Camera Tripod Guide

shotkit camera tripod guide
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This guest article by landscape and astro-photographer Matthew Saville is the most in-depth and informative camera tripod guide that you’re ever likely to read…

A tripod may not always be required to make a photograph. However, as soon as you do need one, it quickly becomes the most important piece of equipment you can own!

Not only is a dependable tripod more important than a sharp lens or a high-megapixel sensor, it’s also entrusted with the actual safety of your gear – that is, not letting your expensive camera and lens smash onto rocks or pavement.

shk-fs-table__imageBest All-Round TripodStrong, sturdy and great value for moneyCheck Price

Simply put, one of the best long-term investments a photographer can make is a sturdy, reliable camera tripod. It might not be a glamorous investment, compared to an exotic lens or a new camera body, but it’s just as important.

This guide is everything you need to know about our three-legged friends. Let’s dive right in!

2019 Camera Tripod Guide | Index

Buckle yourself in – we’re about to dive deep on everything you need to know about the humble tripod.

Use the links below to jump ahead to any sections that interest you the most:

7 Benefits of using a Tripod

Best Camera Tripod Guide star trail nightscape photography

Star Trail in Death Valley | Nikon D750 + Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 UMC (comparison/review here!) 1 hr total exposure time, f/4, ISO 1600 | Slik 700DX

The first thing a photographer needs to understand is, why and when should you use a camera tripod?

The answer to this question may vary slightly for different photographers, and it may lead them to buy a tripod that is specialized in one particular way or another.

There are many benefits to using a tripod, and it’s not just about getting sharp images. In fact, one of the biggest benefits is that using one simply forces you to slow down, think about your precise composition and framing, and make sure that each click of the shutter counts.

So before you even check sharpness on the back of your camera, your pictures can start being more thoughtful and creative!

Let’s look at some more benefits of attaching your camera to a tripod.

1) Shoot at Slower Shutter Speeds

Long Exposure Landscape Cityscape with a tripod

Southern California Cityscape Long Exposure | Nikon D750 + Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR | 10 sec, f/16, iSO 100 | Slik 700DX, center column raised to shoot over a chain link fence

When you simply can’t hand-hold a camera due to having an extremely long shutter speed, (such as during nightscape astrophotography), a tripod is obviously an absolute requirement.

True, image stabilization (whether in-camera or in-lens) can do amazing things for photographers these days, sometimes even allowing some hand-held shots at half a second.

However, if your shutter speed is measured in whole seconds, you absolutely should be using a tripod.

Also, if you want to capture a very long exposure during the day, for a creative motion blur effect, having a tripod will indeed be a must.

2) Improve Sharpness & Detail in Images at all Shutter Speeds

Even during the day, and even with a stabilized lens or camera, using a tripod can still help you eliminate faint amounts of shake that might be affecting your overall image sharpness, even in the smallest way.

Also, hand-holding, with or without stabilization, isn’t always reliable. You may capture 3-5 images, and only have 1-2 of them turn out perfectly sharp. With a tripod (plus proper technique!) you can trust that every single shot you take is tack-sharp.

3) Improve Depth & Image Quality via Optimal Apertures/Low ISOs

Blurred water usng a tripod

Sunset and Tide Pools | Sony RX10 mk2 | 5 sec, f/9, ISO 100 | Slik 700DX

A lot of beginner photographers may not even realize that they need a tripod if they shoot with their camera in Auto mode (AKA Green Box mode) and let it choose a brighter aperture and ISO for them.

Unfortunately, these camera settings simply aren’t optimal for sharp, clean image detail.

By using a tripod, it is usually possible to shoot at ISO 100, f/8 or f/11, and at any shutter speed, instead of, say, ISO 400-800 and f/2.8-3.5, hand-held.

In this way, you can achieve a ‘cleaner’ image (less ‘noisy’, due to a lower ISO), and an image with greater depth of field, due to the smaller aperture.

In addition, most lenses achieve maximum sharpness when ‘stopped down’ to their smaller apertures too – shooting your lens ‘wide open’ (i.e. at the maximum aperture) doesn’t usually mean the sharpest shot possible, if that’s your goal of course.

4) Improve Precision in Framing & Composition for Macro & Telephoto images

macro telephoto photography

Macro lenses offer incredible magnification for stunning close-up images. Without a tripod, precise framing and focus are difficult | Nikon D300 + Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EX Macro | 1/45 sec, f/4, ISO 400 | Slik Lite CF-422

As I mentioned earlier, having a tripod isn’t just about sharpness – it’s also about causing you to slow down and think about the framing of each shot you take.

Indeed, when it comes to ‘special photography’ such as macro or super-telephoto imagery, a tripod isn’t just a useful tool for helping you frame a shot carefully, it can become an absolute necessity.

