Tripod

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What should you look out for when buying a tripod? There are three specific camera tripod recommendations!

One advice right at the begin­ning: Don’t take a cheap 20 Bugs tri­pod, because then you will look for a new one half a year lat­er. Nor­mal­ly, you will use a tri­pod for sev­er­al years, so it is worth to plan a lit­tle more bud­get. My rec­om­men­da­tions range between 100 and 220 Euro. The arti­cle is very detailed, if you are just look­ing for a recommendation.

Here is an overview of my best picks:

Why do you need a tripod?

You need a tri­pod if you are shoot­ing in low light and would oth­er­wise blur your shots. But how do you deter­mine the point at which your pho­tos are blurred? You will find the one-by-focus rule of thumb below!
A tri­pod is also very use­ful for video shoots and when you are alone and no one can hold the camera.

So you need a pho­to tri­pod when­ev­er you want to take pic­tures in low light or if you want to take long expo­sures. In most cas­es, a tri­pod is used in land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy and archi­tec­tur­al pho­tog­ra­phy. The goal is always to take blur-free photos.

Does every camera fit on every tripod?

The tri­pod threads of dig­i­tal SLR cam­eras, sys­tem cam­eras and also com­pact cam­eras are now stan­dard­ized. Thus, one can say that the com­mon cam­eras fit on every com­mon pho­to tri­pod. Here you do not have to pay atten­tion to any­thing special.

 

The most important criterion for me: weight

The ide­al tri­pod is always a good com­pro­mise between weight and sta­bil­i­ty. A 200 gram tri­pod will rarely be sta­ble, while a 5 kg tri­pod is almost always sta­ble but also heavy. The tripods I rec­om­mend below weigh between 1.4 kg and 2.7 kg. This aspect has a par­tic­u­lar­ly high pri­or­i­ty if you trav­el a lot. Below I give a hint which is the best tri­pod for me.

What height is necessary?

The ques­tion of how big the tri­pod should be, is quite excit­ing. It depends on your height. Your tri­pod should be big enough so that you can look through the viewfind­er with­out the cen­ter col­umn being extend­ed. This way you can take pic­tures com­fort­ably and con­cen­trate on your com­po­si­tion with­out hav­ing to strain yourself.

Twist or clamp closures

In order to extend the legs of your tri­pod and then fix them in place, fas­ten­ers are nec­es­sary. Most­ly clamp fas­ten­ers are used here. How­ev­er, you also have the choice to pur­chase twist locks when buy­ing. I have used both clo­sures and I can­not say that I have a par­tic­u­lar favorite.

Of course, it is more dif­fi­cult to get your fin­gers caught on the twist lock. Some col­leagues say that they can set up tripods faster with twist locks, but when work­ing with a tri­pod, the two sec­onds longer set-up time is not so impor­tant to me. My opin­ion: It does­n’t mat­ter which locks you use.

 

Pay attention to the load capacity

What mat­ters is how much your cam­era and lens weighs. Each tri­pod has a fixed max­i­mum load capac­i­ty. This load capac­i­ty should of course be high­er than the weight of your pho­to equipment.

If you don’t pay atten­tion to this val­ue, it is pos­si­ble that your pic­ture sec­tion will be low­ered dur­ing the expo­sure. If you put too much weight on the tri­pod, it can also be damaged.

The difference between using wide angle and telephoto lenses

Anoth­er rule of thumb: For a tele­pho­to lens you need a more sta­ble tri­pod than for work­ing with a wide-angle lens. That’s because with the long focal length of a tele­pho­to lens, images can blur more eas­i­ly. This also applies to very small nudges on the tri­pod itself. Or even in sit­u­a­tions with strong winds. Tele­pho­to lens­es in com­bi­na­tion with a tri­pod are used espe­cial­ly in ani­mal and sports pho­tog­ra­phy. Mean­while, I have pub­lished a sep­a­rate arti­cle with my rec­om­men­da­tions for this kind of lens­es: Canon Tele­pho­to Lens.

The packing size: The size for transport (by plane)

You will also find anoth­er infor­ma­tion in the data of your new tri­pod: the pack­ing size. These num­bers indi­cate how big it is when assem­bled and retract­ed. This data is impor­tant if you want to trans­port your tripod.

Here you should check if it fits into your pho­to back­pack or in your suit­case for the flight. For the trans­port by plane I usu­al­ly unscrew the tri­pod head and trans­port both between my things padded in the suit­case. My pho­to back­pack, a Lowe­pro Flip­side 500AW, I always have with me as hand luggage.

