There are a lot of tripod options out there, and selecting the right one can be a daunting task. As with anything else in life, the best one for you will depend on what you want to do with it and your budget. The following will be a brief overview of some tripod basics and some of the best values out there. The end of the guide contains a few recommendations for tripods to look at depending on you budget. This guide is geared towards film and digital SLR users, but principles can be applied to other camera formats as well.
Why get a tripod at all?
One needs a tripod because (for 35mm or digital SLR’s) when shooting at a shutter speed faster than your focal length (1/300 sec or faster for a 300mm lens, etc.) you are likely to get blur in your photos. Even with vibration reduction lenses and cameras, you can shoot more slowly, but you’ll still only gain a couple of f/stops (shoot your 300mm lens at 1/45 sec without blurr). To get slower shutter speeds you need a tripod.
Why not get a cheap (i.e., sub $50, sub 2lb, aluminum/plastic, with braces to the legs) tripod?
Here’s why. Briefly stated, there are three types of shots you can take with your tripod. First are fast shutter speed shots, using speeds of faster than about 1/60 sec. for telephoto or macro lenses and even slower for wider lenses. For these types of shots your shutter speed is quick enough that you’re not going to get blur anyway. For these types of shots, you can use any tripod, even a $20 Walmart cheapie. Second are long exposures (more than a second or so) where your tripod mainly needs to resist external things like wind. Your Walmart cheapie will start to show its weakness for these shots, but most other tripods with a little bit of heft will be able to pull off these shots. The third type of shot will be ½ second – 1/60 sec. (roughly speaking; the range depends on the lens) shots with telephoto or macro lenses. For these shots, the vibrations generated by your camera (mirror slap and other internal mechanisms which spring to life when you fire off a shot and motion from your finger pressing the shutter) will shake your camera for a significant portion of the time that the shutter is open, and your shutter will not be fast enough to overcome the blur. This type of shot is why one would want a good tripod. Good tripods are very stiff and hold your camera firmly in place when internal/hand vibrations want to shake it. It’s all about stiffness and vibration dampening. To accomplish this dampening, you need a stiff system extending from ground to the front of your lens which keeps your camera and lens stationary.
The tripod system really has three components – the legs, ballhead or pan/tilt device, and the quick release system.
Designs with (3) independently positionable legs (i.e. no braces back to the column) are the best way to go for most users. This design lets you variably set the angles of your legs so you can get your tripod lower to the ground than for models with center column braces. Materials: Aluminum, Basalt and Carbon Fiber are the three materials you'll probably see on ebay. Carbon Fiber has the best strength/weight properties and as such is an ideal choice for hikers or travelers. You pay for it though. Aluminum is the old standard which has been used for decades. It will be best where your budget is tight or you don’t care so much about weight. Basalt is advertised as having better properties than aluminum, but is not as good as carbon fiber, nor is it a really common tripod material.
Gitzo really has the nicest lineup of legs out there. The legs just seem to lock down tighter and provide a more stable platform for any given weight/height of tripod. Their new legs are basically in the $500-1000 range. However, their older aluminum legs can be had used for between $100 and $400 depending on size, age and condition. They’ve got a veritable numerical soup of model numbers. If you’re buying new, you ought to peruse an online photo retailer (B&H, Adorama, etc.), the Gitzo website, or better yet, visit a camera shop which stocks a lot of them. If buying used, I would advise just looking at what is for sale and reading reviews about the specific models you see.
Bogen/Manfrotto (they’re the same company) makes some mid-priced legs which are of good quality. Bob Atkins gives a good review of their three most common models – the 3001, 3021 and 3051 (about $100, $160 and $300 respectively) – at photo.net. They’re generally good workhorse tripods but will weigh more than a comparable Gitzo for a given height and stiffness.
Slik: They make some $20 Wal-Mart type tripods, but they do make some good mid-range tripods as well, namely the Pro 700 DX (about $90 for just the legs at B&H)
Budget brands: On ebay you can find Amvona/Dynatran/Weifeng/Fancier tripods; even the big retailers (Adorama, B&H) will stock a line of generic tripods that are exclusive to their store. A lot of these tripods look to be Bogen/Manfrotto knockoffs. As such they’re not as good as the Bogen/Manfrotto’s they copy, but they can be significantly cheaper. They will generally be heavier for a given level of stiffness compared to their name brand equivalents and plastic components might break sooner. Customer service can be a stickey point for some of these sellers; definitely Google your seller and brand’s reputation before you buy in addition to checking their Ebay feedback. But if you’re on a tight budget and the tripod won’t see a lot of abuse, check them out because they generally do offer a good value for the prices they sell for. Be wary of tripods which have carbon fiber center columns (thus they prominently are advertized as "carbon fiber") but aluminum legs - the advantage to just having the CF center column is marginal at best.
