The tripod: a three-legged camera support. Why is the tripod market so flooded with options when they all look pretty much the same and are designed to do the same thing? Isn’t one tripod as good as any other? Why are some so expensive? Why are others comparatively inexpensive? Do some hold cameras more steadily than others? And, why in the world is that one pink?
In this article, we will be emphasizing the use of a tripod for photography. There may be mentions of video features, as some parts can overlap in functionality, but true video tripod systems can be vastly different from their still-photography counterparts.
The primary purpose of the tripod is to hold a camera completely steady—zero movement and vibration; however, the tripod is very, very far from a one-size-fits-all-photographic accessory. And, although they all look about the same—three legs, a part where the camera attaches, etc., there are many brands, styles, and variations. Some differences are centered on personal preference such as color; others are more purpose-driven.
If you want to learn more about what makes up the modern tripod, and delve deeper into the different feature sets of these supports, keep reading.
Almost all tripods can be broken down into basic components. In the diagram below, we have labeled the different parts of the tripod. Almost every part comes in different shapes, sizes, and materials. All the parts perform basically the same job, and the overall goal of the tripod is stability for your camera.
Let’s take a closer look at every component, working from the top to the bottom (“from the head to the feet,” in tripod vernacular) and discuss the possible variations between types of tripods.
There are several basic types of tripod heads. The primary purposes of the tripod head are to provide a way to attach your camera to the tripod, allow repositioning of the camera to frame the image you wish to capture, and then hold the camera steady while the photograph is taken. What follows is a rundown of tripod head options.
3-Way / Pan and Tilt Head
The most traditional type of tripod head is the three-way or pan-and-tilt head. It is identified by the three control arms extending from the body of the head. They are used to adjust the position of the head one axis at a time—vertical, horizontal, and panning. Moving the head about one of the axes is accomplished by “loosening” one of the arms with a twist, repositioning the head, and then re-tightening the arm.
The advantages of the three-way head are: precise movements about one axis and ease of use. The disadvantage is size—they are generally bulky due to the extending arms. This makes them somewhat unattractive for travel.
Three-way heads are commonly used for landscape photography, still-life studio work, and macro photography. However, they can certainly be used for capturing all types of images.
The Ball Head
The ball head is a relatively recent invention, compared to some other types of heads. The design consists of a ball enclosed in a housing with a tightening knob. When the knob is loosened, the ball can be repositioned. When the camera is in the desired position, the knob is tightened and the ball (and camera) remain still.
There are some ball heads that have secondary and tertiary controls, as well. Some have panning bases with a separate knob to lock the head in the panning axis. Others have adjustable friction knobs and controls that allow adjustment of the main knob’s friction for more precise control.
For positioning the camera 90 degrees from horizontal, many ball heads have one or more cutouts in the housing that allow the ball’s stem to swivel down and be positioned at right angles to vertical.
The advantages of the ball head are its compact size (when compared to three-way heads) and ease of use. The simplest ball heads have only one adjustment knob for repositioning the camera at almost any angle. Also, because of their simplicity, repositioning the head is often a very quick affair. Because of its versatility, the ball head can be used for any type of photographic application.
Pistol Grip Heads
The pistol grip head is a variation of the ball head. Instead of having a knob to tighten the housing around the ball, the holding power is provided by a spring-loaded squeeze grip. To reposition the head, you squeeze a handle. Once the camera or head is in position, you release the grip and the head stays in that position.
Advantages of the pistol grip head are simplicity of use while providing a very fast means of repositioning the head. Disadvantages are generally the lower weight capacity of this style of head. With an emphasis on repositioning speed, the pistol grip heads are preferred by some wildlife and sports photographers.
The geared head is a variant of the three-way head, but, instead of handles that loosen their axis when twisted, a system of gears moves the head about one particular axis when the handles are twisted. This gearing allows for very fine and precise adjustments—the geared head’s biggest advantage. The disadvantages of these heads, when compared to other styles, are weight, complexity, and the relatively slow speed of repositioning.
Because of the precision built into the geared head, it is preferred by architectural photographers and anyone who needs super-accurate camera positioning.
The gimbal head is the exclusive domain of the large and heavy telephoto lens. Because of the shift in a camera/lens combination’s center of gravity when using extremely large lenses, the gimbal head is attached to the lens’s tripod attachment point, not to the camera. It is designed to allow rapid movements of the lens to track fast-moving subjects. When set up properly, the camera will remain steady even when not being held by the photographer.
Gimbal heads are large and heavy, but necessary for a certain type of long-lens photography. Also, specialized mounting plates are needed for specific lenses. Because of this design, and the systems with which it is designed to work, the gimbal head is ubiquitous in the world of wildlife and sports photography but not very useful for other general imaging purposes.
Purchasing Tip: The head is where the tripod becomes most specialized. Carefully consider your photographic needs, as well as portability. The multi-purpose ball head is the most versatile tripod head available. When in doubt, choose the ball head!
