Tripods are one of the most important pieces of photographic gear you can have. Unfortunately, it’s also one of those pieces of gear that many photographers don’t invest properly in.
I’ve personally gone through at least 5 or so different tripods and I’ve used them all in harsh conditions (hiking through Nepal for weeks carrying my tripod, climbing mountains, travelling for months on end via air planes and buses). Since I’ve been living and breathing tripods the past few years, I can give a few good pointers on finding the best one.
Note: that this article is heavily weighted in favor of ultra light travel tripods over the heavier tripods. Based on personal experience as serious hobby landscape photographer and pretty much having to carry my tripod everywhere I ever take my camera, I do find the ultra lights with their lightness, portability, and compact sizing absolutely preferable to the heavier, more weight supporting, taller alternatives.
Let me explain in the next section.
Why The Best Tripods for General Photography are Ultra Light tripods
Before you run screaming away, hear me out for a second.
A tripod is only as good if you use it, and in my experience, you are far less likely to use a tripod for general purposes if it’s NOT an ultralight one.
Tripod Features to Consider
There are MANY features you will want to look at in a tripod: material type, height without a center column, height with a center column, weight, fold up size, maximum STABLE load carry ability, vibration resistance ability, durability, feature set, and quality.
I propose if you are going to buy a tripod and you are going to haul it around, you should get an ultralight because it has the best mix of the above features WHILE being around 1 to 1.5 kilos in weight.
A Good Ultralight Offers the Best Ratio of Weight, Stability, and Features
A good ultralight tripod by one of the quality manufactures will offer MOST of the above features to satisfy MOST photographers for general photography purposes. If you are a specialist and ONLY shoot niche photography (like say a safari shooter), then you’ll need to think carefully about what you need. An ultralight may not be what you want.
The Limitations of an Ultralight
The downside with the ultralights is while they excel on most of the above, there are two areas they usually don’t — maximum stable load carry ability and height. Most ultra lights only support up to 8 kilos of weight and because of their smaller size, they usually don’t extend very high.
The height issue: For a person under 6, it’s likely not an issue (5’8-5’10 is the idea height range I find for these ultra lights). But if you are over 6 foot, you may find you are crouching down to take your pictures — you may or may not want to live with this.
The weight issue: 8 kilos of weight support works fine for MOST situations. That covers a DSLR with battery grip + lenses up to 200 or 300mm. However, if you put on a battery grip + use a super telephoto lens (say 300+mm) and you want to throw on something like a gimble, then you might want to look at getting a tripod that’s NOT an ultralight, but something a bit heaver that can support this load. This means if you are into wildlife photography or photography th requires big zooms, consider the trade-offs carefully.
A Case for Buying the BEST Tripod Setup You Can Afford Right Away
I’ve seen this over and over with new photographers.
The typical scenario is a (relatively new) photographer looks at the prices of some of good tripod setups, balks at the hundreds of dollars it costs (a good setup can be more than 1000 even close to 2000 dollars), and opts for a cheap off-the-shelf plastic one.
Of course, the photographer finds the cheap tripod unwieldy and difficult to use and eventually, he or she beaks it or finds they simply don’t even bother using it and then begins a stream of (lesser tripod) purchases until the photographer finally decides to invest real money in a real quality tripod setup.
Now when you look at the wasted time, wasted photo opportunities, and money spent on all the bad gear, ponying out for the best setup first, rather than last, looks far more attractive. But you know what they say, hindsight is always 20/20.
But you don’t have to make that mistake. Goodness knows I did – I spent hundred of dollars on mediocre tripods until I finally just bit the bullet and ponied out for the best setup out there which stopped the cycle.
So save yourself wasted money and time. A quality tripod will last you for years — I’ve had my Gitzo for over five years now.
Investing in the best tripod system you can afford, right after your glass and camera purchase should be your number one priority. Trust me here, having a GOOD tripod setup makes a world of difference and literally can mean the difference between USING the tripod or leaving it at home.
Why a Tripod Will Improve Your Photography
I can give you a list of reasons, but it really comes down to two:
1) Better Composition
Putting your camera on a tripod will slow down your picture taking process, allowing you to see the world differently. You will almost always have composition in your photos. It’s much harder to get ‘that shot’ when you hand hold your camera. I don’t know what it is, but tripods just make you a better photographer.
