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What tripod should I buy?

I've written recently about what cameras to buy. I was asked the other week by a workshop client what tripod she should buy, so here are some tips. This is assuming mostly landscape and travel photography. If you're into video, studio or astro photography your needs might be different.

Should I buy a tripod?

Probably. Maybe. It depends. You need a tripod when you can't hold your camera steady enough to take a sharp shot. This is usually because of low light or using a very small aperture (to get large depth of field) or both. You can avoid the problem by increasing your ISO or using a wider aperture (or both) but there are prices to pay for these. Increasing ISO will increase noise and reduce dynamic range and using a wider aperture will reduce depth of field. I'm sure there are photographers who consider it obvious that you should be using a tripod, in fact using it for every shot to get the sharpest possible photos.

But - a tripod is slow, heavy, cumbersome. It gets in the way. At worst it could totally destroy your enjoyment of taking photographs. The freedom of hand-held shooting, being fast and responsive. Going into the hills with a light pack and small camera. Responding to what you see.

So I don't think it's at all obvious that you should be using a tripod. You should think carefully about it. If you can afford it then buy one and try it but don't become a slave to it. If you want to get one, read on...

What is a tripod? What do I need to buy?

You need at least two things - legs and head. You will probably also want a quick release plate. Some tripods are sold as a kit with all three, sometimes you buy each separately.

The legs are obvious - the three struts. You can get very short tripods and very tall ones. Short is good for saving weight and bulk, especially for travelling and backpacking. I prefer one that matches my own height. You can get extra tall ones but these are for more specialised use. The more leg sections there are the smaller it will pack down but it won't be as solid and will be less convenient in use. My own tripod is three section and about five feet tall fully extended. This is what I'd recommend generally unless you want to do a lot of travelling.

Most legs have an extending centre column. Look for one that also has a short stub section that can replace this centre column. This lets the legs be folded all the way out flat so you can get right down on the floor.

Some legs also allow the centre column to be extended out to the side. This is good for flowers, insects and the like but not so useful for travel, landscape etc.

The head is the bit the camera attaches to and which moves around to allow you to point in the right direction. There are lots of different types for lots of different prices. For general landscape use I prefer a ball head and that's what I'd recommend.

The head has a screw that screws into the threaded hole in the base of your camera. This makes it slow to attach and remove so a quick release plate is recommended. This means the camera snaps on and off very quickly. A normal plate is small and not too heavy. I'd also consider an L-shaped quick release plate. This means you can attach the camera either horizontally or vertically. I'd strongly recommend this except for travel, as my own L-shaped plate is considerably heavier and bulkier.

Which one should I choose?

You get what you pay for. Partly in sturdiness to hold the camera steady but more so in terms of robustness, whether it will last a long time or go kaput quickly. Go for a big name brand like Manfrotto or Gitzo but there are other good brands as well. Avoid cheap knock offs. My first tripod was a cheap Jessops own brand and fell to pieces after a few months.

Size and weight are very important. If it's too big and heavy then you'll leave it at home. Of course, the bigger and heavier it is, the more robust it will be and the steadier it will hold your camera but you're better off with a light tripod that you have with you than a heavy one that you've left at home. I personally have a big heavy one and I make the effort to use it. My own tripod weighs 2.9 Kg (2.4 for legs, 0.5 for head) which I think is heavy. A light one would be less than 2kg for legs+head.

You need to make sure the legs and especially the head can cope with the weight of your camera and lens. A big camera needs a bigger tripod and head. Especially if you are using big telephoto lenses. Web sites where you might buy tripods usually specify what maximum weight of camera they can hold.

Finally, get a tripod designed for stills cameras, not video. They are designed differently for different intended uses.

How much do I need to pay?

Somewhere around £200 to £250 will get you a good quality legs and head and quick release plate that will last and do the job. If you want ultra-light carbon fibre you'll be spending quite a lot more. You can get tripods much cheaper than this but like I said earlier, you get what you pay for.

So what do I use?

I've got a Manfrotto 055 with #352 head. A modern combination would be something like the 055 XPRO3 legs and 494 ball head.

This combination is bullet proof and holds my camera steady. I can also clean, maintain and repair it. It would be a bit large and heavy for long distance or extended travel. I find it quite a weight when I go into the mountains with it.


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