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A tripod is an essential piece of equipment for a landscape photographer. Sure, you won’t always need to use it. But you’ll find yourself in situations where it can help you capture a high-quality image you wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.
But how do you choose the right tripod? There are hundreds (if not thousands) of options out there, with prices ranging from $10 to more than $1,000. How do you know which one will best suit your needs? Should you just go for the most expensive tripod you can find? It must be the best, right?
Before we get into the best options for you, I want to go over a few key reasons why you need a tripod.
Tripods are essential for capturing razor-sharp images, especially in low-light situations where you want to keep your ISO low.
While increasing the ISO lets you use a quicker shutter speed, it can introduce unwanted grain/noise and reduce the overall quality of your image. But keeping the ISO low means you’ll need a longer shutter speed. (Yes, you can adjust the aperture. But I won’t be talking about that here).
Capturing a sharp image using a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second or slower with a handheld camera is almost impossible. It’s very difficult to avoid any camera movement which, with such a slow shutter speed, means you’ll introduce some blur into the image.
Mounting the camera on a tripod lets you use slower shutter speeds and still capture sharp images. The camera sits still on the tripod, so you don’t have to worry about the motion of you holding it.
Using a tripod also allows you to use even slower shutter speeds and capture long exposures (i.e. images that make use of extra slow shutter speeds).
The first tripods I bought were cheap $20 aluminum models from the local electronic shop. While most photographers start with such a tripod, I strongly advise you not to buy one. For landscape photography, they simply won’t do a good job. In some situations, they may even do more harm than goods. These also break more easily than something of a higher quality.
So what should you consider before purchasing your next tripod? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Taking these topics into account before you buy will make it easier to find the best one for your needs.
The first thing most of us consider is the price. Photography equipment is rarely cheap, and if you want quality you need to pay for it. As I said earlier, a tripod can cost you anything from $10 to several thousand. But are more expensive tripods necessarily better?
In general, yes. A $1,000 tripod will outperform a $200 tripod in most tests. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right one for you. Ask yourself what you need. What type of photography do you do? Do you need the most expensive model? For most people, the answer is no.
Chances are a mid-range ($200) tripod will be more than adequate and perform perfectly in most scenarios.
What about the specs? Should you choose a short one or a tall one? Can the legs spread wide, or are they locked into a fixed position? Flip-lock or twist-lock?
Let’s start with the height. In most situations, you won’t need a tall tripod. But there may well come a time where you need that extra leg length. Is it worth paying extra for? If you often find yourself in rivers, rocks or rugged seascapes, then yes. But if you’re not into extreme landscape photography and mount your tripod on flat and stable ground instead, I wouldn’t bother.
While a tall tripod is nice, it’s also nice to have one that lets you get close to the ground. For this image, the tripod held my camera just a few centimeters off the ground, which allowed me to get extra close to the flowers.
So what’s more important to you? Having a tall tripod, or being able to take photographs from a low perspective?
The good news is that some of the more expensive tripods can give you both. While they can stand close to two meters tall, they can also lay more or less flat on the ground for those extremely low perspective shots.
The final thing to consider is the tripod’s weight. This is important, especially if you head out on long hikes to reach particular destinations. Your backpack can get quite heavy once you add all the gear you need, so the last thing you want is unnecessary weight from a tripod.
Now, a lightweight tripod doesn’t necessarily mean a low-quality tripod. In fact, some of the best tripods out there are lightweight. You just need to make sure they’re sturdy and can support the weight of your camera. However, these tripods are rarely cheap and are often found in the higher end of the price range.
If you’re an avid hiker and tend to go a long way to photograph your subjects, I strongly recommend looking into a lightweight carbon-fiber tripod. These tripods are just as sturdy (if not more sturdy) than the heavier aluminum alternatives.
But if you’re not into hiking, weight might not be such an issue. In fact, if you photograph in rough conditions you may prefer the extra weight. When photographing beaches in Arctic Norway I depend on having a sturdy tripod that won’t break when hit by waves or move when the waves are receding. In these situations, a low-quality travel tripod is far from ideal. Even strong winds can make these tripods vibrate, leading to blurry images. A heavy and solid tripod is a much better option.
What types of landscapes do you normally photograph? And what do you need to capture those scenes?
Unfortunately, I can’t answer this question for you. It really depends on who you are and the kinds of photographs you take. But when you’re ready to buy one, consider what I’ve talked about and ask yourself what you need. Do you need a light tripod you can easily bring on long hikes? Do you need a sturdy tripod that can handle wind and rough conditions? Perhaps you need a combination of the two.
And what about the price? Do you really need the most expensive model, or will a medium-priced alternative do the job?
Answering these questions should help you narrow down the options, and help you find the tripod that is best for you.
Personally, I have two tripods: a lightweight travel tripod I can bring on long hikes, and my main tripod that’s a little heavier (and more expensive) but solid enough to use in even the roughest Arctic conditions.
Let us know what tripod you ended up choosing. We’d love to hear about it.