2) Better Image Quality
This one is a given, but I’ll explain it anyways. Every time you hold your camera and take a picture, your camera shakes. Now this can be mitigated by following the reciprocal rule of thumb which is your focal length should be greater than the reciprocal of your shutter speed. So if you are shooting with a 200mm lens, your shutter speed should be at least 1/200 or faster. Follow this rule and you won’t have blurry details in your photos.
However, if you pixel peep and zoom in closely enough with your photo editing software, you’ll notice your images will have some blur in them. Again, for most pictures, this is not a big deal. You will only really notice this if you pixel peep, or print out a big blow up of your photo (like a poster). For some photography, as long as you follow the reciprocal rule, this really is not an issue.
But when you want maximum quality photos, then you need a tripod. And there are two types of photography where you need a tripod: landscape photography and wild life photography. Studio photographers, for maximum quality photos of models, may also use tripods occasionally as well.
How to avoid this?
So What Tripod to Buy?
This is a loaded question, but I’ll do my best to navigate you through it.
Different photographers need different tripods. The type of photography you do will really impact what sort of tripod best suits your need.
For example, the photography I like best is landscape photography (and to a lesser degree, travel photography). Needless to say, a tripod system is the most important piece of camera kit I have. Since I always carry my tripod…everywhere, it’s important for me to have the lightest and most compact possible. I’m also not very tall at 5’8, so I don’t need a tripod that extends very high.
Your needs may be slightly or greatly different than mine.
Keep in mind that the best sort of tripod is the one you will use most often. And in my experience, those tripods tend to be the lightest, most compact, and feature friendly tripods. Get a tripod that’s too heavy or difficult to use, and you won’t use the damn thing.
Step 1. Consider the Three Buying Variables
There are a THREE things you need to consider when buying a tripod:
1. Weight: how ‘heavy’ a tripod is. The heavier the tripod, the harder it is to travel with it and carry it around
2. Stability: how much weight a tripod can carry while damping any vibrations from the camera shutter, wind, etc
3. Price: how much the tripod costs
You can only ever pick two of the three features, unfortunately. You can have a light, stable tripod, but it’s going to be expensive. You can have a heavy, stable tripod that will be cheap. You can have a light, cheap tripod but it won’t be stable.
In my experience, there’s a great range of prices. At the low end, you can get a cheap plastic tripod that’s 20 to 50 dollars. It’s you’ll throw it away because it’s absolute garbage. If you are willing to live with a heavier tripod that’s rock stable and reasonably priced, you can pick up an aluminum tripod (Manfrotto for example) for about 150 – 200 USD. Upper mid-range, you can pick up something like a Feisol Carbon Fiber tripod for around $400. And at the very top end, you can get a Gitzo tripod for about $700 or $800 dollars.
Step 2: Consider the Features
Shopping for a tripod is a bit like shopping for a camera. Ok, there are not as many features, but there are enough features offered by different tripod brands that will have you silly with indecision.
Here are the main features you want to know:
1. Material Type (Carbon fiber is the best — don’t consider anything else — but there are TYPES of carbon fiber too with some being stiffer and better at dampening vibration)
1. Center Column Removal (Removing the center column cuts down on vibration and the weight of tripod; however, it also significantly shortens the tripod height too)
2. Ground Level Ability (Tripod supports lowering your camera near to the ground by allowing the legs to spread nearly vertically
3. Vibration Dampening (Good tripods will throughout the tripod try and ensure vibration resistance — usually on the top plat, the column rings, and the tripod joints)
4. Reverse Foldability (Ability to fold the tripod legs backwards over the center column and ball head making for a more compact folded size. You shave off 1 to 2 inches of the folded height)
5. Weight Hook (a hook at the bottom of center column or bottom center that you can hang your backpack or other weight to make tripod more stable. Useful in wind I find or as a general place to hang your bag when shooting)
6. Removable Feet (some tripods allow you to remove the tripod feet to replace them with specialized feet for different terrain. On example is to replace the rubber feet with metal spikes to give tripod more stable footing on rocky terrain — Gitzo Mountaineer tripods have this as do the Feisol)
7. Mount Camera Under Tripod (some tripods allow you to mount the camera underneath the tripod column so you can bring the camera RIGHT to the ground for something like macro shooting — this allows the camera even lower shooting to the ground and better angles for some shots)
8. Three or Four Tripod Sections (some tripods have only three extensions, that is the screw-able leg parts that lengthen the tripod. The more sections you have, the higher your tripod can reach when you extend, but the less stable the tripod is when fully extended, the more vibration it introduces into the shot, and the longer it takes to extend it. The less sections you have, the faster it is to extend your tripod and the more stable it is, but it doesn’t give you as much height).
