Three Legs and the Truth – A Tripod Manifesto

One and Done is Overdone

It's very common for photographers to advocate just buying a Gitzo or RRS and being done with it.

I'm not one of them.

Virtually any photographer would be delighted to use a 3-series Gitzo, sure. That's not the issue. Virtually any sports car enthusiast would be delighted to drive a $13.4M Bugatti La Voiture Noire too, but that doesn't mean every sports car enthusiast should buy one.

Recently, there was a very sobering report about how much my generation, Generation X, has saved for retirement. Short version: I hope Ferris Bueller really enjoyed his day off because he’s not going to get many of them in his golden years. Of course a tripod isn't going to make or break your retirement. But as a general way of life, over-spending for things you don’t need, with money you don't have to burn, can make or break your retirement. People have different levels of disposable income and different objectives. A professional photographer, a weekend warrior enthusiast, and an amateur who just wants to up-level his travel photos, simply don’t need the same level of tripod. 

So I think it's overly simplistic, and maybe even a little irresponsible, to prescribe a $1200+ tripod to everyone. 

My answer is more complicated, and it assumes you have a budget.

Optimizing an Investment

It is true that beginners often under-invest on their first tripod. Sticker shock and having just dropped a bunch of coin on an expensive camera sends them looking for bargains at Amazon or the local Best Buy. And you know what? The beginners who never advance beyond that level actually made a wise choice. But you never hear from them on photography forums because they’re not the type that frequents photography forums. You only hear from the ones who go on to become enthusiasts or pros who find out quickly that the tripod they bought isn't cutting it. And for them it’s true: buying something that you need to replace a short time later isn’t a good idea either.

The trick obviously, is to optimize your investment: Spend enough to get the performance you're likely to require, but not the performance you won't. That's easier said than done because when you're a beginner you don't know how much performance you actually need or how far down the photography rabbit hole you're going to go.

This is also complicated by the fact that a photo that really requires a tripod typically requires a good one because that kind of image suffers immensely without solid stabilization. And unfortunately not all tripods are the same. The stability difference between bad and good tripods is real, measurable, and visible in your photos. And once you use a decent tripod you will recognize it very quickly.

You'll notice that I use the word “invest”. I do that deliberately. Because a tripod is one of the very few items in photography where if you buy a good one, and you take care of it, it can last for many years. Decades. Possibly even your entire photography lifetime. So in my opinion, you’re better off allocating less money to short-life items like camera bodies, and more money to things like tripods and lenses that can serve you through numerous camera bodies. Luckily, unlike a lot of people would have you believe, you don’t have to buy a premium tripod to get a “good tripod”. 

Let Other People's GAS Power Your Photography

One way to keep to a budget and have nice things is to buy used. In every pastime, there are a ton of people on never-ending gear upgrade quests, casting off their barely used old stuff for cheap. I say let the new gear addicts take the depreciation hit and get a much better tripod than you could afford if you bought new.

Tripods are one of the safer photography gadgets to buy used because they're simple devices and it's easy to tell if they're in good working order or not. 
  • First make a judgement on the general cosmetic condition – a heavily scuffed and scratched tripod probably had a hard life
  • Examine for any physical damage like broken parts, cracked tubes, and rusted metal parts
  • Check each leg lock for proper function
  • Make sure the legs pivot smoothly and the angle locks work correctly
  • Check that the legs extend and retract smoothly and quietly
  • If you have time and the seller consents, you can dissemble one of the lower leg locks to assess the general condition of the lock parts and the inside of the tubes – just make sure you don't lose any pieces and you know you can put it back together!
Also, photography e-tailers like B&H, Adorama, MPB, and KEH are reputable and have really good used gear selections. I've very successfully purchased used gear from all of them and will do so again in the future, I'm sure. You may pay a bit more than buying locally, but you can mitigate some risk because they all have return policies. Just make sure you adhere to their time limits! (On the other hand, I don't recommend them for selling your gear. Although it's more hassle, you're much better off selling locally or through e-bay or Craigslist in my opinion.)

You Had One Job to Do…

I’ve seen a lot of “best tripod” articles aimed at beginners, and a surprising number of them have a bunch of travel tripods in their lists. I think this is bad advice for that audience. I love travel tripods, but I think of them as specialty devices. 

My philosophy on purchasing tripods can be summarized simply: 

Within your budget, you need at least one tripod that prioritizes stability above all other considerations.

