One of the most common questions I get from students who are just starting to get serious about their photography is “what sort of tripod should I buy?” This quickly breaks down into two questions, “which tripod legsets?” and “which tripod head?”. In this article, I’ll talk about how to select a good legset for your needs, in part two, I’ll cover tripod heads and quick-release systems.
I understand that it’s tempting to avoid spending up on a good tripod, camera equipment is expensive and it is easier to imagine how a higher-resolution camera or another lens will extend what you can achieve photographically. But tripods turn out to be every bit as important a tool for capturing sharp, well-composed images, and a flimsy or badly-designed tripod will frustrate you precisely during those moments where you need it to perform flawlessly. As Thom Hogan has pointed out, the usual effect of trying to spend less on tripods is spending more, as you are forced, step-by-step, to upgrade your equipment in stages rather than buying what you should have bought in the first place.
In choosing a legset for most nature work, I recommend first that you purchase a tall enough tripod that you can look through the viewfinder without bending or scrunching down, and without raising any center column. This is important for a number of reasons. First, we tend to look through the viewfinder a lot more often when it’s easy to do so, and more time spent looking before shooting means more time that can be spent perfecting your composition. Second, even bending down a little will reduce your ability to tell if your horizon is level, people seem to have a surprisingly difficult time keeping a horizon straight when they’re not standing upright. While both of these concerns could be solved by raising a center column, doing so makes your tripod less stable. The only reasons you should consider a shorter tripod is if weight is a concern, say for backpacking or long hikes.
Next, choose between aluminum and carbon-fiber tripods. This usually ends up being a tradeoff between cost and weight, while carbon fiber tripods are more expensive than their aluminum equivalents, they’re a lot lighter and just as strong as their aluminum counterparts. I also like carbon fiber tripods for very cold conditions, they don’t pull heat out of your hand as quickly as aluminium tripods do. For these reasons I prefer carbon fiber tripods and recomend them as my first choice, but aluminium legsets might be a good way to reduce cost without affecting stability.
Next, make sure that the tripod you’ve selected is heavy enough to keep your equipment stable. If you’ve selected a reasonably tall tripod you’ll usually find that most of the options are stable enough (with good shooting technique, using a cable release) for normal use, but consider even heavier, larger tripods if you’re working with supertelephoto lenses or other heavy gear.
Finally, go try out a few tripods that meet these criteria at your local camera store. Start by looking at options from Gitzo and Manfrotto/Bogen, they’re the largest manufacturers and both make excellent products. Try the leg locks, see which mechanisms feel well-made and easy to use. Feel how stable the different legsets feel with the legs fully extended, you’ll be able to see how much difference a good, heavy tripod can make in terms of stability.
In my next installment, I’ll cover tripod heads and quick-release systems.