With both macro and super-telephoto images, you’re dealing with high-magnification optics. This makes it extremely difficult to hand-hold your shot and get it perfectly framed and in-focus.

Even with autofocus and image stabilization, a macro photographer will find that a tripod is a huge convenience when working at or near 1:1 reproduction/magnification.

A super-telephoto photographer who is working with lenses any longer than 300-400mm (let alone 800-100mm!) will also find that a tripod is extremely beneficial.

Some giant telephoto lenses are so big, they really aren’t practical to use without a tripod and a gimbal head, period. (We’ll talk about gimbal and other types of tripod heads later.)

5) Focus stacking, HDR Bracketing and other Composite Imagery

Waterfall blurred water shot

Grand Canyon Waterfalls Composite: I captured one image at f/8 for optimal sharpness, and another image at f/22 for maximum water blur, then combined the two images using simple layer masking in Photoshop | FotoPro carbon fiber travel tripod.

As soon as a photographer decides to capture more than one photo and combine it later in Photoshop, things get really complicated (in fact, almost impossible) without a camera tripod.

Whether you’re doing a very simple bracketed sequence to create an HDR image, or you’re using a slightly more complex technique such as focus stacking or other composite tricks that involves layer masking and “plate” frames, having a strong (and heavy) tripod is a huge help.

[Related: Aurora HDR Review – a simple software for creating great HDR images.]

6) Panoramic Stitching with a “Nodal Slide” Tripod Head

Panaramic photo using a camera tripod

Yosemite Panorama | Nikon D750 + Tokina 17-35mm | f/4 | 1/25 sec, f/16, ISO 100 | Circular Polarizer, Slik Lite CF-422

Similar to creating composite images, any photographer who gets into panoramic image “stitching” will find that having a strong camera tripod, or even what is called a “nodal head”, can be very helpful.

Using a tripod to create panoramic images will ensure that you get consistent overlap in all of your frames, and that the whole panoramic image stays perfectly level (as long as you level the tripod/head first!).

7) Self-Portraits

Selfie at Eastern Sierra

Self-Portrait in The Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra | Nikon D750 + Laowa 12mm f/2.8 | 1/4 sec, f/8, ISO 3200 | Slik 700DX

Last but not least, I can’t move on without mentioning the “selfie”. Embarrassingly, I once used an actual 5-lb tripod as a “selfie stick” in 2010, before it was a thing to do with your smartphone.

I have never done it again since, however, I do carry 2-3 tripods with me on all my adventures for the specific purpose of documenting the working environment that I’m shooting in, and for group photos with other photographers.

14 Tips when Buying a Tripod

People using tripods during Landscape Nightscape Photography

Photographers Gather For Sunrise in Yosemite National Park | Nikon D750 + Nikon 24mm f/1.8 G | 8 sec, f/1.8, ISO 3200 | Slik Lite CF-422

So, which tripod is best for you? This question seems to be one of the most commonly asked in online photo groups, and rightly so. There are innumerable brands out there, and new brands seem to pop up every month…

Unfortunately, most photographers just don’t want to spend much money, because at first a tripod doesn’t seem like a very glamorous, important investment.

Many photographers make the mistake of spending less than half what they really ought to on a tripod, if the value of the rest of their gear is any indicator.

To make matters worse, once the question of tripods is asked, all of a sudden every photographer chimes in with their advice as if buying a tripod was a very exciting thing! By the end of the day, every single tripod ever made has received at least one recommendation!!

I’ve actually t tested, reviewed, and likely broken at least one or two tripods from almost every single brand on the market, from the high-end luxury tripods to the lower-end basic DSLR tripods.

Hopefully I can help you decide, once and for all, which tripod is right for you.

1) Avoid Cheap Brands – Invest in a Quality Tripod that will last

It bears repeating, even though you’ve probably already heard this before, and will likely hear it again before the end of this article: Invest in a quality, name-brand tripod that will last.

Of course, at the very top of the heap, you’ll find the absolute best camera tripod brands that a serious landscape photographer may drool over: Really Right Stuff, Gitzo, etc. If you’re a professional landscape or outdoor photographer, or a commercial real estate/architectural photographer, these brands are your holy grail.

However, does “avoid cheap brands” mean that you must spend $1,000 to $2,000 on tripod legs and a head? No, not necessarily. There are other name brands that have been around for a very long time that offer reliable quality at a more affordable price.

Brands such as Manfrotto and Slik have been around for generations. Newer brands such as 3 Legged Thing, Feisol, Induro, and Oben have been around for less time, but long enough to prove that they’re not just making knock-off junk.

Having said that, the brand of the tripod is only one factor in the equation when choosing a camera tripod…

You’ll want to also consider things like which tripod design is optimal for your needs. Do you prefer lever-lock leg joints or twist-lock? Do you want a travel tripod with a center column or a “platform” tripod that supports giant telephoto lenses and big pro cameras?

