Photography / Buying Guide

Tripods and Tripod Heads

My camera is image stabilized, so why do I need a tripod?

Image stabilization (IS) is a terrific technology for better ensuring sharp photographs taken under less than desirable lighting conditions, especially when shooting with a slower aperture lens, which includes almost every kit zoom lens. While IS allows you to handhold your camera at shutter speeds three to four stops slower than normally possible, a tripod is still the preferred method for ensuring image sharpness, especially when shooting with longer focal length optics. It’s also worth noting that IS diminishes image sharpness to a small, but measureable degree in the process, so users beware.

What are some of the considerations I should keep in mind when shopping for a tripod?

There are a number of qualifiers that go into choosing a tripod, including:

Camera Weight How heavy is your camera, including the weight of your heaviest lens? If your goal is sharp pictures, the last thing you want is a spindly tripod that buckles under the weight of your camera, and most manufacturers list the maximum weight load in the tripod specs. Unless you’re purchasing a pre-packaged tripod and head, don’t forget to check the weight capacity of the tripod head while you’re at it.

For point and shoot and bridge-style cameras, you can get away with lighter-weight tripods, which are available in a number of variations including downright whimsical, but if you plan on shooting with a 70-200mm f/2.8 hanging off the end of your DSLR, you’re going to want a sturdier tripod. When it comes to tripods, the sturdier the better. Sturdiness and sharper pictures are why you’re buying one in the first place.

Maximum Height How high does the tripod extend and does it extend to (or close to) your eye level? If you would rather not have to bend over every time you want to look through your camera’s viewfinder, look for a tripod that will be tall enough when it’s extended.

Folded Height How small is the tripod when you fold it up? Will it fit into your carry-on luggage when you fly, or comfortably into your backpack’s tripod support straps? For frequent flyers and hikers this is an important item to consider.

Hardware Next to wobbly legs, there’s nothing worse for the well-being of your camera gear than knobs and levers that don’t lock down securely. When shopping for a tripod always check to see how well the legs, center column and head adjustments lock into place. And if you have to “choke” the hardware in order to lock things into place, chances are you’ll strip the gears and threads before the next change of seasons.

Remember: When it comes to sturdiness and structural integrity, the rule of thumb generally dictates that you get what you pay for.

Aluminum, Basalt or Carbon Fiber? Aluminum is cheaper, carbon fiber is lighter, basalt is somewhere in between and wood is traditionally for telescopes and view cameras. The vast majority of tripods are made of aluminum, which offers the best mix of stability, weight and cost to manufacture and sell.

A lighter, though costlier, alternative to aluminum is carbon fiber, which is typically about a third lighter and twice pricier than comparable aluminum tripods. As for stability, comparable aluminum and carbon-fiber tripods are typically neck and neck, though carbon fiber tripods tend to oscillate (vibrate) more in high winds or in response to other ambient vibrations.

Aside from the weight advantages of carbon fiber for travel photographers and hikers, it is far easier to handle and operate carbon fiber tripods in colder environments because carbon fiber does not conduct frigid temperatures the way metal does.

Aluminum Alloy Carbon Fiber

The third choice is basalt, which is refined from volcanic rock. Because it is made of an aerated alloy, it is strong, light (though not as light as carbon fiber) and priced higher than aluminum but less than carbon fiber. 

Something to keep in mind is that the thickness of the aluminum tubing used to manufacture the tripod bears heavily on the tripod’s stability, especially for multi-section tripods that extend to higher maximum heights. So if an ultra-light aluminum tripod opens up to a height “too good to be true,” chances are it is too good to be true.

Some tripods come with pan/tilt heads, others with ball heads and some with neither. What’s the difference and which one should I get?

Depending on the make and model, tripods can be purchased with or without tripod heads, which are available in two configurations–pan/tilt or ball head.

While you can mount your camera directly to the top plate (sans tripod head) of the tripod legs, doing so leaves you with little ability to aim your camera anywhere but straight ahead. Pan/tilt and ball heads perform the identical function, but also enable you to aim and securely position your camera and lens with more flexibility, but they do so slightly differently.

