Unlike lenses, there’s no Tripod Review Site—it’s pretty hard to measure things like ‘degree of sway per given load’ or ‘time to set up’ or ‘tilt over and crash quotient’. So I thought I’d write about choosing a tripod and ballhead. It would take a couple of days, and I’ve got time I thought. One article, how long can it take? The more I got into it, the more it’s grown. Now it will be three articles. This is the first, mostly about choosing the right legs. There will be another on heads and another on accessories.
Since there are a lot of “tripod and head” combinations sold, I should take a minute to explain why I separated them. As mentioned in an earlier article, most new photographers spend a year or two trying to work without tripod, and then buy a cheap tripod-and-head combination. Only after these two stages have been completed is the photographer usually ready to buy a good quality tripod and ballhead. By this point they often buy first one and then the other for cost reasons, or because they want a tripod from one manufacturer and head from another. Sometimes, but not often, there’s a tripod and head combination that does save some money bought as a set. I think its important, though, to decide exactly what you want in each category before deciding on whether a set is appropriate.
What to look for in a tripod
The purpose of a tripod is to hold the camera and lens rock steady so that there is no motion blur in the shot. All tripods are compromises and picking the compromise that’s right for you is the point of this article. The best tripod would support the camera at eye level and be rigid and heavy to keep vibration to a minimum. But nobody wants to carry around a 6-foot long, 20-pound tripod so we compromise height and stability to lessen weight and cost.
In general, tripod selection is largely a matter of deciding the best compromise of three factors: size, cost, and stability. A cheap, lightweight tripod isn’t much better than handholding: it shakes. A very stable, inexpensive tripod will be very large. A small but stable tripod is expensive. There are some modifiers but that’s the general picture.
This article is geared towards finding a high quality tripod. If you haven’t gone through the “$99 tripod and pan-tilt head” phase, this may be more than you want to tackle. (Full disclosure: I had a $99 tripod and pan-tilt head for over a year. I don’t regret it, I learned a lot about my later selections that way.)
So here are the first selections we’ll need to make as we narrow our tripod choices down.
If the tripod is too short, you’ll spend all day hunched over it and end up with a backache. You want the shooting height of the tripod to be about 8 or 9 inches less than your height (your eye level is about 5” less than your height, the camera and ballhead will add about 8 inches, but you don’t usually want to be at maximum height). You also want to consider the height of the legs without the center column extended: extending the center column more than a couple of inches detracts from the stability of the tripod, especially with a heavy lens mounted. Unfortunately, most manufacturers and stores list the maximum height of the tripod with center column extended. You may have to research a bit to find the actual height with center column not extended.
If you’re very tall, you may have a problem here. Tripods over 72” high are heavy and expensive. Tripods up to 64” high (suitable for someone 6 feet tall) are pretty easy to find. The best solution I’ve seen is a shorter tripod and a folding canvas stool to sit on while using it.
Collapsed length (and number of leg sections)
If you’re going to be shooting near the car, this isn’t important. If you’re going to be carrying your tripod on an airplane, or hiking all day with it, this is very important. For a given height, the more leg sections the tripod has, the shorter its collapsed length. Most tripods legs have 3 sections, but 4 are also common. A very few have 5 or 6 sections.
This is a classic tripod trade off. Each leg section has to be smaller than the one above it, so tripods with fewer leg sections have thicker lower sections and are therefore a bit sturdier than those with more sections. More sections means more latches, too, so there is usually a slight price increase for more leg sections. Most people choose 3 or 4 section legs. Tripods with 5 or 6 section legs are limited to how much weight they can hold, and aren’t suitable for heavy lenses, and generally are quite a bit more expensive.
A portable tripod will collapse to about 21” or less, while standard tripods may be 26” to 30” collapsed. It may not sound like a big difference but it can be the difference between carry on luggage or checked baggage; fitting on your camera bag or backpack or having to be carried in a separate case.
