how do I choose a tripod?

The first thing you need to realize about tripods is that they can be surprisingly expensive, which leads many people to be extremely partisan about what thry buy: they have a lot invested in their choice, both financially and emotionally. This alone guarantees that discussions about tripods often generate more heat than light.

The second point is that the tripod you take out and use is much better than the one you leave at home because it is too heavy, too bulky, too awkward or otherwise too much trouble. Be wary, therefore, of those who point you in the direction of massive, heavy tripods because 'nothing else is worth having'.

The third point is that your tripod needs will vary enormously according to what sort of camera you use and what kind of photography you favour.

Fourth, tripod heads are (or should be) a separate area of investigation, which is why there's a separate 'how do I...?' about choosing tripod heads.

With all this in mind, it's time to start considering your personal needs -- not the needs, preconceptions and nigh-religious beliefs of the people who are giving you advice.

weight carrying ability

This is often the first concern of the novice tripod buyer: will it support their camera?

The simple truth is that almost any reasonably substantial tripod will support almost any reasonably sized camera. Small, cheap, light tripods may be too small and flimsy to support heavy cameras (or even 35mm cameras with heavy lenses attached), but any new tripod that costs much under about sixty quid, seventy-five euros or a hundred bucks should be viewed with suspicion anyway.

Of course if you are using a heavy large format camera you may have more occasion to worry, but even then, the real concern is much more likely to be our next heading:

vibration damping

The idea that a tripod might collapse under the weight of your camera is generally far less important than the likelihood that even if a tripod can support your camera with ease, it may be far too insubstantial to stop it vibrating.

The classic test for vibration is to put the camera on the tripod; tap it sharply; and see how long it takes to stop vibrating. A perfect tripod will not let the camera vibrate at all, but to be honest, anything under about a second is likely to be close enough for perfection for most purposes. A tripod that vibrates for a few seconds is likely to be acceptable if your priorities are saving weight, bulk or cost, but anything that vibrates for more than four or five seconds is not really up to holding the camera on top of it.

Remember too that a tripod which is fine for a light camera with a lens of modest focal length may be unacceptable if you commonly use long telephoto lenses (especially long, heavy telephoto lenses), and it may be marginal or unacceptable with a heavier camera.

On the other hand, some tripods (especially the old-fashioned wooden 'crutch' style) may actually be more stable with a heavier camera, which compresses all the joints and takes up any slack in the tripod. Also, by adding to the mass, it makes the tripod harder to move.

weighting the tripod

This leads to the old trick of hanging a bag of rocks under the tripod -- use a plastic carrier bag or a string bag -- but if you do, there are two things to watch out for. First, make sure the bag is dragging very slightly on the ground, because if it swings, it will almost certainly detract from stability. Second, on a windy day, watch out for 'buzzing' as the wind whistles through the upper part of the damper.

centre columns (i)

Centre columns are one of the most fruitful sources of undamped vibration, and although they are extremely convenient, if you want maximum stability, do not use them on any but the most solidly built tripods. Indeed, two of our favourite tripods do not have centre columns.

materials

Some materials inherently absorb vibration better than others. Most people agree that wood is the 'deadest' material, followed by carbon fibre, followed by light alloy, followed by steel. On the other hand, an immense amount depends on how these materials are used: the shape of the leg section, the nature of the leg locks, the design of the tripod boss (the bit at the top where the legs are attached) and the tripod head used.

height

There is rarely any great advantage in a tripod that can hold the camera much higher than your eye-level. When calculating this, remember to allow for the viewfinder. The viewing screen on a Hasselblad or Rolleiflex can with advantage be as much as a foot/30cm below your eye level; the eyepiece on many 35mm cameras is a good 4 inches/10cm above the platform of the tripod.

Smaller tripods may also be made lighter and more stable than bigger ones. One of our favourite tripods comes up at most to chest height for Roger, and weighs only 1 kg/2.2 lb -- but it works fine with light 4x5 inch cameras.

centre columns (ii)

Once again, centre columns add height -- but at a price. Any centre column will add weight to a tripod, and a centre column on an ultra-light tripod needs to be well designed and well made if it is to be more of an asset than a liability.

weight

You can completely obviate vibration by bolting the camera to a big enough slab of concrete, but few photographers feel like carrying half a ton of concrete with them. The lighter the tripod, the better designed and better made it must be to compensate for the reduced mass. This is very much one of the things you pay for when you buy a high quality, light tripod -- and it is why cheap, light tripods are rarely worth the paper-thin metal they are made of. Our lightweight 35mm tripods, from Velbon and Slik, cost over $100 US each, maybe three to five times the cost of superficially similar cheap lightweights.

