A tripod is one of the first accessories people like to buy when they get a new camera. But there are hundreds of thousands of tripods out there, all with different features and price points. How do you go about choosing the best tripod for you? This tripod buying guide will highlight 6 features to consider before purchasing a new tripod.
Why use a tripod?
There are a couple of reasons why you might need a tripod in the first place.
First, you should use a tripod if you plan to shoot slow shutter speeds or high f-stops (apertures). Conditions like this are typically real estate, interior, architectural, and landscape photography, where you need your scene to be as sharp as possible, often in low light conditions.
You should also use a tripod when shooting bracketed photos for compositing or HDR in post-production, or when taking selfies or group photos that you want to be a part of.
There are certainly more reasons to consider using a tripod, but hopefully, these give you good examples to start thinking about.
1. Payload (or load capacity)
The very first feature to consider when researching tripods is its payload or maximum load capacity. In other words, how much weight is it able to support? The payload is typically found in the product description of each tripod. To come up with this number, consider the heaviest and largest camera setup that you plan to use on the tripod. Camera and lens weights can easily be found via a Google search or examining their respective product descriptions.
For example, my Sony A7rIII camera body alone weighs 23.2 oz (657 grams). My heaviest lens, the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 weighs 52.16 oz (1480 grams). So together, my heaviest camera setup would be 75.36 ounces (2137 grams). That means I should find a tripod with a payload of at least that amount.
It is also important to look at the payload of the tripod head or the piece that attaches your camera to the tripod legs. Some tripods come with a head included, or you can replace it with a head that you buy separately. Many tripod heads have their own payloads specified, so be sure to consider that number as well.
2. Tripod minimum and maximum height
All tripods have a minimum and maximum height expressed in their product descriptions. Some tripods can get ultra-tall, others can get ultra-low to the ground. Think about what kind of subjects you will be photographing, and the optimal height you would want your tripod to be.
If you are tall or plan to shoot tall subjects, aim to get the tallest tripod you can find. However, if you shoot subjects that are lower to the ground, you may want to consider tripods with a low minimum height. There are even new tripods like the upcoming Peak Design Travel Tripod designed to get extremely low, down to 5.5 inches.
3. How stable is the tripod?
The next quality to consider is how stable the tripod is. First, consider the payload or weight capacity mentioned above – this will give you a good idea of whether the tripod can support your camera and lens combination. But there are other features that can enhance tripod stability.
Some tripods come with retractable or removable spikes in the tripod feet. These provide extra stability by sticking into the dirt or soft ground if you happen to be shooting outside.
Tripods can also come with a retractable hook in the center column of the tripod, allowing you to hang weight to stabilize the tripod. Attaching a heavy sandbag to the hook is often the optimal option, but you can also get creative by using other items like a heavy water bottle or even your camera bag.
4. How easy is it to carry the tripod?
If you plan to travel a lot with your tripod, or use it on the go, it’s important to consider the overall weight and folded length of the tripod. If you opt for a heavy, large tripod, you might get optimal stability, but you will likely struggle to carry that tripod around.
Consider the material the tripod is made from. Most tripods are made of aluminum (cheaper, but heavier) or carbon fiber (lightweight, but more expensive). Many tripod models are available in either construction material, so think about your budget and how important the weight saving is to you.
Also, look at the overall ease of folding the tripod up. Most tripod legs are three sections meaning they get taller with each section you open, but some can be two sections or even five sections. The more leg sections you have to deploy equates to a longer time to set up and put away. Along the lines of tripod legs, look at the mechanism they use to deploy. Most tripods use a twist-lock mechanism, which can get confusing about which direction locks or unlocks the legs. Meanwhile, other tripods have a simple clip lock that is much easier to unlock and lock.
5. Tripod head quality?
Some tripods come with a tripod head, and others require that you buy it separately. In some cases, you may even want to buy your own tripod head if you have a preference in the best type to use.
A ball head is the most common type of tripod head, allowing for 360-degree rotation to position the camera where you want it. However, many ball heads, especially cheap or low-quality ones, will slip over time and be less stable. Thus, it may be worth buying a high-end ball head or looking at another type of head to use on your tripod.
The final piece of the tripod head to consider is the tripod plate or the piece that mounts directly to your camera. Arca-Swiss type plates are among the most common and universal, but they often come with the need to use an Allen wrench to tighten the plate to your camera.
On the other hand, there are other tripod plates such as those made by Manfrotto or Joby that includes a twist screw that you can easily secure without the need for an extra tool.
6. Extra features?
The last things to consider are any extra features or bells and whistles that come with the tripod. Here are a few examples to look out for:
Tripod to monopod conversion
Some tripods such as those made by MeFoto, allow you to easily convert the tripod into a monopod by simply removing one leg and attaching it to the center column. This is a handy feature if you anticipate needing a monopod.
Tripods with a column that can be positioned at 90 degrees
If you have the need to shoot with a 90-degree column, look for a tripod that offers this feature. My Manfrotto 055 has this feature and it comes in very handy for product or flat lay photography.
Built-in bubble leveler
While many cameras have a built-in leveler, it always helps to have a physical bubble leveler to make sure your camera is straight. Some tripods have bubble levelers built-into the tripod head or the center column of the tripod.
Some tripods come with a carrying case to aid in transportation, and others require the carrying case to be purchased separately.
There are a plethora of tripods out there and it is not an easy task to find the right one for you. Ultimately, this tripod buying guide is intended to help you think of all of the situations in which you plan to use a tripod and encourage you to carefully research all six features above. And while there are plenty of cheap tripods out there, consider investing in a high-quality tripod to begin with. Your camera equipment is expensive, and you don’t want to risk dropping or damaging it due to placing it on a cheap tripod.