If you’re serious about photography, you know how important a good tripod is when it comes to getting the best possible shot.
Even if you’re not a particularly serious photographer, the benefits of a decent tripod are plain to see: at the most basic level, they allow you to set up your camera to produce the desired effect, and improve the quality of your results by giving the camera a stable platform to rest on.
Whether amateur, professional, or somewhere in between, if you’re using a digital SLR camera you need to be using a decent tripod. If you’ve already made a serious investment in your camera and lenses, it makes no sense to skimp on the tripod. If you do, you’re trying to build a mansion on the sand – using quality materials on a shoddy foundation, which will only end in disappointment.
If you haven’t yet taken the plunge and purchased a quality tripod to match your camera, be prepared for a bewildering array of choices.
Tripods are simple in theory, but in practice there’s an amazing diversity of styles, materials, and niche features for specialist photographers. With hundreds of makes and models to pick through, it’s worth taking your time to read around and think about your photography needs before splashing out.
So what is the best tripod for photography?
Carbon fiber is the most popular tripod material among serious photographers today. If you do your research, buying a tripod can make a real difference to your photography, making it a sound investment for anyone interested in achieving superior results.
Below are the best carbon fiber camera tripods available on the market today.
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A brief overview on camera tripods
The role of a tripod is fundamentally simple: it increases stability, allowing more specific and minute adjustment of the camera and its lens.
This increased stability is vital for photographers in a number of different ways: it comes in handy in low light conditions and at low shutter speeds, where even the slightest knock can ruin a shot; provides support when using a heavy camera and lens combination; and reduces vibration caused by the camera’s mechanisms.
Tripods dampen vibrations by sending them through their legs and into the ground, aiding composition, fine detail focus and self-photography, while opening up unusual angles and breath-taking shots which simply couldn’t be accomplished unaided.
Suitably for a device which works so simply, tripods have a basic design. They consist of three legs that support a plate, to which a camera and lens can be attached. The tripod’s legs should be extendable and lockable, and the best tripods will have the ability to pivot.
If you’re using an SLR, you need a tripod: it really is as simple as that, and if you care enough about your photography to shell out for an SLR it’s worth going one step further and investing in a quality tripod to accompany it.
Compact camera users won’t enjoy the same benefits from a tripod, and are in fact advised not to spend too much on one: compact cameras simply aren’t powerful enough, and don’t have a wide enough range of features to truly benefit from the stabilisation offered by a high-end tripod.
If you know you would benefit from a good tripod, you should be aware that your search is just beginning. There is a surprising amount of variation between tripods, with some being particularly suitable for certain styles of photography: even among the more conventional tripods, there’s a real range to be explored.
The thickness of the legs, the weight of the tripod, its height and flexibility, the type of head or mounting plate – all of these will vary from tripod to tripod, sometimes quite widely, making it even more important to have a rough idea of what you’re looking for before you even think about opening your purse or wallet.
These aren’t merely aesthetic differences: a tripod with thicker legs will give you better stability but increase the tripod’s weight, making it great for heavy camera work but not much use for travel photography. Your needs and goals will determine which tripod is worth your time to consider.
As with any significant purchase, you’ll reap the benefits of doing your homework before committing to buy. As well as thinking about the size, weight and flexibility when it comes to tripods, there will be two major considerations for any photographer: the first of these is price.
Photography is big business, with the best professional photographers earning seriously impressive pay checks to match their work. As a result, the best photography equipment gets seriously expensive; and an item as fundamental as a tripod is certainly no exception. Everyone’s price range will be different, and how much you’re willing to spend will also depend on how much use you plan on getting out of the tripod.
The second major consideration is linked to the first – this is the material the tripod is made from, which has a real impact on the item’s price. There are three main materials used for modern tripods – aluminum, basalt and carbon fiber – and comparing the differences between these is a good way to start thinking about which type of tripod will be best for you.
Why buy a carbon fiber tripod?
It’s an important enough point to be worth repeating: if you’re a keen amateur photographer with an SLR camera, or any kind of professional (including the aspiring kind), you will benefit from having a good tripod.
A badly made tripod can do more harm than good, increasing your setup time without any noticeable improvement in quality; but a good tripod will make your job easier and show a real difference when it comes to results.
Of the three main materials used to make modern tripods, carbon fiber is now the most popular among professionals and serious amateurs. As in any field, however, photography isn’t immune to trends which come and go, and some traditionalist photographers who swear by their aluminum tripods claim carbon fiber is just that.
With that in mind, it’s worth asking: what are the differences between the different materials available, and what will they mean for you as a photographer?
- Aluminum is light and strong, making it the go-to tripod material for many years and remaining popular to this day. Aluminum tripods have the other benefit of being cheaper than both basalt and carbon fiber models to manufacture, making them a good option for a novice on a budget. Compared to either basalt or carbon fiber, however, aluminum isn’t actually all that light, so it won’t be the best choice if you plan on moving around a lot between shots. You should also be advised that aluminum gets very cold if you’re shooting in wintery weather.
- Basalt tripods are lighter than aluminum models, being made using a glass fiber inner core under a basalt exterior. This manufacturing process makes basalt tripods more expensive than aluminum, although still cheaper than most carbon fiber models. Unfortunately, basalt lacks the strength of either aluminum or carbon fiber, making it the clear loser in terms of stability and durability. For a mobile photographer looking for a cheap option, basalt can be a reasonable choice; but it too often finds itself in the unhappy middle ground.