A tripod weighing under 1 kg, 2.2 lb., is unlikely to be much use but there is rarely much sense in buying one that weighs over about 5 kg, 11 lb., unless you have a very heavy large format camera. In general, the range of 2 to 4 kg, 4.4 to 8.8 lb., should cover the great majority of needs.

centre columns (iii)

Geared centre columns are much more common on cheap tripods than on expensive ones -- but the only ones worth having are on the expensive cameras. Cheap geared centre columns add more weight than plain sliding columns, but rattle and vibrate more.

compactness when collapsed

This matters more if you fly or ride a motorcycle, or use any other form of transport where space is at a premium, than if you drive or walk.

The fewer the number of leg sections for a given maximum height, the lighter a tripod can be; the quicker it can be to operate; and the more stable it is likely to be. But it may be a pig to pack.

In general, three sections represents an ideal compromise but 2 sections and 4 sections also have their place: 5 is usually too many unless the tripod is very well made.

speed and ease of operation

This is partly related to the question of compactness, above, but there are other considerations as well, especially when it comes to leg locks, of which there are essentially four styles.

The simplest variety is the screw clamp, where a screw is tightened directly against the leg, usually with some form of washer or plate to spread the load.

Almost as simple is the split-collar or pinch type, where the open end of a C-shaped collar is bridged by a screw. Tightening a wing-nut on the screw clamps the collar on the leg. Manfrotto is among many favouring this approach.

Collar-style locks, as used by (for example) Gitzo, use a tapered, split collar inside a ring concentric with the leg itself. As the outer ring is tightened, the collar is squeezed in and locks the leg. These are secure and compact but easy to overtighten to the point where they are very hard to undo. We find this particularly relevant when Roger tightens the collar and Frances tries to loosen it.

The fourth style, over-centre 'flip' locks, are the fastest to use but need to be very well made if they are not to wear out distressingly quickly. For this reason they are normally found only at the top of the market (e.g. Linhof), where they last half way to forever, and at the bottom where they seldom get enough use to wear out.

variable leg splay

Variable leg splay is very useful indeed, and is carried to extremes by the Benbo line of tripods, but it is slower to use than a fixed leg splay. The variable leg splay facility on some tripods also has a tendency to bite fingers,sometimes very painfully.

leg tips

It is very handy to have the choice of rubber tips, for indoors and shiny surfaces, and spiked metal tips for rough ground. One of our tripods has reversible legs to this end; others have spikes with rubber collars that can be screwed up or down; some compromise with plastic spikes, while Benbos have the added refinement of holes through the spikes so they can be linked with a length of cord or light chain..

cold hands

An aspect of tripod design that is not immediately obvious is that if you have to carry the tripod in cold weather, wood is much more pleasant to handle than icy-cold metal. Carbon fibre is somewere in between. Some people insulate their metal tripod legs with neoprene wraps but this does add to bulk and slightly to weight.

'reverse' and 'sealed' legs

If you use your tripod much in mud or water, you are likely to see a considerable advantage in 'reverse' legs. These have the thicker section on the bottom of the leg, rather than at the top, so as long as the water or much doesn't come over the top of the bottom leg section, you won't get mud or water in the leg when you collapse it again.

'Sealed' legs is usually used to describe 'reverse' legs but it can also be used to describe legs of the type found on our MPP. These fit into an upper 'crutch' style leg but are themselves fully sealed so that mud and water cannot get in.

levelling bowls and centre columns (iv)

A few tripods have levelling bowls, so that even if the tripod is set up on uneven ground, you don't have to spend time adjusting the legs individually to level the boss. On the other hand, you should need only to adjust one leg anyway, so the levelling bowl isn't necessarily as great an advantage as it looks and of course it adds weight. Our favourite tripod for 5x7 inch/13x18cm and 8x10 inch has a leveling bowl but no centre column.

A very few tripods allow the centre column to be levelled, after the fashion of a levelling bowl. The few we have seen with this feature have been very good quality, and it's certainly convenient, but once again it adds weight.

price

We apologize for leaving this so late, but by now it should be clear that the easiest way to get a new, solid, vibration-free tripod at a modest price is to buy one that is relatively simple or indeed crude: as few leg sections as possible, with sheer mass substituting for exotic materials or clever design.

If you want less weight, the price starts to go up. It's a bit like the old motor-racing equation: 'Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?' A carbon-fibre tripod with a magnesium alloy boss may weigh two-thirds as much as one made of conventional light alloys but cost two or three times as much.

We choose (and recommend) something in between, partly on the grounds of price but also because (in our own case) we know that we could probably lose the entire weight of any tripod under about 3 kg/7 lb. via a little dieting. This is a sobering thought.

