Although they seem simple enough at first glance, tripods are tremendously important tools for photographers and videographers. Talking about camera support systems might not be the sexiest topic in photography, but there’s so much to know about tripods. So, allow me to do you a favor. I’m about to clue you in on a few things I wish I’d known about tripods when I first began making photographs nearly twenty years ago. These things will help you when it comes to choosing the right tripod for your needs.
Camera tripods come in all shapes and sizes. Materials and mechanisms vary a lot, as do the specific usages of the tripods themselves. This article will show you the basics of tripod anatomy and talk about the things you need to know about them, so choosing the right tripod for your needs will be easy.
Tripod legs: putting the “tri” in tripod
Conceptually, tripods are delightfully simple beasts. Three extendable (usually) legs offer three points of contact to the ground/floor, then terminate at an apex where your camera will hopefully be securely mounted. This is all deceptively simple and leaves a lot of room for many different types of legs made from many different materials with equally varied locking mechanisms.
Let’s break down some of the common tripod leg variants you’re likely to encounter when choosing the right tripod.
Tripod leg materials range from the oddly archaic to the weirdly space-aged. Fortunately, in most cases, you can make the best choice for which material will be best for your uses based on these three simple maxims:
- Your tripod can be lightweight.
- Your tripod can be strong.
- Your tripod can be inexpensive.
The catch here is that you can only choose two of those when selecting a tripod. This is where tripod leg materials come into play and where you should be honest with yourself about what you need the most from your tripod.
1. Wood and Steel
As difficult as it might be to believe in this day and age, I still own and regularly use a wooden tripod; yes, really.
It’s a beautifully made contraption of steel and ash wood, Berlebach Report 2042 (new version is 242). Primarily, I use it for large format and medium format work and any other time in the studio when I want to use a large setup or happen just to be feeling extra meta. It supports around 27lbs(12.25kg) and is absolutely rock solid. The drawback is my lovely Berlebach weights over 7lbs without a head, and it tips the scales at over 10lbs when fitted with one.
The point here is that yes, there are still tripod legs made using “old world” materials like wood and steel. Many of these are vintage tripods you can pick up for a wide range of prices.
If weight is not a concern for you, a heavier tripod is more ideal than a lighter one. If you do primarily static studio work, don’t overlook these wood or steel tripods.
Yes, there are some plastic tripod legs out there. Most of these, thankfully, are relegated to smaller, desktop-type tripods for blogging – as they should be.
As a construction material for longer tripod legs, plastic and plastic derivatives aren’t ideal. Often the strength is far from adequate for the camera support system and flexes under the load.
While some plastic components on a tripod are perfectly fine, it’s advisable to steer clear of a large tripod with legs completely made from plastic.
Ahhhh yes, good ol’ aluminum. In the world of tripods, aluminum is the ultimate workhorse. It has an excellent strength-to-weight ratio, is relatively low in price (dropping lower all the time), and makes for a nice, healthy compromise between leg rigidity, compactness, and weight.
For the last couple of decades, aluminum has been the tripod leg material of choice when it comes to camera support systems because it checks so many boxes in terms of performance.
However, in the last ten years or so, modern science has thrown a new material into the mix that has all but unseated aluminum as the ideal material for tripod leg construction.
I’m talking about…
4. Carbon Fiber
I’ve made photographs for over half my life now, with about ten of those years professionally. For as long as I’ve been slinging a camera, I only acquired my first carbon fiber tripod about three years ago. Carbon fiber is a lightweight, strong, and extremely corrosion-resistant material, making it perfect for tripod legs.
Not to get all “sciency,” but carbon fiber is, in fact, more stiff than aluminum, being 181Gpa and 69Gpa, respectively. This means that a tripod leg made of carbon fiber flexes less than an aluminum leg of the same diameter. That’s a good thing for a tripod.
Of course, there are multiple carbon fiber species out there, and each has different characteristics.
Going back to our “big three” maxims for tripods, while carbon fiber tripods are strong and lightweight, they are often not cheap. Expect to pay around double for a set of carbon fiber tripod legs compared to aluminum.
However, this price gap is quickly closing as more and more manufacturers begin to bring carbon fiber tripods to the market. In most cases, the benefits of having an easy-to-carry tripod that is both strong and stable are often worth the investment.
