Any halfway serious photographer is sooner or later going to conclude that he or she needs a photographic tripod.
What is a tripod? It is a stand designed to hold a camera stationary and steady so that the camera operator can pay full attention to other considerations while the camera remains posed correctly for a shot. As the name suggests, tripods are stands that have three legs splayed out in a triangular arrangement for stability.
So Why use a Tripod
The most frequent uses of tripods include these common photographic situations:
- The camera operator wishes to compose a shot and then arrange lighting and other factors, frequently stopping by the tripod to examine how recent changes have altered and / or enhanced the image the camera will capture.
- The photographer wishes to capture multiple overlapping shots — either of the same frame for HDR photography or with portions of overlap from photo to photo on a straight vertical or horizontal plane for Panorama Photography
- The camera operator wishes to place himself in a shot. This will obviously require another human being to hold the camera and press the shutter, or a tripod to hold the camera and a remote control to activate the shutter function on the camera.
- The camera operator is using a telephoto lens or other equipment which necessitates a long exposure time. Longer exposure times make it more difficult to hold the camera steady by hand. To avoid blurred shots, a tripod is employed.
- The camera operator is using a digital camera and is aware of shuttle lag, in which the image is captured a significant number of microseconds after the shutter button is pressed. Again, the problem of holding the camera steady in the interim necessitates the use of a tripod.
Overview of Manfrotto Tripods
As with most tripod manufacturers, Manfrotto tripods are available made of either aluminum or carbon fiber as their principal construction material. Since both kinds can look similar to the untrained eye, being finished in similar colors, a fail safe way to determine the composition of a Manfrotto tripod is to look at the model number. A plain “X” in the model number indicates a tripod made of aluminum, whereas a “CX” instead tells the consumer that the tripod is made of stronger, lighter, carbon fiber.
Although carbon fiber is the preferred material for tripod construction, aluminum is much more affordable. In Manfrotto tripods, as with other brands of tripods, the lower end models will be made of aluminum and the higher end models will be made of carbon fiber. Similar features may be available at both ends of the spectrum, but the use of carbon fiber to produce a tripod that is both more rigid and durable as well as lighter in terms of weight makes the carbon fiber version well worth the additional price.
In addition, Manfrotto tripods come in a variety of styles designed for different photographic purposes, including table top versions, monopods with spreader bars to keep them steady, and full size eye level tripods.
Keep in mind that Manfrotto owns both Bogen and Gitzo, two of the best tripod brands out there. Bogen is the cheaper brand with most of the tripods being under 250 dollars and made from basalt or aluminum. Gitzo tripods are the Manfrotto premium band of tripods and pretty much the best quality tripods you can buy on the market today. As of 2015, Gitzo has done away with Basalt and only offers Carbon Fiber tripods. On the Gitzo front, our personal recommendation is the Gitzo 1542T Traveler tripod which is the best hiking / travel ultra-light tripod we’ve found.
Factors to Consider When Buying Manfrotto Tripods
Important factors to consider when you are in the market for a Manfrotto tripod include all of the following:
- How much weight can you comfortably carry? This will help you decide if you should opt for a lightweight carbon fiber model or save your money and purchase a cheaper aluminum version.
- How far do you usually carry your equipment, and in what conditions? If you frequently go backpacking and you want your tripod along to record the trip, a carbon fiber version is a must. On the other hand, if your photographic work takes place mainly in a studio, or if your idea of vacation photography largely involves carrying everything in a car, an aluminum tripod may be very appropriate for your needs.
- What sort of photography do you do? For work that is comprised of close ups of small items that you can place on a surface, or intimate shots of items low to the ground such as foliage, a miniature table top tripod may be all you need. Also known as compact tripods, these little ones weigh so little by default that the choice of aluminum or carbon fiber becomes almost moot.
Advanced Features of the Top Models
Some of the best features of high end carbon fiber Manfrotto tripods are also available on their lower end aluminum models, although they tend to be included only on the most expensive aluminum ones. If you are looking at the premium features, we suggest you move out of the Manfrotto specific trange and look at their other company, Gitzo, which specializes in premium carbon fiber tripods. Advanced Gitzo features include all of the following:
- Legs designed in three sections that slide into one another when folded so that the tripod can be packed up to small, compact size.
