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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.

DIY: Tripod Snow/Sand Shoes

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

I shoot at the beach quite often, so my tripod sees a lot of sand. The sand and salt water ain't no big deal because I always clean my tripod after a trip to the coast, but one thing that drives me nuts is when my tripod sinks in the sand as the tide washes in and out around it. Whenever the waves swirl around those legs, the thing just starts sinking like Indiana Jones in quicksand. And since I use long shutter speeds quite often when shooting seascapes, this phenomenon has forced me to stick to rocky areas or timing my shots to finish before the water reaches me.

So I had the brilliant idea (after years of putting up with this problem) to steal the brilliant idea of other photographers and utilize some "snow shoes" to prevent the sinkage. I haven't had a chance to try them out yet, but the concept is solid - give the tripod legs a wider foot, and hopefully the water will be able to swirl around them all sunset long without the quicksand effect. To be honest, I'm skeptical and my hopes aren't high, but we'll see.

Being the DIY kind of guy I am, I thought I'd make my own. With $30 or so worth of materials, you can make your own, too. But if you're smart, you'll just buy these ready-made ones by Manfrotto. And wouldn't you know it, they're about $30. My home made ones may not be cheaper, but at least they're uglier. Wait...aw, man. But mine do secure higher up on the legs, so maybe they're more secure. But probably not...

Anyway, here's what you'll need

  • 3x adjustable flag pole brackets - like these
  • 1x package of furniture sliders - like these
  • 1x washing machine & dishwasher hose 1.75"x7/8"x2' (not like what you think, see the pictures below)
  • 12x machine screws 3/4" long with nuts
  • Sharpie
  • Awl

Step 1: Remove the foam padding from the furniture sliders

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

Step 2: Set the flag pole bracket on the upside-down furniture slider and mark the screw hole openings with a Sharpie

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

Step 3: Poke holes through each Sharpie marking with an awl

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

Step 4: Attach the flag pole bracket to the furniture slider with screws and nuts

Step 5: Cut a piece of the rubber hose to slide into the flag pole bracket - make it just long enough to stick out about 1/2"

This little length of rubber hose protects your tripod legs, fills the gap in the flag bracket for a tight fit, and gives something for the tightening screw to brace against. Make sure the rubber hose can fit over your tripod legs before buying it. If your tripod legs are thicker than mine, you may not need it at all.

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

Step 6: Repeat 2 more times

DIY Tripod Snow Shoes

So there you go. Now you have 3 adjustable tripod all-terrain shoes. Use the screw on the side of the flag pole bracket to tighten the shoe to the tripod. And don't worry about scuffing up your tripod because the rubber tube inside provides more than enough protection.

Enjoy your ugly, DIY, may-or-may-not-be-as-good-as-the-real-thing tripod shoes!

Recommended Tripods (Part 1: Aluminum)

As a landscape photographer, I love tripods. My tripod is my right-hand-man. Aside from carrying the weight of the camera and stabilizing it for tack-sharp images, a tripod allows me to get real careful with my composition. A hair this way to remove that branch, a nudge down to get the horizon in the right place...a tripod makes it possible.

There are tons of tripods to choose from out there. Even compared to camera bags, I think the world of tripods has more brands, options and variations than anything else in photography. It can be a lot to sift through, so I thought I'd help you out by recommending a few tripods.

I'm only recommending 3 tripods in this post - one around $100, another around $150 and another at $250. I'm sure there are many other great tripods out there at these price points, but the ones I'm recommending here are brands I've used and trust. And it seems there's a big price jump after $250. Once you get above that, you are pretty much buying the tripod legs and head separately, and things can get pricey that way (my tripod, for instance, cost about $1500). All of the tripods here feature a quick release system for rapid connection and removal of your camera, flip-lever locks for quick extension, multi-angle leg positions for uneven terrain, and a rapid center column for easy height adjustments. Also, these tripods are made of aluminum. I'm going to have to devote another post entirely to carbon fiber tripod recommendations, but those put you into a different price range altogether.

Around $100
Slik Pro 340DX Tripod with 3-Way Pan/Tilt Head (buy - $100)

Tripods under $100 are pretty much useless. They are about as stable as a soggy cardboard box. Those Sunpak ones they sell at Best Buy for $30...don't bother. You're better off handholding the camera than using one of those. But if you're willing to fork over $100 for a tripod, this Slik Pro 340DX is a great choice. The maximum height without the center column extended is 45.7" and with the center column extended, it's 57.9". It's pretty lightweight at 3.5 lbs and folds to a mere 19.3", which makes it easy to travel with. It won't handle weight loads over 8.8 lbs, but it's unlikely the average user would hit that limit anyway. This tripod has a 3-way pan/tilt head, which means you have separate knobs to control tilt, roll and panning. This makes them slower to adjust than a ballhead, but at this price point, that's what you get. Overall, this tripod is a really great value for the money.

Around $150
Manfrotto 293 Tripod with 494RC2 Ball Head (buy - $160)

Manfrotto is a very reputable brand that's been around for a long time and makes some of the best tripods on the market. You can't go wrong with them. This Manfrotto 293 tripod with a 494RC2 Ball Head provides a lot of bang for your buck. At 3.97 lbs, it's not as lightweight as the Slik covered previously, but the extra 5" in height make up for it. That's an extra 5" in height without the center column extended (50.6" in all). With the center column extended, it's only a fraction of an inch taller. But what really matters is the maximum height without the center column extended, because the more you extend that center column, the shakier things get. This tripod also folds down small to 20.7" and can handle a load of 8.8 lbs. But the biggest factor that sets this tripod apart from the Slik and makes the extra $60 entirely worth it is that this tripod features a ballhead instead of a pan/tilt head. This means you have a single knob to unlock and lock the tripod head. No more fiddling with 3 separate knobs to position your camera. Just flip the lever, position your camera, and lock it down.

Around $250
Manfrotto 055XB Tripod with 498RC2 Midi Ball Head (buy - $243)

This Manfrotto has many of the same benefits as the previous Manfrotto discussed including a ballhead, but this one is just a beefier, taller version. It's maximum height without the center column extended is 54.1" (70.3" with the column extended) and it can handle a load of 15.4 lbs. It's quite a bit heavier at 6.34 lbs and quite a bit longer when folded down at 28.92". But a nice feature on this tripod is its minimum height of 2.8". That means you can shoot from just a few inches above ground level if your heart desires. The previous Manfrotto and Slik tripods could only get down to 15" and 18" respectively. I wouldn't say that's a major selling point, though, unless you do a lot of macro work, because how often will you actually need to get that low to the ground? But I'd go with this tripod if you want the extra height and the extra stability of a higher maximum load. Just make sure you're willing to carry around 6.34 lbs of aluminum, otherwise you'll never end up using it.