- Carbon fiber is undeniably the most expensive material used in tripod construction, but it’s very much a case of getting what you pay for. It’s the on-trend tripod for good reasons: it’s super-lightweight (as little as 70% of the weight of aluminum), rigid and resistant to heat and cold. In extreme conditions (such as shooting on a mountainside or in the middle of a storm) aluminum remains a slight winner in terms of stability, but this is down to the metal’s higher weight as much as anything else. In almost any other situation, carbon fiber comes out on top in terms of weight and performance. For all but the most adventurous photographer (professional or amateur), a carbon fiber tripod will handle whatever you care to throw at it while delivering consistently good results.
Things to consider
If you’ve decided you want to get on trend and invest in a carbon fiber tripod, there are a lot of things you’ll need to keep in mind while you’re comparing different models, including:
- The legs. The legs are the most important part of the tripod: in fact, they are the tripod. For that reason, when you’re looking at a tripod most of your focus should be on the legs. How thick are they? Thicker legs will dampen vibrations better but will increase the tripod’s weight, making it harder to carry. Thinner legs mean a lightweight tripod, but reduced stability and increased likelihood of the tripod being blown over in windy conditions.
- Leg-locking mechanism. It’s not only the size and shape of the legs that you need to consider, but how they lock into place. There are two main types of leg-locking mechanism: the spring-loaded lever is strong and quick to use, but vulnerable to rust and capable of causing injury if operated without due care and attention. Twist grips look better and are safer, but can be fiddly and aren’t as quick to operate.
- Maximum support weight. If you tend to use your SLR without too much customisation, you’re unlikely to push past the maximum support weight on any carbon fiber tripod, but if you’re prone to using heavy lenses you should check that the tripod is sturdy enough to take the combined weight of your camera setup once everything’s attached.
- Maximum extension height. As with the maximum support weight, the maximum extension height of a tripod is unlikely to be a deal-breaker, unless you’re engaged in some seriously long-range or niche photography. If you know you’ll want to push the tripod to its limits, however, this will be key information.
- Construction. The first question about construction concerns the material the tripod is made from: aluminum, carbon fiber or basalt. Assuming you’ve gone for quality in the form of a carbon fiber tripod, it’s worth looking at the overall construction of the item. Where has the manufacturer used different materials, such as plastic or steel? Where those materials have been used, is it to the tripod’s benefit or its detriment? Weight-bearing devices like tripods tend to only ever be as strong as their weakest link, so watch out for cost-cutting material replacements which may seriously limit your tripod’s natural lifespan.
- Tripod head. The tripod head is one place that some manufacturers cut costs by using plastic. Be very wary of plastic tripod heads: they’ll see a lot of wear and tear in the course of using your tripod, so any corners cut here are likely to have a real detrimental impact. Besides the material used, there are a few questions worth asking about the tripod head. Is it adjustable, and if so how easy is it to adjust? How quickly can the camera be attached and then detached? Does the tripod head enable any special effects? If you want to create stunning panoramic shots, for example, you’ll need a tripod with panoramic capacity. If you know you might only get one chance to take that perfect shot, you’re selling yourself short if you choose anything without a quick release facility.
- Center column. Does the tripod have a center column? These can be useful for fine-tuning a shot, making them particularly popular with macro-photographers, but they actually serve to make the tripod less stable. If you don’t think you’ll benefit from micro-managing your camera angle, try to avoid any tripod with an integrated center column.
- Extras. Some tripods have built-in extras which serve to improve functionality and value for money. Two of the most common are a spirit level, to make sure your tripod is as stable and balanced as you think it is, and an underslung hook for attaching ballast to improve the tripod’s stability. It’s also not uncommon to find hex keys and carry cases bundled in, adding a little value to the more expensive models.
- Your photography needs. This is the single most important point to consider before setting out to buy a tripod. The tripod which is best for you will depend almost entirely on what you want to get out of it. Macro-photography needs the ability to fine tune setup; long lens photography, and working in tough conditions, require weight and stability; traveling photographers prize weight almost as highly as rigidity and strength. If you know what effects you want to achieve before you start comparing tripods, you’re much more likely to find the right product to get you there.
- Price. For some of us, budget won’t be an issue. For the rest of us, it’s useful to have a rough idea of how much you want to spend before heading out into the marketplace. For a carbon fiber tripod you should be prepared to spend upwards of $100 for an entry-level model, with professional-grade kit starting at around $300.
Risks and warnings
- As anyone who’s ever taken a tumble can tell you, legs don’t automatically make you stable. Even the best tripod will be wobbly if not used and set up sensibly: use a spirit level and think about the tripod’s center of gravity when setting it up to avoid unfortunate toppling. In general terms, the wider the spread of the tripod’s legs, the greater the stability.
- A well-made tripod will be easy to clean in the event you get it dirty: carbon fiber tripods can be simply wiped down with a damp cloth. Under no circumstances should you attempt to use strong cleaning products on your carbon fiber tripod, as this may cause damage to the exterior which will have disastrous long term consequences for the tripod’s structural integrity.
- Carbon fiber won’t rust, but be aware that most tripods will have at least some metal components, usually either aluminum or stainless steel. Aluminum isn’t rust-resistant, so be sure to keep it dry whenever possible and wipe down after use. Stainless steel will be rust-resistant out of the box, but the protective coating will wear down eventually, so you should keep an eye on any metal parts.
- The spring-loaded lever used to lock the legs in place on many tripods is quick and effective – sometimes too effective, if used in a haphazard manner. The speed and force with which a spring-loaded lever snaps close is more than enough to cause injury if you’re not paying attention.