Yes, you need a tripod. Whether you shoot digital, film or video, you need a tripod. That slight blurriness that you sometimes get from your zoom lens (or even from your long-range-zoom compact camera) is not the fault of your camera, it’s the fault of "camera shake". Why do you think shake reduction has become a standard feature on almost every camera or lens these days? Shake reduction is awesome, but only up to a point. Add to your mix a tripod and you have the original—and still most reliable—way to eliminate shaky shots.
Tripods are also great for shooting available-light scenes without a flash, as well as seamless panoramas, fireworks, family portraits (with you in the picture, for a change!), shots of the stars or moon, and dozens of other situations that require long exposures. You’ll also get better, sharper close-up images if you use a tripod, because you can use a smaller aperture and a slower shutter speed without the fear of camera movement.
There are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of tripods out there on the market for still and video photography. So how do you narrow down the choice to just what you want? Let’s dive in and take a look at the components that make up a tripod.
There are seven components that make up all tripods:
- Collapsed size
- Load capacity
- Head type
- Leg locks
- Common material
The more you know about each, the easier it will be to buy the perfect tripod for your picture-taking needs, so read on to better understand the makeup of a tripod:
Collapsed Size – Collapsed Size is how long the tripod measures with everything folded up. This is important especially if you are traveling and need to pack the tripod in a bag. This number will let you know if it’ll fit.
Size – Maximum Height Extension is how tall the tripod will stand when every leg, along with the center post is raised as far as it will go.
Load Capacity – Don’t confuse weight with Maximum Load Capacity. The weight is how much the tripod weighs. The Maximum Load Capacity is the heaviest camera and lens combination the tripod will handle. If you put a camera that’s heavier than the Maximum Load Capacity on a tripod, you run the risk of a piece collapsing, causing damage to both the tripod and the camera. So, it’s very important to know how much your camera weighs with its heaviest lens and flash attached, and then you buy a tripod that is rated to handle that amount of weight.
Head Type – Most tripods come with a head, but it may not be the ideal one for your purposes. The head sits atop the center column, a tube in the center of the tripod’s construction that can be raised and lowered either with a hand crank or via a locking collar.
Feet – Feet come in rubber non-slip (used for most indoor and some outdoor shooting); spike (best for outdoor shooting, the spikes hold the tripod firmly in the ground); and custom (which could be anything, including ball-bearings).
Leg Locks – Leg locks are available in Twist (twist the leg to pull it out, twist it in reverse to lock it in position), Lever (open a lever to pull a leg out, close it to lock it) and custom options.
Common Material – (Which is what most of the tripod is made of) is either plastic (the least expensive, but not very durable), aluminum (inexpensive and most commonly used, but in heavy-duty tripods can add a lot of weight), carbon fiber (a relatively new material for tripods, it’s durable, lightweight, and flexible–ideal for most uses–but it’s expensive), and wood (typically used by nature photographers who don’t mind toting large-format cameras).
So what is the best tripod for you?
While there are many different kinds of tripods, we can divide them into five basic groups: Pocket, Tabletop, Portable, Medium Duty, and Studio Grade. The category names suggest their primary applications.
Types of Tripods
Pocket Tripods: These can be a real life saver when you’re trying to shoot that impromptu family group picture and want to include yourself in it. Typically measuring less than five inches collapsed, pocket ‘pods slip easily into a bag or waist-pack and are very handy at parties, restaurants, and other places where you may not want lug something bigger. They’ll support the weight of a compact digital camera (be careful not to overload them!). Look for one that has some sort of adjustable head, even if it’s primitive. There are even small tripods that will hold your cell phone camera steady!
Best used for:
Party pictures–with you in them
Small, light cameras
Tabletop Tripods: These are excellent for group pictures and other situations where the camera can be positioned on a flat surface other than the ground. They’re light, small, and easy to pack so they’re perfect for travel. Put it on a table, set the self-timer, and you can include yourself in the shot. Or, turn your tabletop tripod sideways and place it against a wall to give you more stability when shooting. And since they hold the camera no more than 12 inches off the ground, they’re great for down-to-earth subjects, including close-up flower photography.
Best used for:
Travel Tripods: These help raise your camera well off the ground, but collapse to an easy-to-carry size. They’re are great for hiking, biking, and that casual stroll through the nature center. These will support a DSLR with a kit lens, or even a modest zoom lens. Compact video cameras can also be used on these tripods. But be cautious if you use a long zoom, especially if it’s front heavy, as this could cause the camera to tip. Most of these elevate to just below eye-level, but the trade-off is their wonderful portability.
Best used for:
Medium Duty Tripods: This type of tripod fills the gap between lightweight portable jobs and heavyweight studio tripods. They can be used for nature photography (if you have a strong back), portable portrait set-ups, and yes, studio work. The advantage over portable pods is that most models raise to eye level or higher, they are heavier and therefore sturdier. While many come with heads, you can buy some models without a head and then create a custom configuration by buying the head separately.
Best used for:
Weddings and events
Studio Grade Tripods: These tripods are exactly that... "pro line" quality and strength. This is the domain of professional photographers who generally buy a specific type of tripod to fit a specific need. They are big, sometimes immovable and nearly always used with a specialized head. They are designed to handle medium- and large-format cameras. But in today's digital era, these tripods are becoming less common.
Best used for:
The characteristics listed above are meant to guide you to the right category, thus speeding up your research and shortening the buying process. Additionally, of course, there’s the matter of price… but please don’t let that be your only guide, as a really good tripod will last you a lifetime and deliver you great results. Good luck, and happy shooting!