Tripods: What they are for, and how to get a good one.

I’ve said before in my posts on monopods that tripods are specialized tools for a specific purpose. Most new photographers that get them do so because they think they should own one. You can get more out of a monopod for less money.

That said, tripods are very good at two things (plus one):

They hold your camera in a very precise location, or series of locations along an axis. This is useful if you are shooting product photography (note to self: write a post on how to pull off a large-scale product shoot) or panoramas.

They hold it in one place, indefinitely. This is handy if you are shooting a long exposure, time lapses, or multiple exposures on a single frame.

Bonus: Mount a light to one for an easy kick light. Umbrella flash brackets come with a cold shoe for your flashes, right? Well, that cold shoe mounts to your tripod base plate. Now you’ve got an extra, low light stand.

If you decide that these activities are worth it, here’s what you look for in a tripod purchase.

Head and legs are separate purchases. Good tripod legs come alone, separate from the head, allowing you to get the best possible head with the best possible legs. Today, I’ll say that I definitely prefer Pan heads. We will focus on legs for the rest of this post, and I will cover heads more clearly, later.

Strong, sturdy construction is the most important thing to look for. Don’t get a cheap tripod. Just. Plain. Don’t. Bad tripods are flimsy, wobbly, loose and don’t last long. Trust me. Most new photographers own two of these things and they are garbage. You are looking for graphite or steel construction. Graphite is strong, lightweight and expensive. Steel is strong, heavy, and cheaper. Look at the leg joints. Are they sturdy? Can you tighten them manually if (when!) they start to slip? Plastic joints are sometimes okay as long as they are thick, heavy and sturdy. Stand it up. Bump it. Does it wobble? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Keep that in mind.

Versatility means long-term value. Do the legs click out to allow them to sit long, low and wide? Does the column post go in more than one direction? Get a tripod that gives you plenty of angles to work with, so you’ll never have to wish it did later. Buy something good, once, and you won’t have to rebuy it later. (Note to self: That’s a good idea for a future blog post.)

So, get something sturdy, versatile and specific. Personally, I use the Manfrotto 190XPROBX legs, and they are an absolute dream. It’s sturdy, even at full height, and does not wobble. I can hang a weight down between the legs for even more stability, and the post column pops out and locks in a variety of different directions. It is about $140 on ebay. Soon, I will talk about tripod heads (which are also monopod heads, remember!), and how different head types favor different shooting styles.

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