How To Buy A Tripod
Size matters, but so do features, specs, stability, and build quality. Every photographer needs at least one tripod, but enthusiasts and pros should own at least two, and maybe three. Here’s how to pick the best ones for you.
Want to spot the professional photographers in a crowd of shooters? Just look for the ones using or carrying tripods—usually fairly hefty medium-sized or heavy-duty models identifiable by their large diameter legs and robust metal yokes—the part that hold the three legs together at the top. That’s because the unwritten rule for most pros is “Always carry a tripod or have one readily accessible—no exceptions.” The pro’s dedication to the tripod is based on hard experience—when the chips are down, the lighting is bad, you have to shoot at a slower shutter speed or a smaller aperture than you want to, can’t use flash, etc. and you have to get the shot, using a tripod is often the only way to save the day. For serious photo enthusiasts, the tripod rule is a little less severe: “The tripod you take with you is always better than the one you leave at home.” Like signing up for the gym and not working out, buying a super-hefty heavy-duty tripod will not improve your picture taking, or enhance your shooting range one iota if it’s so big and heavy that it stays in the closet while you’re out hiking and shooting wildlife pictures with that shiny new telephoto zoom.
Our main point is this: Tripods, just like cameras, lenses, filters, and camera bags come in myriad different sizes and types, and the specific tripods that will work best for you depend on your use profile—the kind of shooting you do. Just as you wouldn’t want to commute in an Indianapolis 500 racecar, you probably wouldn’t want to tote 29-lb industrial photographer’s tripod on your next vacation. To help you make intelligent choices when buying tripods, here’s a handy guide to help you choose wisely and well.
Tabletop tripods: These little three-leggers are great for shooting close-ups, self-timer shots and night scenes. Perch them securely on a table, rock, wall or other solid object and they’ll provide many of the benefits of a full-size tripod when you’re shooting with a digital still or video camera. All are extremely light and most will fold small enough fit into your camera bag. About the only thing they can’t do is extend to eye level on their own—maximum height is usually a foot or less.
Vista Table Top Pro: Compact, lightweight and sturdy, this convenient tabletop tripod has two-section flip-lock legs, a suction cup at the bottom of its center post that enhances stability, and a smooth 3-way pan/tilt head with quick release. It’ll support cameras up to 2-1/2 lbs., extends to 11 inches, weighs only 1 lb., and will fit in many camera bags. Street price: $14.95.
Compact travel tripods: Very popular with hikers, vacationers and travelers, lightweight compact travel tripods provide a stable shooting platform for all but the heaviest cameras and lenses—they’re ideal for point-and-shoot cameras, consumer digital SLRs and moderate sized video cameras and camcorders up to 4 lbs. Typically they’ll extend to around 4-1/2-5 feet for near-eye-level shooting, fold to 2 feet long or less for easy packing, and weigh about 3 lbs or less so, making them easy to carry. These are tripods you’ll take with you all right, but if you need greater carrying capacity and height plus added stability, take a close look at the next category.
Compact travel tripod
Vista Traveler: Just the thing for picture takers on the go, it will support cameras up to 4 lbs., has hefty 20mm-diameter flip-lock legs, a stabilizing center brace, a built-in carrying handle, a geared center post, and a 3-way head with long single handle that makes it easy to track moving subjects. Maximum height: 53 inches; folded length: 21 inches; weight: 2lbs. Street price: $19.95.
Lightweight tripods: They’re a bit bigger and heavier than compact travel tripods—a little over 2 feet long when folded, and moderately heavier too—between 4 and 5 lbs, but they will also support heavier cameras in the 5 to 9lb. weight class and extend to nearly 5-1/2 feet for true eye level viewing. The more sophisticated, higher capacity tripods in this class are an excellent choice for the average photographer who wants one tripod to take along when traveling, or the enthusiast who needs a general-purpose tripod for hiking, wilderness shooting, or any application where weight is a factor. Models with fluid or video heads are great for video too.
Vista Attaras: A great all-rounder with grounder (low-angle) capability, this full featured tripod will support cameras up to 9 lbs., has 3-position leg locks for setting set the leg angle, and a 2-section center column that lets you get down to 11 inches. Other features: Dual bubble levels, built-in compass, flip-lock legs, non- slip feet, and covered top leg sections for easy handling in cold or hot weather. Maximum height: 63 inches; folded length: 27 inches; weight: 4.6 lbs. Street price: $79.98.
