Photography / Buying Guide

Tripod Buying Guide

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As complementary as peanut butter is to jelly, the camera and tripod are an age-old pairing that still manages to maintain relevance and unmatched functionality in a world dominated by image stabilization and Photoshop tricks. While the form and function of a tripod is far simpler to understand than the scrolling menus of today’s feature-packed DSLRs, it can still be a chore to choose the right setup for your needs from among a sea of manufacturers and seemingly comparable models. In this article, we’ll break down the basic types of tripod kits every photographer should consider and discuss the different categories of tripod heads and legs for those who wish to assemble a custom setup.

Tabletop Tripods

For some, the simplest and smallest solution is often the best, and appealing to this crowd is the tabletop tripod—a compact solution for the everyday shooter. Available in a range of types and sizes these tripods are commonly sold as kits, with a head and legs pre-attached, often inseparable and commonly reaching a maximum height of no more than a foot. These tripods are ideal for travelers, hikers, or those shooting in areas where full-size camera supports may be prohibited. Those requiring a tabletop support may also want to consider a bendable variation, such as the Joby Gorillapod line. These compact and lightweight supports can be used on a traditional flat surface or wrapped around a variety of objects (such as tree branches, pipes, and handlebars) to stabilize your camera on uneven terrain or achieve a unique new photographic perspective.

Magnus MaxiGrip Flexible Tripod (Red)

The Entry-Level Kit

Many tripod manufacturers are well aware that most entry-level and enthusiast photographers require a tripod that’s tall, durable, and relatively inexpensive without the need for customization or interchangeable parts. For this reason, manufacturers like Sunpak produce full-size tripod kits which, like the table-top tripods we discussed before, feature an inseparable legs-and-head combination designed to fit the basic needs of most amateur photographers. Many of these kits utilize a simple three-way pan-and-tilt head for quick and accurate adjustments and can be used for most photographic applications.

Sunpak 8001 UT Tripod with 3-Way Pan / Tilt Head

The Tripod System

For the enthusiast, advanced, and professional photographer, the most popular route to take is investing in a modular tripod system or, in layman’s terms, a tripod that consists of a detachable head and a set of durable, versatile legs. Whether purchased together as part of an advanced kit, or separately, investing in a system ensures that the user is purchasing customizable and quality equipment that can be modified to suit the photographers specific needs either now or in the future. Below, we’ll review some of the different options for purchasing a pre-made advanced tripod kit or assembling your own, based on components selected to suit your individual needs.

Tripod Head Styles

The 3-Way “Pan-Tilt” Head

When most people think about the functionality of a tripod, they envision the movements and trademark handle-controlled style of the classic three-way head. This design has remained popular, especially among beginners, because of its straightforward operation and relatively precise nature of movement. The head consists of three separate arms, controlling the vertical-tilt, horizontal-tilt, and the 360-degree pan. To alter the position of each angle, all one has to do is simply twist the handle for the desired angle, move the camera into the desired position, and then twist the handle back to lock the camera in place—it’s just that simple. Three-way heads are commonly utilized for landscape, portraiture, still-life, and macro or product photography, but they can be used for nearly every photographic application.

Manfrotto MHXPRO-3W 3-Way Pan/Tilt Head

The Ball Head

The ball head is the most modern and, typically, the most popular style of head these days, due in part to its compact size (when compared to three-way heads), high weight capacity, and ease of alteration. Unlike the three-way head, ball heads save on size and weight by using your camera as the “handle” and by allowing the camera to be moved into any position using just one control knob instead of three. Ball heads typically feature a dual-control or tri-control design, which allows the photographer to control the ball’s movement and friction using separate knobs. Tri-control designs will often implement a third knob which controls 360-degree panning separately from the primary ball lock. Due to its size and speed, this head style is popular among sports, action, wildlife, travel, and studio photographers—although, like the three-way head, it can be used for almost any photographic application.

