Are you struggling to choose the perfect photography tripod? You’re not alone.
There are hundreds of tripods on the market today, all with different features and price points, so if you’re new to the world of tripod photography, then picking the ideal tripod might seem impossible.
Fortunately, choosing a tripod isn’t as difficult as you might think. I’ve spent plenty of time purchasing tripods in the past, and in this article, I share all my tripod-buying knowledge. More specifically, I highlight the six tripod features you should consider before hitting that “Buy” button.
By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll feel far less overwhelmed – and you’ll be ready to purchase a tripod of your very own.
Let’s do this!
Why do you need a tripod?
Before you choose a tripod, it’s essential that you identify why you need that tripod in the first place – because different tripods are designed for different purposes, and you don’t want to end up with the wrong product.
For instance, do you need a tripod for landscape photography to use in rough conditions (e.g., shooting in the wind and rain)? Do you need a tripod for studio product work? Do you need a tripod for group-portrait selfies? Or do you need a tripod for the occasional travel photography shot?
So ask yourself:
Why does a tripod matter to me? What will I use it for?
And once you’ve answered, proceed with the rest of the article.
1. Payload (or load capacity)
The first feature to consider when buying a photography tripod is its payload, also known as its maximum load capacity.
In other words: How much weight can the tripod support?
If you’re shooting with a large setup – such as a telephoto lens on a full-frame DSLR – then you’ll need a tripod with a huge load capacity, especially if you plan to work in windy conditions.
To determine the minimum acceptable payload for your needs, consider the heaviest camera setup that you plan to use (including accessories, such as flashes and wireless receivers). Individual equipment weights can easily be found via a Google search.
For example, my Sony A7R III body weighs 23.2 oz (657 g), while my heaviest lens, the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8, weighs 52.16 oz (1480 g). So my heaviest camera setup would be 75.36 oz (2137 g), and any tripod I buy should have a payload of at least that amount.
It is also important to consider the payload of the tripod head (or if you don’t plan to use a separate head, the piece that attaches your camera to the tripod legs). After all, you don’t want to buy ultra-strong tripod legs only to end up with a weak head! Note that some tripods come with a head included, and while it can generally be replaced by a stronger option, it will add to the cost – so be sure to look into heads and their payloads before buying.
2. Tripod minimum and maximum height
All tripods have a minimum and maximum height, which is expressed in their product specifications. The minimum height is the lowest the tripod will position a camera, while the maximum height is the highest the tripod will position a camera.
Now, not all photographers need an ultra-tall tripod (which tend to be heavier and/or cost extra). And not all photographers need an ultra-low tripod, which is good for getting down into position for landscape and macro work but is generally useless for routine portrait photography.
So think about the kind of subjects you’ll be photographing and ask yourself:
What is the optimal height for my preferred genres of photography?
Here are a few genres where a tall tripod can be useful:
- Landscape photography
- Architecture photography
- Sports photography
- Portrait photography
And here are a few genres where a low tripod can be useful:
- Landscape photography
- Architecture photography
- Wildlife photography
- Macro photography
Of course, the specifics will depend on your photography style and interests, so don’t feel you must follow the lists I’ve laid out.
Note: If you’re tall, get a tripod that can reach your eye level, as shooting from a bent position for hours on end is extremely uncomfortable. And if you plan to shoot tall portrait subjects, a tall tripod is an absolute must-have, as working from below your subject’s eye level will give you unflattering results.
3. Overall stability
Next, you should consider a tripod’s overall stability (and your stability needs).
Yes, this partly involves the payload or weight capacity mentioned above, which will give you a good idea of whether the tripod can support your camera and lens combination. But there are other features that can affect tripod stability.
For instance, some tripods come with retractable or removable spikes in the tripod feet. These provide extra stability by sticking into the dirt or soft ground and are essential if you plan to shoot outside on rough terrain.
Other tripods come with a retractable hook at the center, which lets you hang weight to stabilize your setup in windy conditions. Attaching a heavy sandbag to the hook is often the optimal option, but you can also get creative in a pinch (e.g., you can hang a heavy water bottle or even your camera bag).
