We’ve talked about tripods a lot here on Click and Learn Photography. We’ve discussed the necessity of them in all manner of photography pursuits, some of which are below. However, we haven’t dug deep into the matter of actually buying a tripod… Until now.
- Landscape Photography
- Waterfall Photography
- Cityscape Photography
- Lightning Photography
- Firework Photography
- Plus many others we’ve probably missed!
Now, we’ll bring you that definitive guide on buying a tripod that you’ve all been waiting for.
Many newcomers to photography think it’s simple – Just buy the cheapest one, they all do the same thing, right? Nope.
I’ll admit that I thought exactly that when starting out, but I’m afraid to say that it’s just not the case. Cheap tripods cause no end of problems, starting with a fundamental lack of rigidity and stability, leading through a variety of frustrating and niggly problems and ending with your camera falling 4 feet to the ground after slipping from the budget ballhead attached.
Take it from somebody who saw their DSLR blown into a lake because of a less than sturdy tripod – Cheap tripods are more trouble than they’re worth!
Anyway, enough of the rambling. Let’s find you your perfect tripod!
Questions to Ask When Buying a Tripod
Tripods come in all different shapes and sizes… Okay, actually, they don’t. They’ve all got three legs and end up the same shape, but metaphorically speaking there is a massive variety to choose from.
Some of these are suitable for some photographers, and others for different photographers. With that in mind, here are some important questions you should ask yourself when deciding which tripod to buy:
What’s my budget?
I’ll put it bluntly – There are very few tripods worth buying that cost less than $100. As with everything in life, the more you spend, the more you get in return. Considering this is the only thing separating your expensive camera equipment from the hard ground beneath, it’s best to up your budget a bit when buying a tripod.
That being said, there is a balancing act to be done. You could go out and spend over $1,000 on a top of the line tripod, but you might never need to.
Decide on your budget for buying a tripod, and then you can start to narrow the search down. If you’re willing to make some compromises you can definitely get a really good tripod in the sub $200 range, but if you want your tripod to cover all bases then you’re going to have to open up your wallet!
What will I use it for?
Figuring out what exactly you’re going to use your tripod for determines what sort of features you want to look for. Studio tripods are very different from travel tripods, for example.
- Want to take it travelling? Size and weight will be a big factor.
- Landscape photography in harsh environments? It needs to be rock solid.
- Macro and close-up photography? You’ll want some features for getting creative with angles.
How light does it need to be?
Leading on from the above, if you decide you need your tripod to be ultra-light and compact then you’re going to have to loosen those purse strings a bit.
Weight is pretty much the major factor when it comes to the cost of a tripod. The light and sturdy carbon fiber models cost a lot more than your traditional aluminium tripods.
So, decide how important weight is to you. If you’re going travelling or hiking long distances then it could be a compromise you’re unwilling to make, of course.
What type of head do I want?
Even if you have the best tripod in the world, if you attach a crappy head to the top of it then you’re going to suffer.
The tripod head is the gateway between your camera and your tripod, so it should come as no surprise that it makes a big difference.
What may come as more of a surprise is the amount of differing types of tripod head available. Decide which suits your needs, although bear in mind that for many photographers a simple ball head or pan & tilt will do the job.
Ball Head – The most widely used tripod head. It’s simply a rotating ball with a camera plate on the top that can be locked into position using the locking screws.
Pan & Tilt – Another good option, the pan & tilt heads rotate along two axes and are controlled using handles on the side. They are bulkier than ball heads, but great for panoramas and also very good for making small adjustments.
Gimbal Heads – These are pretty much solely used in video work and wildlife photography. Not only can they hold very heavy lenses, but they allow you to freely move the camera in a way that no other tripod head does, making it incredibly useful for fast action photography.
Pistol Grip Heads – These are very similar to ball heads, but rather than using the locking screw to adjust your composition you use a handle and trigger.
Finding Your Perfect Tripod
Hopefully you’ve got the answers to those questions now, and here’s where we start narrowing down the search.
We’ll split the rest of this tripod buying guide into two distinct sections, starting with the best carbon fiber tripods before moving on to the more wallet friendly (often) aluminium offerings.
We’ll cover the best travel tripods, best carbon fiber tripods, and a few budget options here, eventually culminating with our overall winner.
Carbon Fiber Tripods
- Reversible column; Built in hook
- Quickly remove or reverse column for ground level shooting
Fantastic build quality
Like, really expensive
Okay, we’ll start off with the eye-wateringly expensive Gitzo Mountaineer range. Most of you will scoff when you see the price, but for those of you with a large budget and wanting the absolute best it’s an incredibly good option.