We’ll dive into each aspect of tripod design and quality next.

2) Twist Lock vs. Lever Lock

Leg Lock Grip Rubber

An assortment of Slik and Giottos tripod legs with twist-lock leg joints with rubber feet

One of the most strongly debated aspects of tripod design is twist-lock leg joints vs. lever-lock.

In my opinion, this is a matter of preference. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Both can be very strong and reliable, and both can have incidents of total failure.

The biggest deciding factor between these opposite scenarios lies with the quality of the tripod itself.

Lever-lock leg joints generally never have issues with the lower legs getting twisted and jammed, which is a very nice plus in favor of lever-lock design.

However, lever-locks only “pinch” the tripod leg in one place where the lever is, and therefore if a lever-lock does fail, it may cause the immediate crashing of your entire tripod, instead of a slow slipping that might give you an extra second or two to grab your camera.

Best Tripod leg lock design

Lever-lock leg joints are often the simple, easy choice, however they are not always the strongest, stiffest option | Slik Sprint Pro GM tripod with the Manfrotto 209 tabletop tripod.

Twist-lock leg joints on the other hand, clamp the whole tripod leg and can make the leg stiffer overall.

They can still fail, of course, by simply not being fully tightened or by actual mechanical failure. Either way, if they do fail, they usually slip slowly instead of collapsing instantly.

Any kind of tripod leg lock failure is bad though, and can happen in just a couple seconds. Therefore, the best thing you can do is buy a good quality tripod and make sure your tripod legs are truly locked before you attach your camera.

3) Number of Tripod Leg Sections

The more leg sections a tripod has, the more flex it will have, making it hard to precisely frame a shot with heavier cameras and lenses. It can even cause blur in the images. Besides, one more leg lock per leg is three more points of potential failure.

A tripod that has just three or four leg sections (two or three locks) per leg is optimal. Tripods that have four locks, or five leg sections per leg, are usually a massive compromise on rigidity. Avoid them at all costs!

Thankfully, most tripod brands offer more than one option. Only a few brands offer nothing but 5-section legs, as they brand themselves as a maker of compact travel tripods. Ironically, their tripods are actually bigger and heavier than many other travel tripods.

4) Leg Lock Materials

Both twist-lock and lever-lock tripod leg joints can be made of cheap quality plastic, high-quality plastic, or even metal. As you might imagine, cheap plastic lever-locks can easily break…

However, the problems with twist-locks are almost equally bad: the thin plastic shims and locking spacers in a twist-lock leg can fail and/or jam, causing both long-term frustration and abrupt complete failure.

Simply put, avoid cheap plastic materials. Stick with name-brand options that have a long track record of surviving years of abuse by the types of photographers who use their tripods daily.

5) Tripod Center Columns

Tripod Center Column

I only ever extend my center column when conditions are extremely calm and when the composition absolutely requires it | Nikon D5600 + Rokinon 16mm f/2 | 60 sec, f/2, ISO 5000 | Slik CF-Pro 634

Avoid using a center column as much as possible. They’re only a good idea when you absolutely need extra height, once in a while.

Your every day, most-used tripod should be tall enough that you can use it at eye level with the center column down.

Never use a tripod with a double-jointed center column or a “permanently up” center column. Simply put, they’re too much of a compromise for both your image sharpness and the actual safety of your camera, and there are better options out there for lightweight travel tripods that don’t require such a compromise.

6) Tripod Leg Material: Carbon Fiber vs. Aluminum

 carbon fiber vs aluminum for tripod legs

Carbon Fiber is lighter and stiffer than aluminum, however, aluminum is both more affordable and in some cases even more durable.

As far as tripod leg materials are concerned, both carbon fiber and aluminum have certain advantages.

Aluminum is affordable and quite indestructible when it comes to absorbing general scratches and dings.

Carbon fiber on the other hand, is not only lighter but also stiffer and less prone to that “vibrato” that legs can get in windy conditions.

I will say this: I would rather have a name-brand, sturdy, stiff aluminum tripod than a wobbly, cheap generic brand carbon fiber tripod.

I have seen too many “basic” carbon fiber tripods utterly fall apart, or become very wobbly.

While I do recommend carbon fiber for anyone who has over $300 to spend and is looking for a lightweight, strong tripod, if you’re on a budget, I would stick with the name brands even if it means getting an aluminum version instead of carbon fiber.

Name Brands such as Manfrotto and Slik both offer similar versions of their tripods in carbon fiber and aluminum.

7) Tripod Leg and Head Grip Rubber Material

Tripod grip rubber locking knob

Giottos ball head: One locking knob lost its rubber after just a few months, hence the gaff tape. The other is cracking too.

If you ever leave your tripod in the sun for too long, (let alone in a hot car trunk for even just a few hours!), you may ruin the grip rubber on the leg locks and/or the tripod head’s locking knobs.

