Basics: Choosing a tripod
Last week I was asked “I need a tripod, I’m sure I can get one for a tenner from the local electronics store, that’ll be good enough right?”. I realised that a lot of people who spend lots of time and money choosing the right camera simply don’t consider the quality or features of supporting kit (no pun intended).
This article is aimed at beginners who are looking to buy their first photography tripod. No matter what format you shoot with, be it compact, hybrid, dSLR or other (see previous article on types of camera).
Intro – Why do I need a tripod?
Tripods are not just for landscape photographers – they are used when shooting creative photography where you need multiple images from EXACTLY the same location for layer work or HDR, when you shoot in the studio or out, and for events where you’re shooting from a preselected spot to a stage or dance area. Tripods not only hold your camera steady, they mean that you don’t need to bare the weight of the camera for extended periods – which is key for events that last hours and hours. After getting your camera and suitable starting lens, and a bag to carry it in, a tripod is normally the next step on the purchase list.
A tripod is a stabilising platform for shooting images that require a very steady camera. Most professional photographers consider that:
If an image takes more than one 60th of a second to correctly expose, support (e.g. a tripod) is necessary.
Now, most of us can get pretty good images using shooting techniques such as prone positioning or using maximal bone support, holding ones breathe, squeezing rather than hammering the trigger etc (all of these are true of shooting with a rifle too), and I will admit to have caught decent images of up to half a second by being really still, but when you look at full crop, there will be telltale indications of camera shake.
Tripods are one of the support solutions: monopods (“camera poles”) are also an option, but realistically I have never seen better results than a conventional-(ish) tripod. Another modern option is the gorilla pod. These are kind of super flexible tripods but in my road tests they often come up short. However for your uses, a monopod or gorilla pod might for you. I will not be discussing monopods or gorilla pods in this article, but do look into them and hold them in comparison to what you read here.
In recent years there are several significant advancements in tripod technologies (this seems like I’m over selling it, but one excellent tripod manufacturer, Manfrotto, license out their tripod patents to NASA for use in space imaging and mechanics, as well as deep sea excavation and exploration companies). However for all the niceties of gas-assisted movement, horizontal centre-pole translation and carbon fibre and magnesium composite components, a tripod is a pretty simple bit of kit:
OK so the best way to sum up the options you have is to discuss important parts in turn, and give actual examples of why a certain style of set-up might suit a particular style of tog over another, but before I do that I should point out some specifics:
- Tripods for video cameras, dSLRs and basic tripods for compact digital cameras all differ slightly in design:
Video camera tripods cater for traditionally heavier kit (think back to shoulder mounted video camera equipment). These have thicker poles (or multiple poles per leg), and have reinforced braces at the joints. They also tend to have support struts at the base that join all the feet together (giving a formal limit to the widest the legs can be spaced). These can cost from £100 to £300+.
Compact camera tripods are the type you see at your local electronic stores for £10 up to about £50. Often the tripod and the head are joined together and come as one piece – which limits your control options. They offer inferior strength and minimal features for the more serious tog, however they are a decent support if you shoot with a compact camera – they are not rated to support heavy loads, but are good for smaller cameras. If you shoot with a compact, then these are often suitable for you.
Professional tripods for dSLR cameras can cost from £70-£300+. These usually come in two parts: you buy the tripod itself (e.g. the legs, centre stem and mount) as one piece, and then you buy a tripod head to fit it. You have various choices with tripod head (as detailed below) depending on your needs. These tripods can have features such as spirit levels to help you set your camera up properly, assisted joints and quick release systems, and even range-of-motion bypasses to allow you to independently move your tripod legs to any angle. These are rated to hold your heavier dLSR camera secure, whereas cheaper tripods aren’t.
The three broad types are shown below:
The Kit and the Choices
As odd as it sounds each part of the tripod gives specific advantages over alternatives depending on the type of photography you do and your general usage, right down to the number or sections in the leg and the length of the centre stem (see below). However for most, there are a few important things to consider:
Nowadays decent tripods are made of one of two classes of body materials: aluminium (or other light weight metal), and carbon fibre.
Aluminium is by far the norm, offering decent strength-to-weight ratios, good weather resistance and general durability to shear and stress. Most tripods you will see will be of aluminium design. Even though aluminium is lightweight, a tripod can weight upwards (including the head) of 4 kg, which, over several hours can get weighty on the shoulders (when in a bag).
Carbon Fibre (CF) has been used for upper-end tripods for a few years now. They are significantly lighter than aluminum tripods (e.g. 30-40 % lighter), and offer decent durability (they can’t rust), but they can crack in extreme cold. As carbon fibre doesn’t have very good sheer strength (e.g. at 90 degrees to the direction of the fibre sheet), they can be weak to swipes from the side. To counter this, most CF tripod legs are made of several layers of twisted sheet, and have a composite mesh underneath the fibre for support. These are more expensive than their aluminium counterparts, but you can get some great deals (e.g. under £100 from Jessops for their own brand CF tripod). If you are a travel tog, and your kit eats into your baggage allowance, or do a lot of hiking or outdoor photography, then the weight savings of a CF tripod might outweigh the costs.
Leg sections and Centre pole (stem)
The number of sections that make up the legs directly effect the stability and also the collapsed size of the tripod.