 

The choice between wood, aluminum and carbon

Tripods are usu­al­ly made of three dif­fer­ent mate­ri­als: alu­minum, car­bon and wood.

Properties of wood:

  • Very sta­ble
  • Very low vibration
  • High weight

Properties of aluminum:

  • Low weight
  • Rea­son­able price-per­for­mance ratio
  • Robust

Properties of carbon:

  • Very light weight
  • Vibra­tion arm
  • Can be used in win­ter with­out gloves
  • High price

Wood­en tripods are now used rather less because of their high dead weight. So your deci­sion will prob­a­bly be made for car­bon or alu­minum tripods.

Is the extra charge for carbon worth it?

find the perfect tripod
Man­frot­to Car­bon Tripod

If you are going a lot on foot, like in land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy, you can save some weight with a car­bon tri­pod. Com­pared to an alu­minum tri­pod, it is about 20–30% less. Car­bon tripods cost much more. A rec­om­mend­ed car­bon tri­pod is the Man­frot­to MT190CXPRO4. I have been using the Man­frot­to Befree GT Car­bon for a few months now.

Are spikes necessary?

Spikes are small met­al spikes that can be extend­ed from the tri­pod feet by a rotat­ing mech­a­nism. They are use­ful if you often work on slip­pery ground. In land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy this is the case if you want to set up your tri­pod on snow, ice or mud. Most tripods have rub­ber feet that hold well on almost all sur­faces. I have not expe­ri­enced a sit­u­a­tion in the last 10 years where I would have wished for spikes. There­fore, spikes are not a deci­sion cri­te­ri­on for me.

Is the angle of the legs important?

On some tripods you can adjust the angle at which the legs can be adjust­ed. This makes the tri­pod stand wider and there­fore more sta­ble. But at the same time it is of course also low­er. The angle of incli­na­tion means that you can spread the tri­pod legs fur­ther. I use this fea­ture on my Man­frot­to Befree from time to time when I’m shoot­ing in very windy sit­u­a­tions. Then the tri­pod has a lit­tle more grip.

This fea­ture is also inter­est­ing if you are look­ing for a par­tic­u­lar­ly deep shoot­ing sit­u­a­tion, depend­ing on the pur­pose. Many of my pic­tures are tak­en rel­a­tive­ly close to the ground, the tri­pod legs are not extend­ed at all. With such a com­po­si­tion of images in com­bi­na­tion with a wide-angle lens you can cre­ate a lot of depth in the pic­ture. If I can then get a lit­tle clos­er to the ground and the motive by the angle of the legs, this can be quite helpful.

The shoot­ing height and the angle of attack are also inter­est­ing for macro pho­tog­ra­phers. So if your pho­to­graph­ic world is focused on insects and plants, this fea­ture will help you get clos­er to your subjects.

 

When is a folding center column worthwhile?

Manfrotto MT190CXPro4
Man­frot­to MT190CXPro4 tripod

Also inter­est­ing for macro pho­tog­ra­phers is the fold­able cen­ter col­umn. As the name sug­gests, you can use it to attach your entire cen­ter col­umn not upwards, but as a kind of boom on the side of the tri­pod. So the cen­ter col­umn can be tilt­ed by 90 degrees. This is impor­tant if you can’t place your cam­era tri­pod direct­ly at the sub­ject, but a lit­tle beside it. With the fold­able cen­ter col­umn, the cam­era is not placed cen­tral­ly above the tri­pod, but to the side of it. This fea­ture is avail­able on the Man­frot­to MT190XPRO4, for example.

Is it worth using the hook on the center column?

Some tripods offer a hook at the bot­tom of the cen­ter col­umn. This hook allows addi­tion­al weight to be attached to the tri­pod to increase sta­bil­i­ty. It is con­ceiv­able, for exam­ple, to attach the pho­to backpack.

The col­leagues came to the con­clu­sion that it hard­ly makes a dif­fer­ence whether you hang addi­tion­al weight on these hooks or not. Based on this test, the hook on the cen­ter col­umn is not a deci­sion cri­te­ri­on for me.

 

A nice feature against cold hands: The foam rubber coating

If you’ve ever had a tri­pod before, maybe made of alu­minum, you know the sit­u­a­tion in win­ter. Below 0 degrees the mate­r­i­al is very cold for the fin­gers. If you car­ry and set up the tri­pod with­out gloves, you will have real­ly cold hands afterwards.

A foam rub­ber coat­ing is the rem­e­dy. On some tripods, one of the legs is coat­ed with it as a car­ry­ing option, on oth­ers all three legs. So the fin­gers don’t get so cold while handling.

