We would all like to think of ourselves as “a human tripod,” but the reality is that camera shake is something with which we must all contend, and camera/lens stabilization technology can only go so far. Tripods are the best tool available to achieve absolute stillness. Without further ado, here is an analysis of several categories of tripod available, to help you choose the best one for your needs.
Ball Head vs. Pan & Tilt Head
Most entry-level tripods include a head (that’s the part your camera attaches to, usually via a quick-release plate). Higher end tripods often do not include a head, in the same way that most top-of-the-line cameras are sold body-only. The most common types are known as “ball head” and “pan & tilt head,” for obvious reasons. Which kind is right for you?
Ball heads are the most popular and typically the most flexible. They allow for quick adjustment, with some of the higher-end or video-oriented ball heads adding panning capability. They are great for wildlife or tracking a moving subject, as they offer range of motion in all directions, but they generally lose stability when moved to the portrait orientation.
Pan & tilt heads (also called three-way heads) tend to be used for more specific kinds of photography and for video. They allow precision tuning of each axis independently to ensure that horizons are 100% level, so they’re an excellent choice for landscape photography. Some pan & tilt heads come in a geared version, allowing for even finer tuning of your setup, and these are especially good for macro and close-up photography. Pan & tilt heads are a great choice for the portrait photographer who works in portrait orientation as often as landscape, since moving the camera between vertical and horizontal can be done with ease and without affecting your other axes.
ProMaster SP528CK, in carbon fiber
Carbon Fiber vs. Aluminum Tripods
One big decision you’ll face in choosing a tripod is between aluminum and carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is much more rigid than aluminum, but so long as you’re not using your tripod as weapon, the biggest difference is that the carbon fiber is significantly lighter. How big of a difference does that make? Travelers: you know just how big of a difference. The longer you have to carry a tripod, the more every ounce matters, and your back will thank you in the long run if you can keep your weight down. Carbon fiber is also less susceptible to oxidation (CF tripods with sealed joints could be used with little risk standing in a shallow river) and has a better damping effect than aluminum due to its rigidity, limiting the negative effects of vibrations on long exposures and video.
That being said, having a heavier tripod is not always a bad thing. A heavier aluminum tripod can be sturdier in windy situations or on unstable terrain. Aluminum tripods are also less expensive; this is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the materials so much as the expense of the manufacturing process involved. Don’t feel like you have to buy carbon fiber tripods in order to be a “real” photographer. You have to weigh the advantages of carbon fiber against the price difference and decide if the upgrade is truly worth it.
Tabletop and flexible Tripods
Say goodbye to holding your camera at arm’s length to take a selfie! With one of these, you can stabilize your camera on just about any nearby surface, hit the self timer, and take the time to pose and position as you would like. Flexible tripods allow you an unparalleled ability to adapt your tripod to the landscape, gripping signposts, trees, or just about anything you’ll encounter. Take-everywhere pocketable tripods are perfect for the everyday photographer. Whether you are in the field or at home, they are quick to set up and easy to use. From selfie moments to sunsets, these tripods are always ready to provide that extra bit of stability you need yet remain almost invisible in a pocket or extra bag pouch. I keep a GripTight Micro on my mirrorless camera at all times, just in case, and a small GorillaPod with my Action Cam kit. Pro tip: with the legs folded in, many of these can also be used as makeshift pistol grips, allowing you to take smoother video.
Compact tripods are a great option for many photographers who want a versatile tripod that will support a variety of camera types and lens options but don’t want to break the bank (though high-end travel tripods are also available). They are not as robust as less compact tripods and will lose stability as the load increases, but many come with a video-style pan head (without the bulky handle) that will make it easy to direct the shot right where you want it to go. These tripods are small enough to easily fit into a camera backpack or carry-on luggage, making them a great solution for the travelling photographer.
