    Tripod is here:

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Whoah, fast. Now, have any of those legs ever collapsed on you? I’d like to see how secure they are after a few shoots in the ocean. If they’re still solid after some abuse, I’m buying one.

  • They are very secure. The legs don’t push down unless you press in on the release button at the top of the leg. Each leg has its own release button so in that video I was pressing all three buttons at once as I collapsed the tripod.

  • Gavin Hardcastle


  • Looking on Manfrotto’s site, it says the load capacity is 17.64 lbs. I don’t know how that compares to other tripods. I’ve never maxed it out with my camera gear. The heaviest I have used is the 1D Mark III (which is a fairly sturdy camera being a 1D model) mated with a Canon 400/2.8L lens (it’s a big one … 8lbs just for the lens).

  • Of course one of the biggest items to consider is that the best tripod is the one you will actually carry out to a shoot, especially if you do a lot of landscapes. If you spend $500 on a heavy, bulky tripod you probably won’t be pumped up to hike 4 miles into the wilderness at 5am for that killer sunrise shot. In light of that, last year I finally bought my first real tripod, a Manfrotto BeFree. It’s not the sturdiest, its not terribly expensive, its not the easiest ball head to use, but it is a very light, reasonably sturdy, simple tripod that fits in my carry-on luggage and is a breeze to hike with on my shoulder. This all means I’m starting to really get some amazing shots because I actually use it. Same logic applies for any fancy equipment, if it sits in the bag it doesn’t do any good!

  • BuntyMcC

    I finally gave up on my Manfrotto tripod with nine snap releases after having to replace the clips time after time in the five years after I bought it. And they were slower than the twist type with which I replaced it. The snaps did not do well in extreme cold and kept breaking. The engineering and plastics have probably improved since then but I’ll never buy snaps again.

  • Tyrone Daroca

    Tripods with twist locks are actually faster than the flick/clip ones. You have to undo the clips one by one just to extend the legs but if you have the twist locks, you just twist them halfway altogether in one hand and let them extend.
    1.Hold all the locks
    2.Twist them together halfway
    3. Let them extend
    4. Lock them 1, 2, 3. (finish!)
    This is the first post I ever saw that says the flick things are faster than the twist thing tripods.

  • Jan

    Hi all,
    I also own this one. I actually saw it first in a video from Karl Taylor. It is a fantastic tripod and has been fully reliable. Just bear in mind that it is not a lightweight, I wouldn’t use it for traveling (other than by car).

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    I’d have to disagree Tyrone. I have both types on tripod and the twist locks are unbearably slow. Perhaps it’s down to the quality of the twist locks. The other thing that concerns me with the twist locks is that if you rush, there’s a chance they aren’t tightened properly and you’ve got an accident waiting to happen. When I rush with clips their either locked or their not. Never any doubt. Oh and much faster 😉

  • A2_tha_MFK

    The best investment I’ve made so far is my “Really Right Stuff” Tripod and ball head. Hands down the best. It’s probably out of a lot of peoples price range, but if you can afford one, get one. It’s an absolute joy to use, I take it absolutely everywhere.

  • Jared

    “you’ll still be setting up your shot while I’m at the next shooting location.”….ORLY? Care to put that to the test? I will gladly post a video on you tube of setting up a twist lock tripod from start until shot taken and packed up again (timed) if you are willing to do the same….

  • Mike1arooau

    I totally agree with the merits of buying a first class tripod. Its much cheaper to buy it right the first time. However Gavin obviously hasn’t used a decent twist lock tripod in some time. I use a Gitzo and a Feisol – both twist locks, both as fast as any lever locks. In the past I’ve used Manfrotto with lever locks – no faster.

    In the distant past twist locks often “auto rotated” if you
    unlocked/locked in the wrong order – however thats a thing of the past.
    So unless you’re looking at buying an old second hand tripod don’t fear
    twist locks

    Twist or lever is personal choice, go with whatever suits, but although speed of operation is equal I’ve never experienced my leg locks catching on shrubs, fences or other obstacles. Not so with lever locks which seem to actively search out snags.

    Idealy a tripod should get the camera viewfinder to eye level without the column being raised. If its a lightweight, hanging a camera bag or some other weight from the centre column may aid stability. Another trick is using an elastic baggage strap attched to the centre column and stepping on it for tension.