In fact, on literally all of the non-name-brand camera tripods I’ve ever tested, these rubber parts eventually “melt” and start slipping, (making it impossible to safely lock them) …or they’ll dry out and crack and fall off completely.

leg grip lock rubber quality

The cheaper the tripod brand, the sooner the grip rubber will crack or melt, such as on this “fake” Giottos tripod from eBay.

Only the best brands seem to have rubber parts that stand the test of time. My personal favorite? Any tripod brand that has all-metal knobs and lock grips! These brands include (most) FLM tripod legs and heads, almost all Oben ball heads, and a few other brands.

8) Tripod Size & Weight

my collection of camera tripods laid out in truck

All shapes and sizes: just a small part of my tripod collection, including Slik, Giottos, and Manfrotto tripods

In case it isn’t already apparent, tripods of all weights and sizes can be useful. As a dedicated landscape and adventure/travel photographer, I’m a firm believer that there is no perfect size/weight tripod for everything that a serious photographer may do.

Your best first investment is likely to be a relatively medium-weight, tall tripod. It should be light enough so you don’t feel inclined to leave it at home, yet tall and strong enough that it can handle your biggest camera and lens without difficulty.

If you also do a lot of hiking or traveling, then you may want to consider a lighter, smaller tripod, even if it is rather short and not as rigid. When you’re climbing mountains, a 2 lb tripod may be all you can bear, and it’s better than nothing.

Alternately, if you put a lot of wear-and-tear on your tripod almost daily, such as shooting on the beach with salt water and sand repeatedly getting on your tripod leg locks, you may want to consider getting a big, heavy, “indestructible” tripod – one that can just be rinsed off under a shower or spigot afterwards, to clean off salt residue and other nasty stuff.

9) Tripod Height

get it to your eye level

Your most-used tripod should reach eye level without the center column extended, such as this Manfrotto 190X Pro.

My best advice for choosing a sturdy tripod is to make sure you get one that reaches your eye level, preferably without using the center column.

If your camera doesn’t have an articulated LCD that allows you to look at it without hunching over such as the Nikon D750, then even a few inches can make a world of difference and save you some major back pain in the long run.

10) Tripod Feet

Tripod feet are another considertation when choosing a camera tripod. There are a few basic designs, each with various advantages.

i) Rubber-tipped feet are friendlier to your floor, if you ever use the tripod indoors and especially on tile or wooden floor.

ii) Some tripods offer metal spiked feet, for really gripping outdoor surfaces, from soft dirt to hard rock.

Many tripod brands now offer retractable spikes, meaning you can screw the foot one way to have a rubber foot, or screw it another way to expose a metal spike.

However, on cheaper brand tripod legs, this is just another thing to go wrong- eventually the rubber feet will fall off and you’ll be left with just the spikes. This is just another reason to get a good quality tripod, even if it only comes with rubber feet, or if metal spiked feet are an aftermarket accessory.

iii) Some tripods offer specialty feet, such as sharp claws for really grabbing rocks or to minimize sinking in sand and snow. (Really Right Stuff makes these; watch out though – they are razor-sharp!)

11) Tripod Head Types

ball heads

Left: Benro Video (3-way) head. Right: Slik Mini Ballhead (1 locking knob only)

While many tripods do come with both a set of “legs” and a “head” together, some of the best choices might be sold as legs only, without a head.

You don’t necessarily have to buy tripod heads and legs separately, but let’s discuss the different types of heads so that you can make sure to buy what’s right for your type of photography.

  • Ball Heads

Ball heads are simple: One knob loosens and tightens the entire thing, allowing you to freely compose your frame with much flexibility.

The better ball heads do offer separate locking knobs for side-to-side panning motion, and possibly even an additional knob to adjust the overall tension of the main locking knob.

I recommend looking for ball heads with both a main locking knob/lever and a separate panning lock.

  • 3-Way Panning Head

The other most common type of head is the 3-way panning head. These heads allow you to separately control the angles of your camera, to more carefully compose your shot. They’re usually a little bigger and more cumbersome than ball heads, but they offer better precision that can be very useful.

Many 3-way heads also offer a large panning arm, for smoothly panning your camera up, down, left, or right when recording video.

If you’re a run-and-gun type of photographer, however, we do recommend ball heads for their speed and portability.

  • Gimbal & Nodal Heads

Lastly, for the truly enormous telephoto lenses, and for panoramic stitching, gimbal and nodal heads offer a unique benefit – they allow you to freely move your camera around while keeping it perfectly balanced, and/or keeping it over the nodal point of the lens which makes panoramic stitching almost effortless.

These types of heads are usually the biggest and most expensive, however, so I don’t recommend them as your very first investment.

12) Tripod Head Quick Release System

Thankfully we can keep this simple: Arca-Swiss is the universal clamp system for photography, and your best bet is to adopt it.