Weight (Leg material)
This trade off is largely about cost. There are 3 commonly used materials. Aluminum is rigid and less expensive, but heavy. Carbon fiber is about half the weight of aluminum, but about double the cost. Basalt (or lava) is in between aluminum and carbon as far as weight, and should be about halfway between the two in cost. A lightweight set of carbon fiber legs is 3 pounds or less. Heavy-duty aluminum legs often weigh 7 to 10 pounds. Unless you’re planning on using them just in your studio, I’d really recommend staying in the 3 to 4 pound range. The tripod you leave at home because it’s too heavy to carry isn’t much use.
Try not to consider this except in a very general way, and when you do consider it add a fudge factor (don’t ever get ‘just enough’). If the tripod isn’t rated for 15 pounds or more, chances are it isn’t going to be all that stable even with a 10-pound load (a standard camera, 70-200 f/2.8 lens, and ballhead will be about 10 pounds).
Type of latches
Surprisingly, this choice will eliminate about half the potential tripods you look at. Twist-locks are the most common type of latches. You twist each leg connection to loosen or tighten it. Some people claim twist locks are more stable and durable, but I’ve never seen factual evidence of that. Lever-latches are simply a flip latch at each leg section that is either in tighten or loose mode. Lever latches are quicker to set up and its obvious to a glance if they are tightened or not (a twist lock has to be checked manually). The third type of latch, available on a few top-end tripods is a quick release, a single button that locks or unlocks the leg sections all at once. (Full-disclosure—I haven’t tried quick release tripods yet, but I intend to. It looks like a great idea.)
Center column and leg angle options
There are a lot of options here. While most aren’t critical there are photographers who absolutely swear by one or another of these and won’t consider a tripod without them. For example the center column may or may not be reversible. A reversible column lets you hang the camera below the tripod for macro photography, or will let you reverse the ballhead for travel and storage, making the tripod shorter when collapsed. Certain tripods have center columns that can be adjusted to let the camera hang at various angles – some Macro shooters love this; other photographers think it reduces stability in ‘normal’ shooting mode. Some tripods have leveling center columns (especially important for shooting panoramas) but this can always be added later as an accessory.
The most important option (in my opinion) is that each of the tripod legs can be set at variable angles to the centerpiece. Some cheap tripods (especially those with ‘braces’ between the legs) only allow the legs to go to one position. That’s fine on a flat surface but if you need to set your tripod up on steps, a hill, rough terrain, etc. it can be critically important that the legs can be placed at various angles. Or if all the legs are placed at their widest angle, the tripod can be low and on a very wide base – something quite useful on extremely windy days.
The tripod manufacturers
One of the most confusing aspects of tripods is the sheer number of manufacturers and the number of products each has. I was able to find 22 tripod manufacturers selling in the U. S., but I probably missed a couple. I’d consider 10 of these to be ‘mainstream’ manufacturers that we’ll discuss further. Others, such as Benbo, Linhof, Smith-Victor, Berlebach, and Cullman make specialty tripods that aren’t of interest to most SLR photographers.
Gitzo is considered by many to be the ‘gold standard’ of tripods and their selection alone can be overwhelming: they have 18 different series of camera tripods; each series contains two to 7 models. Manfrotto by Bogen (about 50 models) and Giottos (about 50 models) are the next largest brands. With another 7 other mainstream manufacturers to go, there’s just too many to choose from without narrowing things a bit.
In reality, there are several manufacturers that logically group together. The two largest tripod manufacturers, Gitzo and Manfrotto are really divisions of the same company (the Vitec Group, PLC owns both Gitzo and Gruppo Manfrotto): they share a manufacturing plant in Italy, and Bogen distributes both Gitzo and Manfrotto tripods in the U. S. While their designs are rather different, quality should be very simlar.