Many companies other than these make legs, such as Benbo, Benro, Giottos, Tiltall, etc. etc. but they are less common. Internet searches can provide better information on these models than I can here.
Ballhead/Pan Tilt heads: Most photographers find Ballheads preferable to Pan Tilt styles because of the ease of use of ballheads (one knob controls the free pivot of your camera, instead of two more clumsy handles). For 35mm use you can find large diameter ballheads (generally 40mm-55mm diameter balls) and small diameter ballheads. For reasons of clamping force, fine tuning pivoting torque, and overall stiffness the large diameter ballheads are preferable, though expensive. Well reputed large diameter ballhead manufacturers include Arca-Swiss, Really Right Stuff, Markins, Wimberly, Kirk, Foba and Acratech. Costs are $280 (for the Acratech) and up new, including a quick release clamp. They are generally tough to find on ebay used for any significant discount. If you’re on a budget you can find large diameter ballheads, most of them with the quick release system for about $50-150. Alternately, you can get small diameter ballheads or a pan tilt head. Good quality Bogen/Manfrotto and old Gitzo heads can be found in this price range. Look for heads that are heavy (more than 1lb), look solidly built, and avoid heads with quick release systems you don’t trust or may not be able to get plates for. See reallyrightstuff dot com for some good information on the merits of large diameter ballheads.
Quick release systems: There are a lot of systems out there. The best is the Arca-Swiss (A-S) type. All the well reputed large diameter ballhead manufacturers quick release gear is A-S type and usually cross compatible. I would be wary of buying into another system, especially if you don’t try it out first. Other systems, most notably the Gitzo system and the Bogen/Manfrotto system do have their adherents and do cost less, but do not provide the same level of stiffness. In general I would strongly recommend the A-S system. If you look around you can get a quick release clamp (Kirk sometimes sells them on ebay) for $45 and up (if your ballhead doesn’t provide one) and a quick release plate that fits your camera body (preventing the camera from pivoting about the tripod mount) for $40. You will also need generic or fitted quick release plates for any of your lenses which have tripod collars. Reallyrightstuff also has good information about the merits of the A-S system.
Here are some suggested tripod outfits for various budgets (assuming one quick release plate where applicable):
Under $60: Do without quick release capabilities. In general, try to find a used tripod with larger diameter legs (about 1.25”) without center column bracing which weighs on the order of 5lbs. Look into older tripods (typically having integral pan tilt heads) from companies like Tiltall, Star D, etc., especially if weight is not a big issue. These are heavy, of good build quality, will last forever, and will provide good stiffness. Also check out the ebay generic offerings and Slik (especially the DX series or the U212). You can make a tripod in this range work for you if you shoot typical consumer zooms (less than 300mm or so) and use a 100mm macro lens. You might find you have to set up lower than maximum extension (i.e. keep the center column in its lowest position), and in certain circumstances you might lose some stiffness in the head and the head-camera connection.
$60-100: Check the same stuff as for under $60, but alternately you may also be able to pick up a used Bogen/Manfrotto 3001 or similar model with a pan tilt head.
$100-$150: Look for a Bogen/Manfrotto 3021 or a Slik 700 DX with pan heads or small diameter ball heads. You might even be able to pick up a generic ball head with A-S style quick release and a plate for $80 or so and couple that to a cheap set of legs (generic or used name brand legs) and stay within budget. You can also pick up some older small Gitzo models with heads in this range as well, which will be your best bet if weight is a concern.
$150-$250: Get a generic large diameter ballhead with A-S quick release capabilities. Couple that with legs to suit your purposes; older aluminum Gitzo models, the Bogen/Manfrotto 3021, Slik 700 DX, or similar.
$250-$400: In this range I’d still go with the generic large diameter ballhead and A-S quick release. You’ll be able to upgrade your legs to a used aluminum Gitzo model, or if weight is an issue, to some of the cheaper (not Gitzo, Bogen or Manfrotto) carbon fiber legs.
$400-$800: For this money, you’ll be able to get one of the more reputable ballheads along with high quality aluminum legs or generic carbon fiber legs. If you scrimp on the ballhead/quick release you could get a lower end Gitzo carbon fiber set of legs for this money.
$800 and up: Get the Gitzo set of carbon fiber legs that suit your needs and one of the reputable large diameter ballheads.