Choosing the Right Tripod and Head

A wise man once said, “If you have a $2 head, buy a $2 motorcycle helmet.” What do motorcycle helmets and tripods have in common? Only fools and beginners try to save money on them.

Your tripod may be the second most important piece of gear you own, right after your camera body. Solid tripods are particularly important for certain photographic specialties, such as wildlife. The long and heavy telephoto lenses used for wildlife photography need very sturdy support. If you try to skimp on your tripod, there’s a real danger of destroying an expensive lens because it outweighs a tripod and creates a top-heavy situation.

If you’re just starting out in photography, you may not yet have heavy glass or bodies. Trust me, you’ll most likely eventually get there, so buy the biggest, beefiest, sturdiest, and best tripod you can afford now. You’ll save money in the long run if you bite the bullet and spend the money to buy top quality today rather than taking a loss when you trade in your old tripod for one that will do the job.

When you select a tripod, make sure that you don’t underestimate how much weight it will handle. Tripod manufacturers are notorious for rating their equipment on the plus side of the weight scale. If your tripod maker says its model can handle 9 lbs worth of equipment, you should automatically impose a 4.5-lb limit. If you cut the manufacturer’s specifications in half, you’ll be closer to the truth of what the tripod can actually handle.

Pro tip: In a best-case scenario, you may want to have more than one tripod. (You have more than one lens, don’t you?) You might have one tripod that you use exclusively for video and another for still photography. That way you’ll never have an excuse for not having properly stabilized lenses.


Here’s what to look for in a tripod:

First, you need a tripod that, with a head attached, will extend to a height that won’t require you to bend over constantly to look through the viewfinder. If you constantly need to bend over to compose the shot, your back will quickly lobby you to ditch it. As a result, you may quit using your tripod. Not using a tripod may be a recipe for low-quality images. Be sure to buy a tripod you can stand behind comfortably for hours at a time.

Second, your tripod must have independent leg movement, and don’t select a tripod with braces between the legs. Braces are fine for a studio tripod, but if you want the flexibility to position yourself in odd places while shooting in the field, you’re going to be setting up on uneven terrain, and independently movable and adjustable legs are required.

Third, you need the ability to lower your tripod to ground level. This means the legs must be able to swing straight out. This also means that, ideally, there should be no center post.

Pro tip: You want a tripod that gets low enough so you can lie on your stomach to look through the viewfinder. If the lowest your tripod will go still requires you to get on your knees, then it doesn’t go low enough.

Besides these three major tripod attributes, there are a few other things to consider. When possible, opt for tripods with three sections rather than four. While four-section tripods will pack up smaller and be easier to pack into the field, they’re not as stable. There are some exceptions to this rule, though they come at a cost.

It should be easy to adjust the height and angle of the tripod legs. Most tripods have either levers or a collar that you tighten. Whichever method your tripod uses, it should be quick and easy to use. It should also be super tight.

The sturdiness and quality of manufacture of your tripod is also an important factor. You’ll toss your tripod in the back of the car, extend the legs countless times, and submerge it in water, mud, snow, and sand. You may subject it to extreme temperature ranges. Of all your photography gear, your tripod probably gets the lion’s share of abuse, so it’s important to spend the money on a quality tripod.

From my experience, you can’t go wrong with any of the major brands, such as Induro, Really Right Stuff, Manfrotto/Bogen, or Gitzo. Many of the models bearing these brands carry a lifetime warranty. (Manfrotto distributes both Bogen and Gitzo.) As long as you buy one that’s suitable for your intended use, you’ll have a tripod that will never let you down.

Pro tip: Seasoned photographers realize that the tripod, no matter how sturdy, is the most likely piece of gear to break. It’s a good idea to buy a few spare parts, such as screws and tripod feet, and have them in your gadget bag for emergency repairs.

This brings us to one last consideration: availability of spare parts. How easy is it to get parts from the manufacturer of your tripod? Companies like Really Right Stuff, Induro, Manfrotto/Bogen, and others offer parts that are just a phone call away. Many larger camera stores stock spare parts for these tripods. If you select an off-brand, make sure you can easily get spare parts.