Medium-weight full-size tripods: If you’re a serious enthusiast who wants one tripod that will do practically everything, this category comes closest to being the mythical “universal tripod.” With maximum weight ranging from under 5 lbs., to over 10 lbs. for the heftier models, load capacities ranging from 9 lbs to 18 lbs, and maximum heights ranging from 5 to 6-1/2 feet, these are serious tripods—strong, stable, durable, and designed to support heavy equipment and to withstand rugged use. While the smallest ones fold to a compact 26 or 27 inches, most range from 30-47 inches when folded, so you may want to strap them to your camera bag or carry them in a tripod bag. Since they’re aimed at serious photographers and pros, many tripods in this category have extra features like grounder capability for low-angle shooting 2-or 3-way fluid heads, reversible or two-section center columns, etc.
Medium full-size tripod
Davis & Sanford Carbonlite X10: Featuring magnesium components and carbon fiber legs that damp vibration better and are 30% lighter than aluminum, this versatile high-tech tripod has a 3-way fluid head with quick release, 3-position leg angle adjustments, rubber/retractable spiked feet, bubble levels, and a hook on the bottom of the center post for adding stabilizing weight. It even has a separate mini tripod stored in its SwitchGrip handle! Maximum height: 70 inches; folded length: 30 inches; maximum load: 9 lbs.; weight: 5.4 lbs. Street price: $249.95.
Large heavy-duty tripods: Weighing from 11 to 30 lbs, and having load capacities in the 50-100lbs. range, these are the tripods used by industrial and astronomical photographers, sports photographers, and videographers who shoot with large, heavy cameras and/or super-long heavy telephoto lenses. Most of these pro tripods come without heads—the head is an extra accessory sold separately—and many have large-diameter 2-secion legs because maximum stability is more important than portability. Maximum heights vary, depending on application, from a relatively low 47.5 inches to a lofty 85 inches.
Large heavy-duty tripod
Davis & Sanford Airlift 60; This robust tripod has a unique broad steel base that resists tipping, and a Pedestal Airlift pneumatic cylinder that provides a smooth, easy floating action when shooting with large studio and video cameras. Its 1-7/8-inch diameter center column is 15 inches tall and it accepts optional heads and platforms for specific applications. It also features quiet 4-inch deluxe ball bearing wheels with step-on locking action of both swivel and rolling action. Maximum height: 47.5 inches; load capacity: 60 lbs.; weight: 30 lbs. Street price: $849.95.
Specialty tripods: Ranging from compact ultra-lightweights with special features (such as stowing a fully adjustable mini-tripod in the pan/tilt handle!) to 29-lb behemoths like the famous Davis & Sanford Maxi industrial tripod that extends to a towering 15 feet, this category also includes specialty video tripods with pneumatic and spring-assisted center posts, and robust, high-capacity units designed specifically for industrial and telescope applications.
Davis & Sanford Switchkit: This ingenious 4-piece 7-in-one kit includes a lightweight aluminum tripod that has 3-section flip-lock legs, a 4-lb. load capacity and extends to 53 inches when shooting with the 3-way pan head or 59 inches when shooting with the included SwitchGrip accessory. Nestled inside the SwitchGrip handle there’s a mini tripod complete with a mini ball head that’s great for point-and-shoot cameras. It all fits into a tripod bag that can be easily converted into a compact camera case! Weight: 2 lbs. Street price: $19.95.
Monopods: No they’re not as stable as tripod—they won’t support your camera by themselves; you’ve got to hold them up. However, these one-leg supports offer a flexible alternative to providing added stability when shooting in the field, or when the use of tripods is not permitted. And they’ll let you take much sharper pictures and videos than you’d be able to achieve handheld, especially when shooting at long focal lengths. Lightweight, compact, and very easy to set up, monopods are a great way to supplement your tripod when hiking, camping or shooting at events.
Vista Monopod Duo 60: This sturdy, convenient one-leg support has a robust ball head on top that hold cameras up to 2.5 lbs. Remove it and you can mount cameras up to 7 lbs. directly on the platform provided on the cap. Its 5-section flip-lock leg has a maximum height of 60 inches, a folded length of 21 inches, and it weighs only1 lb. It even comes with a SwitchGrip handle containing a separate 2-section mini ball had tripod and has a foam handle with strap for all weather use. Street price: $29.95.
Quick and easy guide to tripod features:
Legs: The relative virtues of round section (tubular) and channel type legs have been debated for decades, but both systems work well when properly designed. All things being equal, larger diameter legs of either type provide added stability, but weigh more. Fewer leg sections tend to increase rigidity of the tripod, but increase its folded length. As with all engineering, compromises are required in tripod design, and 3-section legs of medium diameter (about 1 inch) or larger offer a good balance between convenience and stability. Legs with angle adjustments (e.g. 3-position legs) that can be splayed out and locked in position at wider angles to the center post (aka grounder capability,) are recommended for extreme low-angle shots, such as when photographing flowers and other nature subjects.