Gitzo are pretty much the cadillac of tripods, and the ridiculously named GK3532-82QD is one of the best tripods around. It’s constructed from innovative carbon exact tubes and offers all the features such as leg angle selectors, ground level shooting, and reversing center column.
Here’s where the Gitzo stands out from the crowd though – Its build quality is sensational, it weighs just 1.86kg, and if treated right it’ll easily last a decade of use.
- Premium Carbon Fiber Legs Offer Unprecedented Strength and Rigidity
- Manfrotto's Q90 Center Column Boasts Quick One Finger Operation
Very sturdy and stable
Generous max operating height
Tripod head sold separately
Pretty long even when folded
Manfrotto are a well known brand in the tripod world, and whatever you buy from them you can be pretty sure it’ll be great quality.
Unfortunately, you can also be pretty sure that it’ll have a stupid name. The Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 continues that trend on both fronts.
It has a fantastically simple to use 90-degree pivoting system for the center column, allowing you to get creative with your angles. Not only that, but it feels very sturdy and stable when set up and offers a generous maximum operating height of 182cm. All this comes from a package weighing a modest 2.54kg.
There are a few downsides though – It’s relatively long when folded away so isn’t suitable for those wanting a compact tripod. It also doesn’t come with a tripod head, and while it does mean you get to choose the perfect tripod head for your needs it also results in additional cost.
Vanguard VEO 2 265CB
- Exclusive And innovative central column system that allows you to set the central column and tripod legs in less than 15 seconds
- 1st rate carbon fiber material for lightweight & long-lasting working sessions and advanced twist lock system for fast and rock solid position setting
Impressively small and light
Innovative fast setup system
Modest max operating height
Not as versatile as Alta Pro 2+
Vanguard’s initial release of the Veo and Alta Pro range of tripods was met with widespread approval, but the innovative company really blew the competition out of the water with their upgrades a few years back.
The Vanguard VEO 2 265CB is their travel tripod offering, packing down to a tiny 41cm and weighing in at an equally tiny 1.31kg. Despite all this, it has a maximum load capacity of almost 8kg, which will be more than enough for all but the most extreme telephoto lenses.
The VEO 2 265CB’s innovative center column system allows the column to be swung into place and the legs extended in just 15 seconds to make sure you never miss that shot, and the excellent BH-50 ballhead that ships with this model is a real treat.
Downsides? Well, it doesn’t offer quite the same level of versatility as it’s bigger brother, the Alta Pro 2+, and it’s maximum operating height is just shy of a modest 150cm.
Click here for our full Vanguard VEO 2 Review
3 Legged Thing Punks Billy
- Billy weighs just 1.38kg / 3.0lb.
- Features a full-size detachable monopod.
Small and light for a full size tripod
Excellent plate and ballhead system
No comfort grips on legs
Not as sturdy feeling as some
3 Legged Thing’s quirky tripod names and eye-catching aesthetics have drawn a lot of attention from tripod shoppers, but beneath all those marketing efforts lie some excellent engineering.
The Punks Billy certainly ticks the boxes when it comes to aesthetics and quirky names, and it lives up to expectations with the build quality too. It has a fabulous feel to it, and it doesn’t let you down in the performance area either.
It has a operating range that goes as low as 11cm and up to a respectable 165cm. It also folds down to a tiny 45cm length and weighs just 1.7kg, despite the fact that this is a full size tripod – Not a travel offering.
The load capacity is impressive at 18kg too, while the AirHed Neo ballhead is a joy to use. the Punks Billy also ships with 3 Legged Thing’s patented Tri-Mount plate which has areas for clipping things on and is generally very easy to use.
The only downsides are that it doesn’t feel quite as sturdy as some of the other offerings, and the lack of comfort grips on the legs is an oversight too.
Manfrotto Befree Travel Tripod
- TRAVEL FRIENDLY: Weighs just under 3 pounds and fits easily into backpacks and carry on luggage.
- CENTER BALL HEAD: Manfrotto 494 center ball head with three independent control knobs.
Very small and light
Modest max operating height
Ballhead not Arca Swiss compatible
Manfrotto again, and this time without the silly name. It’s not only easier on the tongue, but it’s much easier on your muscles. This little beauty weighs just 1.24kg and folds down to under 41cm, making travelling with your tripod a breeze.
This compact design does take its toll elsewhere though. The maximum operating height is a modest 149cm and, like with many travel tripods, the overall rigidity and sturdiness seems somewhat worse than the full size offerings.
That being said, this tiny tripod can safely bear up to 8kg of camera gear, it’s got an excellent Manfrotto 494 ball head with it, it’s quick to set up, and it really does look the part.
One major gripe with the ballhead is that it’s not Arca Swiss compatible, meaning that you can use the generic L-Brackets that we highly recommend.