Broadly, for a general-application tripod, we would as mentioned above expect to pay a minimum of around sixty pounds, 75 euros or $100. At the other end of the price spectrum, if you pay much more than about GBP 250, 350 euros, $400, you should expect something pretty special (usually, an unusually light but very rigid tripod with excellent vibration damping) or unusually big.

tripod heads

With smaller tripods this price may include the head, but with the bigger ones the head will normally be extra. Only a very few of the best tripods have fixed heads (except for cine tripods) and we are generally very suspicious of tripods with fixed heads.

buying second-hand

A good-quality tripod is astonishingly durable, and even one that looks badly knocked about can be every bit as functional as a new one. Used prices are rarely even half as much as a new tripod, and may be as low as ten per cent or less.

Even if they are damaged, some tripods may be worth restoring. Some are much easier to rebuild than others: Gitzos, for example, live up to their old slogan of 'concu a durer, pas a jeter' (built to last, not to throw away). And we have an old Gandolfi-built 'no-name' tripod that took half a day's cleaning, stripping and replacing of parts. We didn't mind, because it was free...

aesthetics

We have to confess that this had never really occurred to us until we noticed a thread on apug.org where one contributor said he preferred wooden tripods for wooden cameras and metal tripods for metal cameras. We consider that this is going a little far but it is true that some tripods not only look better than others: they also feel better, and we firmly believe that you get the best pictures with equipment you enjoy using.

the bottom line

By now it should be clear that there is no one 'best' tripod: it's always a compromise. Indeed, it's such a compromise that it probably makes sense to put together a collection of different tripods for different cameras and applications. Here's a list of the ten that we use most often, ranked in order of weight (lightest first). If ten tripods seems excessive remember that we've been doing this a long time (40 years in Roger's case); that some of them have been in use for a quarter of a century since they were bought new; that several were second hand; and that some were given to us for nothing.

Velbon Maxi/Slik Snapman: Light (1 kg including head), ideal for 35mm cameras unless you use very long lenses, adequate for medium format if you don't extend the centre column too much. We have both because we need one each. They are around $100 each: a bit over fifty quid, or eighty euros.

MPP: Long out of production (dates from the 1960s), light (1 kg without head), 2-section legs (wood upper, metal lower), no centre column, fine for almost all 35mm applications, and for medium format and all but heavy 4x5 inch. Has travelled thousands of miles on the back of the motorcycle. Cost Roger a tenner (15 euros, which didn't exist then, or about 18 dollars) in the 1970s.

Gitzo Reporter: One of the mid-weight ones (2 kg without head), application much the same as the MPP but collapses much smaller and has a centre column. Has seen hard use since being bought new in around 1980.

Benbo Trekker: The 'baby' Benbo, with sealed legs, fine for 35mm, just about adequate for light medium format, incredibly versatile variable leg splay. Weighs just under 2.5 kg with small ball and socket head. Moderate use since the mid 1990s.

Gibran: A stunningly beautiful tripod of utterly original design, and almost indestructible in normal use, especially when folded. The only tripod ever to feature in the Museum of Modern Art. Ideal for anything up to and including middleweight 4x5 inch. We were given this tripod by the manufacturer for review. The only thing that stops us using it more often is the weight, which is about 3 kg. Patented 1993; the manufacturer (CEC Consulting) seems now to have vanished.

Benbo: The original standard size one, heavy (around 3.5 kg) and bulky but extremely versatile. Bought new around 1980. Initially hard use, then less, since the 1980s.

C.T.M. No centre column; infinitely variable leg splay; 3-section legs (wood upper, two-section metal lower) up to around 6 feet (1.5 metres) maximum height; weighs about 4 kg (with head and levelling bowl); handles all but the heaviest 8x10 inch cameras. Cost us twenty-five quid (under 40 euros, a bit over $40 US) in the early 1990s. We had never heard of this manufacturer but it turns out that they are well known in the cine business and that the tripod in question is worth at least ten times what we paid for it!

Gandolfi: Ideal for most LF but is pushed to the limits of its endurance by 10 kg (22 lb) of 12x15 inch Gandolfi. Weighs about 6 kg. Geared centre column. Two-section legs. Free, as noted above.

Linhof: A monster at over 10 kg (including head) with a maximum height of over 2 metres/6 foot 8 inches. Three-section legs, all metal. Can support anything we own, including our huge 12x15 inch Gandolfi, very heavy 10x8 inch cameras, etc. It was expensive, even second-hand -- but then, it was over a thousand pounds new.

 

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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks