There is perhaps no other piece of camera gear as highly disputed as the humble tripod. Billed as, “the ugly duckling of equipment” in a 1985 New York Times story by legendary writer and picture editor John Durniak, he went on to explain, “one measure of a good photographer is the ability to handle one. Far from being an esoteric device limited to professionals,” he noted, “the tripod, in skilled hands, can be a useful tool for the interested amateur who can profit from some of the creative uses to which professionals have put it.”
Despite the sea change from analog to digital, technological advances of in-camera and lens-based stabilization, breakthroughs in reaching stratospherically high ISOs, and miracles of image composites and sharpening in post, the simple wisdom of this quote still rings true today. The use of a tripod remains an essential way to improve image quality at the instant of capture, ideally with minimal effort. Yet why do so many photographers leave this important tool behind, believing it to cramp their style as overly cumbersome or excessively bothersome to set up?
One potential cause is the growing ranks of manufacturers that offer seemingly comparable products, which can make choosing the right setup for your needs an overwhelming task. To help you make the right choice, the story below offers useful insights on basic types of tripod kits and different categories of tripod heads, legs, and other stabilization options for those seeking a custom setup.
First things first: Some key considerations when buying a tripod
Type, size, and weight of your camera or device: It’s important to match your tripod to the device it supports. All camera supports list a load capacity among the specs, the maximum combined weight (camera, lens, and anything else being used) that a given system can support. Exceeding a tripod’s listed capacity is an invitation to blurry pictures. Another thing to keep in mind: Supports for video cameras are specialized, and often require extra weight capacity.
Tripod size and weight: A tripod’s minimum and maximum (with and without the center column) working height is another set of essential specs. When evaluating which tripod will best suit your needs, consider these specs in relation to your own height and your primary subject matter. A macro photographer has different needs than an astrophotography specialist. In addition to size, the weight of a tripod is key to your comfort level, especially if you’ll be carrying it over distances.
Stability and construction materials: Tripod weight is often closely related to stability, which in turn is influenced by construction materials. Plastic (sometimes called duramold) may be lighter than aluminum, carbon fiber, or various metal alloys, but don’t make the mistake of sacrificing sturdiness for portability, especially if you’re looking for a long-term investment. A quality tripod is made of rigid materials that will not flex or bend and has secure connections at all joints. Ultimately, the best way to gauge the stability of a tripod is to try it out. Set it up, then tap or apply weight to the top to see if it vibrates or sways. Then reposition the moving parts and make sure everything has smooth motion and locks securely without causing your camera to slip or creep.
Ease of use and versatility: What’s the point of a tripod if you miss the shot because it takes too long to set up? Ease of use hinges on how quickly you can deploy your gear and then adjust moving parts on the fly to capture subsequent scenes. Versatility is a must if your tripod will get different kinds of use, or you anticipate your image-making needs will evolve over time. The bottom line: Practice makes perfect, so familiarize yourself with all the functions of your tripod before you endeavor to use it in the field.
Assembled Kit or À la Carte
At its most basic, the tripod has three main components—a three-pronged leg section offering varied degrees of up-and-down movement, a center column (often included with the legs) for extended height and sometimes lateral movement, and a section to hold the camera known as the head, which allows multidirectional movement (more on the many different types of heads to choose from later).
To keep things simple for novice users, many tripod manufacturers produce paired legs-and-head combinations, otherwise known as a tripod kit, designed to fill the basic needs of entry-level photographers. While this can be a convenient and cost-conscious solution, it’s important to consider the adage “you get what you pay for,” especially when it comes to ease of use, portability, and stability of the most basic of kits.
Even fledgling photographers who have never used a tripod may benefit from investing in a more advanced kit that affords increased durability and features a modular design that can be upgraded should they choose to swap out or replace any part of the tripod for future use.
The Travel Kit
A popular subset of this genre that has flourished with the growing popularity of nomadic creative professionals is the travel tripod kit. Designed to be the smallest and lightest in their respectable class, these kits feature legs that fold in reverse to collapse around the center column and a compact ball head. Most major manufacturers, from Benro, to Manfrotto, to Gitzo, offer a range of travel tripod kits, which generally trade the maximized height and enhanced stability of regular-sized tripods for lighter weight and a reduced folded footprint. If you’ll be traveling with a tripod, consider this: Never buy a bigger tripod than you are willing to carry. But always select the sturdiest model that you’re willing to tolerate.
