One of the more challenging things I’ve had to consider in the past year has been deciding how to choose the perfect tripod. There’s so many options out there that it truly can be overwhelming. In my case as an avid hiker and landscape photographer, I was searching for what seemed to be an impossible combination… that point in the center of a triple Venn diagram where there is the most minute overlap between stability, light weight, and price:
I typically go on very long hikes for photography, and at this point see no point in wasting any pack weight on an unstable tripod. But, I also didn’t want to spend as much as a lens on a tripod either. Finding this middle overlapping section is never easy, regardless of subject matter. The tripod market seemed exceptionally difficult though, with so many options in the inexpensive price point and then a handful of uber expensive high end options, leaving that middle tier relatively thin for what I was seeking (carbon, portable, no center column).
After much time spent searching, I decided to go with a high end, mid sized ball head paired with a lightweight, stable, but shorter set of tripod legs to save both space and weight. The logic was that the ball head was the most frequent thing I struggled with, so I wanted this to be exceptionally solid. And, the shorter legs would be a fine tradeoff because I’m never shooting over tall obstacles, and I’m not that tall! I ultimately paired the Really Right Stuff BH-40 ball head with the CP30-S4 FLM tripod legs. It’s a super tough, compactible, lightweight, and sturdy option that truly is the perfect setup for a landscape photographer who travels and hikes often. It’ll easily fit snugly in my bag, provide incredible stability for even my heaviest camera and lens combinations, and will fit in an overhead compartment in an airplane with room to spare:
However, what ended up being right for my case is definitely not a “one size fits all” answer for everyone. It’s important that you consider multiple factors in addition to Price, Stability, and Weight.
How do you choose what’s the right tripod for you?
Brand New & Beginner Photographers
If you’re just starting out, I highly recommend a relatively inexpensive, but solid aluminum tripod in the $50 – $100 price range. Thankfully, there are many great options available from a variety of brands, which you can search for on Amazon or photography outlet like B&H or Adorama. The reason for going this route initially is that early on in pursuing photography, it’s better to take the time to understand what you would most value rather than spend a lot of money on something that may not fit your needs in a year or two.
Choosing this type of tripod will allow you to go out, take a ton of photos, and figure out exactly what you need and value most. For over a year, I used a Geekoto tripod that cost about $75. It has served me well for years. It was a great option to learn with, is durable and sturdy, travels well, and I still use it for my video work! What is not a great option though, are those collapsible plastic-y tripods available on Amazon in the $15 – $35 range (I won’t even link to these… just search for the “Amazon Basic tripod.” These are garbage). These are cheaply built, difficult to use, fragile, and won’t end up being stable. You’d be better off learning on something better and sturdier for not a ton more money that will actually give good results without risking your gear falling over.
Intermediate, Enthusiast, & Semi-professional
Once you have a better understanding of the types of photography you are gravitating towards, maybe after a year or a few years of experience, it then is a great time to search for an upgrade from using a more entry level tripod. Aluminum tripods are fine, but when I decided to invest more than $200+ in a tripod, I didn’t want to sacrifice on a heavier weight option. One of the worst things I learned in my first years of hiking and shooting was the feeling of regret – needing a tripod miles into the woods or on a mountaintop but not having one because I chose to cut weight and left it behind.
If you are hiking long distances, I highly suggest a shorter carbon tripod. And by “shorter,” I mean those that extend to a 50″-ish height range, which is more than tall enough for most up to a height of 5’9″ or so. That’s the height my FLM legs go, and it’s perfect for me at a 5’9″ height. Once you add on 2-3″ for the ball head and another 2-3″ for the camera body, the eyepiece is nearly eye level at it’s max height.
The shorter carbon legs can weigh in anywhere from 1 – 3 pounds lighter than taller aluminum legs. And, I’d rather have a somewhat shorter higher reach than to need a tripod and not have one because it was too heavy to bring along. If you’re not hiking long distances or need to save weight, then choosing either an aluminum or carbon tripod with thicker legs will result in better stability and possibly greater height. These were not requirements for me, but if you are taller and don’t hike a ton, then getting thick, aluminum legs could be the right choice.
The CP30-S4 legs were right around $400, which is way less expensive than the high end brands, but also comparable in terms of stability. In terms of price range, excellent mid range tripods are in the $300 – $600 price point, often for the legs only. In total, you can get a truly excellent tripod for $500 – $800. At this point, it’s hard to recommend the uber high end options that cost over $1,000 for the legs alone if you fall into the intermediate enthusiast/semi-pro photography range because this middle range of offerings is so great. (I won’t recommend anything for advanced or pros because you know who you are and what you need 🙂 ).
If you are looking to invest in a quality tripod though, one thing is paramount: do not get one with a center column. You won’t be able to expand the legs wide enough to get super low angle views, and the stability takes a massive hit unless you hang a heavy bag from the bottom. Think of it a bit like independent suspension… For bikes and cars this is awesome, as it gives a softer ride with less rigidity. For ultra sharp images though, rigidity is a must.
The last piece to consider is the head for the tripod. I chose the medium sized ball head from Really Right Stuff due to it’s compact form, relatively low weight, clamp style Arca plate compatibility (I don’t care for the screw adjustment style mounts), and high stability. It doesn’t make sense to skimp on the ball head if you’re spending a good amount on the legs. After all, a stable base doesn’t mean anything if your camera droops or moves in the wind thanks to an unstable ball head! If you’re a mirrorless or compact camera user, then a smaller head should work fine. Sports or bird photographers should consider heavier, beefier heads like the RRS BH-55.
Obviously, you could go out and spend top dollar on the Really Right Stuff full setup, but that will set you back $2,000. I decided to go with a setup that is even better suited to my needs and cost a third of that, but I also know that the build I’ve selected wouldn’t work for many people. Investing in a high quality tripod will dramatically improve your photography though, and it’s definitely a worthwhile use of time to choose the best fit for you. After all, even the best cameras and lenses won’t produce good images if there’s even slight blur, or if you don’t bring one along at all and have to bump up your ISO into grainy territory.
Even more importantly, that setup you invested a lot of money into needs to be stable! Don’t risk letting your setup fall over thanks to a flimsy tripod.. Re-buying or repairing a broken lens or camera body (shattered elements, damaged mount, waterlogged, etc) will quickly cost way, WAY more than trying to save a couple hundred bucks when selecting a tripod.
What is your setup? Were you able to find the ideal tripod for you? Share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below!