Induro BHM2S Ball Head

The Gimbal Head

Gimbal heads are practically a necessity in the advanced sports and wildlife photography world, due to their ability to support the large telephoto lenses that are an undeniable hallmark of the craft. Designed to support and balance large lenses and camera bodies, the gimbal head permits the user to track a moving subject vertically and horizontally and, if properly balanced, maintain its last position even when the photographer’s hand leaves the camera. They are typically the largest and heaviest head style but, for those photographers who require them, their utility is second to none. It is also worth noting that most gimbal heads are not sold with a mounting plate; one must be specially selected for the lens being used. For those looking to invest in a gimbal system, always be sure to purchase an appropriate lens-mounting plate that provides enough length to balance your equipment sufficiently.  

Oben GH-50 Gimbal Head

The Fluid Head

With nearly every stills camera performing advanced video functions, many photographers have started to incorporate video components into their tripod kits, with the most essential of these additions being the fluid head. Designed to decrease resistance when recording video, the fluid head allows smooth pans and tilts along two axes and its integrated “fluid” cartridge reduces unwanted jitters, vibrations, and shakes. While each tripod head features a maximum load capacity, a fluid head’s declared maximum should be viewed as a guideline that should never be crossed. Proper weight balance is essential for a fluid head to perform well and resistance from an unbalanced load can negate the head’s video-smoothing properties—especially in the hands of entry-level videographers.

Benro S4 Video Head

Tripod Leg Styles

The Material Choice

Tripod legs—for both the beginner and professional user—are a relatively simple affair that boils down to three simple factors: weight, load capacity, and price. The often heavier, cheaper and, in some ways, more durable material for tripod legs is an oldie but goodie: aluminum. Although its weight can sometimes be counter-intuitive for travel, aluminum tripods benefit from this weight with increased stability and ability to withstand the drops and dings that occur during everyday use. However, aluminum legs are affected by the environment in which they are used which, in simple terms, means they heat up in the sun, cool down in the cold, and can rust if not properly cleaned after exposure to fresh or salt water.

Oben AC-2361 3-Section Aluminum Tripod Legs

For those looking to spend a little more and carry a little less, the second option of carbon fiber is the proper choice. Lighter in weight compared to its aluminum counterparts, carbon fiber also boasts reduced vibration transmission, temperature resistance, and a lack of rust-susceptible components. Carbon fiber isn’t all pros, though—it’s more fragile nature makes it susceptible to fracturing, and extra care must be taken in transport to avoid damage.

Oben AC-2341L 3-Section Aluminum Lateral Tripod Legs

Lock Styles

Nearly all of the major tripod manufacturers offer product lines that feature multiple lock styles for aluminum and carbon fiber tripods. The two classic styles, flip lock and twist lock, are the only two locks used in the production of today’s mainstream photo tripods, and we’ll take a brief look at the pros and cons of both styles below.

The flip lock is usually the beginner, amateur, and enthusiast choice, due to its ease of use and rapid set-up time. Consisting of a simple mechanism which “flips,” the user simply flips the lock open to extend the leg and then flips the lock closed to secure the leg section in place, resulting in a quick and simple set-up process. Although today’s modern flip locks are commonly adjustable and long lasting, all flip-style locks do require occasional re-tightening and cannot be weather sealed to protect against damaging moisture and debris.

Oben AC-2361 3-Section Aluminum Tripod Legs (Flip Lock)

The more professional lock style, twist locks, are sometimes seen as being trickier to operate despite their inherent advantages, but with just a little practice, they can be easier to use than some flip-style locks. The key to using a twist lock is to remember the “quarter-turn” rule: almost all twist locks require only a quarter turn to open and close the locking mechanism. This limited range of movement and the very nature of the twist lock allow this style to retain maximum grip throughout the lifespan of the tripod; it never requires any form of re-tightening, and can be easily sealed to prevent any debris or moisture from reaching the tripod’s inner joints. For those who enjoy do-it-yourself maintenance, twist locks can be removed easily for cleaning the tripod after use in adverse environments such as sand, dirt, or mud.

