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Tripods Explained

Camera and Video Tripods explained

Big, clumsy and inconvenient. These are often how tripods are viewed when new to photography and as a result not considered when buying your first DSLR. Whilst it is true that image stabilised lenses and bodies, as well as improved high ISO capabilities, have reduced the need for support in some situations, there is still no escaping the fact that tripods are integral to the success of many of the world’s best photographers and some images simply can’t be achieved without them. Tripods can be utilised simply to take some of the weight from the arms of the photographer when using large lenses but they are also used to achieve maximum sharpness by absorbing vibrations, enabling long exposures and assisting with accurate composition.

Rather like camera bags, tripods and heads are the sorts of items that you can end up spending a lot of money on as you search for the perfect solution, only to buy a new lens or body and realise you need something different. The old saying ‘you get what you pay for’ really does ring true with tripods. It’s far better to spend a little extra on something decent in the first place rather than ‘upgrade’ every couple of years or replace cheaper options that are less durable. A decent quality set of legs and a head should last you a considerable number of years.

There are so many options available that deciding what you need can be a bit daunting. There are some simple questions to ask yourself to determine what to choose.

Deciding which Camera or Video Tripod to buy

There is no point buying something that is not going to support your equipment. You should start off by working out the weight of the heaviest lens and body you are going to need to support. If you are likely to buy a longer lens in the future then you’ll want to consider this to ‘future proof’ your purchase. Tripod legs and heads are given a maximum load capacity and this needs to be sufficient to hold your heaviest combination.

The next decision when choosing a set of legs is what material to buy. This will depend on your budget as well as where you intend to use the tripod. If you are going to need to carry your equipment any distance then materials such as carbon fibre will prove useful as they are a much lighter option than aluminium or steel legs with the same load capacity. The trade off is the expense, carbon fibre equipment is more costly than other materials but if you are needing to carry your gear then there is no point having a heavier tripod that you’re going to end up leaving in the car.

As well as the weight of the legs there is also the size. Most have telescoping legs that come in 3, 4 or sometimes 5 sections. The overall heights of the tripods can vary so consider how high you need to be able to extend it. The number of sections will determine how small the tripod can be folded which again has a bearing on portability. The more sections, the smaller it is when folded but this comes at the expense of rigidity compared to the same model with fewer sections.

Some tripods offer greater flexibility and variation in their positioning than others, for example, being able to invert the centre column, place it horizontally or spread the legs at more extreme angles. For macro work or other low to ground level photography these features can be useful. Look for features such as ‘reversible centre columns’ and ‘ballast hooks’ (to let you hang weights such as camera bags off the centre column for increased stability).

Choosing a Tripod head

Just as important as the legs is the head upon which your camera will sit. There are two main types available, ‘ball and socket’ and ‘3-way’ heads. A ball and socket head in its simplest form will have a locking knob on the side to release and tighten the head. When loose the tipod head can roll in any direction and usually up to 90° in one direction. The advantage of a ball head is that it’s very rapid to reposition the head and you can use it whilst loose to track moving subjects such as birds or motorcars. Ball heads are less suitable when you need accurate composition such as in still life, macro and landscape work. This is because when unlocked the head moves in any direction.

It is easier to use a 3-way head for this type of work as you can adjust each plane individually. You have the options to unlock the movement of the head in each direction if you wish but you would more commonly set them in turn. You can tilt the head up and down, left and right, and rotate the head over the centre of the tripod. With both types of heads there are variations such as ‘off centre’ ball heads and ‘geared’ 3-way heads but these both offer the same basic advantages as the regular heads. It’s not uncommon for photographers to have both types of heads to interchange on their tripods depending on what they’ll be shooting.

Just like the legs you need to look for the maximum load capacity of the head. There is no point having a head that isn’t capable of securing your camera in position. By spending more you can get more advanced technologies in the head such as hollow ball heads to save weight, hydrostatic locking mechanisms for easier tensioning or built in spirit levels for accurate positioning.

Quick Release Tripod Heads

There are many other variants on heads, legs and accessories than mentioned here but one more very useful feature you should be aware of is ‘quick release mechanisms’. On top of the tripod head there is a ¼” male screw thread which goes into the bottom of your camera. It can be quite a hassle screwing your camera on and off this each time. A quick release system has a small plate that you screw into the base of your camera/lens and leave in place. This can then securely clip into the top of the tripod head and unclip quickly when you need to un-mount the camera/lens. Some heads are available with or without quick release systems, I’d always recommend going for the one with quick release.

If you want the very best available, and don’t mind the expense then Gitzo is the brand to look for. They offer the finest materials and build quality. Manfrotto, Giottos, Slik and Velbon offer a wide range of tripods and heads at varying prices with great value aluminium options as well as professional carbon fibre models.

If you have any questions regarding your specific requirements then please don’t hesitate to contact us for some recommendations. Either call a member of the sales team on 01444 23 70 70 or email us at

Tripod images

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