Why? A tripod’s entire reason for existing is to provide stability – to hold your camera still regardless of how long your shutter is open or how big and heavy your lens is. A tripod that can’t do that is a failure on the primary objective, like a cup that leaks, a car that won't move, or a coat that's cold. You want at least one tripod that is rock-solid stable in any scenario you’re likely to put it in. And in my opinion that should be your first tripod.

Once you have a stability-first tripod that can handle anything you're likely to throw at it, then you might consider something like a dedicated travel tripod that sacrifices some stability for size, weight, or convenience. One obvious exception would be if you shoot all or most of your photos when traveling or backpacking or something. But most people don’t. 

Let me be really clear though: When I say "prioritize stability above all other considerations", I don't mean over-engineering it. If you don't see yourself shooting wildlife or sports or a super telephoto, you don't need a giant, beefy tripod rated for 50 pounds. There's no point in getting way more stability than you'll actually use. But I think it’s foolish to buy, as your only tripod, one that can’t handle all of your likely usage requirements. No matter how small, light, or feature-laden it is.

The Meaning of It All

So what does that mean in terms of choosing a tripod? Unfortunately, prioritizing stability means avoiding a lot otherwise attractive features because many of them compromise stability, including

  • More leg sections
  • Smaller diameter legs
  • More height
  • Center columns
  • Smaller collapsed size

Consequently, I recommend that your stability-first tripod

  • Have a minimal number of leg sections (no more than 4)
  • Have large diameter tubing relative to the weight you’re going to put on it
  • Have sufficient height without extending a center column
  • Be made of carbon fiber, if you can afford it
  • Be paired with a head that is equally or more stable (unfortunately you can't cheap out on that either – the system will only perform as well as the weakest link)
I'll go into more detail on each of those...

How High the Moon

In terms of height, the advice you often hear is to get a tripod that is tall enough for you to use without having to stoop down. That's sound advice, but I don’t think it’s quite as critical as people make it sound, and it certainly doesn't mean that your tripod has to be as tall as you are. 

First, your eyes are a few inches lower than your height, and the tripod head and camera raise the viewfinder a few inches above the tripod. So even if you intend to place the camera at eye level, your tripod can be several inches shorter than you.

But I often question the wisdom of shooting at eye level. From a composition standpoint, it’s not a good habit. The vast majority of photos you see are shot this way, so one of the easiest things you can do to get more interesting photos is shoot from a different perspective. Also, the higher your tripod, the less stable it is, all other things being equal. So while having a tripod that you can use when standing is definitely nice, this is one area where it’s possible to save money by buying a shorter tripod, and actually get greater stability and more unique photos. 

Of course there are exceptions where you just can't have a shorter tripod. Obviously you don't want to shoot all your people portraits from below the subject (although I rarely shoot portraits other than selfies from a tripod because I almost always use a shutter speed that’s fast enough not to need one). If you're into astrophotography, having a short tripod that forces you to contort your body to peer through the skyward-pointing viewfinder gets old really fast. If you regularly shoot on inclines where you have one or two tripod legs on significantly lower ground than the others, a tall tripod will help keep the tripod at a usable overall height. Or, if you often shoot from above for some reason, a tall tripod is vital. But for a lot of people these situations are infrequent, and it makes more sense to optimize for something you need every time you use your tripod (stability) over something you need every once in a while (height).

Better Living Through Materials Science

It’s not like good photography didn’t exist before the invention of carbon fiber. On the contrary, I posit that the vast majority of truly iconic photographs were created before carbon fiber (or digital cameras for that matter). If your budget dictates aluminum, don’t sweat it. History is on your side and nobody worth listening to will ever look at one of your photos and say, "Wow, this photo would be so much better if it was shot on a carbon fiber tripod."

That said, carbon fiber is superior in about every way to aluminum. It's stiffer, lighter, dampens vibration better, and doesn't corrode. It also doesn't conduct heat/cold as well so it’s more comfortable to hold barehanded when it’s very cold or very hot outside. The only ways in which carbon fiber is inferior to aluminum is that it's considerably more expensive and the wrong kind of hit can crack or break it. I’m a big fan of carbon fiber and highly recommend it, if you can afford it.

But you should be aware that unlike aluminum alloys, which come in standardized quality grades, carbon fiber doesn't have industry standard grading. Consequently it can vary wildly in stiffness, vibration damping, and quality due to factors like direction of fibers, modulus of rigidity of the fibers, and resin/fiber ratio. With aluminum, it’s safe to say that the heavier tripod, the more stable. But with carbon, it's not that simple due to all the other factors that affect its performance.

