NOTE: Throughout this presentation I will mention tripods, camera supports and heads that I either currently own, have owned or have tested and reviewed. If you see it here, I can recommend it for various uses. Each recommendation will loosely note how I see that product fitting into a photographer's kit. Unless noted, all the tripods/camera supports I mention will require you to also purchase a head.
Fewer people use tripods than ever before. There are several reasons for that. Low-light camera performance has improved, image stabilization (both in camera and in lens) has become widely available and it is also improved. ISO ranges have become improved.
Oben CT-2381 Carbon Fiber Tripod - Great mid-range tripod for crop-sensor cameras/Micro Four Thirds shooters
Does that mean you don’t need a tripod? I think a strong argument can be made for owning (and using) a tripod for most people. In the kind of photography I do, it’s important if for no other reason than to rest the long, telephoto lenses I use.
Not only do I think you should own a tripod, I think tripods are like lenses. You probably wouldn’t think of just owning one lens. Neither would I consider owning just one tripod. I have always owned multiple tripods (or camera supports.)
Platypod Ultra Plate Camera Support - A great substitute for a tripod when you have to travel light.
Before I go on I do want to say that unique camera supports like the Platypod have caused me to re-think what I carry on most jobs. While I use the phrase “tripods” at the top of this article, I really mean any sort of camera support or stabilizer.
There are many advantages to shooting with a tripod that cannot be overlooked. I believe that owning a tripod may be the single best step you can take to make better photographs. A properly designed (and used) tripod provides the opportunity for sharper images than hand-held shooting does.
Vanguard Alta Pro 2+ 263AB100 Aluminum-Alloy Tripod Kit with Alta BH-100 Ball Head - a good low-priced choice for those who cannot afford carbon fibre.
Camera movement is one of the biggest reasons that people come up with out of focus pictures. When using slower shutter speeds, the slightest camera movement can cause anything from a completely out of focus, blurry photo to a slightly soft image. Camera shake can only be solved by one of two methods. Image stabilization can solve it – although not as reliably as the second way – using a tripod.
Another reason to use tripods is increased depth-of-field: When you want to work at smaller apertures, you’ll need to set longer shutter speeds. A tripod will help to hold the camera steady during longer exposures.
Additionally, tripods tend to slow you down a bit and might cause you to think; to be more deliberate and contemplative in your photography. That is where art happens.
Last but certainly not least for bird photographers, if you’re using a big, heavy, telephoto lens a tripod is a must, at least to rest your arms so they don’t get tired from a full day of shooting.
Here are some things you need to know when deciding which tripod to purchase.
Induro BHD2 Ball Head is a great mid-range priced ball head. It is Arca-Swiss compatible and is very sturdy. If you have a heavier camera you might need something beefier but most people reading this will not.
Tripods are measured by cost, weight, collapsed and extended height, overall size, load capacity, head type, feet, leg locks and other constriction materials. You need to know something about all of these concepts to pick the right tripod.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. You get what you pay for. The cheap tripod you buy at the corner drug store is always going to be a waste of time. You might as well save your money and go to a movie. Unlike today’s cameras, where just about anything that costs $500 or more will produce incredible results, there are indeed some very crappy tripods out there. My goal here is to give you the basics on what to look for and help you avoid making the mistake of buying one of those crappy tripods and instead, point you to one that you can count on and that will last.
You want a tripod that’s strong enough to easily support your camera/lens but not any heavier than you want to carry. Carbon fiber tripods offer the same strength as steel tripods but weigh much less. They also cost much more. You always want the beefiest tripod you can afford to buy and that you will carry. Period.
Joby Gorillapod SLR-Zoom Flexible Mini Tripod w/ BH1-01EN Ball Head - I've always had one of these laying around because you just never know when they will come in handy. Not for big cameras but for GoPros, compacts, etc. it's perfect.
Collapsed And Extended Height
Depending on the subjects you photograph, you may need to get a tall tripod that gets you a better angle. You also want to think about how many leg segments the tripod has. Think about all these things when you select a tripod.
This one is simple. Get a tripod that is tall enough for you to use. If you are seven feet tall, the typical five-foot-tall tripod won’t work for you. Likewise, unless you shoot from a ladder, there’s no need to buy a super tall tripod if you are never going to shoot from that height.
This is a very important statistic to pay attention to. Load capacity is the manufacturer’s rating for the tripod’s ability to carry (and appropriately support) a certain weight load. If you put a camera that’s heavier than the maximum load capacity on a tripod, you run the risk of a piece breaking or collapsing, causing damage to both the tripod and the camera. So, it’s important to know how much your camera weighs with its heaviest lens, and buy a tripod that will handle it.