Arca-Swiss is based on a 2 piece mechanism, with a ‘plate’ attached to a camera or a lens, and a ‘mounting base’ or a ‘clamp’, where the plae gets attached and secured.

With Arca-Swiss, you can freely swap most camera plates and tripod head clamps, making it very convenient to use multiple tripods and just leave the plate attached to your camera.

Arca-Swiss also offers L-brackets, which allow for quick vertical mounting of your camera.

There are other, proprietary tripod plate systems, and the smaller ones should be avoided as they just won’t support much more than a GoPro or small point & shoot camera.

Manfrotto has two different proprietary plate systems, both of which are very sturdy, one made for photographers and the other is quite universal for videographers. However, unless you’re a serious videographer, I recommend sticking with Arca-Swiss.

13) Bubble Levels

bubble levels

Not enough tripods have a bubble level in the “perfect” spot, as shown above on my Slik 700DX tripod. Oben BE-126 ball head.

Most cameras have digital levels these days, so why would you need a bubble level on your tripod itself?

A perfectly level tripod can be helpful for creating perfectly level panoramas very quickly, instead of having to re-level the camera for every single frame of a pano.

For this, ignore most bubble levels that are placed randomly around the ball head; they’re not nearly as useful as having a bubble level on the tripod base itself.

14) Tripod Cost, Budget & Value for Money

As the saying goes, “buy the expensive option once, and it will only hurt your wallet once. Buy the cheap option, and it may hurt twice, or more…”

In other words, when setting your budget for a tripod, you should consider the long-term cost. A tripod that breaks after just 1 year, but costs more than 1/3 the price of a tripod that lasts 3-5+ years, is simply not a good value.

So, if you can’t afford a good tripod right away, just keep saving up.

Having said that, there are numerous options you can purchase in the meantime at very affordable prices. It won’t be wasted money in the long run, because the tripod will become a backup or secondary tripod if you ever save up for a nicer one.

You can learn more about our best camera tripod recommendations at the end of this article.

How to Set Up A Tripod for Optimal Stability

Tripod Guide Setup Safety

(NOT a safe way to set up a tripod! Don’t try this at home!) | Pictured: FotoPro carbon fiber tripod

If my experience as a landscape, seascape, and nightscape photographer have taught me anything, it is how NOT to set up a tripod if you want your camera gear to live a long, healthy life.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I have had tripods get knocked over quite a few times over the years. Please learn from my “wisdom”!

Incidentaly, here’s the resulting shot from my precarious tripod set up above. Maybe you’ll agree that it was worth it?!

long exposure water shot

Do be careful when shooting seascapes; it only takes a second for your tripod (and camera) to be knocked over by a wave! | Nikon D750 + Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 | 0.8 sec, f/16, ISO 100 | FotoPro carbon fiber tripod

Here is what I can tell you about the safest way to set up and use a tripod, for your own safety and for the safety of your camera gear.

The Correct Way to Set Up & Break Down a Tripod

how to set up a tripod

Tripod twist-lock order of operation, to preserve the lifespan of plastic leg lock shims (Pictured: Slik Lite CF-422)

After you’ve set up your tripod, always double-check the tightness of the leg locks and the foot position before you mount your camera. Push on all three legs individually with a little more force/weight than your camera’s own weight, and make sure each leg/foot doesn’t sink or slip.

Although most twist-lock tripod legs do have an anti-rotation design, it is still a good idea to lock and unlock them in the order shown in the above diagram.

Low-budget tripods can become jammed if twisted too aggressively, and after they jam once they will continue jamming more and more often.

This isn’t nearly as much of an issue on the high-end, pricey brand-name tripods such as Really Right Stuff or Gitzo, of course, but it’s still a good habit.

How To Position Tripod Legs

Tripod Height Setup Center Column Leg Angle

My eye level is about 6 ft, which is enough for this Slik Lite CF-422 travel tripod, but only with the center column extended.

You should only use a tripod at its maximum height, let alone with the center column up, when there is no wind at all.

This is especially true for lightweight travel tripods such as the ~2 lb travel tripod pictured above.

Also, never leave your camera unattended, even when you think it’s calm. If it is indeed windy, consider lowering your tripod legs by at least one section, and better yet, lower the leg angle too.

Lastly, in extreme wind, hang a weight such as your camera bag from your center column. Most center columns now have hooks for this purpose.

Seascape Leg Feet Placement Sand Beach

Seascape tripod setup: be careful! Preemptively “sink” your tripod feet/legs into the sand a little bit before mounting your camera | 35mm film camera, Fuji Velvia transparency film, Giottos carbon fiber tripod

Proper Tripod Care, Service & Maintenance

It goes without saying that you should take care of your camera gear. However, tripods are especially likely to be “abused” due to their very nature: they help a photographer shoot in dirty, sandy, watery conditions, and other types of crazy angles/positions.

