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Tripod Buying Guide: What Photographers Need to Know
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Tripod Buying Guide: What Photographers Need to Know

Find out which tripods are best for both experienced and new photographers. Learn about what important elements to look for in a camera tripod. Updated for 2014

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You need a tripod. Whether you shoot digital, film or video, you need a tripod.



That slight blurriness that you sometimes get from your 18-250mm superzoom zoom lens (or even from your long-range-zoom compact camera) is not the fault of your camera—t'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, up to a point. Buy a tripod and you have the original—and still most reliable—way to eliminate shaky shots.

 


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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 demand long exposures. You'll get better close-up images—and more of your picture will be sharp—if you use a tripod, because you can use a smaller aperture and a slower shutter speed without fear of camera movement.

At last count, Adorama carries roughly 550 tripods for still and video photography. How do you narrow down the choice to just what you want? What should you look for and how do you decide which of the bazillions of tripods to buy? (OK, not bazillions, but Adorama typically carries over 300 tripods and related items. That's a lot of tripods!)

Understanding Tripods



The Eight Characteristics of a Camera TripodThere are eight characteristics common to all tripods: Collapsed size, size, load capacity, head type, feet, leg locks, and common material. The more you know about each, the easier it will be to buy the perfect tripod for your picture-taking needs.

Most tripods come with a head, which you can find in the Leg & Head Combo for Still & Video Tripod department at Adorama, but it may not be the ideal one for your purposes. Check our guide It's what's on top that counts for an in-depth look at what each kind of tripod head is for. 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.

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.

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).

Collapsed size is how long the tripod measures with everything folded up. This is important especially if you are travelling and need to pack the 'pod in a bag. This number will let you know if it'll fit. Read our round-up of these tripods especially designed for travelers.

Maximum Height Extension is how tall the tripod will stand when every leg is and the center post (a tube that the camera sits on, usually adjustable) is raised as far as it will go.

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 (or tripod head) can handle. If you put a camera that's heavier than the Maximum Load Capacity on a tripod, you run the risk of a piece breaking or collapsing, causing damage to both the tripod and the camera. So, it's important to know how much your camera weighs with its heaviest lens and flash attached, and buy a tripod that will handle it.

Common material (which is what most of the tripod is made of) is either plastic (the least inexpensive, it's 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'll cost ya), and wood (typically used by nature photographers who don't mind toting large-format cameras).

Putting it all together: 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 Sturdy Duty/Studio. The category names suggest their primary applications. Follow the blue links to browse each category for the best Tripod deals at Adorama.

Types of Tripods

 

An Essential Camera Accessory on the Go: Pocket Tripods

Pocket tripods 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

  • Self-portraits
  • Group shots
  • Party pictures--with you in them
  • Small, light cameras

 

Take Steady Photos With a Tabletop Tripod

Tabletop tripods 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:

  • Self-portraits
  • Group shots
  • Macro/close-up/nature
  • Travel photography
  • Small cameras

 

Travel Tripods Are Perfect for Mobile Photographers

Travel Tripods will bring 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. All will support a digital (or film) SLR 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 or hefty tele, especially if it's front heavy--it could cause the camera to tip over! Most to just shy of eye-level, but the trade-off is fabulous portability. Tip: These are great for travellers: Portable tripods that collapse down to 22 inches or shorter will fit in airline carry-on luggage.

Best used for:

  • Nature
  • Travel
  • Sports
  • Amateur video
  • Small SLRs
  • Compact cameras

 

Medium Duty Tripods Deliver the Best of Both Worlds

Medium Duty tripods fill 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 to eye level or higher, are heavier and are therefore even sturdier--better when image sharpness is critical. While many come with heads, you can buy some models without a head and then create a custom configuration by buying the head separately. Read the Adorama Learning Center's tripod head guide to learn more about what ball heads, fluid heads, and pan heads can do.They also are a good choice for video cameras because they are stable, and because most will accept a pan head. Tip: If you prize light weight yet need a sturdy platform, look into the models that have carbon fiber legs. They combine the best of both worlds, and although they're worth it, they tend to be a bit more expensive.

Best used for:

  • Nature
  • Birding/Wildlife photos
  • Sports
  • Weddings and events
  • Location portraits
  • Macro/close-up photography
  • Medium-format cameras

 

Studio Tripods Are Perfect for Professional Photographers

Sturdy Duty/Studio tripods are just that. 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 camera; in the digital era, these tripods have become a rare breed.

Best used for:

  • Studio photography
  • Advertising
  • Still lifes
  • Medium-format cameras
  • Large-format cameras

 

ALTERNATIVES TO TRIPODS


There are other kinds of camera supports that might be a better fit for your style of photography. Action photographers and hikers should consider Monopods for their light weight and simpler construction. They have only one leg but they can give you that bit of steadiness that sometimes makes a big difference. You may also want to consider Car Window Mounts and Suction Mounts for specialized applications.

CHECK THE CHART
We've provided you with a handy Tripod Specifications Reference Chart, which summarizes all of the above categories and characteristics. Additionally, of course, there's the matter of price. Don't let the price be your only guide, since a good tripod will last you a lifetime.

 

Whether you need a leg/head kit or will buy the legs and tripod head saparately, or you need other accessories, Adorama has one of the most selections of Tripods in the world. Visit the Adorama Tripods department when you're ready to buy, and thanks for your support!

 

Additional research by Mason Resnick; updated July 29, 2014

What's your favorite tripod? Leave a comment below...

 

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