Top 7 Things to Look for When Choosing a Tripod:
For Landscape & Wildlife Photographers
Yes, a tripod is an absolute necessity for many types of photography BUT it is THE most un-creative tool we photographers must use. It’s a rigid and inflexible device which takes time (too much time) to just shorten or lengthen it even slightly. Unlike our hands and legs which can fairly instantly readjust to a location, we like better.
I enjoy making long exposures, especially of water to get that silky look or of clouds to show movement. One of my first adventures was in Yosemite National Park as a teenager. The light was great but to get the tripod to the exact height and location I wanted I fought and fought with the tripod legs. I fought with it so much that by the time I got it set up the light was gone. That early lesson really taught me that it’s essential to understand how the tripod works before I buy it. Not only how to use it, but how to use it correctly.
WATCH MY FULL VIDEO ON HOW TO CHOOSE A TRIPOD ON MY YOUTUBE CHANNEL HERE:
So the first lesson in choosing and buying a tripod would be: See it and use it before you buy it. If you live in a rural area, perhaps wait till you go to a big city that has a camera store with a good selection.
My motto is GO FAST — GO LIGHT—GO SIMPLE. I choose my equipment based on those principles so here are some things to consider when buying a tripod.
SECOND: Know that the best tripod for you must be based on what type of photography you do. I typically use a different tripod for landscapes than I do for wildlife. The tripod can and does sometimes do double duty, but overall tripods for landscape photography will be different than wildlife with long lenses. And of course, everybody is going to be different so it will be a totally personal choice of which tripod to use.
In my opinion, it is best to buy the tripod legs separate from the tripod head. Ideally, I would not buy a tripod that has a head built onto it already. The heads are typically just not as good and oftentimes you can’t switch him out if there’s a problem.
Again for me it’s go fast –go light —go simple . So my first choice is carbon fiber for less weight, but nothing wrong with aluminum. Now, carbon fiber tripods are much more expensive but a lot of lighter weight. Aluminum is of course less expensive but heavier. They both have their pros and cons which is another reason to see it before buying.
THIRD thing to look at is the leg locks. What type of lock do you want? There are two choices.
- The twist lock —- OR
- The flip lock. Like a lever.
Here are the pro’s and cons of each that I find:
TWIST LOCK —
- Pro – Rarely, if ever need to maintain them
- Solid holding
- Con—Take longer to open and close
FLIP/LEVER LOCK —
- Pro – Much faster than twist to open and close
- Solid holding – unless the locks have loosened (see con below)
- Con—In time, they need to be tightened up with a tool.
With my motto; GO FAST — GO LIGHT—GO SIMPLE I vote for the flip/lever lock wherever I can.
FOURTH: How many legs/locks are best?. In order to GO FAST AND GO SIMPLE, I choose LESS IS BETTER. I am not a fan of the “travel tripods” where the close down to 18” or so and they have 4 or 5 leg extensions. There are two things wrong with that. 1. It takes too long to set up. 2. The tripod is not as sturdy with the more locks it has. My tripods typically have 3 legs lengths and two locks.
I would say throw the compact idea out the window. Don’t bother with and don’t let that make that your decision.
FIFTH: Can you lock each leg individually and if so, how does it lock? As a landscape photographer, it’s a big deal when you lock your legs out to be able to lock each individually. That is what was wrong with my teenage Yosemite problem. I could not lock the legs at different angles where rocks and such prohibited the leg from staying put. This is especially important when you get low to the ground. For wildlife photographers, one typically does not need to lock the legs separately.
SIXTH: Going low. I oftentimes want to get my tripod very low. Even to the ground. Some say, don’t get a tripod with a center column. As they are more unstable and get in the way when going low. I agree with that statement for long lenses and wildlife. But I disagree whole heartily for landscapes. I like a center column for one main reason: It’s a LOT faster to raise the center column up a few inches to get to the correct angle than it is to raise all three legs. AND second, with the correct type of moveable center column, one can get EVEN lower to the ground. GO FAST — GO LIGHT—GO SIMPLE!
PRACTICAL EXAMPLE: When I’m composing a landscape image, I don’t put the camera on the tripod first. That’s the absolute worst thing to do, as you will likely end up losing a lot of time when it’s time to adjust your angle. While hand-holding the camera, I find the composition first and find out just what height is best to get the composition I want. Once I find the height, then I measure it on my body or wherever I’m at and THEN I open up the tripod and adjust the tripod legs to that height. BUT I put the tripod about 6 inches lower than my measured spot. This method now allows me the opportunity to gently move the center column up in order to find the exact location of my best composition. Sometimes it’s a little bit lower and sometimes it’s a little bit higher. It’s amazing when you start looking at your landscape photos and that separation between a twig and a mountain or the Sky and some water so that you want that particular camera height to be just a bit lower or higher. I contend that having a center column is a huge advantage. But at the same time I don’t want that center column to be in the way, so what do I do I buy a tripod where the center column can flip easily. I like this Manfrotto tripod because if I push the button on the bottom of the tripod it flips over and now lower it makes it a whole lot easier and this gets the camera even lower.
I can get super close to the ground with this particular tripod.
SEVEN: Another thing to consider is the tripod legs themselves. You want something that’s sturdy. It has to hold up your camera. I suggest that you when you go to the store and review the tripods, extend the legs all the way. Then bang on them. If they are vibrating, if it is shaking a lot, it’s likely not sturdy enough.
I think you’ll find that smaller travel tripods just don’t hold up to that. But there’s a time and a place for a travel tripod for sure. When space and weight are at a premium.
I have five different tripods for different uses. But I think you’ll find that tripods with the bigger, heavier legs are going to be better.
Remember; your tripod has to be right for you. Be sure to consider everything that you do in your photography before buying it and please visit your local camera store- in Anchorage, I shop at Stewart’s Photo.
FINALLY: WHAT DO I USE?
Read all about the tripods I use and why in my Gear Closet. Also, read about the tripod heads I use. Gear Closet here.