Oben CT-3481 Carbon Fiber Tripod with BE-126T Ball Head (Twist Lock )

The Enthusiast Kit

Now that we’ve reviewed the piecemeal components of advanced tripod systems, we’ll take a look at the first type of advanced tripod setup: the pre-made enthusiast kit.

Many enthusiast and advanced amateur photographers have likely owned an entry-level tripod in the past and have come to fully understand the limitations of these often, overly simplistic kits. They have come to recognize, inevitably, that the age-old saying, “You get what you pay for,” applies to all photography equipment, and may wish to invest in an advanced tripod kit that is not only durable but also customizable, should they choose to replace or augment their support equipment for different uses. Enthusiast-level tripod kits exist for this exact purpose, allowing photographers to purchase a pre-made kit featuring a paired tripod head and legs, which can be detached should the user choose to purchase different components in the future. An example of such a kit is the Manfrotto 294 line, which offers a reasonably compact and mid-weight set of sturdy aluminum legs that can be purchased with a paired (but removable) three-way or ball head.

Manfrotto 294 Aluminum Tripod with 804RC2 3-Way Head

The Travel Kit

In today’s world of nomadic creative professionals, the travel tripod kit has become a staple accessory in photography and has benefitted, in regard to R&D, from the genre’s growing popularity. Nearly every manufacturer, from Benro to Gitzo, offers a wide range of travel kits, which feature a set of inverting legs designed to collapse around a compact ball head. These kits are designed to be the smallest and lightest in their respectable class but trade off stability and height for lighter weight and a reduced folded footprint.

Benro Aero 4 Video Travel Angel Tripod Kit

Assembling Your Own Custom Kit

Using all the information we’ve covered so far, it should be somewhat easier to assemble your own custom support kit should your needs require it. While there are many brands to choose from and multiple designs and functions to review, always remember that your tripod setup is, first and foremost, designed to support your gear safely and that special consideration should always be given to the recommended load capacities of any tripod component you wish to purchase.

Read more about tripods in these explora articles, 10 Recommended Tripods for Photography and 12 Recommended Travel Tripods.

36 Comments

It is also helpful to get a small sandbag to use at the center of the tripod.  Makes it many times more stable and less likely to be knocked over.

Will Oben Macro Focusing Rail work with Tamron 150 - 600 or Tamron 18 - 250 lenses?

I doubt that the Oben Macro Focusing Rail would support the Tamron 150-600mm lens.  Though, I don’t quite know why one would need to use a focusing rail with a super zoom lens or an all in one. 

I'm disappointed that you did not include the not-a-tripod solution for camera support in situations where you need to be off the ground more than real tri-pods can handle.  The three-footed tall light stands (I still call mine a tripod) are wonderful up to 16' and okay beyond (the 24' version are heavy and requires extra care for safety).  I use this support system for video that can't be easily captured any other way.  For example, the high school band concert or play, shot from the auditorium floor -- above the audience distraction -- to capture a clean shot of every's little darling.  Using television-sets for remote monitors, remote control for zoom and pan, you can mount two cameras on top of this stand (weight is not a problem) and get enough variety to produce a product that parents will love.  Sound is another issue and reqires a separate system to record.  Oh yes... this stand was not built for cameras and you should be very careful when mounting 1/4-20 (screw-size) objects.

That Benro S4 is not actually a fluid video head! Just uses screws to "add resistance".

I would like to recommend the unique Explorer tripods from Gitzo for anyone doing photography on uneven ground (be it meadow, hillside or staircase), and especially for macro or low-level subjects. The joy of this model is the independently locking legs, which no other tripod has (to my knowledge). There is also an independent pivoting, rotating center column, which some other brands do have. Not only does each leg spread to any angle, but you lock each leg into its own position. While it takes a little longer to get set up (until you get used to the routine), the fact that the legs lock into position means that if you want to pick it up and move position an inch or a foot, the legs don't ever start to shift and need to be spread out again. For close-up shots of flowers, etc., you can pull, push, or slide the whole set-up without the legs catching and tucking up.

