Wondering if you should buy a travel tripod? Let me ask you this… how much did you pay for your camera? If you’re serious about photography, you probably spared no expense. That’s why I’m here to let you in on a little secret… you can get even more out of that camera by investing in a travel tripod.
See, tripods (at least the good ones) will help give you stability for your camera. True that you can use image and lens stabilization, but that can’t solve every issue. In most cases, especially when traveling, you may only get one chance to nail that shot, so why leave it up to chance?
At the very least, you should have a travel tripod that’s small and lightweight that can provide stability for your camera. Even if you’re a beginner, the more stable the camera, the better the quality of your images. Seasoned pros might be able to contend with wind or adjust for darkness to render the kind of artistic touch they have in mind. Yet, a tripod makes that so much easier.
There are many different types of travel tripods that will serve your needs and help you take your photography to a whole new level. You can discover advanced techniques like focus stacking, nightscapes, and HDR with a travel tripod, plus so much more. Some are small and easy to work with while others are taller, but each of them has their benefits, the most notable being that they provide stability in a most unstable world, a world full of beauty that you can capture through your lens.
What to Consider When Buying a Travel Tripod
Generally speaking, you’ll want to find a travel tripod that’s sturdy, flexible, not too heavy, and not too big. While it’s not too hard to find, it’s also not as easy as going online and ordering the first one you see.
The right travel tripod for you might not be the same thing that’s right for me or any other photographer. You’ll have to look at the features of each and decide what you can’t live without and what you’re willing to compromise on. Of course, if money is no object, you can buy whichever one you want. But chances are, if you’re starting out, money is a bone of contention, yet one you can work around when knowing what features are best for your needs.
These are the features you should be looking at when deciding on a travel tripod.
– Tripod weight ratings (or load capacity)
Before anything else, it’s imperative that you see how much weight the tripod you’re considering is able to support. Don’t get caught up in anything else because I can tell you what a disaster it is when you buy a tripod without thinking about the load capacity. If your tripod can’t handle your heavy camera equipment, it will collapse or tilt to one side or the other. A friend of mine learned this the hard way when he was first starting out doing wedding photos. Not only was it embarrassing, but the bride and groom were a bit livid to say the least.
On top of that, his camera and lens were destroyed. Don’t let this happen to you by making sure the tripod you choose can support a minimum of 2 times more than the entire weight of your camera, plus the heaviest lens you have. You should remember that you’re also applying pressure on the camera at times and if you even rest your hands on there or add a battery flash or grip, that goes into the equation of how much weight that tripod can support. Don’t take any chances.
– Tripod height and weight
Let me ask you another question… do you like bending over? Try standing in that position for a while and see how your back feels. Not so good. This is why I advise you buy a tripod that syncs up with your height or else you’ll forever be bending over to look in the viewfinder. The viewfinder should be at your eye level once your camera is on there, even going a little higher is fine because you can adjust the legs. Higher is always better! Well, sort of.
If you choose a tripod with an attached head, the tip of the head should be in line with your jaw. As for modular tripods that have separate heads, where the legs end should be about at shoulder level for you. Once you square that away, you should see how it folds for easy travel. Most photographers, myself included, do not want to risk checking this and having it lost or stolen, so find one that matches your build and works with your camera and accessories while being able to fold down enough to tuck into your carry-on.
On top of that, there’s the issue of weight. In general, the larger the tripod, the heavier it will be. Lighter tripods will be easier to carry and are much less expensive. But it comes with the caveat that you won’t always be able to get the composition you wanted in your shots, plus they tend to be less stable. Still, they’re much better than not using a tripod at all.
As mentioned, if money isn’t a problem, you can get the best of both worlds – a tripod that can handle it all and travels like a dream. You may even find that the best solution for your needs is to have a smaller travel tripod and a heavier one that you use depending on where you’re going for the shoot.
Material and Durability
There’s a rule that seems to apply to tripods. If it’s light and strong, it will be expensive. If it’s heavy and weak, it will be cheap. It’s all in the materials used. That’s not to say the weaker ones will crumble when you touch them. They’re usually made from aluminum, which tends to stand up to the elements. Carbon fiber on the other hand is lighter and stronger, but because it’s more difficult to produce, it bears a heftier price tag.
Aluminum is generally fine unless you really can’t deal with the added weight. I almost always advise novice photographers to go for an aluminum travel tripod because the price is easier on the wallet. But if you simply can’t handle that weight due to traveling concerns, then your money is better spent on the more expensive tripod that will serve you better during your travels.