Benro is a Chinese manufacturer whose models are largely Gitzo copies. Benro also manufactures Induro tripods (from a different design) but its not surprising that Benro and Induro tripods are rather similar (and rather similar to Gitzo/Manfrotto). The other tripod manufacturers are more separated. Slik (a division of Kenko) and Velbon are based in Japan. Despite their Italian sounding name, Giottos was founded in 1988 and is located in Taiwan with factories in mainland China. Feisol is a late entrant in the tripod market (2002), based in Taiwan.
Finding tripods that fit your needs
With several hundred tripods to choose from, and very limited selection tools at most of the online camera stores, finding the tripod that fits your needs can be quite difficult. Looking for Tripod Legs at B&H presents you with 21 PAGES of choices.
I’m going to suggest a seemingly backwards approach: decide what kind of leg locks you prefer: twist-type, lever-latch, or quick (one button) lock. One-button locks (which are more expensive) are available on only a few models from Gitzo, National Geographic, and Manfrotto. You can go to their website and check the models to see if they’ll work for you.
If you prefer twist locks, Gitzo has a nice Gitzo configurator (top right hand corner of the page) that will let you select supported weight, height, closed length, number of leg sections and some center post options to narrow your choices down to a few tripods in the Gitzo line. (Measurements are metric, so if you’re used to inches and feet you might want to convert before you go there.) If you prefer lever latch, Manfrotto configurator does the same thing.
Once you’ve found the tripod legs that fit you best, price them at a couple of online camera stores to get a baseline. Then look at the other manufacturers that have similar products (see the list below roughly grouped in ‘similar products’) to see if there’s a similar product that gives a significant cost savings.
Brand (Leg Lock)
Gitzo (twist/quick release)
Manfrotto (lever/ quick release)
National Geographic (quick release)
Slik (twist or lever)
Please don’t take this as gospel, and if you’re considering one of the less well-known brands, do a Google search for the manufacturer and “complaints” or “problems”. I will share my own experience, which isn’t the broadest in the world, and is just that my opinion. There are lots of other opinions worth Googling.
Gitzo and Manfrotto are both quality products, you can’t go wrong with them and you can find what you want from them. You can also find a similar product significantly cheaper (and perhaps of lesser quality).
We’ve had very good first-hand experience with Velbon tripods, and find them a great value in the ‘lever-lock’ type tripod legs. We’ve had less luck with Giottos, and have replaced the center post on all the Giottos tripods we’ve had (the center screw that mounts the ballhead) because we had problems with them shearing. New center screws are inexpensive ($3-5), but a screw that shears with your camera attached to the ballhead is VERY expensive (the ballhead, and everything mounted on it goes to ground).
We have not had any firsthand experience with Feisol, Benro, or Induro, but online reviews are generally good for their legs (ballheads are another matter and we’ll address that in a different article). We’ve seen a few reports, though, that Induro’s mounting plates are not firmly attached to the center post, and a few of these have sheared off, too. Slik and to a lesser extent and Vanguard specialize in low end tripods that aren’t suitable for heavy work, but they also do make some higher end tripods that are pretty decent. Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples though, don’t compare a low end Slik to a Gitzo for example.
OK, so what do I use? Currently a Velbon El Carmaigne 640-4 most of the time. They’ve held up well during multiple rentals in fairly severe conditions. I like the lever lock legs that are fully adjustable, it closes down to a remarkably short 18 inches, and only weighs 3 pounds and was reasonably priced at $300. I’m fairly short at 5’ 8” though; if I were tall I’d hate that is only 61” high.
Shooting a big telephoto I prefer a Gitzo GT2942. I still get 4 section basalt legs (although twist-lock), it has more height (66”), and will hold a heavy load with no complaints. It weighs a bit more than the Velbon, is slightly longer at 22” collapsed, and costs about $390.
There’s a ton of other quality choices out there, though. You can get a decent set of legs that will support a camera and normal lens for under $200, or a top end set that will take a supertelephoto lens for under $450. If you’re going to use the tripod occasionally for the odd night shot, get a minimal set of legs and save money for other things. If you think you’ll be shooting supertelephoto lenses, or using it for heavy field work regularly, get the best you can afford.
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