There are also some "marketing features" that sound impressive, but are actually fairly meaningless, such as weight capacity. If a vendor says a tripod can carry a 25 pound load, what does that mean exactly? That it won’t collapse if you put 25 pounds on it?  That it won’t flex? That it will be stable? What if the weight is carried off-center? Nobody knows and vendors are on the honor system that their measurement is truthful and relevant to real-world usage. Another one that vendors love to tout is the number of carbon fiber layers. But number of layers does not correlate reliably to stiffness due to the many other factors involved.

While carbon fiber tends to perform at least as well, and usually a lot better, than aluminum in terms of stiffness and damping, there are other factors besides tubing material that also affect these properties. So carbon fiber by itself is not a guaranteed indicator of superior performance.

I think the net-net of this is to stick to the reputable brands. I'm not talking about premium brands like Really Right Stuff or Gitzo. I'm talking about brands that have been around awhile, have been reviewed a lot, and have large user bases. Because at least then you can find some anecdotal testimony of quality from that brand’s user base and online reviews. Buying a dirt cheap carbon fiber tripod from an Amazon vendor you never heard of is going to be a complete crap shoot.

Generally not a fan of center columns, but sometimes you need the height

Agony Column

Center columns have some distinct advantages. My first good tripod had a center column and although I rarely had occasion to use it, it was undeniably handy when I did. Center columns make it very fast and easy to make exact height adjustments (versus extending the tripod's three legs by exactly the same amount). They give a tripod additional height with relatively little additional weight or collapsed size. And they may provide some additional positioning options, such as horizontal booming or suspension of the camera between the tripod legs. Even after I upgraded, I keep my old Manfrotto 055XPROB because its horizontal column is super handy for macro photography.

But these advantages come at a cost. The column's locking mechanism simply won't be as stiff as a solid metal spider in a column-less tripod. And the column itself flexes, decreasing overall stiffness and vibration damping as the column is extended. An extended center column with a camera on the end acts like a lever, magnifying the effect of any forces on the camera, such as wind or shutter release. Using a long lens on a center column is a double whammy because of 1) the increased weight at the end of the lever, and 2) the high magnification of the lens makes the effects of small camera movements on image quality very apparent.

Put simply, center columns sacrifice stability, which as I said is the prime directive of a tripod. In the right conditions, the decrease in stability may be insignificant and the benefits are well worth the costs. But in more difficult or critical situations, the decreased stability will have a noticeable impact on image quality.

The other issue with center columns is they often limit how low the tripod will go. For me, going really low is more important than going really high. My old Manfrotto has a center column that can be configured horizontally, allowing very low tripod height. Unfortunately that configuration also puts the camera off-center from the tripod, but I'd rather deal with that compromise than the alternative.

All things considered, I prefer a tripod to either be column-less or have it as a removable option. If your tripod does have a center column, its stability disadvantages are minimized when it's fully retracted, so that should be its normal configuration until you actually have a shooting situation that requires extending it.

Five Easy Pieces

Tripod legs are made in sections to allow them to collapse telescopically. The more sections, the smaller the collapsed size of the tripod. That's a definite advantage. But like a center column, the advantage comes at the cost of reduced stability. More sections means more leg joints, which reduce overall leg stiffness, especially if you neglect to tighten the locks properly. But more sections also means narrower tubing in the bottom sections of the legs. And that reduces tripod stability no matter how diligent you are with the leg locks.

For a stability-first tripod, the fewer leg sections the better. For me, 3 would be ideal, 4 is acceptable (and probably more practical), and 5 is too many.

Also, just because you can extend the legs, doesn't mean you should. Photographers on auto-pilot tend to extend their tripods to eye-level even though they don't need to and it would be better not to. I had that habit too until I acquired the habit of not extending the 3rd and 4th sections of my 4-section tripod legs whenever possible, which is much of the time. The stability is noticeably improved, and as I said before, shooting from a lower perspective is often compositionally more interesting.

An age-old question, and a litmus test for character.

Twist or Flip?

Ginger vs. Mary Ann. Nature vs. nurture. Twist locks vs. flip locks. The age-old debate. It really is a matter of preference. I've had both and they each have their advantages and disadvantages. 

Twist locks are nice because they have fewer parts and are less bulky. They won't get snagged or disengaged accidentally. And the mechanism doesn't require adjustment to work properly. What I don't like about twist locks is that I find them slower to lock/unlock, and you have to physically test each lock to confirm that it's fully engaged (you can't just visually inspect it).

Flip locks are nice because you can reliably lock or unlock them in a single, short motion, you can visually confirm whether they're engaged, and they're easier to use when you're wearing gloves or when the tripod is wet. On the other hand, the levers have to be adjusted correctly or stability is compromised. Plus they make more noise, they can pinch your finger, and they can snag on things and accidentally disengage.