Inevitably, your tripod may need to be cared for or even dismantled and serviced. A very cheap tripod, especially, may break down after just a few months of abuse without proper care.

Let’s have a closer look at how to wash a tripod, and what can be done to prolong its life.

i) Never over-tighten twist legs

Test the legs’ grip by pushing down on each leg to see if they compress when fully locked. Over-tightening twist-lock legs may lead to the weakening of the legs’ locking ability over time.

ii) Be mindful of the elements

The second most important tip is this: salt and dust will ruin even the best tripods before their time. Proper care will help a good tripod last forever, and even extend the life of the cheaper tripods quite a bit.

When shooting in sand, always extend the lowest section of your tripod legs first, to prevent too much sand from getting inside the leg joints.

Wash your tripod after all encounters with salt. It may be counterintuitive to think of immersing your tripod legs in a shower or under any running water, but it’s actually much better to wash off salt and sand. If you allow them to harden and build up on your tripod, it will eventually break down.

Try not to let your tripod get so wet that water gets inside the legs, of course. Some photographers may decide to shoot with their tripod almost completely submerged in a lake or river, and all I can say is, I hope the shot is worth it!

If you do this, be sure to rinse off the tripod afterward, and let it dry thoroughly. If you have to, disassemble the legs completely, or at one joint, so that dry air can get inside the legs.

Shims inside the legs

These little plastic shims are usually the worst thing about a cheap tripod: they can get gritty, jammed, and/or destroyed entirely.

If you do need to take your tripod completely apart for cleaning, be sure to carefully take apart one leg joint at a time. Put each joint back together before starting the next joint, especially if you lose small things easily!

Lever lock tripods can sometimes get a little loose, and may need to be tightened with an Allen key.

How to Choose the Best Camera Tripod for You

How to choose a tripod

LEFT- ultralight travel tripod: Slik Pro CF-614 (Discontinued, current model: Slik CF-634) | RIGHT- heavy-duty tripod: Slik Pro 700DX AMT

So, which camera tripod or tripods do I recommend? I’m not going to try to convince every photographer that they must own a $1,000 tripod and a $500 ball head. That would be a totally unrealistic expectation not just for your budget, but also for your actual shooting needs.

The truth is, you don’t have to break the bank to get a solid tripod that is durable and gives you sharp images.

You can get a great tripod for under $100, whether you’re looking for a lightweight travel tripod or a big heavy-duty tripod.

If you can jump to about $300, you can get an even better tripod that is stronger, more durable, and lighter weight too.

There is no one single tripod that I can recommend to every photographer. We’re going to go over a variety of different categories of tripods so that you can choose the right one for your personal needs and budget… but first, an important question:

How Often Will You Use Your Tripod?

Some photographers might only use their tripod once a month, in fair weather conditions. Others might need to use their tripod twice a week, sometimes on the beach, other times in sand dunes or in other tough conditions.

This is the reason why some tripods may last for many years for some photographers, while others may find that the same tripod breaks in less than 6 months. It all comes down to the hours you log with the tripod, and the abuse it is dealt.

The best advice about tripods still has not changed in the last decade: spend a little extra on a solid, reliable tripod in the first place, and you won’t have wasted your money in the long run.

With that said, let’s have a look at our recommendations.

Best Compact Lightweight Travel Tripod

Slik Lite AL-420

Slik Lite AL-420 lightweight travel

Slik Lite CF-422 Carbon Fiber. (Be sure to upgrade the small plate to a larger Arca-Swiss plate, though.)

The whole point of a travel tripod is that it weighs almost nothing, is compact enough to fit inside a carry-on suitcase, and yet is still tall enough to be more useful than, say, a Gorillapod or a tabletop tripod.

However, many of the generic, knock-off brand tripods that claim they are “travel” tripods are actually not that light (usually over 3 lbs) and are also rather short and just plain wobbly. Don’t be fooled just because a tripod has “travel” in its name. In fact, beware!

Your ideal ultralight travel tripod should be in the ~2 lb range (900g), tall enough to be at about eye level, and strong enough to support a decently large camera (though you may not manage a full-frame DSLR with an f/2.8 zoom).

If you’re on a $100 budget for an ultralight travel tripod, check out the Slik Lite AL-420 (which you can sometimes get for around $70 – see here), or the Sirui T-004X. For a truly “tiny” tripod, check out the Slik Sprint Pro series.

If you’re able to invest a little more, the carbon fiber Slik Lite CF-422 is an amazing set of legs that are, simply put, the lightest way for a tripod to get to eye level for a 6-foot tall person. It also includes a built-in LED flashlight in the center column!

Another good option in this category if you’re willing to invest a little more is the new Peak Design Travel Tripod, which I was lucky enough to review recently.

