You probably know that tripods can make a huge difference in getting sharper pictures, but buying a tripod definitely isn’t as exciting as buying a new camera or lens. Owning a good tripod is a bit like flossing—you know you should do it, but other things just get more attention. Still, a good tripod will go a long way for improving your photography. Here are some things to consider before purchase:
1. The cheapest kit lens with an inexpensive camera will outperform the most expensive “pro” lens if that camera and kit lens are always shot from a tripod and the pro lens never is.
2. A quality tripod and head aren’t that different in price versus a cheap tripod and head when compared to the price of a camera.
3. A quality tripod is an investment that will last a very long time because it doesn’t go out of date.
MATERIALS AND DESIGNS
Today, most photographers are looking at carbon-fiber tripods. Carbon-fiber models are lightweight, durable and very portable. They have a high strength-to-weight ratio and offer excellent dampening. Basalt tripods are similar, a little heavier, but cost less. Metal-alloy tripods offer a good value for the money, although they’re heavier.
In addition to materials, consider the design. Three-section tripod legs are sturdiest and most rigid, while four-section legs allow the tripod to collapse to a smaller size for packing.
In addition to tripods, there are several support alternatives. A monopod is a fast and easy support when you can’t use a tripod and is common with sports photography. Another good support for photographers is a beanbag. Commercial beanbags are filled with plastic pellets for support and make a highly portable camera support that can be taken almost anywhere.
While you can buy a tripod and head together, most tripods allow you to put your choice of head on it. You have four choices:
Ballhead: Great for quick and easy positioning of your camera.
Pan-and-tilt head: This type allows you to precisely position your camera in one plane at a time.
Fluid head: Ideal for video use (see the sidebar on fluid heads).
Gimbal head: These can hold a big telephoto loosely so it can be rapidly positioned for wildlife and sports.
TRIPODS: FOR THE STEADIEST SUPPORT, THE CLASSIC TRIPOD STILL REIGNS SUPREME
The Cullmann Magic 2 uniquely folds flat for travel into a 14×6-inch package that’s only 1.5 inches thick. This allows it to fit in the bottom of many packs and bags. The unit can be quickly converted into a monopod. The support weighs 2.5 pounds and includes a small, removable ballhead. Estimated Street Price: $140.
DAVIS & SANFORD
Davis & Sanford professional tripods use classic designs with all-metal construction for solid support. The ATPX10 All Terrain Pod with FX10 head has pivoting flat and pointed feet to adapt to different ground surfaces and an adjustable cross brace with locks for added stability. The weather-resistant tripod folds to 31 inches, extends to 61 inches and weighs seven pounds. Estimated Street Price: $199.
Flashpoint tripods by Adorama have a reputation for high value and affordable prices. They come in both carbon-fiber and metal-alloy models. The Flashpoint F-1328 is a solid carbon-fiber tripod that extends to 63 inches and collapses to 21 inches with four-section legs. It weighs four pounds. Estimated Street Price: $260.
The Giottos professional-series MT and MTL tripods offer a great deal of flexibility for the photographer. You can get these with a straight center column or a cantilevering center column that allows unique positioning of the camera, plus each leg can be set to three different spread angles. The MT 8361 carbon-fiber tripod extends to 58 inches, folds to 27.5 inches and weighs 4.1 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $415.
Gitzo tripods have a longtime reputation for high-quality craftsmanship. The Series 2 Carbon 6x Explorer 4 Section Tripod (GT2541EX) uses a unique and versatile locking mechanism for the legs that allows them to be set to any angle, plus the center column tilts and rotates to any position needed by the photographer. This tripod is 21 inches closed, extends to 53 inches high and weighs four pounds. Estimated Street Price: $650.
The Manfrotto X family of tripods are new designs built from the company’s solid tripods of the past. The 190PRO CX carbon-fiber support includes an innovative center column that can be used horizontally without removing the head or the column. It collapses to 21.5 inches, extends to 47 inches and weighs 3.1 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $330.
MINI-TRIPODS: WHEN SPACE AND WEIGHT ARE AT A PREMIUM, TRY A MINI-TRIPOD
The Berlebach Mini-Leveling Wood Tripod not only is sturdy, but it’s also a beautiful work of high craftsmanship made from ash. This support has a high load capacity and can get your camera down to four inches above the ground with a maximum height of 15 inches. Wood offers very high vibration dampening for sharper pictures. The tripod weighs 1.98 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $300.