The Tripod System
For the enthusiast, advanced, and professional photographer, the most popular route to take is investing in a modular tripod system or, in layman’s terms, a camera support consisting of a detachable head and a set of durable, versatile legs. Whether purchased together as part of an advanced kit or separately, investing in a system ensures that you purchase customizable and quality gear that can be modified to suit individual needs, either now or in the future. Below, we’ll review some of the different options for assembling a custom tripod from the various parts.
Tripod Legs and Choice of Materials
As its name implies, a tripod’s essence begins in the legs, most often constructed from aluminum, an aluminum alloy with titanium or magnesium, or carbon fiber. Aluminum models, while most affordable, have the disadvantage of added weight when carried over distance. Aluminum is also more sensitive to environmental factors such as corrosion, heat, and cold, which can make tripod leg protectors a worthy investment. On the plus side, aluminum is better able to withstand the dings and drops of heavy use, and its added heft can be a stabilizing factor in windy conditions.
Although carbon fiber tripods are more costly, they offer several advantages to help justify the price. In addition to being lighter to carry, this material touts reduced vibration and resistance to corrosion and temperature extremes. Carbon fiber tripods are stiffer than aluminum models, which means they can handle more weight at a smaller size while experiencing fewer micromovements, a decided benefit if you’re looking to mount a telescope or other heavy piece of optical equipment. Carbon fiber models often reference the number of layers used in manufacturing (from 2X up), with a larger number indicating added strength—a useful detail, since carbon fiber is more susceptible to cracking or fracture than aluminum.
Leg Lock Styles: To Flip or to Twist
Most tripod legs are made up of several—most often 3 or 4—sections of telescoping tubes that nest together when closed, allowing a user to adjust the height, and sometimes the angle, of each leg independently. There are two classic styles of leg closures—flip locks (also known as levers) and twist locks—with the choice between types being primarily a matter of personal preference. Some will complain that flip locks add bulk, can snag an item—or a wayward finger—in the lock mechanism, are harder to operate for those with afflictions such as arthritis, can be subject to breakage, or make undue noise in quiet conditions, while others consider this style of lock mechanism an advantage, since it is more obvious to see and feel it flip open and closed.
Alternatively, the more subtle movement of twist locks can make this style of closure seem more challenging at first. The key is to remember that almost all twist locks require only a quarter turn to open and close the locking mechanism. The inherent design of this style lock allows it to retain maximum grip throughout a tripod’s lifespan, without any form of re-tightening. What’s more, it can be easily disassembled for cleaning and lubrication after use in problematic environments such as sand, dirt, or mud. Another advantage of twist locks is the ability to easily loosen, deploy, and tighten multiple locks in quick succession, making for a more efficient setup.
Yet, regardless of which style is faster to set up and take down, both types of mechanisms are designed with varying levels of quality, so spending a bit more for sturdier and more durable components has definite advantages.
As previously noted, tripod legs are most often packaged with a center column, which is either mounted on the frame or allowed to slide through it, with a friction collar keeping the column fixed in place until it is activated by the user. While extending the center column can be a faster, and therefore easier, method for attaining greater height, raising this column has the potential to compromise stability. For this reason, it’s best to begin height adjustments with tripod legs, starting with the thickest sections first. Another handy aid to stability is the presence of a ballast hook at the bottom of certain center columns, which allows for the weight of a bag or similar item to be suspended beneath the tripod, thereby stabilizing the setup. Center columns can also be reversible, to allow for low-angle shooting, which is useful for macro subjects. In other cases, center columns and related accessories for specific model tripods are available as modular add-ons to increase a tripod’s functionality, allowing for lateral movements of up to 90 degrees.
When most people think about tripod functionality, they envision the movements and handle-operated style of the 2- or 3-Way Pan-Tilt head, which features from one to three independent handles and/or knobs to control vertical-tilt, horizontal-tilt, and 360-degree pan. This classic design has remained popular, especially among beginners, because of its straightforward operation and relatively precise movement, giving the user control over each plane of movement without having an impact on the other planes. To alter the position of each plane, simply loosen the handle controlling the desired movement, move the camera into position, and tighten the handle firmly to secure the camera in place. Three-way heads are commonly utilized for landscape, portraiture, still life, and macro or product photography, but they can be used for nearly every photographic application.