It's debatable, but having owned both, my preference leans slightly towards twist locks because they're not that much slower to use, and all things considered, I prefer simpler, lower-maintenance things with fewer parts to lose/replace.

American Thighs

The diameter of the largest leg section on a tripod is going to have a strong impact on stability. But how much is "enough" depends on the gear you're putting on top. I'm still using a DSLR and probably will be for a while. So I prefer fat, beefy legs. 

Supposedly, mirrorless cameras shouldn't require as large a tripod. But big lenses have more impact on system weight than camera bodies. And new mirrorless lenses seem to be getting larger and heavier. So even if I were to go mirrorless, I'd probably still prefer larger diameter tripod legs.

When I was last shopping for a stability-first tripod, I considered 32mm legs to be the minimum and I ultimately bought a tripod with 36mm legs. If I had a lightweight, crop-sensor mirrorless camera system, maybe I'd go as low as 28mm (and that's pushing it).

Low perspective is a good thing, especially with travel tripods

Playing the Angles

Tripods generally have two to four supported leg angles. The one I'm most interested in is the narrowest one. This is the angle of the legs when the tripod is at its highest. It's the one that gets used the most, with the other angles for less frequent perspectives or for setting up on uneven ground. At least in my world.

According to The Center Column (by far, the best site on tripods that I've found, although sadly, it doesn't seem like it's been updated in a long time), there is a direct, positive correlation between wider leg angle and tripod stiffness and vibration damping. A tripod with wider angled legs is also more resistant to tip-over. On the other hand, wider leg angles take up more ground area and make the whole setup more unwieldy and a tripping hazard.

If you think about it, tripod manufacturers don’t have a lot of incentive to make wider leg angles. First, a manufacturer can increase height and decrease cost of materials by making the leg angle narrower. Second, tripod buyers don't pay much attention to leg angle because they can't easily see or even understand the effect it has on stability. They care much more about easily understood, but less impactful, specs like a tripod's height.

But according to The Center Column, a 2.5° increase in leg angle results in a 15% increase in yaw stiffness with only a 2% reduction in height. 

To me, that seems like a pretty dramatic effect on performance for a negligible height penalty. In light of that, I'd say that leg angle is probably the most under-appreciated tripod spec of 'em all due to its large impact on performance, its negligible impact on price, and the fact that you’re stuck with whatever settings the vendor provides.

To net it all out, I'd say you want to a leg angle of 24° or higher, if you can get it.

When Do You Actually Need a Tripod?

When I got my first tripod I used it as much as I could. There's nothing wrong with that, but it will cause you to miss some shots. The truth is that not every shot requires a tripod. And more importantly, when you don't need a tripod, you're often better off without one because they slow you down. Slowing down can be a good thing if you prone to rush through a session without due consideration for your shots. But a lot of times, slowing down means spending time doing things other than actually snapping photos.

So when do you actually need a tripod?

  • When your shutter speed has to break the reciprocal rule (adjusted for image stabilization) which occurs in many situations:
    • Landscape photography in low light with a low ISO speed for optimal image quality
    • Astrophotography
    • Long exposure photography
    • Night photography
  • When you're shooting macro or telephoto and the magnification is so high that handholding your camera creates too shaky of an image to acquire focus
  • When you're working with a very heavy lens and you don't have the physical strength or stamina to handhold it for as long as you need
  • When your composition requires very high precision, such as macro and architectural photography
  • When you're bracketing and you need every photo in the bracket to have exactly the same composition – this is important in focus stacking, HDR, etc.
  • When you're taking a selfie or a photo where you're one of the subjects
  • When the required shooting position prevents you from handholding the camera

And here are some scenarios where I think a tripod is not helping you and probably getting in your way:

  • When your shutter speed is well within the reciprocal rule
    • When you're using a flash. Your exposure time for the subject is essentially controlled by the duration of the flash, which is 1/400 to 1/20,000 of a second depending on the flash power. Except in cases where you require a really long shutter speed for your ambient exposure, the flash duration is almost always fast enough to handhold your shot.
    • When you're dealing with a fast-moving subject. You may still want a tripod for one of the other reasons above, but regardless you'll need a fast shutter speed to prevent subject blur

    Wrapping Up

    So that's my take on tripods. It is informed by my experience and the wisdom of a lot of people who are more knowledgeable than me. I deliberately avoided making recommendations on brands and models because that stuff evolves and the theory helps you navigate that regardless of whatever models have the most buzz at any given time.