The Joby Gorillapod SLR-Zoom is probably one of the more unique supports on the market. This compact tripod features multiple jointed legs that allow them to bend and rotate so the unit can wrap around a tree branch, a signpost or other readily available supports. This unit can hold cameras up to 6.5 pounds and weighs less than half a pound. Estimated Street Price: $49.
Slik makes a whole range of solid tripods, including the Sprint Mini II GM, a remarkable mini-tripod that collapses to 14 inches, weighs 1.6 pounds, yet can extend to 43 inches. The tripod allows you to position your camera just 6.4 inches above ground, and if you’re ambitious, you can invert the center column for lower-angle shooting. Estim
ated Street Price: $80.
MONOPODS: MONOPODS MAKE IT EASY TO LITERALLY SHOOT AND RUN
The Monostat-RS monopods come in carbon-fiber and aluminum alloy. They include a unique foot stabilizer called the Swivel Toe Stabilizer that allows you to tilt the monopod away from vertical and still keep a solid grip on the ground. The RS16K ART aluminum unit extends to 62.2 inches, collapses to 20.5 inches and weighs about 1.4 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $175.
Sunpak offers both tripods and monopods. The PRO 724M support is a four-section, carbon-fiber monopod that extends to 63 inches and collapses to 19 inches. It weighs 1.1 pounds. A neoprene foam grip on the upper-leg section makes the unit easier to handle in extreme weather. Estimated Street Price: $75.
The BushHawk 320D is a shoulder mount that’s great for helping steady a telephoto lens. The unit comes with a double-handed grip to make it easier to support the camera while following action. It’s even excellent for getting steadier video shots while also following action. Estimated Street Price: $250.
The VariZoom FlowPod is highly adapted to work with both stills and video shot with a DSLR. It looks like a monopod and can be used as a monopod. However, it includes a stabilizer mode with a unique handle that allows you to shoot video and “float” the camera while moving. This allows for very steady moving shots. The unit has a low mode that enables ground-level moving shots. Estimated Street Price: $399.
BALLHEADS: QUICK & EASY ADJUSTMENT WITH SINGLE-LOCK CONTROL
The Kirk Enterprises BH-3 panning ballhead weighs 19 ounces, yet supports up to 15 pounds. This support uses a single large knob to release and lock the ball. A small knob controls the panning or turning of the base and another small knob adjusts friction on the ball itself. The unit’s quick-release platform has sensor centerlines, a built-in spirit level and accepts Arca-Swiss-style plates and mounts. Estimated Street Price: $275.
REALLY RIGHT STUFF
The Really Right Stuff BH-40 ballhead is a compact and adaptable support. It can be configured with quick-release clamps, a simple tripod screw platform or a panning clamp. This support uses a lever to release and lock the ball. Small knobs also control the panning of the base and ball friction. It weighs 13 ounces, yet it supports up to 18 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $375 (with quick-release clamp).
A video head has technology that dampens movement of a camera and allows the camera to pan or tilt smoothly without bumps or wiggles. This is typically done with what’s called a fluid head. Such a head uses fluids and hydraulics to reduce random movement of the camera.
Low-priced video heads are simple fluid heads. More expensive heads can give you amazingly smooth movement of the camera, plus they often have additional features such as easily adjusted resistance (which makes for smoother movement) and the ability to balance the camera better on the head. Many tripod manufacturers also make video heads.
In addition to a range of tripods, Daiwa makes video heads for everything from small DSLRs to broadcast cameras. The DST-33 packages a compact, all-metal fluid head with a lightweight, metal video tripod. The head includes a long, quick-release plate for balancing the camera, and the tripod uses a 60mm ball leveler in order to quickly and easily level the camera and head (very important for level panning). At press time, the DST-33 was scheduled to be discontinued but remains available. Its successor, the DST-43, is coming soon and will feature comparable specs. Estimated Street Price: $400.
Manfrotto announced a new video head this spring that’s designed specifically for shooting video with DSLRs. The 504HD head has a unique bridge design that improves the head’s rigidity. It includes a pan fluid drag system, a four-step counter-balance system and a ball-bearing drag system for controlling movement. Estimated Street Price: $400.