Choosing the right support for your needs doesn't have to be difficult. Andy Westlake talks you through the options
I suspect many photographers have a guilty feeling lurking inside that they should really be using a tripod more often. While the remarkable high-ISO and image-stabilisation capabilities of modern cameras allow handheld shooting in incredibly low light, using a tripod will let you select the lowest ISO for the best possible image quality or use long exposures for creative effect.
The problem, of course, is that tripods are big, heavy, and awkward to set up – or at least, they always used to be. The good news is that, if you’ve become allergic to tripods after lugging around a chunky metal beast weighing several kilograms, the latest offerings are lighter and more portable than ever before.
Technology and design have advanced massively in recent years. Carbon fibre has gone from being an expensive luxury to a mainstream material, providing both lighter weight and superior dampening of vibrations. Many models are available in both materials, and I’d always recommend carbon fibre if you can afford it. Also where three-section legs were once considered de rigueur, four- or five-section models are now standard, giving a shorter folded length that’s more convenient to carry, especially when combined with reverse-folding leg designs. Anti-twist leg locks make setting up quicker than ever, while the Arca Swiss dovetail pattern has emerged as the de facto standard for quick-release plates.
In a market that was once dominated by Manfrotto and Gitzo, there’s also a wider range of brands to choose from. Newer names such as Benro, 3 Legged Thing, Feisol and Sirui provide innovative products at competitive prices, while longer established brands such as Vanguard and Velbon also have some fine offerings. Naturally the general rule is that you get what you pay for.
As expected with all this competition, there’s a wider range of tripods and heads on the market, but this means that choosing the best option for your needs can be confusing, to say the least. Read on for our overview of what’s available, and our recommendations for the best kit on the market.
Top tripods and kits
Tripods come in many different styles and sizes, each with its own specific strengths
Decent tripods don’t have to weigh a ton or cost a fortune, and it’s possible to get lightweight but sturdy tripods for under £100. Compromises include a lower maximum height and recommended load, meaning these tripods are best suited for use with smaller DSLR or mirrorless cameras with tilting screens, and not ideal for shooting with large lenses. Our top pick is the Benro Slim Carbon Fibre tripod + N00 ball head kit, which extends to 146cm, packs to 51cm, and weighs just 1kg. At just £89, it’s an absolute steal. Another great choice is the Vanguard VEO 235AB, which uses a unique swivelling column to fold down to 38cm, while extending to 145cm. Weighing 1.5kg, it can be bought for as little as £80.
If you’re jetting off on a city break, or plan on carrying a tripod around all day long, then an ultra-light and compact travel model is desirable. Five-section legs and two-section centre columns allow good-sized tripods to fold down to carry-on friendly dimensions. For an ultra-portable option, the carbon-fibre Sirui MyTrip MT5-C is hard to beat: it folds to 31cm and weighs just 0.9kg including a strong ball head, but can extend to 1.3m. Its aluminium counterpart, the MT5-AK is slightly heavier but half the price, at £109 vs £219. If you need a full-size alternative, take a look at the 3 Legged Thing Punks Brian (£219), which extends to an impressive 1.87m but folds to 41cm, and weighs 1.45kg including its ball head.
The solid workhorse
For photographers who use larger cameras and lenses, a sturdy and substantial tripod is essential. Such models tend to be relatively large and heavy, but make up for it by being able to hold hefty kit at eye level. We’re huge fans of the Benro Mach3 range: budget- conscious photographers are well served by the £119 aluminium TMA28A, while its carbon-fibre equivalent TMA28C costs £269. Both offer a 155.5cm maximum height and 53cm folded length, while weighing 1.76kg and 1.54kg, respectively. Those looking for a more compact package should also take a look at the Velbon Ultra 655 (£100), which packs down to just 37.2cm but extends to 154cm, and
The vast majority of tripods have centre columns that can only be positioned vertically. But if you want to shoot from a wider range of angles, for example overhead close-ups, a tilting column can be really handy. Manfrotto’s excellent 190 Go! has a column that can be flipped to horizontal using a neat mechanism concealed within the central spider. Its vital statistics include a height of 147cm and closed length of 45cm, with prices of £139 for the 1.66kg aluminium model or £229 for carbon fibre (1.35kg). Another great choice is the Vanguard Alta Pro+ 264, whose column can be tilted and rotated to almost any angle. Its dimensions are broadly similar to the Manfrotto’s, but it weighs a touch more, at 1.9kg for the aluminium version (£174) and 1.7kg for carbon fibre (£199).
