Choosing the right tripod the first time
This article is a response to the regular questions I receive about choosing the right tripod. All too often I see landscape photographers spending huge amounts of money for the newest camera body or lens, and then mounting thousands of dollars worth of new gear on top of a cheap crappy tripod. No amount of money spent on the best glass and highest resolution camera will improve your photos if the camera isn’t mounted on a stable platform. While not as sexy as a new camera/lens, as a landscape photographer without a doubt the best money you can spend on gear to improve the quality of your photos is to upgrade your tripod system. Any camera/lens made in the last 5 to 7 years when used properly is more than up to the task of producing gorgeous high-quality prints when stopped down and shot at low ISO’s. But to do this you need an easy-to-use rock-solid platform that eliminates all camera vibrations.
The most important part of a tripod is that you use it… if a tripod is too short, a pain to use, or isn’t solid it tends to be ignored and lives in the trunk rather than under your camera. This article is meant to help you improve your photography as well as hopefully save you some money along the way. Typically, there are three levels of tripods that people go through on their way to finally getting the right one for the job. My hope is to help you skip steps one and two and help you choose the right tripod the first time.
Step One: Most photographers start with a cheap plastic video tripod that either came with their camera in a package or was under $50 at any electronic store (Amazon even sells one for $20). While cheap, these tripods are nearly useless and even more frustrating. In addition to being incredibly unstable and prone to vibrations, these tripods are a pain to work with because once you let go of the camera after framing the camera always settles and your composition changes. Talk about a slow and frustrating process trying to get your composition just right when the tripod doesn’t hold your camera where you put it. After a few times using this tripod most photographers either give up on using a tripod entirely, or decide they need to upgrade to level two.
Step Two: After being frustrated with their first tripod most photographers upgrade to something in the $150-300 price range. This is a major step up in terms of stability and reliability but often is too short and still very difficult to use, not to mention heavy. Most tripods in this range come with an included ball head which while a major improvement over the cheaper video tripod, but still have lots of play in it when trying to frame an exact composing. Between a tripod head that is frustrating, and heavy legs that are difficult to use, photographers again often choose to skip using their tripod all together. Thus, eliminating the advantages of a tripod in terms of increased image sharpness, as well as the ability to shoot long exposures, or greater depth of fields needed for tack sharp landscape images.
Step Three: This is the spot most serious photographers end up at after first spending money at the previous two levels. I don’t think I know a photographer who doesn’t have a at least one dust covered cheap tripod sitting in their attic some place that turned out to have been a waste of money. Save yourself some money and go straight to level three. Unfortunately, at level three you are talking about spending some serious money, as much as $500-1000 on a quality set of tripod legs that will last a lifetime. Notice I said legs… Typically, at the higher end you will buy legs and heads separately to choose exactly what works best for your needs. Are you someone who is super tall, and wants to shoot huge f4 prime lenses, or someone shorter who never plans on owning a lens larger than a 24-105mm?
The first step in choosing your level three or lifetime tripod friend is to determine how much weight it needs to support. Any tripod worth its salt will have a suggested weight limit listed, and you will want to make sure your planned setup is well under that weight limit. Unless you plan to shoot big wildlife lenses, most landscape photographers will probably max out at a 100-400mm type lens. After figuring out your weight requirements, your next step is figuring you’re your max height requirements (without a center column). Here is where us tall photographers suffer because your lifetime tripod should be at least eye level without the need for a center column. You don’t want to have to bend your back/neck all day to look through the camera when it is mounted on the tripod. Many photographers choose tripods without center columns because they only introduce instability once extended, and not having center column also allows the tripod to get closer to the ground more easily. Some photographers even go so far as to choose tripods that are taller than eye level without a center column because it makes working on slopes easier.
The downfall of a taller tripod is that it is heavier and doesn’t pack down as small due to longer leg sections. Again, shorter photographers have the advantage here because they can work with a shorter, lighter, and smaller tripod. One of the ways to counter these size and weight penalties is to get a 4-section carbon fiber tripod rather than an often cheaper longer 3-section tripod. Remember if you plan to travel, a tripod that packs down shorter is easier to fit in a checked bag. Speaking of carbon fiber… At this point probably all the tripods you would consider in this range will be carbon fiber, which while expensive is lighter, and dampens vibration better than traditional aluminum tripods.
Once you have chosen your tripod legs, you can focus on getting a tripod head that best meets your needs. Again, you get what you pay for in this realm, with quality heads ranging from $200-500. For most photographers this will be a ball head of some sort with an arca-swiss style mounting plate. The Arca-swiss mounting system is the industry standard and I wouldn’t consider any head that doesn’t use this system. Again, estimate your maximum camera/lens weight and make sure you are well within the listed weight limit of your chosen head. For most photographers not using a huge wildlife lens, it will likely be a mid-weight ball head with a quick release arca-swiss system. The last step in this process is to invest in arca-swiss plates for each lens/camera. Often seemingly overpriced for just little piece of metal, these plates are well worth the cost as the final step of the puzzle. Don’t skimp on your camera mount either. Get a dedicated custom L-bracket for your specific camera, which allows the camera to be mounted in vertical position on the tripod without having to use the ball head on its side. Making shooting verticals as easy as landscape images. A true game changer!
There you have it. You have now either bought three or more tripods along the way, or just went for quality at the start and saved yourself money and frustration by buying the right tripod the first time. So, what are my recommendations… while there are many great bargain tripod brands on the market today with growing reputations, as a professional there are only two brands I would consider when buying a tripod, Gitzo or Really Right Stuff. While both are expensive, I believe Gitzo is a better value and has been making quality tripods for decades with a loyal following among professionals. In fact, my mentor has used his old aluminum Gitzo tripod for more than 30 years and it is still going strong. You can’t go wrong with either brand as they are both built to last a lifetime. When it comes to tripods and ball heads you get what you pay for. As far as ball heads again there are bargain brands, but the two leading companies are Kirk Enterprises and Really Right Stuff.
While I hesitate to say the setup I have is perfect for everyone’s needs, I personally own three Gitzo tripods with Really Right Stuff heads in different sizes and have been using them successfully for many years. The current version of my smallest waste tall tripod is the Gitzo GT0542 which when matched with the small Really Right Stuff BH-25 head weighing just over two pounds and is perfect for backpacking or world travel. This was the first Gitzo I bought, and while short it has paid for itself many times over in the backcountry where it’s mixture of stability and weight savings means I can carry it on every trip. My second and most often used tripod is my mid weight Gitzo GT1542 paired with a Really Right Stuff BH-40 head. This tripod is my all arounder which works well for nearly every type of shooting, and lens. To me it is the perfect balance of enough height and stability, while still being quite portable and easy to pack, this tripod is what I take on nearly every trip unless I’ll be using huge lenses. The current version of my third tripod is the huge Gitzo GT3543LS paired with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 head. Rock solid and tall, originally this was my go-to everyday tripod. But as lenses have gotten smaller, and I don’t own a big 500mm f/4 lens any more this tripod doesn’t come out as often as it once did. When I know I’ll be standing all day shooting wildlife I still choose this tripod due to its extra height, but for landscape shooting I usually choose the mid-weight tripod because it is so much more portable. For landscape shooting I tend to compose on the back of the camera rather than through the viewfinder, so a slightly shorter tripod is less of a deal breaker.
As with any big photo related purchase it pays to take your time and do your research. While I don’t pretend to know the perfect tripod fit for everyone, I can only recommend those products I use myself. Hopefully this article helps you narrow down your decision process, and if one of the tripods/heads mentioned is a good fit for you I would appreciate you taking the time to use one of the links supplied as every little bit helps.