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How to Choose a Tripod for Your DSLR

There are tons of options out there when it comes to tripods. Too many options, I say. The product lines are cluttered and confusing. It's so cluttered that even I have a hard time narrowing down tripods when someone asks me for a recommendation. I tried my best in my post "Recommended Tripods (Part 1: Aluminum)" and there will be a part 2 and probably part 3, but I think it'll be more effective if I give my advice on how to choose a tripod based on what features and options to look for  rather than try to narrow down very specific models. So let's look at some of the most important criteria when shopping for a tripod:

Gitzo tripodMaterial:

Tripods can be made of different material. The two most common are carbon fiber and aluminum. Carbon fiber is lighter weight and much more expensive than aluminum. Don't bother with basalt or wood tripods.

Weight: 

If you're planning on doing backpacking or international travel where weight is definitely a concern, go with a lightweight carbon fiber. If you'll be shooting within a couple miles of a car or tour bus, weight isn't as big of a concern and aluminum will probably be fine. And keep in mind that if your tripod is ultra lightweight, that can equate to less stability. Make sure it has a hook on it that allows you to hang some weight off the bottom for more stability.

Maximum Load Capacity:

This is how much weight the tripod can carry. Unless you're using those huge 15+ pound lenses you see on the sidelines of sporting events, don't worry too much about this specification. Most tripods over $100 can handle your typical DSLR just fine. Make sure the maximum load capacity is at least 7 lbs or so.

Maximum Height:

Check out the specifications for the maximum height of the tripod. Two heights will usually be listed - the maximum height without the center column extended and the height with the center column extended. Disregard the maximum height of the tripod with the center column extended. You shouldn't extend the center column of the tripod unless absolutely necessary because it greatly reduces stability. If weight and folded size aren't a huge issue, try to find a tripod with a maximum height (without the center column extended) not much shorter than 8" below your eye level. It's a drag being hunched over a 3-foot tall tripod all sunset long. But if you're doing a lot of travel and you need something that folds up small, you'll probably need to sacrifice maximum height a bit. Although the bad back from being hunched over a short tripod may about match the bad back from carrying a taller, heavier tripod.

Manfrotto TripodMinimum Height:

If you plan on shooting low to the ground for macro work, get a tripod that can shoot from a few inches off the ground.

Tripod Head:

I could (and probably will) write an entire blog post on tripod heads. For now I'll keep it simple. You have 2 basic options: ball heads and pan/tilt heads. Ball heads consist of a ball in a socket which has full range of motion with the flick of a single knob. Pan/tilt heads have 3 separate knobs for each motion - panning, tilting, and leveling. Pan/tilt heads are slower than ball heads because you have to loosen 3 knobs for a full range of motion versus one on a ball head. But the nice thing about pan/tilt heads is that you can level the camera or pan it side to side or tilt it forward without messing up any of the other adjustments. It makes leveling a horizon much easier. I personally prefer ball heads because of their speed and I think most people prefer them unless they have some specific reason to use a pan/tilt head. But whatever the case, you can either buy a tripod that includes the head and legs, or you can buy the head separate from the legs. And if you like your tripod legs but you grow tired of the head down the road, don't worry. You can switch out the head and legs on any decent tripod. You can mix and match brands, too. Oh, and don't get a fluid head. Those are for video.

Leg Locks:

The tripod leg locks are what secure the telescoping sections on each leg. There are 3 different types of leg locks - butterfly knob locks, flip locks, and rotating grip locks. The butterfly knob locks, like on this tripod, are slow and annoying. Don't bother if the tripod has these locks. But the good news is that manufacturers know they are a hassle, so very few tripods have them. Flip locks are ultra fast and are the most common on tripods. As the name implies, they consist of a little flip lever that with one flick of the hand unlocks the telescoping legs. Here's an example of a tripod with flip leg locks. Almost as common as flip leg locks are rotating grip locks. They consist of a rubber-gripped collar around the tripod leg that rotates to loosen the telescoping legs, like on this tripod. They are not quite as fast as flip locks but they are close. Rotating grip locks are nice, though, because there is no flip lock to snag on anything and there are no steel parts in the lock itself. Flip locks have bolts and screws that rust (especially bad at the beach). Rotating grip locks are just anodized aluminum and rubber. That's why high-end tripods like Gitzo tripods use rotating grip locks. Less moving parts and less metal means less breakdown. I prefer rotating leg locks for extreme environments, but I like flip locks for the speed.

Folded Length:

The folded length of the tripod is especially important for air travel. Will you need to pack it in a small suitcase? Do you want to try to fit it into a backpack? If you want something ultra compact, check out the line of travel tripods from companies like Gitzo and Feisol. Their legs usually fold up in the opposite direction to save a few inches on the folded length. Kind of cool.

Brands:

There are so many brands out there now. I haven't used all of them, so I can't comment on the quality of each. But you can get good quality from almost every manufacturer now. Very trustworthy brands are Manfrotto and Gitzo. Gitzo makes the best and most expensive tripods on the market. They are overkill for most people. I had a bad experience with Giottos once, but I saw a tripod from them recently and the quality seemed to be better. Feisol (I think) has good stuff. Slik tripods are great, especially for the money, but they aren't quite as rust-resistant as Manfrotto. Stay away from Sunpak or anything sold at Best Buy.

Price:

Price is easy. Just buy within your budget and realize that you get what you pay for. Tripods run from $30 to well over $1000. The more expensive ones will usually last longer, stand up to rough conditions better, and they should certainly be more stable. If you have GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), you have money to burn, and/or you absolutely must have the very best tripod available because your photos and your $3000 camera are only worthy of the very best 3 sticks on the market, then go for the thousand-dollar tripods. But be smart and buy something that makes sense for how serious you plan on getting with photography. A tripod in the neighborhood of $400-$500 would be a very sufficient tripod for even the most serious shooters. Most would be more than happy with something around $300-$400. More expensive tripods usually just make setting up a shot slightly less of a hassle and/or they allow higher vantage points. Gitzo tripods are some of the best on the market, but I would bet that for at least 75% of the people who have them, it's just a form of peacocking (showing off). So buy within your budget. Simple as that.