Pan/tilt heads have two to three separate controls for you to aim your camera up, down, left, right and 360° around and they can be adjusted and locked into place independently. Three-way pan/tilt heads feature hinged camera plates that allow you to tilt the camera 90° off the horizontal (landscape) position to enable vertical (portrait) shooting. Depending on the design and price range, some pan/tilt heads feature a separate locking mechanism at the base of the head for locking down the panning position.

When purchasing a pan/tilt head, make sure the handles are easily removable for safe storage when traveling (there’s nothing more bothersome than bent pan/tilt handles).

Though it takes a few extra moves to position a camera using a pan/tilt head, pan/tilt heads allow for more precise positioning of the camera by allowing you to make corrections on one axis without affecting the position of the camera on the other axes.

With ball heads, rather than having separate tilt controls for controlling vertical and horizontal movements, the threaded camera mounting plate sits atop a ball that is “cupped” into the base of the head. Unlike pan/tilt heads, ball heads allow you to position your camera to any position in a single action using single or dual locking mechanisms, depending on the design.

Click for illustration

Better ball heads allow you to adjust the torsion levels of the locking mechanism, which functions as a safety feature when shooting with heavier rigs, while allowing for finer positioning when locking the camera into place.

If you shoot with heavier cameras and/or lenses, pan/tilt heads are preferable to ball heads, which can be trickier to maneuver and position from a single axis point. In general, ball heads are quicker to use because all movements are performed singularly, and often with the turn of a single locking mechanism. The “limitations” of ball heads include the need to realign (or at the very least double-check the alignment) of both horizontal and vertical camera positioning each time you loosen and/or adjust the camera angle. Conversely, pan/tilt heads are aligned one axis at a time, making it unnecessary to double-check each camera axis every time you reposition the camera. And because pan/tilt adjustments are made one axis at a time, pan/tilt heads are more desirable if your needs include making precise, independent vertical and horizontal adjustments while you shoot.

What considerations should I have in mind when shopping for a tripod head?

Regardless of whether you’re shopping for a pan/tilt or ball head, keep the following in mind:

Load capacity Make sure the load capacity is sufficient to securely support your heaviest camera and lens (refer to the spec sheets). Unless your needs are weight and/or size sensitive, it’s never a bad idea to purchase a tripod head a step sturdier than your current needs to better ensure camera stability (and sharper pictures).

Regardless of what the specs say, if your camera and lens “drift” or shift position after you’ve locked the camera down, you should consider going to the next size up, or to an alternate choice.

Generally, if the tripod you plan on purchasing comes with a head, chances are the load capacity of the head is properly matched to the load capacity of the tripod. It never hurts to double-check specs.

Thread Size There are two standardized thread sizes used for camera mounts: ¼”-20 tpi (threads-per-inch) or 3/8screw sizes. With the exception of heavier pro cameras and tripod collars on heavier lenses, which rely on 3/8” screw mounts, most consumer cameras use ¼”-20 screw threads.  

Some tripod heads and ball heads are available with standard screw threads or with quick-release (QR) plates. Which is easier and/or better to use?

The question of easier or better is best determined by what and where you plan on shooting, and to a lesser degree, the gear with which you plan on shooting. Standard threaded heads are more compact, but require extra time and effort to set up and break down in use. Quick-release (QR) mounts make the tripod head slightly bulkier, but are quicker and easier to use on the job. QR plates also guarantee that the camera (or lens) will be perfectly aligned to the head as soon as it clicks into place, unlike threaded mounts, which usually require additional positioning before you can start shooting.

What about gimbal heads? What are they and do I need one?

Gimbal heads offer the control benefits of both pan/tilt and ball heads by allowing you to move and position your camera securely from a neutrally balanced nodal point, which enables you to fluidly maneuver your rig when shooting stills, and more so when shooting video with an HDSLR. In other words, a gimbal head will keep all axes level and squared—seamlessly.

What about center columns? Some are described as “rapid” and others as “geared.” Which one should I go for and why?

Most tripods come with (or are available with) a center column, which in addition to the height adjustments enabled by raising and lowering the individual tripod legs, allows for additional single-action adjustment of camera height. Rapid columns rely on a single locking mechanism to raise or lower the camera head. As the name suggests, they’re quicker to use.

