Tripods are a key piece of any photographer’s kit, and there are as many choices for tripods are there are for camera and lens systems. So how to choose? Here’s a primer on the basics tripod types, available options, and things to consider when buying, including specific models that fit the needs of every photographer.
Sturdy, Lightweight, Cheap. Pick 2.
There’s an expression: Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two. The same applies to tripods, but change the options to Sturdy. Lightweight. Cheap. If you want a lightweight, sturdy tripod, expect to pay a lot of money for it. If you want something inexpensive and lightweight, don’t expect it to be very sturdy. So it becomes a balance, and the key is in understanding how you will be using your tripod.
Choose a sturdy tripod if you want it to last a really long time, if you do a lot of work in a single space, such as your studio, or if you tend to be really rough on your gear.
If you do a lot of backpacking or traveling. There are many models that fit in an airplane carry-on, or fit easily into your backpack.
If you don’t think you’ll use a tripod very often, or if you simply want a starter model, there are dozens of tripods to be found for $30-75 that will fit the bill. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to get steady shots.
There are two main kinds of tripod heads – ball heads and pan heads. A ball head has a single knob and the head easily rotates around until you lock it into position. A pan head has a pan lock, tilt lock for up and down movement, and a third lock for arcing the camera side to side.
This is the simplest kind of tripod head. A single locking mechanism allows you a full range of movement for your camera. If you tend to shoot quickly, or with moving subjects, this might be just the tripod head you need. The trade off is that you cannot easily do panning shots, such as with panoramas, and a simple tweak in the tilt will force you to re-frame the whole shot.
With pan heads, multiple locking knobs give you precision in your tripod work. You can lock down the tilt and still adjust the pan without having to re-frame the whole composition. These are very useful heads if you do a lot of tabletop or macro work. The different locks give you precision in your camera movement and allow you to pan easily for panoramic shots or even for use with small video cameras. The trade-off is speed. With so many adjustment knobs, it can take longer to frame and lock down your shot than with a ball head. If you want to use your tripod for both still and video work, definitely choose a pan head, but make sure the connector on the quick release plate will work with both your still and video cameras.
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