Using a tripod is something not very common, but there are situations where without a tripod it it is impossible to get a great shot, tipically:
- when shooting with a long telephoto (let's say from 400 mm on), especially if it is windy;
- when taking long exposures, after sunset or in the night for star shooting or to make special effects like water flow/waves;
- when shooting remotely, for example to catch animals passing;
- when taking multiple shots with exact same framing, like for timelapse.
So very interesting photographic situations. Now: how to choose a tripod, especially for travelling? Let's see it in this detailed tutorial.
First: your goal
Firstly, you need to decide what is your most important aspect: you need a light tripod to travel or a fully featured and very stable one for studio-like shooting? That decision will influence the evaluation of next points (you can even buy two tripods to cover both needs if you don't mind spending).
For a decent tripod, expect to spend more than €/$ 100. Professional models can cost several hundred €/$ plus up to €/$ 500 for the head.
Aspects to consider
These are the things to evaluate in the choice.
The legs of the tripod (3 ones like the name says) are characterized by several factors:
- build material: here you have two choices - aluminiun or carbon fiber. The latter are the new generation tripods, quite lighter than the aluminium ones, but quite more expensive, so it is just a matter of weighting between price and need for lightness. For traveling/hiking I would surely suggest a carbon fiber tripod.
- weight: well, for an easy-portable tripod, you should stay below 2 Kg / 4.4 lbs, better if below 1.5 Kg / 3.3 lbs. Less weight means also less stability, so for very light tripods an additional weight is often needed (see below at "Other stuff - hook") and the center column should be rarely raised.
- spikes: at the bottom end of each leg there are spikes made of different material (rubber or metal) to stick to the ground. Here the useful thing can be of having replaceable spikes so that you can change them depending on the type af terrain or where worn out.
- number of sections: in order to reach more height, legs are made of sections that extend. More section means higher maximum height and more compact size when closed, but also less stability since every junction of a section to another is a point of weakness from the point of view of stability. A typical average number for sections is 4, more than 5 should be generally avoided.
- maximum height: height of the top of the tripod when all the sections of the legs are extended. Be careful here: maximum height has typically two values: with the center column (in the center of the tripod base) is raised and with the center column down (i.e. the top of the tripod is basically at the top of the legs). The center column extendsion is useful to tipically have the top of the tripod at eyes' level BUT raising the center column always reduces the stability significantly, especially when it is windy. That's why you have to carefully check the maximum height without the center bar raised: is it enough for most of your future shots?
- minimum height: height of the top of the tripod when all the legs sections are closed. If you need to make shots from low position (for examples macros), you need the minimum height to be not so.... high (like no more than 30-40 cm / 12 inches maximum). Some tripods allow to reverse the center column so that you can mount the camera upside-down and be very close to the ground, or they provide a secondary, short center column to be able to lower the tripod more without the center column to be an ostacle.
- length when folded: this is important for a portable tripod. If you want to put into a hand luggage for a flight, it must be surely less than around 47 cm / 18.5 in.
- legs section locks: to lock the sections two ways are provided - levers or rings. Levers are quicker to open and close, rings are easier to maintain in the long run (levers tend to become loose with time and need to be tightened).
- stiffness: try to move, hit the leg and see how stiff it is. There are also some more or less "scientific" tests on the web about that, but there is no standard way of measuring it, but it is the most important factor: the tripod main purpose is to stay still. Generally carbon fiber tripods are a bit more tolerant to vibrations (they damp them better) than aluminium ones.