Kirk Mini Table Top Tripod - Great little tripod for macro, or ground work - affordable but sturdy
Here’s a safe rule of thumb. If a tripod manufacturer says their tripod can handle 16 pounds of gear, assume it can only handle eight. That way you’ll never be disappointed. It’s been my experience that the manufacturers often over-estimate the weight carrying ability of most tripods. (There are a few exceptions to this. The very best tripods from Gitzo and Really Right Stuff when paired with heads of appropriate heft may very well support the manufacturer’s specified weight limit. It’s always safer to give yourself some room here to protect your camera and lenses.)
Most high-end tripods don’t ship with a head. You can add whatever kind you like. Most of the professional photographers I know prefer what’s called an “Arca Swiss” tongue and grove ball head. Arca Swiss is a brand and it’s expensive. You can choose that brand or a less expensive brand that does the same thing. When looking for budget heads, I like heads from Induro and Oben. Kirk Enterprises makes mid-to-top range heads. Really Right Stuff makes very high-end heads. All of these heads require you to get a camera and/or lens plate for each camera and large lens you own (smaller lenses don’t need a plate and some telephoto lenses like the Olympus 300 f/4 IS have a plate built into the lens foot.) The plate locks onto the camera/lens using a secure allen wrench. This is much more secure and safe than the kind of plate that merely screws on with a thumb screw or a simple slot you can use to lock with a coin.
Bird photographers using DSLRs with long, telephoto lenses will want to use a gimbal head instead of a ball head. The gimbal allows you to move a big, heavy lens easily and keeps it in place when you need stability. These are expensive and require practice to get used to but they are worth their weight in gold if you use 500, 600, 800 or longer lenses on a DSLR.
Jobu Design BWG-J3K Jobu Jr.3 Gimbal Kit with Swing-Arm HM-J2 - this is an incredibly strong, but lightweight and affordable gimbal that will work in most situations. Those with full-frame DSLRs and 600 or 800mm lenses may want something beefier.
If you want to use a gimbal head, I recommend the Jobu Design BWG-J3K Junior 3 Gimbal Kit with Swing-arm HM-J2. It is smaller, easier to transport, lighter and less expensive than most of the other gimbal heads I’ve used and will support anything up to a 600mm lens. You may need something a bit beefier if you are using a DSLR and an 800mm lens, but for most of you, the Jobu will do the job. If you have the budget, and are willing to carry the extra weight the gimbal heads from Kirk Photo and RRS are top-of-the-line.
What about three-way pan-tilt heads and pistol grips. While popular with beginners, I don't recommend them because the pan-tilt heads don’t allow for quick changes and the pistol grip type of heads don’t offer enough support.
Can you use the head that shipped with your tripod? The less-expensive tripods tend to come with their own inexpensive heads and generally, I haven’t found any that I really like that work as well as the Arca-Swiss style. Because of that experience, I recommend you search for a head like those described above.
Gitzo GT1545T Series 1 Traveler Carbon Fiber Tripod - the 1545 is an upper-mid-range tripod which is both sturdy and lightweight. It's expensive compared to some options on this page but is a worthy investment for those who want a very high-quality tripod but who do'n't want to spend $1000.
Depending on how you use your tripod you may want feet that detach, that are replaceable or changeable. Outdoor photographers often want feet that can be used as spikes to stabilize the tripod’s placement. Indoor photographers may want rubber feet to avoid marring floors or even wheels to move the tripod easily. As usual, the more expensive tripods tend to come with more options. Be sure you get the most versatile feet you can so you can use your sticks in many environments.
There are generally two kinds of leg locks on tripods. Spiral and Flip Lever. There are pros and cons to both. Flip lever locks are quicker in the field but tend to fail sooner than spiral locks. Spiral locks tend to be slower in the field but last longer. Suffice it to say that the more you pay the better the leg locks will be whichever type you select.
This is another big factor in choosing a tripod. If you want to save money, go with an aluminum or steel tripod. You’ll get a lot of bang for your buck this way but you’ll pay for it with a sore back. These tripods will be heavy if they’re large enough to support large payloads.
Carbon fiber is lightweight, sturdy and reliable. It’s also very expensive. If you can afford it – go with carbon fiber. You’ll get the same strength as steel with far less weight but for far more money.
I wanted to interject a quick note about monopods here. There are some places that won’t allow a tripod but will allow a monopod. There are also cases (like using super telephoto lenses) where you just need the monopod to steady the lens and take the stress off of your arms. In these situations, you might substitute a monopod for a tripod.
Gitzo GM2561T Series 2 6X Carbon Fibre Traveler Monopod - incredibly small (fits in a briefcase) super lightweight, super strong monopod. I've used one of these for as long as they have sold them.