That about sums up the most important tripod features. Different brands much throw in a few more gimmicks between tripod models to entice buyers, but in my experience over the years, these are the KEY features you want to look at. A good travel ultralight by a company like Gitzo offers pretty much ALL of these features, though some of the specialized ones like reverse foldability, mount camera under tripod may not be offered on some of the models.
Step 3. Pick Your Tripod for Your Needs
You should have a good idea about what sort of tripod you want based on price, weight, and stability. If money is no object, then you go for the lightest and most stable tripod you can buy. If money is a big deal, then you need to get the least heavy tripod that offers the most stability while still being affordable.
Now there are different tripods that are suited for different types of photography. At the end of the day, you have to think about HOW you will be using the tripod for WHAT type of shots you are going to be going after.
Landscape Photography: If you are a landscape photographer, you’ll be doing a lot of travelling to beautiful locations and you’ll have to do a lot of hiking. Your tripod will be everywhere, and as such, you need the lightest travel tripod you can find, but one that will still be able to handle the weight of your camera and lenses. If you are doing portraits, you likely won’t need a tripod.
Travel Photography: Like landscape photography, you’ll be hauling your tripod with you everywhere you go. You’ll want a tripod that’s light (under 2lbs) and portable (the fold up length about a 45cm or 1 and half feet).
Wildlife Photography: Most wildlife photographers have very long zoom lenses. With 300,400+ focal lengths, you want a tripod that is HIGHLY stable and can carry the load of your tripod, big lens, and camera. An ultralight tripod may not be able to handle the weight of your Pro DSLR + Battery Grip + Ballhead and Gimble + 400mm lens with extenders. Typically, you will want a tripod that’s portable but not ultralight. If you are going on Safaris or will be shooting very close to your car and you don’t need to walk great distances with your tripod, then it’s more important to have a large tripod that can support very long zoom lenses. You’ll probably want a tripod that carries more than 8 kilos and that means you won’t want an ultra light tripod.
Sports Photography: Depends on your style. You may get by without a tripod or by using a monopod instead of a tripod. It’s a fine line needing to use long distance lenses and needing to move around and carry your gear. You may want an ultralight tripod or one that’s slightly bigger if you need to use a lot of really big lenses.
Portrait Photography: Anything goes. You likely won’t need a tripod, but if you do, you can get buy with a heavy stable one if it’s for studio work. Outside of the studio (travel portraits, urban photography), you won’t need a tripod.
The 5 Best Recommended Tripods
Out of the hundreds of tripods, here are 5 tripods I picked from the best of the best to the most affordable. As stated above, these are heavily weighted in the direction of ultra light travel tripods. If you are looking for the best tripod for tall people or the best tripod for heavy lenses or the best tripod for shooting wildlife, then this list probably won’t give you want you need. But for GENERAL photography, landscape photography, travel photography, or light carrying sports photographers, this list is ideal.
The Best of the Best: Gitzo GT0542
The GT0542 pretty much your dream tripod. It contains ALL of Gitzo’s newest tripod tech that’s come out over the past couple years. As a result, they’ve revampt pretty much all apsects of their tripods and shoved that tech into their Mountaineer lineup. The GT0542 is their smallest Mountaineer tripod at 48cm when folded, extends to 137cm with center column up, and supports 8kg, considered an ultralight, and features a stiffer Carbon Fiber tubing than the other lines. As an alternative, you may consider the Gitzo 1542T which offers similar specs BUT a slightly smaller folding size since the legs can fold over the center column. You save about 1 inch since the top of tripod + ballhead won’t stick out but rest at the same level as the tripod feet. But, it doesn’t all the newest improvements Gitzo has made the past couple years such as Carbon Fiber eXact, GLock Ultra, Ground Level Set, Improved Upper Disk, and a few other improvements.
