Choosing a Tripod



For lighting photographers, the first thing to consider about a tripod is this: a tripod is your most powerful light.

That's because time (AKA shutter speed) is what we use to bring up the exposure in a large environment, which we then tweak/improve with judicious use of added flash. It is very difficult to light a large space, so just let the ambient do the heavy lifting and finish it off with your lighting genius.

And even when you are not lighting, you'll frequently need a tripod for a variety of reasons. And when you do, you want it to hold your camera still.

To that end, every photographer needs good sticks.

There are a couple of schools of thought about how to choose a good tripod. But no matter which way you go, the most important thing is this: don't waste your time and money on a piece-of-crap version. You'll just have to re-buy it later.

I'll say it again: don't waste money on a crap tripod.


To Start...

Independent of the factors listed below, here's my first advice: go for a name brand that has been around awhile and has a good reputation.

Manfrotto, Gitzo and Induro are good examples. None of them are cheap, but they are also likely to not let you down. They are supported by a great reputation and solid service, the same way your camera is supported by a good tripod.

Don't save money by buying a tripod that is spec'd to do less than you need it to do. That's another mistake. And you may find there is not a one-size-fits-all tripod for you. The optimal tripod for your big bird-watching rig might be overkill for your travel photography needs.

Similarly, a tripod designed for travel photography—even if a quality brand—might be way under-sized for your big lens work.

So like most shooters you'll probably end up with two tripods. One as a heavy-duty platform and one that is much more portable.


General Purpose Tripods



Your first tripod will probably be one that can do everything pretty well, but maybe sacrifices extreme portability. And that's a good strategy.

Again, go with a good brand and buy enough support for your needs. If money is tight, rather than skimping on the brand I would suggest buying good quality, but buying used.

The 20-yr-old old Gitzo Reporter Performance pictured above is total, rock-solid support. It was bought used (on eBay) for a modest amount of money and will last me the rest of my life.

Used quality is a better choice than new crap. But if you have the money to spend, by all means take some time and test drive some new tripods in person. You'll quickly get a feel for the solidity and quality of the various options.

But go with a brand that has a good reputation. Or skimp, curse a little and get it right on round two.


Specialty Tripods



By specialty, we generally mean portability: small, light, reverse-folding, etc. This is the tripod you take with you when you travel, or when shooting smaller mirrorless cameras. Or both, obviously.

For extreme portability in addition to solid support at the mirrorless level, I like the MeFOTO Backpacker ($119 - Amazon). Ours, seen above, is partially wrapped in gaff because that is the most convenient way to store the indispensable tape when traveling. The BackPacker is not full-sized; it only goes to about chest-height.

But—BUT—it reverse folds to a very compact 12.6", which makes it a total win for travel or backpacking (duh, the name) with mirrorless cameras. It is super-compact, and well-built. I used it with a Fuji X100s to make the photo of London's Big Ben, above.

If you shoot full-sized DSLR, I would suggest stepping up to a MeFOTO GlobeTrotter for a travel tripod. It is bigger, more stable, goes up to 64" in height and has a retractable center column while still keeping the reverse-fold design. Even still, it folds to just 16.1" long. ($172 - Amazon). As a bonus it converts to a monopod, which is nice.

You can spend an extra $160 on the GlobeTrotter and go carbon fiber, which saves you a pound. But for that price you can literally buy both and have $20 left over. Or $160 would get you a great, second general-purpose tripod used.


Really Wrong Stuff

One quick aside: there is a company called Really Right Stuff that sells very expensive tripods and camera mounts. They sell directly, which probably gives them a fantastic profit margin. If you don't believe me, visit their website (I'm not gonna link it) and see just how much money they spend following you around the web for the next six months.

Whatever. If they wanna spend their money that way, fine. But what is totally not fine with me is that they also take some of the money photographers give them and use it to support legislation that seeks to make same-sex marriages illegal.

WTF, RRS.

You might make good tripods. (I'll never know, because they are hella expensive). And those tripods might support cameras really well. But you're never gonna get my support if you're just gonna turn around and give my money to support bigoted crap like that.


Finally: Carbon Fiber or Metal?

Tough choice. Carbon fiber is more expensive—sometimes shockingly so. But is a weight difference of typically one pound worth that much to you? Or, perhaps will the size of the tripod itself be the limiting factor in your suitcase or backpack that outs it from travel for you?

If the carbon version really fits your total needs and you can afford the price tag, maybe that's cool. Or maybe you split the task and buy metal for big support and a MeFOTO for travel. You would save money (over $100 in this example) in the process.

And honestly, that's what I'd do.


And One Last Time...

Either way, the worst, worst, worst thing you can do is to throw money away on a crap tripod. Consider my lessons learned (and that of literally millions of photographers before you) as sufficient warning.



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