CLICK HERE FOR THE LATEST PRICE OF THE SLIK LITE CF-422

Our #1 Choice | Best Everyday Use Tripod

Induro CLT103

Induro CLT103

Induro CLT103 “Stealth” Carbon Fiber Tripod

Of course, since you do have to be rather gentle with a travel tripod, it doesn’t make a good everyday, “beater” tripod.

For frequent, everyday abuse, most photographers will want something stronger, taller, and generally more indestructible than a lightweight travel tripod.

If you’re able to save up and get your tripod legs and head separately, Induro’s CLT103 “Stealth” carbon fiber tripod is one of the best options in the sub-$300 price range (latest price here). Again, you’ll have to buy a head separately.

Induro’s options generally check all the right boxes when it comes to materials, optimal design, height, and overall durability.

In general, an everyday tripod is something in the 3-4 lb range that can preferably get to eye level without the center column extended.

If you’re on a budget, the only brands that offer dependable quality at a cheaper price are Slik and Manfrotto. Shop for a set of legs in the $100-200 range, and again, buy your head separately.

CLICK HERE FOR THE LATEST PRICE OF THE INDURO CLT103 STEALTH

Best Value Choice | Tall & Strong Tripod

Slik Pro 700DX AMT

Slik Pro 700DX AMT Heavy Tall Strong Sturdy Stiff

See my Slik Pro 700 DX review to see why I love this tripod.

Any serious photographer who uses a tripod frequently ought to own a big, tall, strong, even heavy tripod. Why heavy? Because it’s less likely to blow over in a strong wind, of course! It’s more likely to keep all your shots perfectly framed when you’re doing bracketed HDR or composite images.

Simply put, if you’re not hiking long distances, if you’re just shooting from a drive-up vista, it’s great to have one of these beasts around.

You can pick up a Slik 700DX for less than a hundred bucks (latest price here), or a Manfrotto 055-series (latest price here). Both are sold legs only.

However, if you like the idea of “indestructible” and tall, but still want a lightweight tripod instead of a heavy one, then I recommend anything from the Feisol Tournament Series, such as the CT-3442 and CT-3342, which cost around $400 each.

These tripods are extremely durable, rigid, and yet they still weigh under 3 lbs. That’s what the extra money buys you!

CLICK HERE FOR THE LATEST PRICE OF THE SLIK PRO 70 DX

Best Tripod Ball Head

Oben BE-126

Oben Ball Head Guide

Left: Oben BE-117, Right: Oben BC-139

If you’ve purchased a set of legs separately and are looking to get a great ball head, you’ll want to be even more picky when it comes to brand names and reliability.

The relatively affordable brand that I always recommend, due to its durable construction and smooth operation, is Oben.

Their Arca-Swiss series of ball heads are great, from the lightweight BE-108 ($70) or BE-117 ($85) to the heavier-duty BE-126 ($110), BC-139 ($150) or BC-166 ($170) – see all the options and their most recent pricing here. My pick of the lot is this one, which I have attached to my Slik 700DX tripod legs.

One thing to note – the Oben “BA” series heads are the ones which do not have Arca-Swiss clamps and plates.

CLICK HERE FOR THE LATEST PRICE OF THE OBEN BE-126

Best Tripod Under $100

Benro TSL08

Benro TSL08

Benro TSL08 Slim Aluminum Tripod & Ball Head | Note the metal lock knob grips!

If you’re on an extreme budget, don’t worry, you can still find good options whether you’re looking for something lightweight or heavy-duty.

The affordable sibling to the Slik Lite carbon fiber series is the Slik Lite AL (aluminum) series, and for an ultralight hiking/travel tripod, the AL-420 offers good strength, durability, and height for around $100 (latest price here).

Unfortunately, the head that comes with it isn’t optimal for large cameras, but it’ll work great for compact mirrorless cameras.

In the big-and-tall (and heavy) category, Slik has you covered once again with a tried-and-true option that has stood the test of time – the Slik AMT 400DX tripod, little sibling to the 700DX for around $100, including a 3-way head (latest price here).

Again, I’m not the biggest fan of the Slik 3-way head that comes with the 400DX legs, but those legs are just so durable, it’s hard not to recommend the whole kit.

Lastly, one of the best options that does tick a lot of the quality/design boxes, despite being one of the newer brands on the market, is the Benro Slim TSL 08 aluminum tripod. It includes both a good set of legs and a standard Arca-Swiss ball head again for around $100 (latest price here).

Do treat the Benro Slim nicely, though, since it’s not a name brand ;-)

CLICK HERE FOR THE LATEST PRICE OF THE BENRO TSL08

Best Tabletop Tripod

Manfrotto 209

Manfrotto 209 tabletop tripod

Manfrotto 209 series tabletop tripod & Custom Arca-Swiss Clamp: Weighs less than 1/2 lb, yet can support a full-frame camera in a pinch. Gopro Hero + for scale

A tabletop tripod is something you can always have with you, no matter where you go. They’re so lightweight and small, you can slip them into a side pocket on any camera bag, or even into a large pants or jacket pocket.