    Other than the “twist vs lever” aspect, a good article.

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Hi Mike,

    I regularly get to try out the high end tripods that my students bring to workshops and although there’s a big difference in quality to the cheap twist locks, I’ve yet to use a twist lock that was faster than a clip.

    I will however concede that the clip locks do manage to bring home lots of flora. Many a shrub has hitched a ride without me realizing.

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Tripods at dawn?

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Now THIS is what the internet is all about. T

  • Grace Muncey

    To compare it to other tripods, the normal capacity ranges from 6-12 lbs, so that’s a big load capacity!

  • Grace Muncey

    If you want a very good, relatively light, sturdy tripod that won’t cost as much as your camera body, go for the Vanguard Alta Pro 263 AT! It weighs 4.4 pounds without a head on it, and 5.5 pounds with my relatively heavy Vanguard Pistol Grip head on it. I love this thing, it has the quick release leg extenders, the legs can be positioned at 25, 50, and 85 degrees, it has a hook on the center post for extra weight in high wind, and there are so many other features for less than $150! (That is without the tripod head though, I bought my head for $90) In my opinion, it has everything the glorified Gitzo tripods have to offer, and more. I spent a total of $220 on my tripod, including the head, and I am in love. If this one ever gets lost, or breaks, I would buy it again in a heartbeat. The following link is the tripod with the head I use, the total comes out to $232:

    Just get this tripod! 🙂

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Good tip Grace. Will it take other heads or only the Vanguard? I used to use the Manfotto pistol grip until ti sized up and not amount of lube would get it going again so these days I prefer a simple one lever ball head.

  • That’s good to know. Thanks! 🙂

  • Grace Muncey

    I believe it only takes Vanguard heads, I am not fully sure. However, Vanguard does make a multitude of heads, of all different kinds that you can attach onto it. This ball head is the other most popular option:

    About $15 less than the pistol grip as well!

  • Grace Muncey

    No problem!

  • Kerby

    I agree but being 6’4″ I am still saving for the tall model which is just over $1K.

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Oh Blimey Kerby, that’s pricey. I’ve seen a lot of people frustrated with the top hinges on RRS tripods. The legs tend to close really easily and have little resistance.

  • Pro Photographer

    My £180 tripod has twist release legs, and it’s fine. It’s the same amount of time to release the flip clamps.

    No difference. So the comment about being on your next shot whilst we’ll be setting up is nonsense.

  • A2_tha_MFK

    That’s the one I have. I’m only 5’9′ but I use it quite a lot completely extended to get a different view point. Plus because they don’t have a center pole, you can use it right down on ground level as well. By far the best Tripod around.

  • Jordan

    I always rely on the centre column to frame vertically because adjusting it is much easier than doing all three legs and also it’s difficult to fine tune the height only using the legs. So for me, using the centre column is always a necessity.

  • Jordan

    My current tripod is a decent but fairly budget twist-leg Velbon. It’s not a ball-head but it does have vertical and horizontal spirit levels which I’ve become accustomed to. It also comes with it’s own carry case and is quite small without ever being too short in use.

    The MeFOTO range is getting great reviews but it’s also twist-leg and I’d lose the spirit levels, so despite the rave reviews I’m not convinced it’s a huge upgrade.

  • Jordan

    I’d say it takes time to become fully efficient with the twist legs as there’s definitely a technique to master to doing it quickly and in one movement (at least that’s what I found for me and mine).

    Clip legs are definitely more intuitive and much easier to fully master, so unless you stick to using a single twist-type unit regularly until you’re at that stage, it will seem much slower and more awkward to most.

  • Bj Rollison

    Wow…I had to read this twice to make sure I wasn’t mis-reading your advice.

    Is the speed of extending legs really so critical that this would be a purchase consideration? Absolutely not! If I am shooting wildlife or sports I would likely be using a monopod and not a tripod. If using a long lens and tripod for wildlife I would use a gimbal head. If speed were a consideration in the field I would carry the tripod extended over my shoulder and ready to shoot.

    The type of release is much of a personal choice. After years of getting tabs caught on twigs and such as I hiked the twist locks are a saving grace and they simply pack better than tabs in my opinion.

    For me the 2 most important considerations in a tripod are:

    1.) How much can the tripod and head support? One of the biggest problems I see novices make is purchasing a tripod that is underrated for the camera and lens combinations you plan on using with your tripod.

