Which Tripod Is Right For Me?

Display of Carbon Fiber Tripods at Keeble & Shuchat Photography

When I am helping a customer on the sales floor select a tripod, I ask a couple of key questions to narrow down the plethora of choices to a manageable short list of tripods.

  1. What is the equipment you plan to use? What is the longest lens? What is the heaviest combination?
  2. When and how often will you use your tripod?
  3. What will you photograph while using your tripod?

How heavy is your equipment? Most of us don’t use a tripod as often as we should and that’s a shame because a tripod is the best way to get the sharpest photos from your camera equipment. Many photographers would rather not be bothered by lugging a tripod around, so when they decide to buy one, the lightest and least expensive one possible is the tripod of choice. Usually these tripods are so inadequate and difficult to use, they end up spending more time in the closet than under the camera doing the job it was designed for. There are different approaches to selecting a tripod that is appropriate for your equipment. Most tripod manufacturers have overly optimistic load specs for their tripods, usually geared to get you to buy a smaller tripod. Because of that, I take manufacturer specs with a grain of salt. I have heard that one salesman liked 1 pound of load for every ounce of camera gear. That is to say, if you have a 1½ pound camera and lens combination (that’s 24 ounces) he would recommend 24 pound capacity. I think while this advice works on light cameras, I think it is overkill for a heavy camera. I personally recommend taking ½ of the stated load capacity as the usable load on the tripod. So if you have a moderately heavy camera such as a Canon 5D Mark III with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens which weighs 5¼ pounds, I would look for a tripod with the absolute minimum load capacity of 11 pounds.

When and how often will you use your tripod? If you plan on minimal usage, most photographers will make some concessions. But if you’re using your tripod will be a common occurrence, you will most likely spend more to get a higher quality and easier to use model.

What will you photograph while using your tripod? If your needs are rather specific, your tripod choice will be easier. That is to say, if you are buying a tripod to use with your new 500mm f/4 lens, you will need some major support for your gear. If you are an avid macro-photographer, you needs would be quite different. You would like something that gets close to the ground and has relatively short legs (when collapsed). Most of us have more general needs, so the choices can be still fairly large.

Lets look at the differences in the construction of the tripod legs to further help to find the best tripod for you.

What is it made of? In the old days there were wood tripods. In fact, you can still buy a beautiful wood tripod from Reis that is made out of hard rock maple. More common however are metal tripods that are usually made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Aluminum is a less expensive choice, carbon fiber costs more, is lighter and more rigid.

How many sections? Some tripod have model with three, four even five sections per leg. Five sections are usually compact designs that are best for occasional usage or travel/hiking were portability is a high priority. Four sections can be for portability or height. That is to say, a four section tripod that is as tall as its three section counterpart, the four section model will collapse to a smaller size. However, a four section tripod with the same size sections as its three section sibling is all about height. Three section is usually moderate height and the quickest to set up, and the most stable.

What kind of leg locks? Basically there are three types of leg locks.

Twist lock. These you twist to tighten or loosen the leg section. Many folks are not fans of this type due to struggling with this type of leg lock in the past. This type of leg lock has seen the most improvement. Usually a ¼ to ½ turn is all they need to tighten or loosen and not much force is needed to fully clamp a leg section.

Cam lock. These are very popular on many tripods and offer a convenient approach my customers like. Flip the lever open and the leg is loose. Flip the lever closed and it is tight. There is no in-between. Manfrotto cam locks are adjustable with the enclosed wrench, which is a nice benefit.

Screw Lock. These are some of the simplest of mechanisms. They can be found on some of the most economical models. But the durability finds them on some fancy legs also.

What is the budget? This can be a difficult question if you do not know what a tripod sells for, but still it is a good benchmark for the quality level you are purchasing. Tripods sell for as little as $19.95 for a small pocket style tripod up to over $1000 for a top of the line Gitzo or Manfrotto. At Keeble & Shuchat we carry a wide variety of sizes and models to choose from by these manufacturer’s : Gitzo, Manfrotto, Benro, Induro, Slik, PromatserDelkinJoby (Gorillapod) and Pedco (Ultrapod).

If you are local to Palo Alto, come on in the store and our sales staff will be pleased to help you in your selection. Not local? Give us a call at (650) 327-8996 or you can email me at jalford@kspphoto.com.