FAQs - What tripod
Do I really need a tripod?
For most situations, yes, one really needs a tripod; even accepting that at times it is simply not possible to deploy it or take it with us -like in crowded public places. A tripod not only forces one to slow down and check composition, but also sharpness largely depends on rock steady camera support, so it makes no sense to invest in the best camera body and good glass -for the maximum resolution and contrast one can afford- and then not plant it firmly.
Tighter film grain or least possible digital noise and great depth of field, even today mean low ISO speeds and small lens apertures, therefore slow shutter speeds. That is not the only one but still one of the main reasons why this very often overlooked accessory is one of the most important tools a serious photographer needs to carry, even if you always shoot at ISO 12,800; unless of course you are a photo journalist on the run.
Whether you use film or digital cameras, have to use slow shutter speeds or not, big lenses or not, if you are concerned with consistently producing high-quality results, improve your image vision and want to learn how good are your lenses, a good quality tripod is a must.
But beware, most tripods don't fall into the "good" category. Many enthusiasts who once bought a tripod soon abandoned it because it was the wrong one. Those tripods were typically either too short or too tall, too light or too heavy and seldom sturdy. Some even loose a leg now and then.
What tripods I should not buy?
I believe it was John Shaw, the splendid nature photographer, author of six field photography books at last count -always photographing from a tripod- who said he got rid of a great deal of potential competition for years, after a consumer guide with wide circulation advised to get the cheapest possible tripod.
On one extreme are the lightweight aluminum tripods with integrated head. The slightest breeze or just clicking the camera will make them vibrate, not to mention creeping under the weight of a modest telephoto or macro lens. Sorry, but I've owned too many of those to know that the inexpensive AND lightweight AND sturdy tripod does not exist!
Flimsiness or not, steadiness has little to do with braces. Braces just prevent the tripod from spreading its legs wide open, precisely where such wabbly "cheap'os" may finally attain some marginal stability even when never sturdiness.
On the other extreme are the very robust tripods, allowing for massive heads. These will stay in your studio or your closet because they are too heavy to carry around into the field. You may say that you only shoot close to home or your car, but Murphy's law has long proven that the best scenics in the world are exactly where it is forbidden to park or there is not a road.
How do I know this? Well, because as many before and after me, I bought a succession of wrong tripods and spent far more than it would have cost me to buy a good one from the start, surely messing up plenty of good photo opportunities that will never return.
So, even knowing this is against human nature, I would dare suggest it is possible to do it right and just once ....... or twice at most, but not in a repetitive chain of successive frustrating steps like I did
Originally written on July 11, 2011
Last updated on January 2, 2021
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Bonnie-Lee Armstrong (Fundytides) on September 30, 2017
Oh my this article made my head spin. I will need to re-read it while I figure out my parameters. I kept visualizing the places I shoot at, my style (sports/wildlife) and the bodies/lenses I use, my longest 150-600, to envision what tripod may be the best choice. I am under 5ft 4 with small hands that have periodic arthritis in the right forefinger and thumb so I am looking for ease of use and appropriate height. When shooting butterflies and chipmunks I do like to sit behind my tripod. I've never been happy with any tripod on the pitch so I run the sidelines. I might perch if I had something I liked. Vibration dampening plates, never crossed my mind. Take this out, put this on. So many permutations on a theme. I am recently retired so I have more time to spend on my photography but a much more fixed budget on expenditures. I appreciate all the research and work that went into writing the article in order to help us make the most informed decision possible. Thank you
J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on August 5, 2017
brad, glad to hear it was useful to make your decisions.
Brad McBlain (stridor) on August 4, 2017
Thank you very much for the work that you put into this article. It allowed me to make the right compromises. Since weight, length and price were all factors for me to consider, I went with a Manfrotto 190cxPRO4. I found a used one that was less than a year old with no signs of use. Thanks again. brad
don sullivan (donny1) on April 26, 2015
Thanks JRP, I am in the market for a new tripod and am please I have read this article before buying.
J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on January 19, 2015
(Edited by jrp Monday, 19 January 2015 ) Thank you, Richard. I now use a Markins Q20i + BV-22 module instead of a Gimbal head. Smaller, lighter, easier to pack, offering to me the same convenience.
Richard Cron (rcron) on January 18, 2015
Excellent article, thanks! I have found that my Manfrotto 055XPROB does perform much better with the center post down. I hope for a Gitzo Systematic in my future. I also have a Manfrotto 498RC2 ball head which seems high quality except that it is subject to my lapse of attention and I allowed my setup to flop over once which luckily caused no apparent damage but I'm hesitant to use it now. Instead I acquired a Nest NT-530H-US CF gimbal which I love. Fluid and silky smooth, every thing is in balance and more peace of mind. The US model is Arca-Swiss compatible and also features a safety locking pin in the mounting plate. Other than weight and size considerations, what are the pros and cons comparing a good ball head to a gimbal head?
Dennis Smith (quenton8) on September 20, 2014
Should have read this before buying my second tripod -- the first one was totally junk, the second 1000x better -- but should have gone the whole route with Gitzo or Manfrotto, but didn't. Now I am saving up!
James farrar (Drjim777) on May 28, 2013
How true, my second one after lens damage many years ago was a gitzo!
Leonard Bradley (whitworthlad) on May 5, 2013
This is the article I needed to read before I bought the first of my two tripods! Many thanks.