Monopods (also called unipods) are usually lighter and smaller than tripods, but don’t offer the same level of stability.
Monopods do offer some obvious advantages. They are generally less expensive than tripods and they are light enough to carry almost anywhere. They allow you to compose and shoot almost as fast as you would if you were hand-holding, where tripods require you to take more time.
Kirk MPA-2 Monopod Head a fantastic addition to any monopod. It makes it easy to mount an Arca-Swiss head on top of the monopod that has full rotation forward and backwards.
One way to make the monopod more valuable is to mount an Arca-Swiss style tongue and groove head on the monopod and a corresponding plate on the camera or lens. Kirk Photo is a good source for both. You can also buy less expensive knockoffs on Amazon.
When using a monopod, I like to wear loose-fitting loafer style shoes and then I anchor the monopod inside my shoe against my foot for added stability. Another popular technique is to use your own two legs in conjunction with the monopod making a three-legged tripod.
Many unipods can also be used as a chestpod, or beltpod, meaning that the foot of the unipod (sometimes with a special adapter) can rest on the belt, waist, or chest, of the photographer. The result is that the camera is held more steadily than by hand alone (though not as steadily as when the foot is planted on the ground), and the camera/unipod is completely mobile compared to a tripod.
In case you’re wondering which monopod I use, the Gitzo GM2562T Series 2 Traveler Carbon Fiber 6 Section Monopod is my favorite because it weighs only nine ounces and will fit in my smallest briefcase, yet it’s very strong. It is expensive but like I said earlier, you get what you pay for.
Induro GTT204M2 Grand Turismo Series 2 Stealth Carbon Fiber Tripod with BHM2 Ball Head - this is one of the rare tripod/head combos I will recommend. It's a very good mid-level tripod and offers a lot of value for the money.
Tip 1: Seasoned outdoor photographers realize that the tripod, no matter how sturdy, is the most likely piece of gear to break. It’s a good idea to buy a few spare parts like screws and tripod feet and have them in your gadget bag for emergency repairs.
Tip 2: Get in the habit of tightening and checking all the tripod and head knobs in exactly the same order every time you set up and break down your tripod. Practice setting it up and mounting a camera to it during times when you haven’t been shooting for a while. Above all, carry your tripod everywhere you go with your camera. No matter how stable, how solid, or how perfect your tripod, it can’t help you if you don’t bring it along.
Benro B2 Double Action Ballhead - this is a low-priced ball head but it functions like a heavy weight. Arca-Swiss compatible.
Tip 3: Place the knob of your quick release clamp on the opposite side of your tripod collar. This helps prevent an accidental loosening of the clamp when what you really meant to do was loosen the collar. Be sure to practice loosening the collar and switching between horizontal and vertical until it’s second nature.
Tip 4: Depending on the type of photography you do, you may want a tripod that gets low enough so you can lie on your stomach to look through the viewfinder. If the lowest your tripod will go still requires you to get on your knees, then it doesn’t go low enough.
Tip 5: If you use your tripod outdoors, in bad or wet weather, be sure to rinse it off with clean water or use a damp cloth with clean water to wipe away salt water, dirt, mud, etc., which can cause damage to the tripod over time.
Tip 6: For maximum stability, avoid extending the center column.
Tip 7: Extend the bottom sections first if you are in a hurry. It makes it easier to adjust the height when you're shooting. For maximum stability, extend the top sections first. These are usually the strongest, most stable portions of the tripod legs.
Kirk WM-2 Multi-Purpose Window Mount for Tripod Head (Requires Head) perfect for turning your car into a shooting blind. A must have for wildlife and bird photographers.
A very special category of camera support is the window mount. The only one I've ever used is the Kirk model. It's a very heavy-duty, multi-purpose window mount that offers convenience and versatility to the photographer shooting inside and around a vehicle.
Tripods are important and most photographers will benefit from their use. I have purposely slanted this presentation towards more affordable solutions. That said, when it comes to price for a camera support, the sky is the limit. Consider the options I have discussed as maximum quality for minimum price. In the end, you should spend as much as you can afford to stabilize your camera. You'll never regret that investment.
About The Author
Scott Bourne is an Olympus Visionary and a professional wildlife photographer, author and lecturer who specializes in birds. He was one of the founders of This Week In Photo, Founded Photofocus.com and is co-founder of the new Photo Podcast Network (photopodcasts.com.)
Scott is a regular contributor to several photography related blogs and podcasts and is the author of 11 photography books.
Scott is available to speak to your birding group, photography group and for both private and small group bird photography workshops. For more information on engaging Scott as a speaker or workshop leader, or for image licensing and print information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.