I recently bought a MeFoto (I think this is an offshoot of the Benro brand, but not sure) Globe Trotter aluminum tripod. Very compact and light compared to my oldie, but goodie, Star D Pro. It holds my Nikon D5300 & Tamron 16-300 mm zoom quite steady. To be honest, I have not gone out in the field yet, but I'm very sure it will be just as sturdy. The only complaint I have is that I would have liked to see the feet (rubber/spike) to be 1 piece instead of having to unscrew the rubber feet and then having to screw in the spikes. I'm sure there was a reason for this design, but I can't seem to figure it out.

Spikes are frowned on in most interiors; rubber feet are more floor-friendly, thus the two options. 

Well up until now I've done well with carbon travel tripod, a nice sturdy monopod for areas that don't allow tripods, and a ball head quick release. How ever, I just added a big prime lines, a 400mm f4 DO. And now looking to support this lens properly. I know there are heavier lenses out there but it is the biggest one I have. What's the best way to support it for Air shows and wildlife?

For large lens I’ve been using the Manfrotto (Neotec Monopod with Safety Lock - 685B) with the Manfrotto (Mini Ball Head with RC2 - 494RC2). Easily height adjustable and quick release makes removing the lens a snap.  Would be perfect for your Air shows and wildlife.

as a professional user and someone who "tripods evrything " and owns a variety, Gitzo- alum and Carbon, twist and flip locks, here my 2 cents worth the carbon fiber center columes are unreliable , they come unglued with use - i find the alum center colume to stick and lock down with difficulty especailly in the cold. overall the advice given in this guide is sound. 

So what are you saying?  There's no pleasing you?

In my humble opinion, as a serious amatuer photographer for over 50 years, my favorite tripod are the benro series.....i find the traveler series carbon fibre tripods, to be exceptional in engineering, very well though out!..........and can support well up to and over 22 lbs....truly excellent when traveling or using for general photography

I agree with Owen.  While other brands may have similar offferings, the Benro folds to a smaller footprint which is invaluable for travel. Also, the Benro tripods have may configurations possible making them very versatile.  However, not so found of Benro ball heads.   

The Joby Gorillapod is junk. Mine cracked at the joints and doesn't hold my expensive camera. I contacted Joby for a solution and they told me to put super glue on the joints or buy a new one. I will not spend money on a product that does not hold up and i will not endorse this product.

I have used the Joby Gorillapods for six years. My first one got cracked joints the first few weeks I used it, and Joby replaced it quickly. My second one started getting cracked joints after three years. It was still usable at this point, but I contacted Joby to ask the about why their tripods keep getting cracked joints. They told me what plastic they used, and from my experience, that plastic just gets very brittle as it ages. I asked them how long these things last, and they told me they only last a few years. They told me that what I was experiencing was normal wear and tear, and basically something to the effect of the tripod has a limited lifespan. Superglue does not work to fix the cracking. The joints require tension to function and hold themselves properly, and superglue shears very easily. Also, when critical joints of the tripod fail like mine did, which was relatively suddenly, good luck catching your camera. I got lucky catching my camera as it plunged toward the earth, but I don't think everyone will. I don't plan to purchase any more Joby Gorillapods and will be looking for something that lasts longer and doesn't make you liable to smash your precious camera equipment when it fails suddenly.

Thanks, this is good to know. I won,t be buying one of these

When I purchased my dslr kit it came with a table top tripod but mine had flexible metal legs. Seems pretty sturdy. Not sure how well it will work trying to wrap around things but it's worth shopping around and looking for one with metal legs if you really need one of those.

Which head is best for creating multiple picture panoramic?