Geared center columns, on the other hand, use a rack-and-pinion system that requires the user to “crank” the camera to the desired height. The advantages of geared center columns is that―like pan/tilt heads―they enable more precise camera positioning and are preferable to use when shooting with heavier camera systems. Geared center columns are slightly costlier than rapid columns.

I was looking at two tripods that extended to the same maximum height. One was a “3-section” tripod and the other was a “6-section” tripod. Is one better than the other, and if so, why?

“Better” in this case depends on your particular needs. The 6-section tripod probably folds down considerably smaller than the 3-section tripod, which if you plan on traveling, is an important consideration. The flip side is that when fully extended, the 6-section tripod is most probably not as sturdy as the 3-section model, especially if you're using a heavier camera/lens combination.

What about table pods? Are they worth a hoot?

Minipods and tablepods can come in very handy for small and larger cameras alike, especially if space and weight are concerns. If you have a minipod or tablepod in your bag or pocket it’s easy to  make use of lampposts, large rocks, car roofs or any number of sturdy urban/wilderness “support objects” on which you can brace your camera when shooting on location. And yes, they work well on tables, too.

What about monopods?

Along with doubling as reliable walking sticks when backpacking and hiking, monopods offer the stabilizing advantages of a tripod minus 2/3 the weight of a tripod. When shooting at professional sporting events and heavily trafficked, fast-paced environments such as the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange where tripods are banned for safety reasons, monopods are the only option for capturing sharp photographs, especially with longer lenses.

The downside of monopods is that unlike tripods, you can’t let go and walk away from them and expect them to still be standing when you return.

What’s the difference between a camera tripod head and a video tripod head?

While camera heads can be used for shooting video, it’s far preferable to use a fluid head, which as the name suggests, enables more fluid panning and tilting, which for video is imperative. And while you can pan and tilt with a traditional camera head, the movements tend to be less fluid and often jerky.

Camera Stands

For maximum stability when shooting in a studio environment with heavier camera rigs, one should consider a studio stand. With the exception of a few baseless models designed to be permanently bolted into the floor, heavy-duty, cast aluminum camera stands consist of a center column―anywhere from 6 to 12’ tall―and a base consisting of three to six splayed “legs,” usually with lockable wheels. Because of their weight and mass, camera stands all but eliminate camera shake, especially when used on concrete floors.

The camera is mounted crossbar-like onto an arm and head assembly that, depending on the design, is either fixed or adjustable. A second column-mounted tray is often used to hold meters, laptops, remotes and other related gear. On better stands, all of the components are pneumatically assisted and near-infinitely adjustable. 

The Takeaway

  • As good as it may be, image stabilization is not a replacement for a sturdy tripod.
  • When shopping for a tripod, always make sure the weight capacity is equal to or in excess of the heaviest camera/lens combination you plan on mounting on it.
  • Make sure the tripod you choose opens up to your eye level when fully extended, unless of course, you enjoy taking pictures hunched over.
  • Before purchasing a tripod, make sure the leg locks do their job securely. And remember―you usually get what you pay for.
  • Carbon-fiber tripods are about a third lighter than comparable aluminum tripods. They also cost about twice as much as their aluminum counterparts, but if you plan on carrying a tripod all day long it’s well worth the cost difference. Depending on your needs, basalt tripods can be reasonable compromises in terms of cost and weight between aluminum and carbon fiber.
  • Pan/tilt heads allow for more precise camera positioning on the vertical and horizontal axes, individually. Pan/tilt heads are also preferable for heavier rigs. Ball heads are faster to use, but are trickier when it comes to making small axis positioning adjustments on the vertical axis without affecting the horizontal axis, and vice versa.
  • Quick-release mounts (QR) make it faster and easier to mount and remove your camera from the tripod. Standard threaded camera-mount plates are smaller, but take longer to set up and break down.
  • Gimbal heads allow smooth, well-balanced shooting with longer focal length optics and video capture with HDSLRs.
  • Rapid center columns are faster to work with (and less costly) than geared columns, the latter of which are preferable for shooting situations that call for precise camera positioning, especially when shooting with heavier camera rigs.
  • When comparing three-section and six-section tripods that open up to the same height, take note of the fact that the six-section will fold up shorter, but the three-section model will most likely be far more stable when fully extended, compared to the six-section model.
  • Monopods are good for photographing at sporting events, stock trading floors and other heavy traffic work areas. They are also extremely useful for hiking and travel shooting.
  • Pan/tilt and ball heads are primarily designed for shooting stills. For video capture, fluid heads are more desirable.