Leg locks: There are two basic leg lock systems used on 99% of the tripods in production—the snap lock (also knows as the flip lock) and the twist lock. Snap locks are faster to operate, allowing quick and convenient setup—you can easily unsnap the locks, adjust all three legs at once by lifting the tripod to the desired height with the legs folded against the center post, then locking the legs in place. With twist locks, you loosen each leg by turning a ring-like collar, pulling the leg out to the desired position, then turning the collar in the opposite direction to lock the leg. The advantage of twist locks is that they are self adjusting—with flip locks you occasionally have to tighten the locking mechanism with a (furnished) Allen wrench if the leg slips when it’s in the locked position. Some users claim twist locks are less likely to jam, especially in very cold conditions, but many tripod users prefer the convenience of snap locks.
Center posts: The two basic kinds of center posts are the geared type—you raise and lower them by rotating a crank handle—and the lift type—you unlock them (while supporting any attached camera with your other hand) and simply lift or lower them to the desired height. Geared center posts make precise height adjustments more convenient, but generally add a bit of weight, while lift-type center posts are simpler and quicker to adjust and tend to be a bit lighter. Reversible center posts are a good feature that let you mount your camera below the tripod yoke for low-angle shooting. Two- section center posts that come apart provide more flexible mounting options for your camera. Pneumatic center posts help you get the classic “pedestal effect” (a smooth, controlled vertical movement) when shooting videos, and spring-assisted center posts help you raise and lower heavy cameras more easily.
Heads: Most tripods come with a 3-way head providing separate, lockable pan (horizontal swing) and tilt (vertical) movements, as well as a hinged platform allowing you to rotate the camera platform 90 degrees from horizontal (landscape) orientation to vertical (portrait) orientation. Some tripods, especially video tripods, have two-way heads providing the first two aforementioned adjustments, but not the last, which is not needed when shooting movies or videos. A few tripods have ball heads, which allow a wide range of horizontal, vertical and oblique adjustments, but do not have a pan/tilt handle and are not intended for panning the camera while shooting—a useful technique for shooting videos and still pictures of actions subjects that move laterally across the frame.
Fluid head tripods are of great benefit when shooting videos since they provide a very smooth, well-damped panning motion that virtually eliminates jerkiness and yields professional-looking video effects. True fluid heads, often sold as accessories for professional tripods that don’t come with heads, contain a special viscous oil to damp the panning action, and can be adjusted to control the degree of damping required. Fluid-effect heads, which are often included on video tripods and general-use tripods, contain a solid viscous material that also provides a very smooth panning action, but the amount of damping is not adjustable (some have friction adjustments for adjusting the stiffness/smoothness of the panning action). Well-designed fluid-effect heads work very will in practices, and are much less expensive that the true fluid heads used by professional cinematographers and videographers. Fluid heads also work well for still photography, especially when panning horizontal action.
Leg braces: These adjustable cross members that join the legs together at the bottom increase tripod stability by providing a fully triangulated structure when they’re locked in position with a knob or lever. They’re particularly useful on lightweight tripods, enhancing the rigidity of narrow diameter legs when they’re fully extended, but they can also be useful in imparting and extra degree of rigidity and freedom from flex to medium full-sized tripods.
Quick-release feature: A quick release is a small removable platform that screws into the tripod socket on your camera, lens, or other accessory so it can be quickly and easily affixed to and removed from the head of the tripod and locked in place with a lever. This speeds things up considerably because you don’t have to unscrew your camera, lens, etc., from the tripod each time you want to mount something else on the tripod. It also is less likely that the tripod will move from its set position when you make such switches. Most tripods with this feature come with an extra quick-release platform for a second camera or accessory.
Bubble levels: These let you level the tripod and its platform precisely when shooting landscapes, architecture, etc. Having a single bubble level on the head is sufficient for most stationary subjects, but having two levels on the head is better because it makes it easier to align the tripod and camera when shooting verticals as well as horizontals. For panning, it’s best to go for a 3-level tripod with two bubble levels on the head and one on the yoke so you can align the legs first, then the head of the tripod to achieve perfectly level horizontal panning action for videos or stills.
Build quality: It’s the bottom line
Size, features and specifications are definitely important factors in choosing a tripod that meets your needs. However, it is even more crucial to select a tripod that’s designed and constructed to the highest standards using materials of the finest quality. Davis & Sanford and Vista tripods are the culmination of our 75+ years of experience in designing and manufacturing tripods that have become industry standards, synonymous with performance, ruggedness, and durability. And we back our commitment to quality with a 10-year warranty on every single tripod in our extensive line.