If you plan to do serious landscape photography (or even nighttime cityscape photography), these extras can be a lifesaver – but if you mostly plan to shoot indoors, such features probably aren’t worth considering.
4. Tripod weight and folded length
If you plan to travel with your tripod or use it on the go, you’ll need to consider the overall weight and folded length of the tripod.
You see, while large, heavy tripods tend to be very stable, they’re also difficult to carry (imagine lugging around a five-pound tripod while trekking through the mountains; it’s not fun!).
So you need to strike a balance between stability and weight.
Now, the easiest way to reduce weight while maintaining optimal stability is by purchasing a carbon fiber tripod. Most tripods are made of aluminum, which is cheaper but very heavy, and carbon fiber is the pricier but lighter alternative.
For the frequent traveler or hiker, a carbon fiber tripod is generally worth the extra cost – but if you’ll be shooting almost exclusively in a studio, an aluminum tripod shouldn’t be a problem.
Also, if you plan to travel by plane, consider the folded length of your tripod. Some tripods are designed to be portable, and they can easily fit in a suitcase; other tripods tend to be long and unwieldy, even when folded completely, and these models are not ideal for frequent flyers.
Finally, consider the overall ease of folding the tripod. Most tripod legs come in three sections, which means that the tripod gets taller with each section you open. Some tripods, however, can come with two leg sections or even five leg sections. More leg sections equate to a longer set-up and take-down time, which can be a problem if you’re often shooting in a rush.
Oh, and look at the tripod-locking mechanism, too. Most tripods use a twist-lock mechanism, which can cause confusion over the direction you need to twist to lock or unlock the legs, while other tripods have a simple flip-lock mechanism that is much easier to work with:
5. Tripod head and plate quality
As I mentioned above, some tripods come with heads, while other tripods are just legs (i.e., you need to purchase the head separately). So before you buy, make sure you know what you’re getting!
Of course, like tripod legs, tripod heads can be light or heavy, strong or weak. Carefully evaluate prospective tripod heads according to your needs, and be ready to pay big bucks for the sturdiest, most rugged heads.
What type of head is best?
That really depends on your interests. A ball head is the most common type of tripod head, and it allows for 360-degree rotation. While a ball head offers incredible flexibility, many ball heads, especially cheap or low-quality ones, will slip over time and become 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. Other options include pan-and-tilt heads and pistol-grip tripod heads (the latter are technically ball heads but with a clever twist).
Note that pretty much every large tripod allows you to replace the tripod head with one of your choosing, so if you don’t like the first head you buy, you do have the option to switch to another (though the expense is often considerable!).
And don’t forget to consider the quality and type of the tripod plate, which is the piece that mounts directly to your camera. Arca-Swiss type plates are your most common and universal options, but they’re generally tightened with an Allen wrench. On the other hand, there are tripod plates that feature twist screws, and you can secure these without an additional tool.
6. Extra features
When buying a photography tripod, I’d also encourage you to consider any useful extra features. Some tripods include bells and whistles, such as:
Some tripods can be easily converted into a monopod by simply removing one leg and attaching it to the center column. If you shoot sports or simply like the idea of working with a more flexible support system, this can be a handy feature.
A 90-degree center column
Some tripods feature center columns that can flip up and sit parallel to the ground. They’re great for shooting flat-lay food or product photography, and they’re also useful for macro photography.
A built-in bubble level
These days, many cameras feature an electronic bubble level, but it always helps to have a physical bubble level to ensure your camera is straight. Some tripods include bubble levels built into the center column or head:
A carrying case
Some tripods come with a carrying case for easy transportation. If you plan to travel frequently, this is always a nice addition, though you do have the option to purchase a carrying case separately.
How to buy a photography tripod: final words
There are plenty of tripods to choose from, and finding the right one can seem daunting.
Hopefully, this tripod-buying guide has helped you narrow down your options – so that you can capture sharp, well-supported images!
Now over to you:
Which tripod do you plan to buy? Which features matter to you most? Share your thoughts in the comments below!