The tripod is one of the first accessories we get, but if we make the wrong choice we will end up buying another one or leaving it at home as we don’t see its usefulness. We need to know what to look for when buying one and keep in mind that an adequate investment now can save us a lot tomorrow.
When selecting a tripod, the three “basic” attributes are: stability, weight and cost. Choose the three most important for you; a stable and light tripod will not be cheap and an economic and light one will not be stable.
The most important characteristic is stability. It must support the weight of our camera with its heavier lens and accessories attached. Have your future equipment in mind when calculating the weight. If you like bird photography but you only have the kit lens calculate the weight with a heavy telephoto lens. Keep in mind that a good tripod will last us decades.
The next factor to consider is weight. Depending on our physical form and the intended use we can carry a more or less heavy tripod. It is not the same photographing in the mountains than in a studio where weight is irrelevant.
The two factors that most influence weight are height and material. Try to get one that reaches eye level. If we can afford it we will reach this height without having to extend the central column.
The most used materials are aluminum and carbon. Aluminum is cheaper and carbon lighter. Keep in mind that a lighter tripod is also less stable since the center of gravity will be higher. Another advantage of aluminum is that if mistreated in nature, a strong blow will bend it instead of breaking. We can straighten the bent leg and finish the job.
Once you decide those factors, we need to choose the right model. Tripods with the same characteristics can have price differences of hundreds of euros. This is due to several factors. Renowned companies are conservative with their numbers. An RSS or Gitzo rated for loads of 8kg will take three times that before failing. A cheap no brand one will start trembling before reaching its limit. Also, these brands’ research and design offer you other less quantifiable characteristics, such as ergonomics or ease of disassembly for cleaning.
If we are going to buy one with a head, we will also have to think about its characteristics. The most important in addition to load and weight are the type of head and the coupling.
The most common types are the ball head and the 3d head. Ball heads are the fastest to use. You unlock it and the camera is released, placed into the desired position and locked again. They are the most suitable for general use. 3d heads release each of its three axes separately, so they are more accurate. Other types of more specialised heads are precision 3D gear heads or gimbals for heavy telephoto lenses.
Our tripod head should have quick coupling plates. The most economical heads have only a 1/4″ screw to attach your camera. However, in most of them you will find a quick release plate for greater ease of use. If we have several supports, make sure they share the same releasing mechanism, so we don’t change the plate when changing the support. The Arca Swiss system is the most widely used and you can find all kinds of accessories for it.
With my first camera I started using a tripod that came in the kit, a 20€ integrated ball head one, and even with a lightweight DSLR it was almost unusable. My second tripod was a Chinese one at about € 50. With it I understood the importance of the tripod as it was good enough for occasional use with light cameras. If this is your budget and you do not plan to pass to a full frame camera in the near future it may be a good purchase.
At this time I use a Manfrotto 055 XPro3 tripod with a Benro GD3WH gear head, with a rail and an Arca Swiss L plate. If you can afford it, the best on the market are RSS and Arca Swiss, with prices that sometimes well exceed € 1000 but that offer the best in terms of precision and stability.
In the next article we will learn to use the tripod to achieve maximum stability. (link)