– Tripod Legs
The legs of your tripod are relative to its stability. If it has more sections on each leg, it’s going to be less sturdy. Look for a tripod that has around 3 to 4 leg sections at most. A great way to counter shaky legs on a tripod is by getting a stone bag, which will help add weight to the tripod by pulling down the center of gravity and keeping it firmly in place.
Tripod legs can be adjusted to different lengths with the locking mechanisms. They’re either screw or flip locks. Screws mean you need to twist a lot to adjust them, while flip locks simply flip into place. Neither one is better than the other, so go with the one that feels most natural to you.
Flip locks do loosen over time so you’ll have to check them and tighten them accordingly. Twist locks do pose a problem in that if you twist it too hard to loosen it, it may come apart. Bear this in mind when making your choice.
– Tripod Feet
You may want to go with a tripod that allows for replacing the feet, to give you more flexibility. Different conditions are best served with a change of feet. Indoors, rubber or plastic are best. That will work outdoors, unless you’re on soft ground. Then you’d want to put on metal spikes to keep it lodged in place.
– Center post
The center post, or center column, is a single leg in the middle of the tripod. It’s not on every model but it serves to allow you to raise or lower the height of the camera. Some photographers can’t get by without it. Essentially though, a center post is like putting a monopod on top of a tripod, causing too much vibration. I dislike using them for this very reason. If you really must insist on having one though, you’ll want it to be able to fully decline down to the same level to where the legs of the tripod meet. It shouldn’t be able to wobble or what is the purpose of getting a tripod?
– Tripod Head
The tripod head is absolutely the most important part of your tripod system. Without it, you can’t secure the camera and control movement. With a modular tripod system, there is no tripod head included, so you have to purchase that separately. If that’s the tripod you go for, refer to my first point about the load capacity.
You’ll find three different types of tripod heads:
- Pant-tilt head: This has a single handle for horizontal movement or sometimes dual handles that control both horizontal and vertical. It’s the most common type of head that’s on the cheaper tripods.
- Ball-head: This type only has one control that either loosens or tightens your grip. It’s extremely flexible and gives you smooth movements as it keeps the camera and lens secure.
- Gimbal head: This one is made especially for long and heavy lenses 300mm+. These babies balance the camera and heavy lenses perfectly. If you’re going for fast-action photography, this is what I recommend most. It’s easy to use and you don’t have to constantly tighten the head every time you move the camera or lens.
– Quick-Release System
Flip your camera over and you’ll see a thread on the bottom. That’s because all modern cameras are made with this option, so you can easily attach it to a tripod or monopod. You’ll also see this on heavy lenses on the tripod collar. While its purpose is clear, it’s incredibly annoying to attach cameras and lenses in this way.
Lucky for us, manufacturers came up with a smarter, faster, and better way. They attach a small removable plate onto the camera or lens that can be easily tightened onto the tripod head. No fuss, no muss!
With cheaper tripods, you get a simple plastic plate that attaches, but the more expensive tripod heads give you a durable plate. The Arca-Swiss Quick Release System is one of the best there is for simple and speedy use. It’s made from durable aluminum and you can attach your camera or lens onto your tripod without rotating. The benefit of this system is that it gives you a vibration-free way to operate. This makes life a whole lot easier for photographers and it’s cheap too. If you choose to use this system, it will only set you back a few dollars as you’ll have to buy separate plates for every camera and lens you have, but it’s worth it.
And finally, we come to the make-or-break decision for your tripod. You’ll need to determine what you’re comfortably able and willing to spend. It’s definitely a worthy investment, but please don’t cheap out and get the cheapest thing you find. Consider your photography needs, how you’ll travel with it, how much load capacity it has, the weight and height, and everything else I’ve detailed to decide what is most important for you. Then shop around for the ones in your price range, check out this article to see my recommendations.
Don’t just settle for cheaper because it fits your wallet. Get something that will serve you well over the years. Often when we go for the lower cost item, and not just with photography equipment but in just about every other facet, it doesn’t last and you’re back at square one replacing it again, which will mean you’ve wound up spending more than you really wanted to. As they say, buy cheap, buy twice.
Yes, there’s much to think about here, but buying camera equipment isn’t something you do on a whim, like when you see a t-shirt in a storefront and decide to buy it. This is your livelihood and if you plan to turn it into a money-maker, you’ll have to invest wisely for it to pay off.
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