Without tripods, many types of photographs, like long exposures, are impossible. But just like choosing a camera, lens, or bag, photographers have no shortage of options when it comes to buying a tripod, and scrolling through all the options brings up a bunch of questions. What height do you need? How heavy is too heavy? What’s a ball head?
We’ve simplified the process of buying a tripod and outlined the eight biggest things to consider in this guide on how to choose a tripod, from the features to the tripod brands. Here’s what you need to know before picking up that tripod.
Just like cameras come in compacts, mirrorless, DSLRs and more, tripods come in different styles too. Each type of tripod is designed for a different use, with different pros and cons to consider. The main tripod types include:
- Studio: Tripods designed for studio use are sturdy — but also very heavy. These options will hold plenty of gear, but you won’t want to hike with one on your back.
- Travel: Travel tripods are designed to easily strap onto a backpack or stash in an overhead bin on an airplane. These tripods are ultra-compact, but they aren’t as sturdy as the heavier studio type.
- Two-in-ones: A handful of tripods aren’t just tripods — they are monopods too. This option can save you some cash if you need both options.
- Tabletop: These tripods aren’t designed to stand on their own, but the short tabletop option is often an affordable choice for product photography and still life.
The tripod head is where the camera sits — tripod heads control (or limit) the camera’s movement. Tripods for long exposure photography don’t necessarily need the fancy heads since they’ll be locked in place anyways, while photographers using the panning technique and videographers will want to prioritize the way the head moves when choosing a tripod.
The different types of tripod heads include:
- Ball head: As the name suggests, ball heads rest the camera on a sphere, allowing for flexible camera positions. While flexible for locking in a number of different positions, ball heads are harder to control, since you can move the camera in all directions at once.
- Pistol grip: A variation on the ball head, the only difference with the pistol head is that you hold a trigger to adjust the camera’s position.
- Pan and tilt tripod heads: Unlike a ball head, with a pan and tilt head, you can choose to move the camera only horizontally or only vertically, allowing for more fine-tuning. As the name suggests, pan and tilt tripod heads are also easier to operate for panning effects with still photos or video.
- Fluid tripod heads: A fluid tripod head is a pan and tilt enhanced for video — because you can control the speed of the camera’s movements. That feature makes them preferred by many videographers, but more expensive for little gain for still photographers.
You can buy a tripod set that includes both the legs and head, and for many photographers, this option is the simplest and most affordable. For a more custom combination or the most head features, you can also buy legs and a head separately to get the right mix of height and head features, or to upgrade an existing tripod.
3. Tripod legs and leg lock types
A tripod’s legs are what gives the camera support system the height and stability, so it’s not a feature to overlook. Tripod legs can be made of a number of different materials. Aluminum is the most affordable but expensive, while carbon fiber is pricier but offers a lighter profile without sacrificing too much stability. On most tripods, the legs will also have a center column that you can raise up to add more height, though using the column tends to be less sturdy than reaching the same height using the leg adjustments alone.
In order to fold up the tripod, legs come in different sections. More sections mean a more portable tripod — but watch out. More leg sections also cut back on stability, which means tripods with more than three leg sections are more susceptible to camera shake from wind and other elements.
One last thing to consider — how are the legs adjusted? Lever locks use a pull system to keep the legs locked in place, while twist locks are adjusted by twisting the leg. Lever locks are larger than the twist option but tend to be more reliable since if you don’t twist the leg tight enough, twist locks might not remain locked.
4. Height and Weight
Tripods come in all different sizes — and the right one will depend on both the type of photography you do and how tall you are. You’ll want to pick up a tripod that’s tall enough to allow you to see through your camera’s viewfinder without slouching.
Don’t stop at just the maximum height, however. The best tripods are often versatile, allowing to shoot from both short and tall heights. Some tripods include a center column that rotates, allowing you to get close to the ground. If you shoot a lot of macro shots, you’ll want to look for a tripod that can get down low too. Even without macro, a versatile tripod will allow you to shoot while kneeling or sitting as well.
While getting the appropriate height will help you avoid backaches while shooting, considering the weight will help you avoid aches from trekking the tripod out to wherever you are shooting. If you only plan to use the tripod in a studio, a heavy option will both be less expensive and in some cases, sturdier. If, however, you will be hiking with that tripod in order to reach that spectacular view, you’ll want to find something that’s not going to add a bunch of weight to your bag. Lighter tripods often aren’t as sturdy, so finding an option in the middle ground is also a good idea.
One more thing to consider: how much can the tripod hold? Be sure to check the maximum weight and make sure that will accommodate your gear, or you'll tip over when you add that big telephoto lens.
Feet may be less important than the legs and head, but still something to consider. Rubber-tipped feet are good for shooting indoors, while spiked feet offer more grip outdoors (but could damage floors indoors). Some tripods include both that you screw on and off to switch, while others may have retractable spikes that you can pull out only when you need them.
6. Quick release
When you get to your shooting location, how long will it take to set up your gear? A big part of that is the quick release plate. This allows you to click your camera in with a lever instead twisting it on every time you want to shoot with the tripod. Quick release plates make it easy to switch from handheld to tripod and back again, with little slowdown in between. Quick release plates come in different types and sizes, with Arca Swiss being the most common. If you pick up a backup quick release plate or a second one for a second camera body, make sure it’s compatible.
7. Extra features
Tripods can’t be defined in their entirety by the head, legs, and feet alone. Manufacturers often add a few extras to sway you to choose that particular option over all the others. A few extras you may find include:
- Levels: Different types of levels will help make sure your camera is perfectly straight, saving editing later.
- Counterweight hook: If you are picking up a lightweight tripod, a counterweight hook will allow you to add some stability back in. You can hook your camera bag here, giving the tripod added stability by using something you’re already carrying around anyways.
- Multiple leg angles: Chances are, if the tripod has a versatile height range, you can lock the legs in at different angles, allowing you to either get the most possible height or keep the camera lower to the ground.
- Weather sealing. Tripods may not have electronics that can get damaged like a camera, but weather can still shorten the life of your tripod. If sand gets stuck in the legs, you may have a hard time adjusting them. Water and rust can also shorten your tripods life-span. Some manufacturers weather-seal their tripods for a longer life even when shooting in the elements often.
8. Tripod brands
Photographers certainly don’t have a shortage of options to choose from — so what manufacturers out there are the best? Like camera brands, a lot of the tripod brands are great, they just offer a mix of the different features. Here are a handful of different top brands at a few different price points.
- Silk and Sunpack tripods aren’t the most feature-filled, lightest or most stable tripods, but if you can’t spend into three digits, these two brands are good options, though you can sometimes find other brands for less than $100 as well.
- MeFotos colorful travel tripods start at $125 for the budget-conscious
- Manfrotto is an excellent tripod brand with enough of a selection to appease both budget beginners and picky pros.
- Vanguard is a good option for the budget-conscious but they also have a handful of nice higher-end options as well.
- Benro is another brand with a wide range of price points.
- Oben has a lot of solid options, ranging in price from $75 to $500.
- 3 Legged Thing offers a line of colorful travel tripods, with the most affordable selling for less than $200
- Induro is a respectable brand with a price range starting at around $250.
- Gitzo offers a range of high-end tripods and heads.
Tripods expand the possibilities, opening up techniques like long exposure photography as well as simplifying others, like HDR. Learning how to choose a tripod helps makes the choice simpler by prioritizing the features that mean the most to your shooting style, whether that’s portability, stability or versatility. Understanding how each feature impacts the performance, use, and portability will help make the best decision with your budget.