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Very informative about tripods and heads.  I particulary like this new feature of product information/reviews.  Keep up the innovative work!

Very informative, precise and conscise.

By far, the most comprehensive and informative information that I have read in a very long time.  Thanks for a well done article.  Keep up the fantastic work!

With so many choices out there on tripods your article provided very clear details.  BandH is always the first place I go to to research and ultimately purchase all of my photography products.  Many thanks. 

Great review, very helpful. However, i am confused regarding your description about Minimum height. This is what your article says

Minimum Height-How small is the tripod when you fold it up? Will it fit into your carry-on luggage when you fly, or comfortably into your backpack’s tripod support straps?

As far as i know... minimum height is the lowest height of tripod when all legs have been stretched outwards and the camera is closer to the ground. What you mention sounds like the description of "folding length" of the tripod.

Thanks again  -aamir

We picked up the Flip cracomder for my daughter, who is a pop singer. She wanted something simple to use to make videos for her Myspace and Youtube. The Flip is super easy, just press and record. To make it even easier we picked up the Flip Tripod accessory.The tripod is small about 5 inches long and about 1/2 inch wide when closed. Opened it boasts flexible legs that bend to help you position the Flip so its easier to record yourself. The top screws easily into the tripod hole on the bottom of the Flip cracomder. Note the Flip tripod fits the bottom of the Flip Ultra cracomder only. There is no hole for the tripod in the regular Flip.The tripod is packaged with black padded feet so it will not scratch your furniture. Included with the tripod are 4 sets of extra feet in hot pink, orange, white and yellow to match the different colors the Flip Ultra comes in. With the help of the tripod, recording with the Flip is even easier and replaces an unsteady hand and makes adjusting the position of the cracomder more flexible.A great little gadget for your Ultra Flip!

Just purchased Induro carbon fiber tripod legs with a Kirk ballhead from B&H. Told the B&H salesman my needs and he did all of the research. I took the tripod out for a test run with my Nikon D700 and Nikon 24-70 lens today. Put on my cable release and took some beautiful shots along the Cape Cod canal. The tripod and head were perfect for my camera - light, sturdy and easy to use. The salesman at B&H gets high marks for quickly and efficiently coming up with a perfect tripod and head for my needs. One more reason why I buy everything from B&H.

First of all, great article. Someone finally pulled all necessary topics under one roof. The one thing I would have liked to hear about is your take on twist lock vs clip lock.

Great advice...

If we stabilize the tripod with a bag hanging from the tripod column, does this ***** in the maximum load specs?

My only comment is that you don't present the negative aspects of a quick-release head. I have never been a fan of quick release heads because:

Unless you keep the quick release pad mounted to your camera (I don't like doing that) then it requires carrying a small tool and two installation processes to mount the camera to the tripod - one to mount the quick release pad with a screwdriver or a quarter and then another to mount the whole affair on the tripod. I prefer carrying my camera without a quick release pad attached. The mounting process is quick and requires no tools since the mounting screw has a large knurled knob (which quick release pads don't have).

Couldn't agree more. I fixed the quick release plate permenantly,drilled a hole and fitted a knerled knob 1/4 " bolt with a clip to stop it falling out,works a treat.

Thank you for this well written precise document. It cleared up a lot of questions I had about tripods and will make purchasing one a lot less complicated. 

I have a lightweight tripod with pan & tilt head on it.  I need to somehow convert or attach a ball head to it. Any ideas of how to do this.  Regards RER :-)

Not all tripods are designed such that the head is removable.  If it is not a type with a removeable head option, it would reqiure you to mount a ballhead on the existing panhead (which is not great for stabality necessarily).  If you could indicate the specific model of your tripod and head, we could determine what your options may be.  Thank you in advance. 

I've been on the internet all morning looking for a clear-cut explanation between using ball heads and fluid heads and your article answered all of my questions precisely. Thanks, and keep up the great work!