Choosing a tripod can be a pretty daunting task. There is the issue of size, weight, cost, novelty features and of course the choice of aluminium, carbon fibre, basalt and no doubt some kind of nano-carbon Franken material soon to be released. Today we are going to chat through tripods, things to look out for and ways to test if it's going to suit your needs. But first, we start with a totally absurd analogy that I hope you can all relate to.
Once upon a time three little pigs build their houses out of different materials to escape a big bad wolf. The first builds his house from straw because it's easy to move around, big enough for his everyday living and cheap. That said, after denying the request to ‘let me come in’ with a very catchy line about his ‘chinny-chin-chin’ the wolf takes out his threat and destroys the little house in a single puff. The second little pig builds his house out of sticks because they are more study and he is expecting a bit of a fight from the wolf. The sticks are heavier to move around, a little larger but still relatively inexpensive however despite his attempt to barricade himself in he too has his house anhialated and is gobbled up (mmmm bacon). This house did withstand much more huffing and puffing but our little pig misjudged the amount of wind in the situation. The third little pig on the other hand spends a little more time, dedication and no doubt money to build a house out of what can only be assumed are heavy bricks. This piggy’s house has got some pretty cool features too, a chimney, a cauldron and from all accounts plenty of stability. This house is terribly hard to move around, it's bigger, it's more expensive but this third little pig is happy to make the sacrifice because the wolf he is up against isn't going to go easy on him. Ultimately this little piggy survives the toughest of challenges from the wolf in his house made of bricks.
These three houses can ultimately represent different levels of quality and tradeoffs in the tripod choices we have. Think of the wolf in the story as being a combination of two different factors, wind and camera size. If you have a huge camera or lenses (think D810, 5D, pro lenses etc) you are quickly going to find that the small straw-weight travel tripod simply isn't going to be able to withstand the weight of your kit (think tall giraffe trying to balance a fridge on it's head, wobble much?). Equally, if you are into your landscapes and seascapes you will find you are regularly using long shutter speeds in high-wind situations where tiny vibrations start to resonate and cause major shake issues. The same works in reverse for smaller cameras or those who are not using their tripods in a challenging environment, a huge 'brick-house' tripod it overkill and inconvenient when in reality a 'stick-house' tripod would have been just fine or possibly even a 'straw-house' cheapie!
So given no-one wants to lug around a tripod if they don't have to what situations do you actually even need a tripod? After all, a tripod is only generally used for one of two reasons; to hold the camera steady during long exposures (sub 1/20'th of a second or so, depending on camera/lens) and secondly for bracketing or multiple shots of the same scene which you intend to merge.
Generally no need for tripod:
-Landscapes/seascapes when not using long exposures
Tripod is usually needed:
-Macro for specific focus etc
-Long Exposure Photography with ND Filters
-Long Exposure Photography night time
"So Matt, this all sounds interesting but how do I know if a tripod is going to be sturdy enough for me?" I hear you ask...
The sturdy test:
Put camera & largest lens on top and extend all legs out (including the neck around half way up)
tap camera and see if there is any wobble (this is important as heavier cameras need sturdier tripods)
Grab two of the three legs and gently try and twist the tripod, does it flex easily? If yes, you might want to consider if it’s going to be sturdy enough in the environments you shoot, do you take shots in windy areas?
What other factors should you consider when choosing a tripod?
Is it going to be high enough?
This is an important one as many light weight travel tripods only extend up to around chest height. When you do the stability test above, ensure you extend the tripod to a regular ‘working height’ and that it will be tall enough to cater for your style of photography. An alternative to buying a tall/big tripod is to use very small tripods when travelling but place them on benches/fences/chairs etc which will keep the camera stable but also provide the extra height. Gorilla pods (the bendy tripods) can also be a good light weight solution that utilises trees/poles/etc to get the height you need without having to use a huge tripod.
Is it light enough to cary around?
They say the best camera in the world is the one you have with you and it’s no different to tripods. If our little brick-house piggy decided it was all too much effort to use the brick-house he built he may as well have opted for the straw house, at least he would have something to help him. So be honest with yourself, that tripod you’re looking at with all the fancy gadgets…. will you actually lug it around with you?
Is it manoeuvrable?
Tripods these days have so many cool features, including the ability to flip the tripod head upsideown to get ultra low perspective, ball heads that allow all kinds of crazy angles and legs that act like contortionists. What kind of angles are you likely going to want to photograph? Does the tripod you are looking at allow you to easily achieve those angles? There is nothing more frustrating that fighting a tripod when setting up a shot.
What type of plate does the head take?
This one is more for the enthusiasts rather than the travel photography happy snappers. Tripod plates (the part that screws onto the camera) come in all kinds of shapes and sizes but there is one in particular you should look out for. It’s called an Arca Swiss and it’s a fairly generic plate. The big benefit to this is that you can use L-brackets to mount your tripod in portrait orientation, you can pick up third party accessories that fit perfectly and it’s generally easier and cheaper to replace the plate if something goes wrong as there are so many third party brands that make the plates.
What is is made of?
Probably the most common question asked and I would argue one of the first mistakes made when choosing a tripod. Different manufacturers use different spin to make tripods sound radically different simply by listing them as being made of a different material. If you’ve given it the ‘sturdy test’ and have considered the weight (as above) then the material it’s made from generally makes very little difference, after all even carbon fibre isn’t just carbon fibre, there are many many grades. The exception to this might be if you are using it around water (especially salt), carbon fibre with plastic latches will negate the risk of rusting.
So where do you start?
In the case of the three little pigs it is a no-brainer that a super sturdy house is the only way to battle a gale-blowing wolf who is out for pork-chops, but before you jump to the conclusion that you need to buy a solid brick tripod ask yourself the questions, what wolf am I up against? Heavy camera? Light camera? Long exposures? Secondarily, will it be there with me when I need it most? With so many options out there and so much marketing jargon to confuse and baffle, try the sturdy test above and try considering all of the questions and when in doubt? Ask an expert! Shoot me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org or join me on one of my workshops, I'm here to help 🙂