- Tubular legs with extra layers of material for rigidity.
- Locking leg levers designed to be ergonomic for ease of setting up and breaking down the tripod.
- Center column systems to allow for ease of adjusting camera height.
- Combination construction of carbon fiber and magnesium (on carbon fiber models only).
- Blank plates in place of tripod heads so that a variety of heads can be attached. In this way, a single tripod can be made to work with multiple camera styles. Tripods with a head permanently attached are much more limited, particularly for the professional who may have dozens of different cameras.
Manfrotto Tripods: Best Tripod Models to Consider
Manfrotto offers an amazing number of different kinds of tripods designed for every type of photographic work. Here are a few of the top recommended models.
Weighing in at only 3.6 pounds, which is quite lightweight for a full sized tripod, this model features a level integrated into the top plate. To be sure your equipment is sitting level, all you have to do is read the bubble indicator and make adjustments accordingly. All levers, main castings, and locking collars are designed for ease of use and a central column system allows you to easily raise and lower the camera without ever detaching it from the head. What is even more interesting about this center column system is that you can also move the camera from a horizontal to a vertical position and back with ease, giving the photographer a much needed level of flexibility.
I like this tripod because the legs and center column are made of 100% carbon fiber, without inclusion of any other materials. The legs offer a variety of locked angles that offer additional flexibility of usage: 23, 47, 66, and 89 degrees. Combined with the range of motion of the center column, that gives you a great many different heights you can use this tripod at. It comes standard with a two year limited warranty, telling you that Manfrotto has faith in their products and stands behind them.
Since it is made of aluminum, this tripod is more affordable than the one I reviewed directly above. Its usable height varies from just over three inches up to fifty-seven inches, making it very versatile for a full sized tripod. Even though it is made of aluminum, a weaker material than carbon fiber, this tripod can still withstand a weight load of a full eleven pounds — few cameras weigh more than that.
The tripod itself weighs almost four pounds and comes standard with a 3/8 inch threaded head mount so that you can attach your head of choice. Although light enough to carry when hiking, for long treks the four pounds will add up quickly. Although the locking legs do make it stable on most terrain, it’s nonetheless true that if you extend the column to full height when there is much wind, you will run into instability problems. This is because aluminum is just not as rigid as the more expensive carbon fiber. Still, this is a very adequate tripod for a beginner or an amateur hobbyist, although a profession would probably be better off with a carbon fiber model.
This tripod is quite similar to the 055CXPRO3 but features legs divided into four sections rather than three. This allows the tripod to be folded into an even more compact size so that it can fit into the corner of a backpack more easily.
The Final Word
Tripods are an item that photographers, professional and amateur alike, can passionately debate. My personal opinion is that the carbon fiber versions are well worth the additional expense since they take away such a large amount of the weight that camera operators would otherwise need to haul around with them.
My own recommendation out of the tripods reviewed on this page is the Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 Carbon Fiber 3 Section Tripod with Q90 Column and Magnesium Castings (Black). It is the best value for the money. While the same tripod in a four sectioned leg is available, this added functionality doesn’t add a great deal of usefulness, not when one considers the additional cost involved in adding that fourth section. The three section leg is perfectly adequate for most uses and that model already folds up into quite a compact size.
Ok so you have the best tripod out there. But do you have the best digital cameras to go with that sweet tripod setup? Quite a few people do have a good camera but usually don’t have a good tripod. But in the event that you do have a great tripod but only a so so camera, then you’re missing out on better quality images.
Ok so what is the best digital camera? This is a bit of a tricky question, but the best digital camera really depends on your specific needs. If you like to shoot landscape images, then you’ll want an expensive full frame camera body such as the Canon 5D Mark 2 body. If you like shooting portrait photography, then you’ll also want a full frame camera. If you are into shooting wildlife, you’ll want a crop camera for the extra zoom it gives you. And if you are an avid sports photographer, you’ll want to look at getting a camera body that shoots FAST (something like the Canon 1D Mark 3.
Budget is also a pretty big concern when shopping around for the best camera — there may be a camera that’s unequivocally “the best” but such a camera might be out of your price range! The key is to balance budget and features when it comes to selecting the right camera for your needs.