    2.) How much does the tripod weigh? Tripods made from carbon fiber are extremely light compared to strength. The weight of a tripod is important considering all the other camera equipment a person needs to pack around. One pound doesn’t seem like much, but on long hikes every ounce matters. Additionally, when traveling abroad many airlines really clamp down on carry on weight. In Vietnam, Cambodia, KL, and Thailand the airlines restrict carry on bags to 7 kg. Sometimes we can sneak in with more…sometimes not. (As a side note…many airlines are also now restricting tripods as carry on items.)

    Another consideration is tube size and leg flex. I broke a leg on my Gitzo 3532 (long story) and while waiting on the part I bought a MeFoto GlobeTrotter. The GlobeTrotter says it will support 26.4 lbs, and it folds up nicely for traveling. But, when fully extended the legs are so thin and flexible I think even a light breeze would induce vibration.

    While tripod height is also a consideration, I will say that most tall photogs will have a difficult time finding a tripod that extends to a suitable height that is also packable (for a hike) and easy to travel with. I purchased an Induro CT414 after my displeasure with the MeFoto. It extends much higher compared to th Gitzo, but that also comes at the price of being approximately 2 pounds heavier. It works on short hikes, but the Gitzo (now that I finally got my part which was back ordered for 3 months) is my goto tripod for long hikes and travel.

    A separate post could be written on heads. Ball heads are great, and I rely on my Arca-Swiss head when I travel. However, I really love my Manfrotto geared head. It is more bulky than most ball heads, but offers precision in composition that I think is superior to a ball head.

  • Topic_goes_here

    I haven’t tried a twist-type, but with my Dolica, I can do three quick-release clasps with one hand. But it’s good to know that you can do the same with the twist-type.

  • I see it fine, is it working for you now?

  • Edmund

    As well as the bubble for getting the tripod level, you need to be able to rotate the camera while everything else is level to take panoramic photos. So a simple ball joint is great but there must also be a seperate rotation plate / holding screw.

    Could not agree more about quick release clamps – a good one will stop your camera from falling out of the tripod.

    A good carbon fiber tripod absorbs much more energy than an aluminium one making it much more stable and it is also lighter. Yes, even with carbon fiber the desert sand and salt water take their toll but mine will las 10 years not just 2.

  • Edmund

    If I am going to take photos, I extend the tripod before I go, collapsing it only for transport. This makes the argument over leg clips redundant.

  • Edmund

    Centre column always risks vibration.

  • John culp

    Useless article

  • Stereo Reverb

    Totally agree. That’s why i upgraded to a carbon fiber- i hated lugging around my 6 lb manfrotto and i realized it was affecting what i wanted to shoot. Now i have a super light tripod that i take with me everywhere now. 🙂

  • A tripod can really help you in many ways and will prevent photograph blur especially if you have a slow shutter speed on.

  • Tyrone Daroca

    Right, thanks for the thought.

  • Anubis

    I disagree.

  • Natalie

    I’am working at home, completing various simple jobs which only requires from you desktop or laptop computer and internet connection and I am so happy with it… After 6 months on this job and i had profit so far in total $36k… Basicly i earn about 80 bucks every hour and work for three to four hrs most of the days.And the best part about it is that you can decide when to work yourself and for how long and you get a paycheck at the end of every week -> If this interest you, read more about it here… <-

  • Jordan

    My previous tripod was a Velbon with twist locks and it was significantly faster to put up fully than my new Vanguard with quick release legs.

    Trying to set a specific height somewhere less than fully extended though, the twist lock tripod was much more fiddly. That is ultimately what swayed me away from another Velbon, as nice as their current tripods are.

  • Kristine7845
  • Steve Wyant

    I just got the RRS TVC-33 and the RRS BH-55 ball head. It’s brand-new (just arrived today). The ball head seems a little bit stiff which is kind of disappointing, but overall I’m really impressed. But I’m going to have to be impressed because this whole kit cost me $1,400…

  • A2_tha_MFK

    That is easy fixed, the top hinges are connected with two hex screws. You get two allen keys with the tripod that fit those screws. So carry them in your camera bag. If the legs loosen at the hex screws, which I have experienced from time to time, you just use the allen keys to tighten back up. I’d say on average they work their way loose, once every 3 or 4 Months. Not so bad for constant in & out use.

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