James Abbott offers some tripod wisdom to help you choose the best one for your photography - and use it to its full potential
Buying a tripod
Buying a tripod is just as important as buying a new lens – you have to make sure you select the best option for you and your photography. Maximum and minimum height, head, weight, features and budget are all variables that you need to take into account. No two tripods are the same.
The best tripods have removable heads and the two are often purchased separately, although manufacturers do create leg and head kits. Then there are different materials. For example, carbon fibre weighs less but costs more than aluminium. As always, your budget is an important part of the purchasing decision, and with tripods the more you pay the better they are.
Buying a tripod: Full-size tripods
‘Full-size tripod’ is a rather loose term, but in this instance we are referring to tripods that are sturdy enough to support any camera, including pro-spec DSLRs, with a maximum payload of around 8kg, and which fully extend to approximately 170cm. Whether carbon fibre or aluminium, this is a sturdy option in any situation but much heavier than a travel tripod.
Buying a tripod: Travel tripods
Small and light, at around 1.5kg or less, travel tripods are perfect when you need to keep things light. They come with a head and can often support a camera and lens up to 4kg. They will easily cover landscape, travel, macro and portrait photography. A pro-DSLR and 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, however, would be too heavy for this type of tripod.
Buying a tripod: Mini tripods
If you’re out shooting and don’t think you’ll need a tripod, a mini tripod fits discreetly into your bag thanks to its small size and light weight of just a few hundred grams or less. These tripods are limited by maximum height and maximum payload, but you can set them up on a wall or table to get a higher viewpoint. Alternatively, position them on the ground for a creative low angle.
Buying a tripod head
There are tripod heads to suit every type of photography. Size, weight, functionality, features and cost are all important. Different heads will have different mounts but the two main ones you’ll come across are Arca Swiss, not limited to this brand, and Manfrotto, which uses several mounts on different heads including Arca Swiss. Read on below to discover more about six types of tripod heads.
Buying a tripod head: Ball heads
Ball heads are compact ball-and-socket-type heads offering quick and easy adjustment and use a single lock to secure the camera. Often favoured by landscape photographers, they are great for all types of photography, except on those occasions where a large and heavy telephoto lens is required.
Buying a tripod head: Three-way and geared heads
Featuring a three-twist-locking lever, you can pan and tilt the head vertically and horizontally. Geared heads are also three-way but you twist the levers to tilt the head on the horizontal or vertical axis.
Buying a tripod head: Gimbal heads
These are designed for wildlife, motorsport and airshow photographers using heavy telephoto lenses. A gimbal head lets you rotate a lens smoothly around its centre of gravity, and tilt it up and down steadily with ease. These heads are bigger and heavier than most other types.
Buying a tripod head: Panoramic heads
These are specialist pieces of kit that are heavy and bulky as a result of their design. They allow you to rotate the camera around the nodal point of the lens, which simply results in a better panoramic than if you rotate the camera using a standard head.
Buying a tripod head: Fluid heads
This type of head is ideal for video. They typically feature a long hand for panning, alongside a fluid chamber, tension control and sometimes a counterweight to help create smoother pans. Paired with a video tripod you can achieve smooth pans.
Buying tripod accessories
L-brackets for landscape photography
The humble L-bracket is a gift from the gods for landscape photographers. This incredible accessory is an L-shaped bracket that attaches to the bottom of your camera, effectively creating a tripod plate running along the bottom of the camera and up one side. This means you can switch from landscape to portrait format in an instant, all while maintaining full use of the tripod head. Shooting with the camera in portrait format without an L-bracket reduces manoeuvrability compared with shooting in landscape format. L-brackets are available in a universal fit or for specific cameras, although it’s worth noting the latter are often more expensive.
Special feet for different situations
Every tripod will come with a standard set of rubber feet, but some feature runner feet that twist to reveal small spikes for added grip in certain situations. You can also get feet designed for use on snow and sand, and spikes of varying lengths to make sure your tripod is as stable as possible on softer ground.
Plamp for holding subjects or a reflector
The Wimberley Plamp may have a strange name but this accessory is extremely useful, especially for macro and close-up photographers. The Plamp attaches at one end to a tripod, and the clip at the other can be used to hold a subject (such as a flower) still when shooting. Alternatively, the Plamp can be used to hold up small backgrounds or reflectors to even-out lighting.
Macro focusing plate
If you’re a macro and close-up photography enthusiast, a macro focusing plate is an essential piece of kit. The plate attaches to the tripod head as your camera normally would, and the camera then goes on the plate. Now, when you set your macro lens to its minimum focusing distance for a 1:1 ratio, you can focus with ultimate precision by turning a knob on the plate that moves the camera backwards and forwards to bring the subject into sharp focus.
Most camera bags are designed to carry a tripod but if you’re using one that doesn’t, or using a camera insert in an everyday bag, a tripod bag may be useful. These bags are generally designed for specific models, and some tripods are sold with bags included. If your tripod didn’t come with a bag, check the manufacturer’s website to see if one that fits is available.
James Abbott is a freelance photographer and photography journalist based in Cambridge. He specialises in landscape and portrait photography, but has photographed practically every subject you can think of. Visit www.jamesaphoto.co.uk.