It is def­i­nite­ly not just a fea­ture for wimps — I can con­cen­trate much bet­ter on pho­tog­ra­phy and image com­po­si­tion if I feel com­fort­able with it. Warm hands def­i­nite­ly con­tribute to this in winter.

 

The one-by-focus rule of thumb

The guid­ing prin­ci­ple is: You can hold a max­i­mum of 1/focal length from your hand.

Okay, let’s get a lit­tle tech­ni­cal. The focal length you’re using can be read off your lens. An 18–55mm lens has a focal length of 18–55mm, depend­ing on whether you zoomed in or not. You can read the focal length you are using from the front of the lens.

Depend­ing on which mode of your cam­era you are using (e.g. A, P, AV, TV or M), you will see your expo­sure time dis­played in the viewfind­er when you press the shut­ter release but­ton halfway down. This can be 1/200 sec­ond, 1/50 sec­ond or even 1/10 sec­ond. The 1/200 sec­ond peri­od is much short­er than 1/10 sec­ond. At 1/200 sec­ond the prob­a­bil­i­ty of blur­ring your image is much less than at 1/10 second.

The longer the expo­sure time, the more like­ly you are to blur your image with­out a tri­pod. For exam­ple, if you take a pic­ture with a focal length of 50mm, you can take a max­i­mum of 1/50 sec­ond with­out a tri­pod. If you have an expo­sure time of 1/25 sec­ond, the pic­ture will prob­a­bly be blurred. If you have an expo­sure time of 1/100 sec­ond with this focal length, you will prob­a­bly get a sharp picture.

Lens­es or cam­eras with image sta­bi­liz­er will of course help a lit­tle bit. With image sta­bi­liz­er you can hold a pic­ture with a 50mm lens at an expo­sure time of 1/10 second.

This rule of thumb is valid for APS‑C as well as for full format.

 

How to find the right tripod head

In prin­ci­ple, each tri­pod is basi­cal­ly made up of the tri­pod itself and the tri­pod head. Many tripods are there­fore sold with dif­fer­ent heads or gen­er­al­ly with­out a tri­pod head. Below I will give you some hints about cer­tain bun­dles that I think are useful.

Many tri­pod man­u­fac­tur­ers use a so-called quick release plate for the con­nec­tion to the cam­era. Here, each brand usu­al­ly has its own sys­tem. The quick release plate can be removed from the head and screwed under the cam­era. When attach­ing it to the tri­pod, the cam­era and the quick release plate are sim­ply hooked into the tri­pod head and secured. This does not take a sec­ond. This tech­nique also has the advan­tage that, if you have sev­er­al cam­eras, you can use sev­er­al quick-release plates, which you attach to one cam­era at a time.

For many appli­ca­tions it makes sense that a spir­it lev­el is inte­grat­ed on the cam­era tri­pod itself or bet­ter on the tri­pod head. This way the tri­pod and thus the pho­tos can be straight­ened. There are also tri­pod heads with spir­it lev­els in more than one align­ment, for exam­ple for two axes.

What are the heads?

The spherical head

With the spher­i­cal head, the base of the head sits in a kind of joint. On top of this base is the cam­era. The advan­tage of this head is the quick adjusta­bil­i­ty and good sta­bil­i­ty. The ball head is the most used tri­pod head. How tight­ly the ball sits, can be adjust­ed with a knob. A ball head is not so easy to use for exact­ly aligned panora­mas, because when you move the image sec­tion, i.e. when you loosen the posi­tion, you quick­ly change the height as well. But all in all it is the most uni­ver­sal head.

Manfrotto 496RC2 spherical head for your tripod
Man­frot­to 496RC2 spher­i­cal head

3‑way-panhead

Manfrotto X Pro 3-way-panhead
Man­frot­to X Pro 3‑way-pan­head

With a 3‑way pan­head you can adjust each axis sep­a­rate­ly. This is use­ful if you want to align your images and thus the cam­era posi­tion very pre­cise­ly. How­ev­er, this process takes more time. When is this head use­ful? When you want to align your pic­tures to the mil­lime­tre. This can be use­ful for repro­duc­tions of paint­ings, or for archi­tec­tur­al pho­tog­ra­phy. When­ev­er mil­lime­tre pre­ci­sion is required, a three-way head is worth considering.

 

2‑way panhead

A 2‑way pan­head reduces the pos­si­bil­i­ty of adjust­ment to two axes. It is there­fore a sim­pler ver­sion of the 3‑way pan­head and is often referred to as a video head, as it is well suit­ed for this pur­pose. So if you are plan­ning to shoot a lot of videos, this head is par­tic­u­lar­ly suit­able for you. It can be used to real­ize soft cam­era pans. By turn­ing the long lever you can oper­ate the lock­ing mech­a­nism. I unknow­ing­ly used a 2‑way pan­head for a very long time for my land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy. In this respect this head is also suit­able for photography.

