Tripods are essential for many kinds of photography because they hold the camera still during long exposures – and when you’re using telephoto lenses where the slightest wobble will blur the picture.
Tripods are also useful for slowing down the pace of your photography, for holding the camera so that you have both hands free for changing lenses and adding filters, and for maintaining a specific, fixed and carefully chosen camera position.
There is quite a lot to think about when choosing a tripod, and a certain amount of jargon surrounding tripod design.
For a start, cheaper tripods use aluminium legs which are perfectly satisfactory, but quite heavy. More expensive tripods use carbon fibre legs which may absorb vibration a little better and are certainly a lot lighter to carry around.
Almost all tripods follow the same basic design; a set of three legs on hinges which have telescopic sections that can be expanded to give you the shooting height you need. These meet at a central point sometimes called the ‘spider’.
This part will also house a sliding center column which can be moved up and down to give extra height. On the top of the center column is a screw thread for mounting the tripod head, which is what lets you change the angle of the camera and lock it in position.
On some tripods, the center column can be removed entirely and the tripod head mounted direction on the spider. Sometimes there’s a reversible column, so that the camera can be lowered down between the legs for low-angle shots.
Generally, the center column is unlocked and then slid up and down to the required height, but some tripod makers offer ‘geared columns’, which can be cranked up and down using a fold-out handle. This is slower, but offers a lot more precision.
Apart from the materials used, tripods come in a variety of shapes and sizes. With a regular tripod, you fold it up by retracting the leg sections, lowering the center column and then folding the legs flat against it. This still leaves the tripod head protruding at the top.
Newer ‘travel tripods’ use a different design. Here, you raise the center column to its full height and fold the tripod legs up through 180 degrees to rest against it. This means the tripod head is now between the legs and no longer protruding. As a result, travel tripods are smaller when folded than regular tripods, and easier to pack and carry – but they do take a little longer to set up and fold down again.
Video tripods typically have to carry more weight and be able to handle fast panning movements without flexing or transmitting vibration. Video tripods typically use twin leg sections not one, joined by a brace, and often have a spacer at the base to hold the legs rigidly apart.
Table-top tripods are the ultimate in compactness. They are very short and can only really be used on a raised platform (like a table), and they can only cope with relatively light cameras – otherwise they can topple over. But they can still be extremely useful accessories for your camera bag, and great for impromptu night shots, for example.
The other lightweight tripod alternative is the monopod. These are effectively single-legged tripods, so they are not free-standing. They do, however, offer extra camera support and can be just as effective as image stabilizers at cutting camera shake. They are also very effective with telephoto lenses, where they take all the weight for you and can offer much smoother panning motions.
The ideal tripod is very tall when fully erected but as small as possible when folded. But you also want it to be rigid in use and easy to set up, so this means often means choosing the best compromise in the number of leg sections. Tripods with three-section lens are longer when folded but quicker to set up and often more rigid. Tripods with four-section legs will take just a little longer to set up but will be smaller to carry around. Tripods with five section legs are very compact when folded, but can take precious extra time to set up and can be more wobbly than the others.
Almost all tripods offer a choice of leg angles, and you don’t have to position each leg at the same angle – this can be useful on sloping or uneven ground. The best tripods offer leg angles approaching 90 degrees for ultra-low-angle shots, though this only works well if you have a removable center column (some makers offer a special ‘short’ column for these situations).
Tripod ‘feet’ are usually round rubber tips but may be blunt rubber points, or flat feet on articulating ball joints. One some tripods you can swap the regular feet for spikes – this is very useful for landscape photography on soft or uneven ground.
Tripod makers will also quote the maximum weight the tripod is designed to work with, usually described as the ‘maximum payload‘. Where the tripod and tripod head are bought separately, the tripod head will have its own maximum payload rating. In this case you should use whichever setting is the lowest.