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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.