As previously discussed, tripods are rather important when it comes to photography. Even if cameras are getting smaller and lighter, it is we, the users, who ultimately fail in the stability part of the equation. When people realize the need for a tripod, they go online and find a million different sites and resources telling them different things and citing different products for the sake of being different. That ultimately leads to confusion. This post will try to cut to the chase and help give you a clear guideline in determining your needs.
Weight of Gear
The first thing you need to do is figure out how much weight your tripod needs to support. Calculate the weight of your camera. If it is a DSLR you need to factor in the weight of your heaviest lens, camera body, battery grip and batteries, flash, microphones and any additional accessories you may attach to your rig. After you have established the numbers for the heaviest weight your rig will amount to, multiply it by 3. So assuming your heaviest combo weighs 7lbs, you need to make sure your tripod is rated to hold at least 21lbs. This is my rule of thumb that should provide you with decent results. Of course, more is better if the budget allows.
Quick Tip: Plan for the future instead of guessing at the future to save money. What I mean is, if you plan on trying out wildlife photography and think you will be attaching a 600mm monster to your rig don’t spend 400$ on a slightly cheaper tripod and then buy another for 1000$+ when you figure out your initial purchase won’t cut it. Its cheaper to buy one good tripod than slowly upgrading from one crappy tripod to the next. Guessing at the future and assuming that a nanotube tripod will miraculously hit the markets for the masses and it will be able to support 100000lbs and cost slightly less than current tripods is just that, a guess, and it won’t help your photography demands today.
Weight of Tripod
Depending on how much traveling you do or if you are looking for a combination of stability and portability for a vacation, you need to factor in the weight of the tripod itself. Most tripods these days are made from aluminum or carbon fiber. Aluminum is cheaper but heavier. Carbon fiber is lighter but more expensive. Ultimately, if you want stability you need to consider your environment. Are you shooting in heavy winds? If yes, a little extra weight from an aluminum tripod is not a bad thing. Are you shooting in extremely humid conditions? If yes, a carbon fiber tripod will not corrode like an aluminum tripod can. So do you need portability, more stability or does price matter? Consider all the factors and make a smart decision.
Quick Tip: Many tripods will have the option for you to hang ballast of a center column or have some other way of attaching additional weight for stability. Remember, the purpose of a tripod is stability and that is attained by reducing as much movement/vibration as possible. Sometimes adding ballast can be a bad move if the ballast or center column is not stable. Make sure that if you plan on adding additional weight you do so in conditions where it is actually helpful to the stability of the tripod otherwise you wont be doing yourself any favors. In fact, I would suggest that most of the time you should avoid tripods with center columns altogether. The very notion of a center column suggests unwanted movement.
How far does your tripod extend? How many different sections can your tripod collapse into? Does it have a center column or not? These are the main questions you need to ask. The height of the tripod is one of the most important considerations and having a taller tripod is usually preferred as it gives you more options to work with. Think of the type of photography you plan on doing and then consider your environment and what your needs are. A tall tripod can give you a different perspective and so can a tripod with no center column that can be lowered to be flat against the ground. Maybe you travel a lot and you need legs with 3 locks for optimal minimal height and maybe you want 2 locks for a little extra rigidity. No one can make the decisions for you, think of what you need and how to achieve your vision. That being said, my personal preference for tripod extension is 2 locks that can extend as tall as possible which, for me, usually means a minimum maximum height of 70″ not including the center column (because I usually remove it or swap it with a short column version).
When determining the type of head you need think, again, at what you personally need. There are ball heads, pan/tilt heads, swivel heads, pistol grip heads, video heads, gimbal heads, fluid heads and so forth. Know your needs, do your research and make an informed decision. If you are doing mostly photography and no video you need to look at ball heads and pan/title heads. Pan/tilt heads will give you more control but are slower to adjust and a pain in the ass to carry with the levers sticking out of them. Ball heads are faster to adjust, easier to carry but may not offer the level of control that a pan head will (the best ball heads are just amazing though). Video heads are obviously specialized for video giving you more precise control over motion and panning to achieve a smooth flow. Pistol heads offer a similar range of motion as a ball head but will give you additional speed if you need it for sports or fast action. If you have a heavy setup with a telephoto lens that weighs quite a bit you may want to get a gimbal head in order to fight the natural tendencies of gravity. Regardless of the options, know what you need and if worst comes to worst and you really have no idea, always try before you buy.
In my personal opinion, if I could not afford a pair of high end legs and a head, I would get the head first. The head is where you spend most of your time doing adjustments to get the right frame. If the head is not doing its job the way you want and according to your workflow its going to piss you off and if it does that, you are not going to have a good time doing your job. Get the right head that will do the right job and you will be more productive, more satisfied or have more fun on your vacation.
I don’t believe in them. You can pop up two legs on a tripod to create a monopod but if you need two extra legs on your monopod you are SOL.
If you get the results you need from monopods that is fantastic. They are cheaper but in my opinion not as versatile and just not as good.
Ultimately someone always asks what the best brand is and what is the MUST buy tripod that will rule the world and all photographers will come together and in one consolidated voice praise your godly choice of tripod selection. In reality, many brands compete in the tripod industry from bottom of the barrel to the sell your firstborn price ranges. If you got cash to burn on legs and heads Gitzo and Really Right Stuff comes to mind. Are they worth the money? Depends who you ask (most consider them the industry leaders) but they provide TOP quality, craftsmanship and service for the many, many dollars you will give them. Do you want the best bang for your buck and an above average set? Maybe you should look at Manfrotto/Bogen, Slik, Vanguard, Induro, Velbon etc. If you want a super shitty tripod your options are basically infinite. Ultimately you need to match your needs to the product you require. If you are looking to spend top dollar then obviously, the quality control on the best brands will be better. That being said, even if all products are not created equally, if you try before you buy you can find a good Manfrotto/Induro/Vanguard or any other brand setup that will do the job quite nicely.
These are the bottom line considerations. If you can answer these questions based on your needs you will get the product that will do the right job for you.
Thank you for reading!