+Precise and individual control of each plane of adjustment
+Smooth operation for video
+More affordable price
-Slower and more complicated to operate
-Heavier weight, added bulk can lead to snags
-Harder to store/transport
-Potential for jerky movement or drifting
A more recent innovation than the pan head, the Ball Head has become extremely popular, due in part to its more compact size and versatility. Ball heads trade out extraneous handles and knobs to put the camera in the driver’s seat, which can be moved into any position by loosening one or more tiny tension control knobs. This style head typically features one or more drop notches in the friction collar for added flexibility of camera movement, allowing for extreme up or down angles and vertical camera orientation.
The most basic ball heads control camera movement by tightening or loosening the ball joint using a single knob. Higher-end models may offer additional adjustments, such as a secondary drag control to hold the camera in place when the tension control is disengaged, while still allowing specific movements. Still other models incorporate an independent panning control, allowing the entire mechanism to be rotated horizontally 360° while maintaining the orientation of the ball joint. Although the simpler mechanism of a ball head may have fewer parts, the components must be precisely machined to provide smooth movement, increasing the average price.
Due to its smaller size and ease of use, this style head is popular among sports, action, outdoor adventure, wildlife, and travel photographers—although, like the pan-tilt head, it can be used for almost any photographic application.
+Lighter weight, more portable
+Easy to use and adjust
+More intuitive control, quicker to operate
+Good for tracking moving objects
-Less precise, harder to achieve exact level
-Not as sturdy, could be prone to camera slippage
-Higher price point
Pistol Grip Heads
Basically a variation on the ball head, a pistol grip head (also known as a grip action or joystick head) allows you to reposition your camera by squeezing the grip with a one-handed movement. This releases the ball, freeing you to position the head at the desired angle, then you simply release the trigger to lock everything in place. Using a pistol grip head tends to be an acquired taste—some people love them, while others find them to be a nuisance. Pistol grips are generally heavier, bulkier, and more expensive than a standard ball head, and some models can be prone to slippage. But their fast, intuitive handling can be a plus for action subjects like sports, outdoor adventure, wildlife, and travel photography. Pistol grips are less effective for genres like studio, macro, and still life photography, when more precise camera adjustments are needed.
+Fast, intuitive to operate, great for action shooting
+Ergonomic design facilitates single-handed adjustments
+No fumbling with multiple handles or knobs
-Higher price point
-Heavier and bulkier than a regular ball head
-Some models can be prone to slippage
-Squeeze grip mechanism requires hand strength, which can be challenging for those with arthritis or other hand ailments
Advanced sports and wildlife photographers often gravitate to Gimbal Heads to help track a moving subject while supporting and balancing a large lens and camera body. Typically the largest and heaviest style tripod head, when properly balanced, a gimbal head will maintain its position even after your hand leaves the camera.
It’s important to note that gimbal heads for still photography are distinct from a video gimbal. The former is designed to be placed on a tripod or monopod and does not contain electronic parts, while a gimbal for motion footage uses motors, rotating gyros, and electronics to resist the camera’s inertia and keep it level while in motion. Video gimbals are used handheld or attached to a moving object rather than a tripod. These gimbals generally have less weight capacity than a tripod-mounted gimbal head.
Gimbal heads for photography come in two different styles: cradle-mounted (the more traditional type) and a side-mounted version. With a cradle-mounted gimbal, the lens foot attaches to an L-shaped arm that extends down from the gimbal’s pivot point to cradle your gear. This style gimbal head is heavier, bulkier, and generally more expensive than the side-mounted version. With a side-mounted head, the lens foot attaches directly to the gimbal’s pivot point, resulting in the camera rig being positioned at 90 degrees from its placement in the cradle mount.
Most importantly, keep in mind that a lens-mounting plate is not included with a gimbal head; one must be specially selected for the lens being used. Before investing in a gimbal system, always make sure to purchase an appropriate lens-mounting plate with enough length to balance your rig sufficiently.
