For many new photographers, the first purchase after buying a DSLR is another lens or a flashgun. Perhaps the one tool that is often overlooked but can provide the biggest improvement to the technical quality of a beginner’s images is a tripod.
Sadly, when newcomers to photography do get around to purchasing a tripod, they tend to go for the cheaper option, believing that there is little or no difference buying a cheap tripod than a more expensive one. This, unfortunately, is not the case and many photographers have abandoned the idea of using a camera tripod due to poor experiences when they started out.
So, what should a photographer need to know before choosing the best camera tripod?
Camera tripods dramatically improve image quality in low light and telephoto shots.
The primary purpose of a tripod is to stabilize the camera before shooting. In good light, with a high enough shutter speed, our own bodies make a perfectly good stabilizing platform. However, when the light is less than ideal or the shot involves using a telephoto lens, then we may start to see an inherent lack of sharpness to our shots.
This is known as camera shake. You may not even notice it in your images, assuming that you are at the limits of your lens’ resolving capacity, but, take the same shot with the camera locked off on a tripod and you might be astounded by the improvement in quality.
Some other reasons for using a tripod include locking the camera in a awkward position, obtaining matching exposures for the best quality in HDR images and shooting macro subjects.
A cheap tripod will ultimately disappoint.
Buying a cheap tripod is, in the long run, going to be a frustrating experience. Most budget tripods are made of plastic or very low quality aluminum—they bend and buckle very easily under the strain of even a relatively lightweight camera. They are often so light that even a moderate breeze can add significant instability, creating camera shake.
Lastly, budget camera tripods are often sold with integrated heads (the platform the camera sits on). These heads are usually plastic and do not move freely when panning or tilting the camera.
A quality tripod will generally consist of two parts that need to be purchased separately—the bottom section, or the legs and center column, and the upper section, or the head. The key is to find a combination that suits your style of photography.
Choosing quality tripod legs
When choosing tripod legs, ask yourself:
- How many sections do the legs have? Most tripod legs have three or four sections. But, more sections mean less stability. However, you also have to consider the maximum height. Four section legs are generally better suited for taller photographers.
- What kind of section locks do they use? Section locks are the mechanisms that lock the leg sections when extended. The main choices are lever or twist locks. Lever locks can get stiff, especially if the tripod is used in extreme conditions and not cleaned thoroughly, while with twist locks you need to make sure you have them fully tightened before use.
- How much do they weigh? Carrying a tripod all day will add a significant load to your equipment. Low end quality tripods are generally made from aluminum or steel, which can be quite heavy. There is now a significant number of tripods legs on the market made from carbon fiber, which are significantly lighter and maintain excellent rigidity but come at a premium price.
- What is the maximum capacity? A DSLR with a telephoto lens can be quite heavy. All tripods will include a load weight in their specifications. This is the maximum weight that can be used safely. When considering the load weight, think ahead, if you plan to buy bigger gear in the future, figure this into your calculation.
Lever style locks on tripod legs
Twist style locks
Carbon Fiber legs
The other main component of the tripod is the head. In many cases, this can be as expensive as the legs section but as always, you pay for what you get.
Choosing quality tripod head
When choosing a tripod head, consider:
- What type of head do you need? The most basic type of head is ball socket, this, as the name suggests is a ball that rotates and allows for a wide range of movement. They tend to be the smallest and lightest heads available, but have lower load weights and are less accurate when locking off. The other main type of head is the pan and tilt. These are the dual handle heads that allow you to lock the camera in either of two planes. These tend to be somewhat heavier but add more flexibility and accuracy.
The versatility of a ball socket head
A typical pan and tilt head
- Does it allow for fast set-up? Most heads will also include a quick release mechanism, this is a small plate that slides off the head whilst attached to the base plate of the camera. This allows you to quickly remove the camera and move the tripod.
- What is the maximum capacity? Like tripod legs, the heads also have a maximum weight that the head can handle safely. Make sure the capacity will handle your equipment and any future equipment you may accumulate.
What else to consider
Other tripod features that you can look for include:
- Reversible center columns, which allow you to swing the column and head underneath the legs, allowing for low level shooting, which is useful in macro work.
- Built in spirit levels to determine if the set up is level.
- Spiked feet help the tripod stay steady on uneven ground, making them great for landscape photographers.
While adding all this, you might baulk at the final price, but the thing to consider here is that a good quality tripod set up will potentially last you decades. It is an investment that will improve the technical quality of your images for many years to come.