Heck, if you wear your camera around your neck with a traditional strap, you can just leave a tabletop tripod attached to the camera!

The Joby Gorillapod is one very popular choice for its versatile adaptability. You can wrap it around a railing, pole, tree branch, anything.

However, the models that don’t include a head make it very difficult to get your camera angle perfect. Be sure to choose one of the models that include a head, such as the GorillaPod 3K Kit for around $45 (the head is good enough for a Gopro or compact camera), to the GorillaPod 5K Kit, which is strong enough even for a full-frame camera, with a small-ish lens.

Check out our in-depth Gorillapod Guide for more info on each model, and some creative uses that don’t always include a camera…

My personal favourite tabletop tripod however is the Manfrotto 209, which I usually have packed away in my camera bag for when the opportunity arises.

CLICK HERE FOR THE LATEST PRICE OF THE MANFROTTO 09

Final Words | Heard enough about Tripods yet?!

Sunset Travel Landscape Photography

Time-Lapsing A Sunset | Nikon D750 + Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 | 200mm | 1/200 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100

I hope that my years of experience with so many different tripods can help you avoid the mistakes that I made, and invest in the perfect model for your shooting style and budget.

If I can offer any further advice, it is simply that I cannot stress enough how important it is to save up and buy something good the first time.

You don’t have to spend a fortune to get durable, long-lasting quality. In fact, even if you’re on an extreme budget, you can still find good quality options!

You might have to be willing to carry around a slightly bigger and heavier tripod at first, while you save up for something just a little bit more “exotic”, but at least you’ll have a tripod that is trustworthy and never lets you (that is, your camera gear) down.

Either way, whether the perfect tripod for you is just one medium-light, tall, stiff, durable choice, or an ultralight option plus a bigger, heavier option, I believe you now have everything you need to make all the right decisions. Good luck, and safe adventures!

Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and based on user experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. The products in this post may contain affiliate links.

5 Comments

  1. James Barton on August 10, 2019 at 12:43 am

    Any suggestions for a boom arm tripod? My last one has broken beyond repair, and I am stuck with just the light carbon fibre Vanguard that I use for Events and Weddings, which isn’t very useful for my new adventure in to products/still life photography. This really is just an amateur folly, so not looking to get the best of the best, just something that will let me take good flat-lay type shots with an arm.

    • Mark Condon on August 12, 2019 at 1:44 pm

      Ahh I was researching something similar for flat lays too, James! I ended up rigging something dodgy with a chair and a regular tripod wedged in it, placed on a table…! This one’s good value and has tons of positive reviews.

  2. Patrick Smith on July 18, 2019 at 10:32 am

    I honestly can not believe that Surui was not included in this article, I mean I know they are similar to Oben and Induro, but I believe they’re better than either of those brands. Especially the Surui W-2204 that I own which is both waterproof and amazing value for the money. I used to own the RRS tripod that is about $1300, but I sold my 600mm f4 then sold that tripod. I now shoot with a Nikon 400mm 2.8 VR lens and I am so glad I heard about the Surui tripods. The legs themselves cost about $400 and I have an $180 Surui ball head and Oben Gimbal head, so I spent about $1000, however I’m so much happier with this new setup than I was with the RRS tripod. A waterproof tripod is an indispensable tool for me as I live near the Ocean in California and also shoot wildlife in Upper Newport Bay, Newport Beach so I am in harsh environments like wind, salt, sand and water.

    • Matthew Saville on July 22, 2019 at 7:52 am

      Hi Patrick,

      Basically everything I’ve stated in this article about the generic brands versus the name brands applies to Sirui. They’re a generic brand, and are pretty cheap, and in the long run, they’ll break or start having issues under heavy usage, but will last just fine if you take good care of them. At $400, they’re definitely not in the “complete junk” category, and their waterproof lineup is worth recommending if you shoot around water a lot.

      Having said that, they’re still following the very common, generic design, and have at least a couple points where they’ll eventually get either unreliable or just plain frustrating. Slippery rubber knobs, jammed leg shims, etc.

      But hey, for $400 for a set of legs only, you’ll get plenty of life out of them as long as you take good care of them. Do be careful about the “waterproof” claims, though, since if you work around salt water you’ll still want to wash it off after any encounters with salt water, and clean the tripod rather thoroughly every now and then, just like with any good tripod. I would have recommended more tripods, but hey, there’s a LOT of them out there! (I did recommend one Sirui tripod in the article, and the waterproof lineup is worth mentioning too, so thanks for bringing it up.)

  3. Peter on May 21, 2019 at 3:19 am

    Spend the money on a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod with centre column. Get an Arca Swiss tripod head and never look back.

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