If you want ultimate compact, consider the Gitzo 1542T as an alternative. Personally, I’m making the switch to THIS model from the 1542T because of the better G Lock Ultra, the more stable Carbon Fiber, the better tripod center column rapid lock and top plat.
Upper Mid-Range: Feisol CT-3441S
This is a cheaper alternative to the Gitzo (it’s almost $400 for the legs) and offers similar stats. The legs reverse fold up over the center column making the total length of the folded tripod only 43 cm with the weight of the full tripod and column only 1.15 kg.
Now, the Feisol CT-3441S is not some recommendation I’m making based on someone else’s review. I owned this specific tripod (and the previous older generation) a few years back. It’s a good alternative to the Gitzo and it looks pretty money when you get your hands on it.
But, the construction is not as good as the Gitzo. Case in point: my original Feisol had some serious defects — within six months, the tripod foot came off the bottom and one of the leg tightening rings broke. I had to send it back to Taiwan (where Feisol is located) to get repaired. Feisol, however, was nice enough to fix it for free and send me the newer model, however. One thing I noticed on the two Fiesol’s I owned, the foam wrapping the tripod legs starts to fall apart (and it gets dirty very quickly) within a few month of good use.
Overall though, it’s a good tripod, but there is a reason it’s HALF the price of the Gitzo, which just operates a lot smoother, does NOT break, and offers a few more features that make using it a smoother experience.
Mid-Range: MeFoto C2350Q2T GlobeTrotter
The MeFoto GlobeTrotter is cheaper than some of the other Mid-Range options when you see that it comes included with a ball head and about same cost as the Feisol above, which only comes with the legs.
Why do I recommend this as one of the best tripods? Well it’s reasonably light, it folds up to compact height, and offers good stability against vibrations. When extended, you should have no problem shooting with it, even if you are over six feet (some of the other more compact tripod options are more difficult for taller people since they do not extend high). And it’s priced well at less than $400 for both the legs and ball head. This tripod is quite popular with photographers, especially the more price conscious ones.
Budget-Range: Sirui T-1204
At about $280, the Sirui T-1204 is one of the better Carbon Fiber tripods for the price you pay. It’s portable, compact, and offers the main features you want in a tripod (ground level shooting, it folds up short, and its light enough for any travel purposes). Even better, the price won’t break the bank.
While it doesn’t offer the same wow factor as the Gitzo or the better construction of the Feisol or MeFoto, the price is right. And with folded size of 42cm and a weight of 1.1 kilos, this is a very compact tripod indeed. The ballhead (K40x) offered by the company is one of the better ‘bang per buck’ values as well at about 160 USD.
So if budget is a big concern and you want a Carbon Fiber tripod that’s light and portable that’s rated very well, then this is a good option.
Absolute Budget: Manfrotto 190XPROB
Ah, the classic Manfrotto tripod. Unlike the two Carbon Fiber options above, this one ain’t light. In fact, if you want to travel abroad or go hiking, look at the 4 options above because the Manfrotto is not the tripod your’re looking for. Move along.
But if you don’t need to walk around too much in the field, this is probably the best value you can find in terms of stability and quality. Again, the major downfall here is the weight, which is pretty significant. Great for studio work or situations where you don’t need to do any real hiking or airplane travel. You can find this for around $200 or so dollars new, but if you pick it up used (and there are a lot of these floating around used), you can get it for half that. And if you buy this one, do get it used as you can find it for around $100 bucks.
The Final Word
There’s a lot of options. My go to pick is always Gitzo which are the premium, but if you are looking for a good, cheaper alternative to the best of the best, then the Feisol (for the compact size) or the MeFoto (for the better price). These tripods, with the Manfrotto, excepted, are all lightweight and suitable for travel, hiking, and general usage.
I personally feel there is no point to a tripod you can’t or won’t use. And if you look at tripods that are more than 2 kilos, it starts to become a real chore to haul them around. As someone who likes to hike and travel, weight and size are extremely important. The best tripod with a zillion awesome features that’s simply too heavy or too long when folded to be portable, just won’t work for me.
But that’s me. If you are not wandering into remote areas carrying your tripod, doing plane travel, or you are very tall, then you can look at a different sort of tripod than the ones I’ve recommended.
For everyone else, these tripods should manage for just about every situation.