+Steady support for large lenses
+Mobility for capturing and tracking fast action
+Video gimbals are smaller and more portable than other types of stabilization for motion footage
-Photo and videography gimbals are two distinct items
-Largest and heaviest style tripod head
-Requires proper balancing for optimal use
-Mounting plate must be purchased separately
A geared tripod head enables you to position your camera incrementally along geared tracks on vertical, horizontal, and rotational planes by using three knobs that control pan, tilt, and yaw. This allows for precise adjustments with no drifting or camera slippage. For added precision, most geared heads feature two or more built-in spirit levels, so you know when everything is level. The exacting nature of this style head is ideal for genres such as architectural, industrial, still life, and large format photography, although its substantial heft and complex operation makes it a serious investment.
For everything you’ve ever wanted to learn about geared tripod heads but didn’t know to ask, check out our Geared Tripod Head Roundup, by Allan Weitz.
+Solid support for large cameras, high load capacity
-Slower to work with
-Very bulky and heavy
-More expensive price point
With nearly every stills camera able to perform advanced video functions, many photographers now incorporate video components into their tripod kits, with one important consideration being the fluid tripod head. An improvement on the more basic “friction” head, fluid heads are designed to decrease resistance when recording video. The hydraulic damping system of a fluid head controls drag while panning and tilting, and its integrated “fluid” cartridge helps reduce the unwanted jitters, vibrations, and shakes of sudden camera movements. While each tripod head features a maximum load capacity, a fluid head’s declared maximum is a firm guideline that should not be crossed. Proper weight balance is essential for a fluid head to perform well, and resistance from an unbalanced load can negate the head’s video-smoothing properties—especially in the hands of entry-level users. Although a fluid head may be overkill for basic still photography needs, it is extremely helpful for ensuring smooth motion footage, and its damping properties can help avoid camera shake when shooting with long lenses.
+Sturdier build than friction heads
+Complex design helps the dampen sudden movement
+Provides very smooth pan and tilt movement, overcomes earthquake effect
-Expensive price point
-Very bulky and heavier than other head styles
Panoramic and Time-Lapse and Sliders
Tripods are specifically designed to stabilize your gear, making the inclusion of Panoramic & Time Lapse Heads and Pro Video Camera Sliders seem counterintuitive here. Yet, one good reason they deserve a spot is due to the precise control they exert over your camera’s movement when capturing multiple images for an ultrawide still photo or immersive motion clip. A dedicated tripod head is certainly not a requirement for creating successful scenes, but the accuracy of such tools to eliminate parallax, control shooting angles, and standardize the degree of image overlap can save a significant amount of time in post-processing. Panoramic heads are particularly useful to architectural and landscape photographers seeking to capture expansive vistas, while time-lapse heads and sliders are increasingly popular and widely accessible as tools that allow almost anyone to harness dramatic cinematic effects.
+High precision capture without the worry of parallax
+Allows you to generate large files with lots of detail
-Learning curve to master use fully
-Challenging to use in windy conditions or changing light
-Large files require robust image processing and storage capabilities
Camera Mounts: Quick releases, Arca-Swiss-Compatible Plates, and L Brackets
An inventory of various style tripod heads means nothing without a word (or more) about how your camera mounts on different types of support systems. Most cameras have a female thread on their bottom surface sized at either 1/4-20 UNC (for consumer cameras) or 3/8-16 UNC (for larger, professional cameras and lenses). This thread allows for the introduction of a flat metal plate generally known as a quick release which, as the name implies, makes it quick and easy to remove and resecure your camera to a corresponding plate on the tripod head. Angled or grooved metal jaws on each plate keep the camera clamped into position under a locknut or clamp.
While Arca-Swiss-compatible plates have become the most popular, and hence most desirable, type of quick release, it’s important to realize this is not a universal standard. Many tripod makers still use their own quick-release plate designs, so this is a detail worth checking before purchasing a tripod system or individual head. Additionally, if you’ll be using multiple cameras with the same tripod, consider attaching a quick-release plate to the bottom of each camera to save time when preparing for your next shot.
Another handy accessory that will allow for maximum efficiency in the field is an L-Bracket, available either in camera-specific or universal models. Like its name, this L-shaped plate serves a similar purpose as the quick release, while keeping your camera centered on the head to minimize slippage and for maximum efficiency when switching between portrait and landscape orientation.