Say a tripod is designed to be 6 foot tall at full leg extension: then a leg that has 3 sections will have each of 2 feet. A leg that has 4 sections will have sections of 1.5 feet each. When a tripod is collapsed, the length of each leg section makes up the minimum tripod size in your bag. However, each section must be locked or clamped tight when extended, and these clamps are the weakest part of upward support of the tripod; more sections means more clamps. Clamps also introduce the risk of rattle / wobble at the joints. Thus:
The More sections the leg has, the smaller the collapsed tripod size, but the weaker it is to downward force (e.g. from the camera) and the more prone it is to joint rattle/wobble.
So for people who travel a lot with smaller / lighter cameras, you can get tripods with large numbers of sections (e.g. the Manfrotto compact travel tripod, below). This tripod also has a shortened centre pole.
Mount and Head
The mount atop the tripod is where you mount a head unit. The head unit is the bit that actually allows you to rotate and pan your camera about without it effecting the tripod. Mount screws come in one of two sizes (1.4 inch and 3/8 inch), and the head you mount onto it needs to be compatible. Some companies stick to one size (e.g. Manfrotto rock 3/8th, Giottos Pro rock both).
The head of a tripod can be as expensive as the tripod legs itself. they broadly fit into three categories:
- The 2-axis head (“pan and tilt”) – often come fixed on cheaper tripods for compact cameras
- The 3-axis head (“pan-tilt-roll”) – the most common all directional locking head
- The 0-axis head (“ball head”) – uses a spherical mount to allow pan, tilt and roll.
Here’s what they look like:
0-axis “ball heads” allow the manipulation of the camera through more than one axis at a time – e.g. it is possible to rotate the camera across the y-axis (pan) as well as rotate forward (tilt) at the same time. This is really useful for video work, as camera movement is very smooth. It does require the user to move the camera via the camera and not the head – so many people use a wrist strap on their camera to make the movements easier. These are often more expensive than other heads, and are used in videography more than general photography, but are great for following action rapidly.
2 Axis ” pan and tilt” heads lack a roll axis, and so they can allow rotation around the x and y but not the z axis. They usually have one control handle, and rotating this handle tightens or loosens the motion of the camera. These are cheap, and easy to use. They are normally useful for amateur videography due to the ease of use, and allow the control of camera attitude via the handle and not the camera. Most budget compact camera tripods come with one of these fixed on them.
3 axis ” pan, tilt and roll” heads allow precision rotation of the camera on one axis at a time, although you can run all the locks loose and then handle the camera as you would on a ball head if you wish. This system has 3 control handles, which each control one axis. It is possible to lock one axis and allow movement on others independently. like the 2 axis head, you control the camera normally via the handles and not via the camera. Decent quality 3 axis heads contain gas or spring systems to offset the weight of the lens, and so the bring the effective centre of gravity back into the centre of the camera (and hence the centre of the head).
Some pro event togs have both a ball and a 3 axis head which they change depending on what they are shooting. For me, I’ve never needed more than a 3-axis.
All head systems use a ” quick release plate” that is screwed onto the base of your camera via the threaded hole (if you’ve ever wondered what that’s for). The plate is designed to stay on your camera and then when you need to mount your camera on the tripod you slide the plate into the position on the tripod and it clicks into place using the locking arm. It speeds up mounting a lot (no screws here), and you simply flip the locking arm and your camera is free again.
There are some nice features in decent tripods and heads that can make your life easier as a tog. Not all tripods have them and they vary on importance depending on your application, but there are some that can be a real bonus:
free-release (range-of-motion bypass)
These are common on Giottos and Manfrotto pro series tripods. They allow you to press a clip to allow each leg independently to be spread further out than normally allowed (right up to horizontal). Giottos models have three positions outside of the normal range, whereas Manfrotto allow upto 10 lockable over-spread positions. This allows you to set up tripods on really uneven ground, get really low, and even use walls and vertical surfaces to precisely and sturdily support your tripod. I use this a whole bunch when shooting outdoors.
Invertable Centre Pole or Axis rotation
The length of the centre pole of a tripod often sets how low a tripod can get to the ground with the legs splayed out at their widest using a free release system as above. For shooting even lower there are two solutions, one favoured (and patented) by Manfrotto, and the other used across other pro manufacturers:
- Manfrotto X-Pro series allow you to pull up the centre pole and then it rotates onto the X-axis, to allow you to reduce the minimum height limit.
- Others such as Giotto allow you to remove the centre pole and mount it upside down in the tripod, thus allowing you to negate the minimum height limit.
I have used both systems, but I prefer the Manfrotto system, as it is quicker than disassembling the tripod. Expect to pay for the technology though.
Above left: Manfrotto’s X-Pro centre pole system on an 055 XProB, Above right: A traditional inverted centre column on a Giotto YTL9253
Other: less important niceties
Centre column hook
Some tripods have a centre pole / stem that as a hook on the end. The hook is so that you can hang ballast from it to make your tripod more table. In my experience its also a great system to hang your tripod bag / camera bag from without it touching the floor.
Multiple Spirit levels
Some heads have a spirit level at the point where it mounts, and then another next to the quick release plate. It means that you can tell if the angle you are shooting is due to your manipulation of the head, or a shoddy tripod set up with the legs.
So that wraps up an introduction to tripods. It doesn’t really get more technical. I will conclude that buying decent quality will last you for a long old while. I Invested in nearly a decade ago on a Manfrotto 055 XproB, and Manfrotto 804RC2 head, as well as a Manfrotto padded bag ( a luxury item for sure, but keeps things clean and safe, and easy to carry). They have never let me down, never have I been in a situation where I wanted to do something with it that I couldn’t, having been used atop high rises in high winds, in trenches and rubble as well as the studio. If you can trust your kit, you can get great results. Each person’s needs are different though, so take on board the info above and make your own decisions.