The Chassis (or Spider)
This is the apex of the tripod, where the legs connect. The chassis forms a platform for mounting a head, or it serves to surround the tripod’s center column. Some chassis that allow direct mounting of the tripod head feature interchangeable center plates that permit the addition of an optional center column or other types of mounting systems. The chassis is usually made from some sort of metal alloy. Maximum stability is gained with a tripod that does not have a telescoping center column chassis.
Multi-Angle Leg Locks
Most tripod legs are “multi-angle.” This means that you can adjust the spread of the legs to allow the tripod to be used at different heights or in awkward areas where one leg or more legs cannot be at the same angle as the others. Some chassis permit the legs to reach a nearly horizontal position, and some, especially for travel tripods, allow the legs to invert for more compact storage.
The leg locks are designed to hold the legs at a prescribed angle and come in designs of all types. Some have pull-out tabs that unlock the leg angle, others have sliders, some have friction knobs, and some have spring-loaded mechanisms.
Purchasing Tip: Leg locks come in all shapes and sizes and are notorious for pinching unwary fingers or hands. Pay close attention to the design of the locks and see if they work for your needs—and be careful not to get pinched!
The tripod center column is either mounted to the chassis, or permitted to slide through it to extend the tripod’s height even farther than the leg/chassis alone. Many center columns are reversible to allow you to mount your camera below the tripod chassis for macro or other low-to-the-ground shots. Most center columns have a friction collar that keeps them in place until they are called to extend. Some have a geared system with which you can crank a lever to raise and lower the column. The crank systems are usually seen on heavier studio tripods because they add considerable weight to the tripod system.
Often, a gear hook can be found at the bottom of the center column. This allows you to add stabilizing weight to the rig in the form of dedicated weights, or your own camera bag.
Shooting Tip: The general rule is that you should not extend the center column unless it’s necessary to get the shot, since there is a loss in stability and an increase in possible vibrations when the column is extended. This is especially true with multi-section center columns.
The center column may double as a lateral arm that allows you to articulate (or insert) the center column to a horizontal position. This is useful for table-top shooting, macro subjects, and more.
There are also add-on lateral arms that can be added to a tripod or head when needed.
Shooting Note: When using lateral arms, pay close attention to the center of gravity of your rig and know that most tripod heads are designed to work in parallel with gravity. When working on a lateral arm, all the support will be perpendicular to gravity and stability may be compromised.
All tripods have legs. Three, in fact. But there are variations in how those legs are constructed and how they work.
Except for single-section tripod legs, most tripod legs are telescoping and collapsible for the purposes of height adjustment and transport. The more sections the legs have, the shorter they can be retracted. However, the more sections you have, the less stability you will achieve.
Shooting Tip: If possible, avoid extending the smallest section of the tripod all the way. Leaving the bottom section partially retracted can add overall stability to the rig.
There are three basic materials* for the modern tripod leg: aluminum, carbon fiber, and wood. All of them have inherent advantages and disadvantages.
The Skinny on Tripod Legs
C Vibration absorption
D Does not fold to compact size
C Good strength-to-weight ratio
|D Cold to touch when cold outside
D Hot to touch in hot environments
C Good vibration dampening
D Not as durable to impact
* There are other materials available, from common ABS plastic to steel to exotic basalt lava, but the Big Three are listed in the table above.
To combat thermal properties, and provide a more comfortable carrying feel, many tripod legs have foam leg protectors, and aftermarket protectors can be purchased to accessorize to your tripod.
Multi-section tripod legs will have some sort of locking mechanism to prevent the legs from retracting when loaded or from extending farther. The two most common types of leg locks are the flip lock and the twist lock.
The flip lock is a lever that tightens around the next smaller section of the tripod leg. Once the legs are retracted, or at the length you desire, you flip the lock to the closed position and the legs will remain in that position. The twist lock accomplishes the same tightening by turning the lock through approximately one-quarter turn. Twist to loosen, extend or retract the legs, and then twist to tighten.
Twist and Flip Locks
D Not weather sealed
C Better sealing
D More difficult to use for some
The type of lock might also determine the shape of the legs. Twist-lock legs will inevitably be round, while the flip-lock legs may be triangular or have another shape to allow the flip locks to be mounted.
At the end of each leg there is a foot. Depending on the tripod, the foot might be as simple as a rubber bumper. Or the foot can have a retractable spike beneath a rubber pad. Some tripods have interchangeable feet so the photographer can switch out the type of foot, depending on the terrain and his or her needs. Options include, spikes, strakes, clawed feet, and various rubber bumpers.
What Else Do You Need to Know?
Now that we have taken an in-depth look at the tripod’s components, let’s discuss some other important subjects.
Load capacity is crucially important to a tripod purchasing decision, yet it is often a confusing topic. Here is our attempt to clear up the noise in the shadow areas.
