Tripods come in all sizes, and price ranges. The expensive ones are definately worthwhile and as soon as you can justify the expense, they’re well worth the price tag. But if you’re like me, you’d rather spend what little cash is available for your hobby on things like lenses and filters. I truly believe it’s essential for every photographer to own a tripod, but it doesn’t need to cost you an arm and a leg. Here’s a list of essential features that your tripod should have:
- Strength – If the tripod can’t hold your equipment, it’s worthless. It needs to be able to support all the weight of your gear and then-some. The stronger your tripod is, the less it will be influenced by other forces. Most of the time, this is the main reason for cost differences.
- Control – You should be able to easily use your tripod’s head. Most of the more inexpensive tripods include a Tilt/Pan head. Ball heads are more expensive because of their larger range of motion but may be more difficult to use. Get whatever you are comfortable with. Note that when you can afford a more expensive tripod, the heads are often purchased separately.
- Quick Release Plate – Many tripods, even cheaper ones, have a quick release feature where a plate is mounted to your camera and it snaps into the tripod with a lever. This is very convenient, especially for landscape photographers who move their tripods regularly.
- Quick Release Legs – Cheaper tripods will utilize some sort of screw mechanism for the legs. This is slow and not often dependable. Look for quick release levers or quarter-turn leg locks. They’re well worth the price.
- Gear Hooks – Yes, you can hang your gear on it, and I guess that’s convenient. But the real reason you want a gear hook is stability. If your tripod can handle all the weight, hang all your gear on that hook. The weight makes the tripod more stable.
One last bit of advice: The cost of a tripod may be somewhat intimidating. You can literally spend hundreds of dollars on a tripod. While that pill may be hard to swallow, keep in mind the value of the equipment it is supporting. A $900 camera body (and that’s not even a professional camera) with a $650 lens deserves a tripod worth a couple hundred dollars.
Note: On March 13th, 2009, I published a follow-up to this post: More Essential Tripod Features.