Low-Clearance Pods: Beanbags, Groundpods, Chest Supports, Tabletop, and Mini Tripods
If you need to stabilize your camera for a sharp image but a tripod is either not permitted or sufficient set-up space cannot be found—fear not—there is a wide variety of Counter, Chest, and Strap Pods that can provide support on almost any surface, including your own body.
The ever-malleable beanbag is arguably more stable than a tripod or monopod because of its low center of gravity and very wide base. Often filled with rice or beans (as the name implies), you can basically fill an empty beanbag with any granular substance to stabilize and cushion your gear. One benefit to using a beanbag on the road is the option to save space and weight by carrying an empty bag, which you can fill after arrival at your destination. What’s more, a beanbag can serve double duty in weighing down your full-sized tripod when conditions permit.
Another good option for getting really low is the ground pod. Attach your camera directly to the pod for a frog’s eye view or add your choice of tripod head for a greater range of low-angle shots. Certain ground pods can be mounted to a solid surface to keep your camera steady wherever you want it.
Yet, perhaps the most popular solution for stability on the go is the tabletop or mini tripod. Often sold as a single unit with head and legs pre-attached and a maximum height of a foot or less, these diminutive stabilizers are ideal for travelers, hikers, or those shooting in areas where full-size camera supports may be prohibited. Bendable variations, such as the Joby Gorillapod line, can be wrapped around a variety of objects (such as tree branches, pipes, and handlebars) to keep your camera steady on uneven terrain or to achieve unique photographic perspectives.
For even more shopping suggestions in the realm of action adventure motion capture, check out M. Brett Smith’s story, 10 Awesome Mounts for Your Action Cam.
Low Clearance Pod Perks
+More economical than a full-sized tripod
+Light weight and compact size make them easy to pack and carry
+Provides camera support in conditions where full-sized tripods cannot be used
Low Clearance Pod Drawbacks
-Limited load capacity
-Smaller size may compromise stability and/or full range of motion
Monopods, Extension Poles, and Selfie Sticks
Finally, while some might discount it as the tripod’s unhinged cousin, the humble monopod deserves mention for its ability to steady the weight of your camera setup in conditions where a larger rig is ill adapted for use. Monopods are quicker to set up/take down and easier to transport than conventional tripods, making them particularly useful in taming fast action such as sports or wildlife situations when there is sufficient light.
These handy devices come in many sizes and form factors to serve photographers and videographers of all types, from those making casual grab shots or vlogging on the go to professionals seeking to stabilize a monster lens. They can also be employed in a similar manner as their big brother, the Extension Camera Pole, to reach a remote scene that is otherwise inaccessible from view.
And here’s a fun fact: Select tripod models can be conveniently converted to a monopod by means of a removable leg that attaches to the tripod’s center column.
Another take on the monopod is the selfie stick or camera pole, which exploded as a fad along with the rise of high-end cell phone cameras. Although the aptly nicknamed “Wand of Narcissus” isn’t as ubiquitous today as a few years back, it has not lost its usefulness as a portable tool for maximizing creativity when capturing life on the go, especially if you want to include yourself and your friends in on the fun.
Care to learn more about the full range of selfie sticks? Jump to Explora’s Selfie Sticks: A B&H Buying Guide, by John Harris.
+Lightweight, quick and easy to set up
+Less expensive than purchasing a tripod
+Useful in locations that do not allow for a larger setup
+Potential for capturing otherwise inaccessible scenes
+Can also serve as a hiking pole on outdoor adventures
-Not as stable as a three-legged camera support
Assembling Your Own Kit
We hope that the above information will make it somewhat easier to select a tripod that’s fully suited to your needs or to assemble your own custom support kit. While there are many brands to choose from and multiple designs and functions to review, always remember that your tripod setup is, first and foremost, designed to support your gear safely, and that special consideration should always be given to the recommended load capacities of any tripod component you purchase.
Read more about tripods in these Explora articles The Tripod Explained, 10 Recommended Full-Sized Tripods, 12 Recommended Travel Tripods, Camera Supports for Unique-Angle Camera Positioning, 20 Tripods That Are Not Really Tripods and Transformer Tripods: More Than Meets the Leg.