Article © 2006-09 by Jenna Caplette, with tips from the staff of F-11 Photographic Supplies
There’s more to choosing a tripod than you might think. Plant one out in winter’s extreme cold and you may find how fragile a seemingly sturdy tripod can become.
Tripods can be sturdy, lightweight, or affordable. Of those three characteristics, you will need to choose two. If you want an affordable tripod, you can buy one that’s sturdy, but not lightweight. If you want one that is sturdy and lightweight, it will be an investment.
The difference in price is largely based on the three main materials used to manufacture tripods: aluminum, carbon fiber, or basalt. Aluminum is generally the most affordable, with high quality basic aluminum tripods starting at around $100 and going up from there. You’ll need to buy a head for these tripods separately.
If you spend under that, you’ve purchased a disposable tripod – if something breaks, throw the whole thing away. It’s garbage. Do that once, and you’ll know why the availability of replacement parts is an important variable in tripod quality.
So, before you shop, know what your budget is. Then ask yourself where you’ll use your tripod, what kind of equipment you want it to hold, and what is the combined total weight of that equipment. If you’ll be mounting a spotting scope on the tripod, add its weight to that of its eyepiece. With a camera, add the weight of the body to that of the largest lens you would be using – then check the weight specifications of the tripod and whatever tripod head you plan to purchase. You want the specificiations of both the tripod and head to be greater than the actual equipment weight. In other words, you can put ten pounds of equipment on a tripod and head that are rated at thirteen pounds, but not the reverse.
Most of us Montanans will use our tripods in the field. That makes it important to be able to change the angle and length of the individual legs to accommodate uneven ground. If you want to set your tripod up in the water, or in a wind, make sure the legs are sealed so that they don’t “stick” in the set up position.
To release tripod legs, you can choose quick or twist style locks. With quick-locks there are levers to release, either individually or all at once. Whatever suits your needs. Twist locks slow the process of setting up a tripod and the user needs to be meticulous, both extending and retracting the legs, doing that in exactly the same order each time the tripod is used. If you’re the kind of person who can do that, the advantage of twist lock legs is that they are virtually unbreakable. Even twenty years from now, when a tripod like a Gitzo starts to wear out, you can replace broken or worn out parts and it will work like new. Fine tripods are a long-term investment.
Gitzo's carbon-series tripods have water proof bushings so that no matter what weather you use them in, they work. In sub-zero weather, carbon does not transfer cold to your hands – a pretty great feature for Montana winter photographers. Add to that, Gitzo carbon tripods are extremely light and durable. Their newest designs allow the user to loosen all the leg locks at once, making it possible to set the tripod up quickly.
If you like the idea of lightweight, but aren’t quite up to investing in carbon, there’s a new, intermediate option: basalt, as in made from volcanic-rock basalt. It’s lighter than aluminum, but not as light as carbon.
Clear on all of those choices? Good, because you have several more to make.
Tripod columns come long or short. Cranking columns allow you to fine tune column height, but can be slow to set-up and add to tripod weight. A short column allows you to work at ground level, like you would for macro photography. Choose that, or a tripod without a column, to stabilize long lenses.
Some columns are “reversible,” making it possible to invert your camera under the tripod. It’s a very sturdy way to set up a camera for macro photography. You can also use a reversible-column tripod as a copy stand, setting it and your camera up on a table in your office or home to copy photographs or flat art.
For column-versatility, Gitzo reigns. Their tripods generally offer all of these choices.
Whatever tripod you choose, it’s handy if they have a hook under them that allows you to hang gear to anchor the tripod in the wind. Look for a place to connect a carrying strap or choose a tripod with bicycle grip material on it that will protect your shoulder from the rub of hard metal. Carrying cases are available but these really just help with transporting your tripod in a vehicle.
In addition to tripods, you can buy monopods, minipods, and car window clamps. A monopod is a single leg that’s fast to set up, easy to use, and works well for supporting a camera with a long lens to shoot things-in-motion, like people playing soccer, or the July 4th Ennis rodeo. Don’t buy a monopod for macro photography. Do choose one if you want easy mobility.
Minipods work for point-and-shoot cameras. They help you with all those fun self-timer pictures so that you won’t be tempted to balance your camera on a rock. A minipod can’t accommodate angling your camera vertically, and won’t safely support heavier equipment. Most minipods come with an integrated head. Choose one with a removable head and you’ll be able to use that head on a window mount, or a tripod.
Heads? Yes. The piece that allows you to mount your equipment to your tripod. Learn more? Read: Getting aHead: Choosing a head for your tripod.