For maximum stability and a greater degree of customization, stepping up to a full size tripod is a must. Many allow you to select the head independently from the legs, letting you swap them out as your shooting style requires. Full size tripods are more sturdily constructed than their smaller counterparts and, though more expensive, can last for life as opposed to needing to be replaced in a year or two. These tripods are most commonly constructed from aluminum (less expensive, weightier) or carbon fiber (lighter and more rigid) and have the ability to add flex arms so that you can add accessories such as lights or microphones. Some, like the Manfrotto 190, even have “horizontal columns,” allowing you to shoot straight down—great for product photography! They are often taller so that the working height prevents you from having to bend down to use your camera. Some come in 2, 3, or 4 sections so that even though they extend to a full height they can be compacted to fit in your photography backpack.
With one removable leg, convertible tripods offer you the flexibility of being able to choose between a tripod and a monopod while packing only one unit. You can use the unit as a tripod for maximum stability whenever space is not of critical importance, but have access to a full size monopod with head within seconds whenever you’re ready to set out on a hike (or any other activity in which you’d prefer to carry as little as possible). With fully articulating legs, these tripods also offer the best working-height-to-storage-height ratio.
Compact Video Tripods
One of the biggest challenges while shooting video on a tripod is making sure that you are 100% level so that, as you pan your shot, you are keeping your horizon level. Video tripods make the ability to level your camera easy by either adding a ball adjustment point to a panning head or using a 3-axis pan & tilt head so you don’t have to adjust the height of individual legs on uneven terrain. Most video tripods have built-in bubble levels as well.
Cine tripods, much like compact video tripods, include panning ball heads or 3-axis pan & tilt heads as well as bubble levels to make it as easy as possible to level your camera’s perspective on less-than-level terrain. Where cine tripods differ from their compact video brethren is in the smoothness of the head. Cine heads have long panning handles that allow for precise, even movements, and many contain fluid chambers to dampen and smooth panning resistance, meaning they require little to no force to pan and will not move jerkily. These heads can be custom-balanced according to the weight of the camera and lens gear that they are supporting. Typically these cine tripods do not have a center column like a traditional camera tripod, as the extra link to the body of the tripod makes panning require more torque and consequently makes pans less smooth. Cine tripods typically have multiple legs on each side to give better stability as you pan versus a single leg on each side.
Why carry three legs when you only need to carry one? Monopods are a great solution for the photographer that needs a little extra stability but can keep their gear in-hand at all times. Monopods will give you the stability needed to use longer shutter speeds than you would handheld without the bulk of a full-size tripod. Some monopods have feet on their base, but do not be fooled: these are to allow for more stable panning (some even include cine-style fluid chambers), not to allow you to let go of your gear. Monopods are also a great tool for hiking as they can do double duty as a walking pole while minimizing the amount of photo gear you’re carrying. If you are waiting for a shot to happen, being able to support your camera on a monopod rather than supporting all the weight in your arms will allow for a far more comfortable photography experience and, ultimately, makes you more likely to get the shot for which you were patiently waiting.
Finally, even though they’re not strictly “tripods” (or -pods of any kind), any modern discussion of stability must also include gimbals. Similar to image stabilization systems found in cameras and lenses but on a much larger scale, a gimbal counterbalances movement surrounding its payload (the camera) to allow motion of the balanced camera to occur only smoothly, if at all. Rather than trying to hand hold your camera or smartphone, using a gimbal allows for butter-smooth video without having to invest thousands in a Hollywood-scale stabilization system—you can shoot motion while being in motion. They come in both 2- and 3-axis styles, sized for anything from smartphones to mirrorless ILCs to big ol’ full-frame DSLRs, and are usually motorized to allow for smooth and seamless follow through.
Straddling the line between motorized gimbals and traditional tripods are gimbal heads, which are a game-changer for photographers using extremely long lenses.
Keeping a camera stable is a simple concept with limitless implementations. Hopefully we covered the basics, but if you have any more questions, please feel free to leave a comment below or come in to any Mike’s Camera location to touch & try a variety of stabilization options.