Choosing a tripod is very personal because it needs to be sized to your height, handle your camera/lens/ancillary mounted equipment weight, and the length (focal length) of the longest lens you will use with it. I think it’s obvious how your height and the camera’s weight come into play, but perhaps not why the length (focal length) of the lens is important.
Lens length is important for two reasons. First, the longer the focal length of the lens, the higher the magnification. The more magnification the lens provides, the more any shake or vibration of the lens will cause your photograph to be blurred. Second, the longer the focal length of the lens, the longer the lens will generally be. The weight of the lens extending well past the central axis of the tripod will torque the tripod legs while the tripod is supporting the camera/lens.
A tripod holding a lens with high magnification, and torqued must have sufficient structural strength to prevent image blurring due to movement cause by outside forces such as ground vibration, wind, the camera’s mechanical actions, or human touch.
When we are talking about tripods, we are really talking about 4 distinct pieces which make up the total tripod.
- Tripod legs which support everything else.
- Tripod head which permits the camera/lens to be moved to compose the photograph.
- Tripod head clamp which is used to attach the camera or lens to the tripod head. ¹,²
- Camera or lens plate, which is held directly by the tripod head clamp. ¹,²
² When using longer lens with a camera you generally attach the lens directly to the tripod head, rather than the camera.
Use the following criteria when choosing a tripod:
- Height: Ideally the height of your tripod’s platform holding your camera should be at least as high as your eye level with the legs open at their smallest setting angle. Outside you often need one or two legs set at a level lower than where you are standing which makes the tripod feels shorter than it is. Therefore it’s better to have a little extra leg length than not. Remember that the head atop your legs on which the camera/lens will sit will add some inches to the height of the tripod’s legs. This is especially important for travelers as it can reduce the leg length you need for your tripod, which can reduce its weight. Plus, in my opinion you don't want to use the center column to bring your viewfinder to eye level. (If at all possible you shouldn’t use the center column as when up it adds instability to the tripod.
- Center Column: Many quality tripods have a reversible and removable center column which can help you get a low angle, macro, and close to the ground shot. Some swear the capability to set the center column horizontally is great, but I’ve never thought much of it. There are both smooth and geared columns. I prefer smooth.
- Leg Spread: The best tripod legs are unbraced with independent multiple angle positioning to work on uneven terrain, and allow the tripod to get low to the ground for such shots as macros of flowers and insects.
- Leg Composition: Carbon-fiber offers the greatest weight to stability ratio, and is easier to hold in cold weather than aluminum. Unfortunately, carbon-fiber comes at a cost, a significantly higher cost. If you can afford it, you won't regret purchasing carbon-fiber tripod legs. Carbon-fiber can make your tripod legs truly “travel light,” yet strong.
- Weight: If you’re carrying around a tripod while you’re on your feet all day, your tripod can’t be light enough. My travel tripod (legs) weighs 3 lbs. It’s ball head, with clamp weighs another 18 oz. The legs are carbon-fiber.
- Folded Size: Ordinarily, most people don’t care about the length of a tripod when folded, but this is very important for travel tripods. You want it to fit in your airplane carry-on if at all possible, otherwise you’ll have to pack it in your checked luggage. My travel tripod closes to just 16.75 inches.
- Leg Diameter: You need a diameter which enables the tripod to carry the necessary weight, and resist torque, to be a solid and steady platform for your camera/lens. Many tripods, while being able to withstand the weight, can’t resist the torque, and so still shake and vibrate when used.
- Head: In my opinion, for most still photography, the best and most versatile head to use is ball head, but there are many brands and choices. To help narrow your choices down next week in my third and final article of the series I will tell you which brands I prefer.
- Clamp: There is no better clamp to attach your camera/lens to your ball head than the Arca-Swiss style clamp. It allows quick attachment and detachment, and provides a solid, secure base for your camera/lens. I use one myself, with a quick-release lever.
- Camera/Lens Plate: There are two basic styles of plates which bolt to your camera, to attach it to an Arca-Swiss style clamp; straight, and “L.” I prefer the “L” plate for my camera, as it allows me to quickly switch between horizontal and vertical orientation, and keeps the weight of the camera/lens directly over the central axis of the head, maintaining maximum stability. A flat plate requires the camera be flopped to the side, placing the camera/lens weight to the side of the head instead of over it.
Next week, I’ll discuss real world examples of tripods and tripod heads, clamps, plates, and explain how to use the criteria to choose a travel tripod. I’ll warn you up front, choosing a travel tripod, at this time, requires compromises, especially if you want to use a long lens on your camera.