You may want to use something like The Nodal Ninja NN3 MKII Starter Package or similar so You can Take pics on vertical position to get more definition in You final picture an to calibrate The nodal point to reduce distortion when You put them toghether....The rest is just practice....hope it helps.

Thoughts on underwatet video tripod  for a fairly light rig?

For underwater, this is where the relatively inexpensive Gorillapod is a good option.  I have seen it used by many serious U/w videographers.   

This article is informative but not as informative as it should be. When describing carbon fiber, there are several generations of fiber.  Current is 6X, it is lighter yet stronger and yes, you should determine what generation it is.   Yes, it also costs more. As for how one attaches the head to the tripod, it is either swiss arca or a propretary type. Avoid propertary like manfrotto..  In addtion consider tension kobs. Also consider quick release heads as opposed to srew locking mechanisms.  Also considr L-brackets for the optimum in changing from landscape to portrait.

The article could have been so much more but falls short.

you are so correct.....

A tripod is basically a "camera holder."  In the realm of "camera holders" one struck me as especially clever.  A photographer had a welding shop weld a 1/4 inch bolt to a Vise Grip wrench.  He'd then be able to clamp a camera to nearby, stable devices, like to a fire plug.  Check Matthews.  They may offer such a device in their catalog.  But you can always find local metal shop that can modify a Vise Grip by welding on the appropriate thread bolt (1/4 or 3/8 inch) and put it just exactly where you'd want it to be.  You can find welding shops listed in the Yellow Pages.  Or ask car mechanics for a lead.

As a professional truck driver, I had a large viice grip welded to a steel platform about 16 incles in length, which provided a base for a multiple antennaes of different types.  I would then attach the vise grip to the exterior mirror brackets, of the truck I was assigned to for that particular run.  So, I can certainly confirm the versatility and convenience of your concept.  Powder coating the steel, would have been beneficial.dgray

Here's an unusual appllication for an unusual style tripod:  I have used a giant Gitzo stand with 10-ft leg extensions for photographing in situations, like on a tight stairwell, where the two front legs were used at normal lengths, and the third leg was extended several feet longer to rest on a descending stairs tread below my shooting position.  I've also used that particular tripod with all three legs extended to 10 ft. and me standing nearby on a portable, platform ladder. 

I have a couple tripods and both show the same problem because of the friction lock in the head.  When I'm doing a moon shot at high zoom (30-60x optical), no matter how tight I twist/set the head, it sags too much during the self time countdown. (I shoot with Nikon L820 and P610) I saw no mention of geared heads that might improve on this.   Ideas?

I had the same problem, until I got a head that was rated 3 to 4 x's the weight of my camera and lens, it was also a friction type head. This provided an immediate fix!!

If you have a long (and heavy) lens mounted on a camera and have the camera mounted on the tripod head via the camera's 1/4-20 thread, you will likely have the problem you describe.  This can sometimes be solved with a tripod collar.  Either get a tripod collar that fits your lens or else get a sliding rail (like a nodal rail) or a long baseplate which can mount on an Arca-Swiss type tripod head mount.  Or even both.  You'll need an Arca-Swiss style head, though.  Then you should be able to balance your rig so that not much friction is needed to hold it in place.  Induro (made in China) and ProMediaGear (made in USA) have both worked well for me.  Or spend even more and get a gimbal mount.

Obrigado pela matéria !

What is a 4-way and 2-way head?

Any tripod suggestions for macro photography that can support the weight of a Canon F-1N or A-1 with a Canon Auto Bellows with a Canon Macrophoto 20mm f3.5 lens?

I'll probably be laying on the ground focusing using the rail with the cable release in the other hand.

Induro Hi Hat, discontinued but should still be around.

I used a Benbo tripod for macro photography. At times it was like wrestling with an octopus, but that tripod could be configured to almost any position, and was rock solid.

I would recommend the Novoflex NF3320 MiniPod for your intended usage. This will support up to 22lbs have  individually variable angle legs. This would be ideal for working at very low angles and/or with a variety of terrain.

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