Manfrotto 055XPROB Black Aluminum Tripod with Manfrotto MVH502AH Pro Video Head
Man­frot­to 055XPROB Black Alu­minum Tri­pod with Man­frot­to MVH502AH Pro Video Head

 

Geared head

The gear­head is basi­cal­ly a 3‑way head, but the axes can be adjust­ed with mil­lime­tre pre­ci­sion using a mechan­i­cal gear. Accord­ing­ly, this head is suit­able for very fine adjust­ments regard­ing the cam­era position.

Manfrotto Geared head
Man­frot­to Geared head

Panorama head

If you almost exclu­sive­ly take panora­mas, then a suit­able panora­ma head is inter­est­ing for you. The spe­cial fea­ture here is a grad­u­a­tion, with which you can deter­mine the over­lap for the indi­vid­ual pic­tures exact­ly. Most panora­ma heads have an inte­grat­ed spir­it lev­el, so that you can align the hori­zon exact­ly. When set­ting up the tri­pod, it should be aligned exact­ly so that you do not have any dis­tor­tions in the pic­ture. If you now know your focal length exact­ly, you can only take your panora­ma using the grad­u­a­tion, because you can read off exact­ly how many degrees you have to turn after tak­ing the picture.

Andoer dh-55d HDR Panorama head
Ando­er dh-55d HDR Panora­ma head

The tri­pod head is also stan­dard­ized with regard to the thread and almost every head fits on almost every tripod.

My rec­om­men­da­tion for the tri­pod head: The spher­i­cal head — for exam­ple a Man­frot­to 496RC2 Com­pact. With it you can adjust your cam­era com­plete­ly free and rel­a­tive­ly fast.

Manfrotto 496RC2 spherical head for your tripod
Man­frot­to 496RC2 spher­i­cal head

The best way to transport your tripod

There are basi­cal­ly three ways to trans­port the tri­pod dur­ing hikes:

  • Car­ry­ing it in your hand
  • Car­ry with a shoul­der bag
  • Attach­ing to the pho­to backpack

I pre­fer the third pos­si­bil­i­ty, because the tri­pod can be car­ried well over longer dis­tances. When buy­ing a pho­to back­pack you have to make sure that the tri­pod can be attached to it well. Not to be neglect­ed here are also ergonom­ic aspects like weight dis­tri­b­u­tion or that the main weight is car­ried as close to the body as possible.

Tripodbag
tri­pod bag

Some man­u­fac­tur­ers deliv­er bags direct­ly with the tri­pod. Alter­na­tive­ly there are also padded bags to buy. 

Durability: The right maintenance

The main­te­nance effort for tripods is kept with­in lim­its. Every few years I tight­en the screws of the clamps a lit­tle bit. The­o­ret­i­cal­ly the lubri­ca­tion of a ball head would have to be renewed every few years, but I nev­er had to do that.

More impor­tant is that you rinse and dry your tri­pod after shoot­ing in demand­ing sit­u­a­tions. These include envi­ron­ments with sand and salt water. When I take pic­tures by the sea, it hap­pens from time to time that I place the tri­pod legs direct­ly in the sand and water to get my com­po­si­tion right. In the evening in the accom­mo­da­tion I then take the tri­pod legs off again ful­ly and put the tri­pod in the show­er to rinse it off. This way you avoid sand col­lect­ing in the leg seg­ments and drag­ging them togeth­er dur­ing the next setup.

Can I save a tripod and edit the image in Photoshop?

There are sim­ple effects such as long expo­sure, for exam­ple, that can­not be cre­at­ed by post-pro­cess­ing. Of course you can also take pic­tures with high­er ISO to avoid using a tri­pod. But then the image qual­i­ty suf­fers, even if you denoise the image in post-pro­cess­ing. The most impor­tant point for me is that a tri­pod makes me work slow­er. It prac­ti­cal­ly forces me to do so. And so I wor­ry more about my pho­tos and the pic­tures get better.

Special tripods

In the fol­low­ing I have described some spe­cial tripods which might be inter­est­ing for you depend­ing on the application.

Gorillapod

A spe­cial type of tri­pod is the Goril­la­pod. It has flex­i­ble plas­tic legs and can be attached to things like fences or trees. The Goril­la­pod is rel­a­tive­ly light with about 200 grams and there­fore prac­ti­cal for trav­el­ling. The dis­ad­van­tage is that one is very lim­it­ed con­cern­ing the cam­era posi­tion. Of course, this tri­pod can also be set up straight on the ground. The max­i­mum load capac­i­ty is 1 kg, thus it is only suit­able for small­er cameras.