At a premium
If you’re prepared to spend almost as much on a tripod as you might on a decent lens, then some fantastic premium options are available. Gitzo leads the way, with its £619 GT1555T Traveller being perhaps the finest travel tripod on the market. It’s not so much the core specs that matter here – 138cm maximum height, 35.5cm packed length, and 1.03kg weight without a head – as the sheer build quality and rigidity. Other premium models include the superb waterproof Sirui W-2204, which employs twist leg-locks that are sealed against moisture or sand getting inside. This £410, 1.7kg leg set will raise an 18kg load to a maximum height of 180cm, while folding to 52cm.
If your interests include shooting subjects very close to the ground, then a small set of legs can be more practical than a full-size tripod. Unlike most mini tripods, the Feisol TT-15M2 is essentially a miniaturised version of a ‘serious’ tripod, with strong carbon-fibre legs that can be independently set to three different angles, giving heights from 11cm to 16cm without a head. It’ll happily hold a full-frame DSLR, but weighs just 200g, meaning you can carry it all the time. Users on a tight budget could experiment with the Velbon EX Macro, which can be used for shooting at heights between 20.3cm and 56.3cm, and only costs around £25.
Specialist tripods and accessories
A range of alternative supports is available for those times when a full-size tripod isn’t the right answer
On the table
There’s something to be said for carrying a small but sturdy table-top tripod with you all the time, which you can deploy in situations where full-size tripods can’t be used. The key lies in finding one that’s sturdy enough. Contenders include the Cullmann Magnesit Copter, which comes either alone for £15 or with the small but surprisingly strong CB2 head for around £30; the erstwhile and much-copied Manfrotto 709B (£40), the multi-functional Sirui 3T-35 (£80) that’s well-suited to video as well as stills, and the fantastic-but-pricey Gitzo Mini Traveller, which features dual-angle legs and a neatly designed ball head, but costs £189.
Some situations and locations simply aren’t amenable to a conventional tripod. For instance, when you’re shooting at ground level or propping your camera on a wall, a beanbag can be indispensable, with the dual-compartment Wildlife Watching Supplies C14.3 Standard Double Bean Bag being an especially fine example (£30). Alternatively if you’d like to be able to attach your camera to railings or the branch of a tree, then a bendy-legged Joby Gorillapod could be what you need. They’re available in several sizes and various kits, from mini though to a large version with a 5kg rated load. Prices start at £20.
With smartphones becoming ever more accomplished photographic tools, it can be useful to be able to fit them onto a tripod. As they don’t have their own sockets, some sort of clamp is necessary; look for ones that fold flat when they’re not in use. Our favourite is probably the Joby Griptight ONE, which is sold either on its own for £14, or with the really neat Micro Stand mini tripod for £32. Alternatively, the Manfrotto Twistgrip is a heavier- duty option that includes a shoe mount for a microphone or LED light, and costs around £29. If you shoot a lot of panoramas with your phone, a motorised rotating head such as the Cullmann SmartPano 360CP might be useful.
Monopods don’t do the same job as tripods; instead they’re great for providing extra support with lenses that are too heavy to shoot handheld for long periods. Again there’s a vast range to choose from, with different weights, heights and rated loads; some also have small tripod feet for extra stability. Our favourites include the Velbon Ultra Stick Super 8 (£59), which uses an 8-section design to retract down to a super-compact 26cm, and the lightweight, sturdy and excellent value Vanguard Veo AM-264 (£59). For demanding users, the £148 Manfrotto XPRO Photo 5-section carbon-fibre monopod will support large telephotos with ease; it also comes in a kit with tripod feet for £179.
