The Phoblographer’s Guide to Buying a Tripod: And Why You Should

If you think the world of buying cameras is daunting, just wait until you look at the world of purchasing a tripod.

Fact: you’re not as stable as you think, and a tripod will do a much better job than level ground most of the time. There are entire swaths of photographers out there who will tell you they don’t need a tripod. But truth be told, there are loads of times when tripods are handy. If you’re a landscape photographer or an astrophotographer, then you understand how fantastic a tripod can be. Image stabilization can’t do everything, but tripods do something that makes you more prone to creating a better photo. In this post, we’re going to explore the world and ideas behind buying a tripod.

What Are You Doing with It?

This is one of the most important questions to ask yourself. It will vary depending on who you are as a photographer. There are tripods made for pretty much any and every single situation that exists. Of course, this also depends on what the most prominent things are that you do as a photographer. Let’s go into this a bit.

Studio

If you’re a studio photographer, then you’re probably setting the tripod down in one spot and it will seldom move. You’re also probably using a more massive camera and lens setup. So you need a sturdy tripod. The sturdiest types of tripods have fewer extensions on their legs. With that said, tabletop tripods and ones that are closest to the ground provide the most stability. But in this case, you probably need something with wider legs and with fewer leg sections. Three should be enough. This will give you the most stability when shooting in the studio. Combined with the right ball head (which we’ll get to later), you’ll be all set. One would also think that you don’t need all that much stability in a studio, but you’d be shocked. If you’re on ground level or even in a basement, then you’re in the most structurally stable part of the building. Otherwise, random things can cause the floors to shake at times.

Travel

Travel photographers need the most versatility. Consider travel tripods to be the jack of all trades but masters of none. They’re not the best built, the most stable, or even extend to be the tallest, but they’re capable enough for the needs of a travel photographer. First off, travel tripods need to be TSA approved and need to fit comfortably in a camera bag. Like a studio photographer, you need a good ball head. But you probably don’t need the control that a studio and landscape photographer needs. Overall, what you value is a combination of lightweight design, ruggedness, and stability. Depending on which tripod you get, know that you’ll get any varying combination of those things. Some are very rugged, but not lightweight. Some even turn into monopods!

Landscape/Astrophotography

Landscape photographers are probably going for a variety of tripods. There have been times in my life when I needed a pretty heavy-duty tripod with a heavy duty ball head. And there have been times where I needed something lighter because I was hiking. Landscape and astrophotographers are arguably the most demanding, not because they lack the ruggedness of a travel tripod, but because they need something even more stable than what you’d get from a studio tripod. I mean, you’d be amazed at how much the wind can affect the legs of your tripod. And if you use a bag as a counterweight, you’ll see how the shake causes your images to be blurred. It’s complicated for sure.

Ballhead

In a perfect world, every photographer would have a ball head that has a ton of adjustment parameters, smooth gliding, smooth turning, and the ability to adjust all of this. But most tripods aren’t like that. If you’re getting a tripod that includes a ball head, 9 out of 10 times you’re getting a subpar ball head that will probably conk out on you after a while. But a few (ProMaster and 3 Legged Thing, for example) come with some spectacular ball heads. A big thing about ball heads is also the quality of the camera plate. If the plate is crap, then you can probably kiss your camera goodbye. Again though, consider what you need. If you’re shooting at a bunch of crazy angles and you need a ton of stability, then invest in a better ball head.

The Legs

I used to look at tripods and think to myself that I wanted one with lots of sections. It makes sense, right? My reasoning was that it meant that the tripod can get taller. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes the sections are small. And the more sections you have on a tripod leg, the less stable I’ve seen them be. Even if you’re not using all of the extensions, the tripod still isn’t always that stable. If you want stability, go to something thicker, heavier, and ideally closer to the ground. The feet also should be adaptable. Most are rounded rubber feet, but there are spiked tips that give better grounding on dirt in nature.

Portability

This is where travel tripods and tabletop tripods really dominate! This requires the tripod to be lightweight but also still sturdy. Tabletop tripods are better for that as long as they remain balanced. Otherwise, portability is a combination of both weight and durability. If you’re using a tabletop tripod, I most likely expect you to almost always leave it at home. But if you’re using a travel tripod, that’s probably coming everywhere with you. Some of the most stable tripods aren’t all that lightweight or portable. So just try things out and read up when you can.