Tripod legs and heads have specified load capacities. The stability of the combination of the legs and head is equal to the lower of the two. For instance, if you have tripod legs with a 40-lb load capacity and a tripod head with a 20-lb load capacity, the effective load capacity of your setup is 20 lb. The same rule applies in instances where the head has a higher capacity than the legs (rare, but certainly possible). The load capacity is not indicative of the breaking strength of the component, nor does it indicate when the setup will collapse.
This specification shows at what weight the stability of the system starts to become compromised as far as stability is concerned. Therefore, putting a 21-lb load on a tripod with a 20-lb load capacity will not cause dramatic material failure and tripod explosion. However, the stability of your 21-lb camera and lens will begin to be compromised—meaning the unit may not hold the camera as steady as you would like. As an example, for those who have overloaded a ball head, you may have seen very slow and slight movement in the head even as you cranked down on the tightening knob as hard as you could. Yes, you could break or collapse a tripod with excessive weight, but a quality tripod should be able to support weight far greater than any normal photographic equipment without failing.
The common conservative rule of thumb is to use a tripod and head that have at least two to three times the load capacity of your heaviest camera/lens combination (don’t forget accessories such as a flash or microphone).
Tripods come in different heights. One thing that gets old quickly is setting up your camera on a tripod and spending minutes bent over at the waist looking through the viewfinder. Do the math and add the height of the legs and the height of the head together to find out at what altitude your viewfinder will be. Now, how tall are you? If the viewfinder is going to be higher than your eyes, perfect! All you need to do is not extend the lowest leg sections all the way and you are done. If the total height comes up short, get ready to bend down to see through your camera or look at the LCD screen.
In the olden days, photographers would have to spin their cameras or lenses onto the standard ¼"-20 tripod screw at the top of the head or chassis. This was time-consuming and a pain in the neck when you were moving locations between shots. Quick-release systems were invented to speed this process greatly. A plate attaches to the camera and then is locked into a compatible head.
Some manufacturers have proprietary plate designs and you’ll have to pay attention to compatibility when mixing and matching brands. The Arca-type-compatible plate is probably the most universal of the bunch, with many brands offering compatible systems. Additionally, there are numerous brackets and plates that you can attach to your camera that have integral compatibility with tripod head quick-release systems. Again, the Arca-type compatible is the most numerous of these.
Once a rare option on tripod heads, the bubble level is becoming a much more common feature. For those doing architectural photography, or simply trying to keep the horizon level, the bubble level is a great tool to have at your disposal, and having it permanently featured on the tripod or head keeps you from having to carry a separate accessory around. Heads usually either feature one or more bull’s-eye levels or two standard levels—one for each axis.
Bags and Straps
The tripod and tripod head are tools and they should be used as such. The more they are used, the more scratches, nicks, and dents they will endure. You can protect your tripod and help extend its life (or at least its youthful good looks) by transporting it in a protective bag. Some companies sell their tripods with a bag, and you can always add one afterwards. There are bags just for tripod heads. Also, to aid in carrying, many tripods have attachment points for carrying straps.
A sub-genre of the tripod is the mini or tabletop tripod. These diminutive tripods can support a fair amount of weight and live in your camera bag for the times you don’t want to tote a full-sized tripod around with you.
It’s all About Stability… and Tradeoffs
The job of the tripod is to stabilize your camera and lens. Simple, right? We mentioned vibration and stability in the article. Where does vibration come from? You can imagine a completely stationary tripod and camera, but now visualize a wind blowing across your gear, or a subway rumbling beneath the street. Are two or more tripod legs in a running stream or in the surf at the beach? Vibration happens, and the goal of the tripod is to provide stability and absorb those vibrations so that they are not translated to the camera.
So, what type of tripod do you buy? Things start to get murky when we realize that we must hand-carry the tripod with us to a distant location or pack it into our carry-on luggage! Larger tripods have more stability, but they are heavier. Smaller tripods are more portable and easy to carry, but have less stability. Four-section tripods can collapse smaller than three-section tripods, but are slightly less stable. Tripod legs without a center column are more stable than those with a center column, but less versatile.
Suddenly, the tripod purchasing decision becomes an exercise in compromise.
One final note: A tripod (and head) is an investment that can last you your entire photographic life. If you start off buying a bargain tripod, you will likely feel the need to upgrade to a better one in the future. If that one is a value-priced tripod, you will, as your photography experience and gear grows, likely want to upgrade that one, as well. There are few things in photography as frustrating as working with a sub-par tripod and not getting the stability you need. Soon you may find you have spent more on your first several tripods than you could have on one high-quality, more expensive one right out of the gate. If you are serious about photography, be serious about your tripod. And if you’re looking for tripod recommendations, feel free to check out our favorite full-sized tripods and travel tripods to get started with your search.
Do you have a favorite tripod? What piece of advice would you give a new photographer looking for their first tripod? Let us know in the Comments section, below.