Tripod Recommendations for Every Budget

Back in the summer I hosted an Exposure Roanoke discussion on tripods. The group learned several things that day: 1) I can talk about tripods for hours, and 2) For many types of photography, a GOOD tripod is every bit as important as the camera body and lens.

As a demonstration, I mounted a laser pointer on top of my camera, and attached my camera to tripods of varying quality. Watching the laser on a distant target gave a clear indication of how steady the camera was during the experiment.  With no remote shutter release, it was easy to see how much camera shake was introduced by my hand alone on the cheaper tripod. Even on the good tripods it shook a tiny bit while pushing the shutter button, so a remote release is highly recommended, or using the shutter timer feature will work as well. In all the test circumstances, the better quality tripods were far steadier than the cheap imitators.

A tripod is a very personal choice. What you need depends on how you intend to use it, and there might not be a single tripod that does everything you need it to. There seems to be an endless array of choices, and choosing the right tripod can be a frustrating experience. They all do essentially the same thing, which is to keep the camera steady when hand-holding is not practical. There are many different questions to ask when choosing a tripod: What should it be made of? How high should it be? How heavy or light do you need? How stable is stable enough? Will it work for my style of shooting? Will it support the largest lens I plan on using? How much does it cost? I weighed all these factors and researched tripods for a solid year and finally settled on the one tripod that best met my needs.

I am going to give a quick rundown on the major features and then give some specific models that you can check out.

  1. Tripod Construction Material and Build Quality.  The tripods I have experience with are either aluminum, or Carbon Fiber. I can’t say that one is better than the other, but carbon fiber is much lighter and very strong for its weight. Carbon fiber is much more expensive as well, but if you hike to remote locations, that lighter weight will be much appreciated. Quality tripods are well-built and reliable, but if things go wrong, you should be able to count on support from reputable manufacturers many years down the road.
  2. How Big (or small) should my tripod be? My advice would be that at a minimum, it should be tall enough to put your camera near eye level while standing, without extending the center column. If you plan on traveling, the total length of the tripod in its compacted form is a factor if you plan on packing it in your suitcase or stowing it in the overhead compartment on an airplane. Among the specs the manufacturers will publish is the maximum weight it will support. Cameras and lenses get heavy, pick one that will easily support the largest lens you think you’ll be using. Keep in mind that as your focal length increases, so does your need for stability. Don’t think if your camera and lens weighs 12 lbs, a tripod that says it will support up to 12 lbs is sufficient. Things can get a little shaky if you overload it.
  3. Does the tripod suit my style of shooting? My tripod has a feature that I can not live without, and that is the articulating center column. What that means is that my center column can be used in the standard vertical fashion, to give me a little extra height when needed, or, I can extend it horizontally and put my camera directly over my subject when shooting close-ups. Some models will only go 90 deg. horizontal, but my tripod will adjust infinitely within 180 deg from vertical. I can position the center column straight up to straight down, and everywhere in between. Not every tripod has an articulating center column. One other feature of my tripod is the infinitely positionable legs. Some legs will only let you spread them and lock in 3 or 4 positions, but I can put mine exactly where I want out to 90 deg., and lock it in place.
  4. What kind of Tripod Leg Locks do I need? Twist locks and lever locks are common. It is really a matter of personal choice, and one of the reasons you’ll want to try before you buy. I’ve used both, and find my current twist lock to be ideal for me. Twisties make the legs very streamlined with no protruding parts, and I can deploy and stow the tripod very quickly. I have had levers break and twisties over tighten on my cheaper tripods, so that is something to look out for.
  5. How much does it cost? A good tripod will not be cheap. A cheap tripod will not be good. As with many things in photography, there is no limit at the top end. The most basic, dependable, durable, affordable options have prices starting at around$150. There are some great choices in the $300-$800 range, and many costing much more. Those tend to be very specialized, and if you need one of those, you probably already know what you need.  If you are unable to get in to at least one of the recommended models, my advice would be to get the cheapest one you can find until you can. So many photographers I talk to have done the same as I did, start out with junk, then buy a little better, a little better, and 4 or 5 tripods later, end up with one that suits. Better to buy smart the first time. A good tripod should last 20 years or more, if you amortize the cost over that period, it may be easier to justify the sticker price.

So, all that said, through my research, I found several tripods that I can highly recommend:

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Tripod heads will be a seperate post, but here are a couple of proven winners to get you started:

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This entry was posted in Gear, Learning Photography.

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