After an exhaustive internet search (okay, maybe about ten minutes), I couldn’t turn up any tripod legs made fully from titanium alloy. However, I did find some tripod sales pages using vague language and simply naming aluminum tripods as “titanium” models.
While titanium is making its way into the world of tripod legs, it is doing so in the form of hardware too. This is expected since titanium offers superb tensile strength and corrosion resistance. Yet, oddly enough, titanium isn’t the ultimate material for tripod legs and parts. It doesn’t wear well against other parts, and the strength-to-weight isn’t as good as some carbon fiber materials.
And the price? Words like “astronomical,” “insane” and “laughable” spring to mind.
To offer portability, tripod legs generally feature either folding or telescopic sections, with the vast majority being of the latter variety. This means that those leg sections sport some sort of locking mechanism. In general, you’re likely to encounter two main types of leg locks.
1. Flip locks
My very first tripod had flip-type leg locks. Then, my second tripod had flip-type leg locks…so it’s no surprise that I became accustomed to, and prefer, flip-type leg locks on my tripods. This, of course, is wholly subjective.
Flip locks are exactly how they sound: a locking mechanism that flips up to release the tripod leg section and flips down to secure it into place.
These locks make deploying the tripod fast and easy. Flip locks can be made of a variety of materials and vary in strength accordingly.
2. Twist locks
It seems as if twist locks are slowly becoming the more prevalent method for locking tripod legs into place. Much like their flip-lock cousins, a twist-type leg lock doesn’t function just as you might expect. Simply twist one direction to unlock and twist the opposite direction to secure.
Twist locks are generally less likely to fail due to dirt and sand over flip locks. However, not all twist locks are made equal. Some twist locks require a good deal of “throw” (twisting) to lock or loosen the mechanism resulting in slower deployment retraction.
Now that we’ve reached the bottom of our tripod, it’s time to talk about the silent hero of all tripod legs – the seldom applauded feet. No matter what, your tripod ultimately comes to rest on its feet…well…hopefully.
The feet of a tripod come in all shapes and sizes and are another important consideration when choosing the right tripod. In most cases, tripod feet are made from some sort of rubber or rubberized plastic.
This is where things get interesting.
Now, the shape and characteristics of tripod feet make them more or least apt to remain solid in different environments. The larger the feet of your tripod, the more “flotation” they will offer; meaning the load will be distributed over a wider surface area. The more flotation a tripod foot has, the less likely it is to sink into softer ground materials like sand and mud.
Speaking of the ground, if you know you’ll be using your tripod in widely varying outdoor environments (looking at you landscape shooters), it would be a good idea to make certain your tripod feet feature some type of spike system.
Foot spikes are your best friend when you find yourself shooting in icy winter conditions or on exposed rock. However, they are also your worst enemy when shooting indoors and are the menace of wedding venues everywhere. So if you’re a photographer who shoots both outdoor and indoor scenes, make sure your leg spikes are retractable or removable.
It’s also worth mentioning that many major tripod manufacturers offer interchangeable feet for their products, which means you can change your tripod feet depending on the situation.
Center column or nah?
Let’s move a bit north and talk about a topic of contention when it comes to tripods – center columns. A center column allows the photographer to increase the tripod’s height after deploying the legs to their maximum extension.
Center columns add wonderful versatility to a tripod’s capabilities simply because they facilitate the quick and tailored height adjustment. At the same time, center columns also introduce a point of movement into your shooting platform. Thus, causing the debate about whether or not using a center column hinders the overall quality of your photos.
Center columns are very much a double-edged sword in that they can add immense versatility to your shooting possibilities while also causing a few problems if poorly executed. As cliche’ as it might sound, the choice of whether or not you prefer a center column is entirely up to you.
Fortunately, the decision is becoming less and less of an issue, as many tripod makers now offer removable center columns for a large number of tripod models.
There’s so much more!
We’ve covered the main components of your tripod, but we haven’t even begun to talk about the wide world of ball heads, pan heads, and fluid heads! There are even base plates and plate clamps to talk about! So instead of reading about all of these cool little gadgets, why not see them in action?
Have a look at this video I made that covers all of the things we’ve already talked about plus the options that are currently available for mounting your camera to your particular camera support system.
As always, feel free to post your questions and comments about choosing the right tripod below. Have a favorite camera support system or setup you’d like to share with us? We would love to hear about them as well!