Now that you have the tripod, you’ll need to buy a tripod head. There are two basic types of tripod heads: ballheads and pan-tilt heads. Arca-Swiss-style ballheads like the Acratech are perfect for shorter lenses up to 300mm in focal length.

Ballheads usually have two or three controls. The main control loosens the ball, allowing the photographer to move the camera in any direction. Another control will loosen only the panning base. This is a convenient control to have. A third control will set the amount of friction on the main control. This friction control allows you to set the tension on the ballhead at a specific level.

Once the friction control is set, you can lock the ball in place, but when you loosen the lock, it will only move gradually within the tension boundaries you have set for it. This is a critical feature to have when using large and heavy lenses. With the tension properly set, you can maintain relatively free movement of the head without worrying that your big, expensive lens will flop the minute you loosen the ballhead lock.

Pan-tilt heads, sometimes called three-way pan-tilt heads, also have three controls. One controls panning, another controls fore-aft tilt, and the third controls the horizontal/vertical tilt.

Both types of heads have pros and cons. With a pan-tilt head, you can make very precise adjustments in one direction without changing positioning in other directions. However, you may need to use a different control for different photographic settings.

With a ballhead, one knob (or lever) controls all movements, and by loosening the main control, the camera can move in all directions.

Ballheads tend to be quicker to adjust and use. Quality ballheads also tend to be more expensive. Ballheads are often lighter and they take up less space because there aren’t three controls sticking out in three directions. Unless I’m shooting on a gimbal head (a special kind of head often used in wildlife photography), I use ballheads.

Here again, stick with brand names like Induro, Really Right Stuff, Kirk Photo, etc. I do like Gitzo tripods but I don’t care for their heads, so I tend to use heads from Induro.

Pro tip: Three-way pan-tilt heads don’t allow for quick changes, and the pistol grip-type of heads don’t offer enough support.

 Secret: Camera/Lens Plates & Quick-Release Systems

Using a quick-release system can greatly simplify your photographic life. Quick releases offer improved stability and security and make it easier to mount the camera to your tripod. If it’s easier to use your tripod, you’re more likely to use it, and if you use a tripod, your photos will greatly improve.

The dove-tailed plate and clamp style pioneered by Arca-Swiss, and now simply called the Arca-Swiss system, is the one that most pros use. Arca-Swiss style systems are more expensive to buy, but they offer greater flexibility, convenience, stability, and security.

Pro tip: Quick-release plates made by companies like Really Right Stuff, Kirk, and Wimberley are well-made and reliable. Some offer extra options, including the ability to attach flash brackets and other accessories.

Pro tip: This isn’t the area to scrimp. It’s just plain smart to own a good, sturdy, and reliable quick-release system. If you’ve just spent $5,000, or even $500, on a new lens, this extra expense is cheap insurance.

Before deciding on any of this equipment, be sure to visit a well-stocked camera store to try out the different systems available. If there’s a local photo club, consider joining one of their outings and asking members what they prefer and why.

The L bracket is another tool to make the operation of your tripod smooth. These mount on your camera body in place of a standard quick-release plate. The L bracket allows you to mount the camera in either a horizontal or vertical orientation without having to tilt the tripod ballhead on its side.

If your wildlife lens lacks a tripod collar, the L bracket is the next best thing. When you tilt the tripod head over on one side to shoot a vertical-format picture, the weight of the camera is no longer distributed over the center of the tripod. This can make the tripod seriously off-balanced. In this position, the camera may also no longer be level. The L bracket allows the camera to be placed in a vertical orientation and remain centered over the tripod. This is vastly more stable than tilting the tripod head over to one side, especially if you’re using a lightweight tripod. It also makes it easy to shift from horizontal to vertical and back again.

The over-arching theme here is don’t be cheap when it comes to camera supports. In the years I’ve been judging photo competitions, I’ve seen plenty of images that would have won a prize had they only been sharp, and in most cases, they weren’t sharp because the camera support wasn’t there. Your mileage may vary.