Arca Swiss grips and L-brackets
Ultimately, the effectiveness of any tripod is only as good as the connection between it and the camera. This explains the current ubiquity of the Arca Swiss pattern dovetail quick-release system – the clamp design locks the camera firmly onto the head. With this popularity has come a range of Arca Swiss base-plates tailor-made for different models of cameras, which often expand the hand grip as an added bonus. Many also function as L-brackets that allow you to shoot in portrait format with the camera positioned over the top of the head, giving much better stability. Universal-fit L-brackets are also available.
Photographic tripod heads come in four main types. Here’s a summary of the strengths and uses of each
By far the most popular type of tripod head, these win on light weight and speed of use, but can be difficult to adjust really precisely. The best have an independently lockable panning base, and a friction control to adjust the drag on the ball movement. Sirui’s K-X series heads are particularly fine examples, featuring a well-designed friction control, Arca Swiss-type quick release and multiple bubble levels. Prices range from around £100 for the smallest K-10X to £160 for the top-of-the-range K-40X. Vanguard’s Alta BH range is a great budget alternative, at £50 for the BH-100 to £90 for the larger BH-300.
For photographers who demand precise control of composition, perhaps for architectural or macro work, a geared head can be a godsend. Until recently, Manfrotto dominated this sector, aside from some super-expensive options from Arca Swiss. But now Benro has leapfrogged into the lead with its £179 GD3WH, a relatively lightweight and portable yet precise geared head that incorporates an Arca Swiss-type quick release. Those on a tighter budget should consider the £139 Manfrotto XPRO 3-Way geared head, although it’s more plasticky and uses Manfrotto’s RC2 camera plate.
The 3-way, or pan-and-tilt type of head, is almost ubiquitous on cheap aluminium- and-plastic tripods, but gets progressively less popular as prices rise. It has the big advantage of giving independent control over the three axes of camera movement, but the penalty lies in additional size and weight. As a result, 3-way heads are generally best suited for studio use. Having three levers sticking out in different directions also restricts portability, and for this reason we like Manfrotto’s X-PRO 3-way head (£94) and the smaller 804RC2 Mark II (£69), both of which feature field-friendly retractable handles.
If you try using large telephoto lenses on a tripod, you’ll quickly find that conventional heads aren’t really suitable for holding them securely. This is where gimbal heads come in. By suspending the lens from above, they provide a stable solution with even the heaviest of lenses. Our pick of the class is the Gitzo Fluid Gimbal Head (£359), which combines smooth fluid movement at slow rotation speeds with free movement for faster adjustments. The £259 Benro GH2 represents a worthy budget option.
These aren’t heads as such, but add-on accessories that allow the camera’s position to be adjusted precisely for macro photography, where even sub-millimetre movements can visibly change the composition and focus. The Velbon Super Mag Slider (£90) is quite bulky, but provides smooth and precise adjustment both forwards and backwards for focusing, and side to side for tweaking the image framing. If you can live without the latter, the Manfrotto 454 Micro Positioning Plate (£89) is a more compact option for macro focus adjustment.
Top tips for tripod use
- Extend the centre column as little as possible for maximum rigidity.
- On uneven ground, adjust the lowest, thinnest leg sections to ensure the tripod is level
- Hang a bag off the centre column hook to help dampen vibrations.
- Make sure all controls are locked down completely tight before shooting.
- Use a remote release to fire the camera’s shutter.
- In portrait format, use an L-bracket to keep the camera directly above the head.
The four obvious headline specifications when comparing tripods are maximum height, folded length, weight and load capacity. But also check the height without the centre column extended – the taller this is, the more stable the tripod is likely to be. If you’re interested in low-level work, also pay attention to the minimum height, and how much disassembly of the tripod’s centre column is required to get there – split columns are quickest and easiest to use. But note that load ratings should be taken as a very rough guide only; manufacturers determine them in different ways, and they tend to be optimistic.
For more information
- 3 Legged Thing
- Wildlife Watching Supplies