Gorilla Tripod
Goril­la Tripod

Mini tripod / table tripod

For sit­u­a­tions on birth­days or just to have the com­pact cam­era with a small tri­pod there are the mini tripods. These min­is are usu­al­ly only about 10 cm high and have a low car­ry­ing capac­i­ty. For ulti­mate low weight in com­bi­na­tion with a com­pact cam­era it is worth to have a look at a mini tripod.

Mini-tripod/Table-tripod
mini-tripod/table-tri­pod

These min­is are also called table tripods, because you can just take them with you to a par­ty and place them on the table for a group pho­to. Not every table tri­pod is very sta­ble. But there are also some rep­re­sen­ta­tives of this cat­e­go­ry that can be used for a long time expo­sure outside.

Last August I was in Chi­na and had only my Fuji­film X100F with me. I only want­ed to have light equip­ment with me, so I lim­it­ed myself to this camera.

If you find a wall or some­thing sim­i­lar, you can place this mini tri­pod on it. I made a long time expo­sure of an inter­sec­tion in a city with it and the pic­ture became exact­ly as I imag­ined it. The Pixi tri­pod worked with­out prob­lems, the pic­ture was crisp and sharp. So if it should be small and light and a good pos­si­bil­i­ty to set it up is to be found, then such a table tri­pod is a use­ful alternative.

Monopod

Monopod
Mono­pod

Monopods are espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar in sports and event pho­tog­ra­phy. Here you prac­ti­cal­ly only have one tri­pod leg to sup­port the cam­era. This is use­ful for longer focal lengths of tele­pho­to lens­es. Of course it is not suit­able for long expo­sures. Advan­tages of a mono­pod over a tri­pod are the low weight and that you can change the posi­tion where the tri­pod is need­ed very quickly.

Tip for stability: leave the center column retracted

On almost all tripods the cen­ter col­umn can be extend­ed to use the max­i­mum height of the tri­pod. But spe­cial­ly a ful­ly extend­ed cen­ter col­umn takes some sta­bil­i­ty away from the tri­pod. There­fore I gen­er­al­ly rec­om­mend to use the cen­ter col­umn only in excep­tion­al cases.

What is an L‑Bracket and when is it worthwhile?

To attach the cam­era to the tri­pod head a tri­pod plate is nor­mal­ly used. You screw this plate to your cam­era and then hook the cam­era and the plate onto the tri­pod head.

An L‑Bracket is use­ful if you often switch between por­trait and land­scape for­mat. It is a rail that is attached to the cam­era sim­i­lar to the plate. You can switch between por­trait and land­scape with­out hav­ing to tilt the tri­pod head to the side.

An L‑Bracket must always be pur­chased indi­vid­u­al­ly for the respec­tive cam­era, so that the con­nec­tions on the cam­era remain free.

L-Bracket
L‑Bracket

When do I use a tripod?

In Ger­many, panoram­ic free­dom applies. This means that you are allowed to use a tri­pod to take pic­tures from pub­lic ground. As soon as you are inside build­ings and on pri­vate prop­er­ty, I rec­om­mend that you find out if you can use a tri­pod before tak­ing pictures.

A typ­i­cal exam­ple is church­es. Some­times you can buy a pho­to per­mit for a small fee. But I would def­i­nite­ly ask in advance.

In for­eign coun­tries the panora­ma free­dom does not exist through­out. It is always bet­ter to get infor­ma­tion before­hand than to deal with the police or secu­ri­ty personnel.

 

My tripod test — I have already used these products

I have used var­i­ous tripods over the last years. In addi­tion, I was always able to try out new tripods with oth­er pho­tog­ra­ph­er-friends. Out of these tripods three mod­els have emerged which I would rec­om­mend. All three tripods are Man­frot­to mod­els, because I am very sat­is­fied with the qual­i­ty and the price-per­for­mance ratio of this manufacturer.

 

This is not a real tripod test, I will show you my personal recommendations here.

 

 

The best tri­pod for me per­son­al­ly is the Man­frot­to Befree. I use it 95% of the time because I walk a lot and the weight is very impor­tant for me. I also find it offers good val­ue for mon­ey. The Befree is also avail­able in a car­bon ver­sion. Because of the low weight it is also the best trav­el tri­pod for me.

Do you have any oth­er tri­pod rec­om­men­da­tions? Let me know in the com­ments below!

 


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