Tripods for Photography: Everything You Need to Know

Tripods may seem like one of the simpler items in the photographer’s toolkit, but there are actually a lot of things to know about them. Even the more knowledgeable among us might be surprised to find that there’s a number of tips and tricks to choosing the right one, learning to use tripod features, and avoiding mistakes that can vary from the merely annoying to the disastrous. That’s why photography instructor Phil Steele has but together the rather extensive tutorial below, covering everything you didn’t know that you didn’t know about this most essential piece of gear:

Tripods don’t quite come in as many variations as the flavors of ice cream, but sometimes it can certainly seem that way. From which head to get, to “twisties” vs. “flippies”, to what the tripod is made of, choices abound. If this is your first real tripod purchase, you’ll have to weigh all of these considerations carefully.

The first thing you’ll need to ask yourself (other than what your budget is) is what you’ll be using it for. This will inform just about every other decision.

  • Is it for the studio or will you be lugging it around?
  • What kind of camera do you intend to use with it (especially important here is size and weight).
  • Will your subjects be moving around a lot or will they be mostly stationary?

Once you know the answers to these questions it’ll be easier to narrow down your options.

Tripod Features to Consider

  • Type of head (ball, 3-way, gimbal, etc.)
  • Type of locking mechanisms on the legs
  • Weight
  • Stability
  • Type of quick release
  • Center column
  • Size/portability
  • Feet
  • Material it’s made of (not just whether it’s aluminum or carbon fiber, but also whether the components are made of cheap plastic or something more durable)
A Ball head can be adjusted quickly

The ball head can be adjusted quickly and is the head of choice for those looking for portability.

“Twisties” or “Flippies”?

The photography world is rife with strong opinions about the different aspects of tripods, but one that tends to get the most heat is what kind of locking mechanism to use on the legs. There honestly doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground on this one–people will swear by whichever type works best for them. Still, it’s a key choice you’ll need to make.

Twisties

Pros: compact, quiet, don’t get caught on your bag or other things

Cons: slower to work with (for some people–there are some tricks to using twisties quickly that weren’t shown here), it’s hard to know if they’re fully locked down as it’s important not to over tighten them

Flippies

Pros: you can always know whether they’re open or locked, for some folks they’re faster than twisties

Cons: they can get caught on things, they make noise when they snap into place, bulkier than twisities

Feet

Many tripods have interchangeable feet

One thing that’s often neglected when choosing a tripod is whether it has interchangeable feet.

One thing that many first-time tripod buyers might not know to consider is whether the tripod they’re interested in has interchangeable feet. Believe it or not, this can make a huge difference. Just imagine doing a shoot indoors on a beautiful wooden floor and only having the spikes shown in the picture above as your feet. Or trying to do an amazing shoot outdoors, only to find that your tripod feet won’t grip. (As a landscape photographer, I’ve been ever so grateful for having the outdoor feet in my kit!)

Marking your quick release plate

If your quick release plate is asymmetrical, save yourself a bunch of time by marking which end goes where.

Tripod Tips and Tricks

There were many, many tips and tricks covered in this video. Here are just a few:

  • When tightening the legs, tighten starting at the top and loosen starting at the bottom.
  • If you’re using a large lens, make sure one of the tripods legs is directly underneath. One way to ensure this is to make sure that a tripod leg is always facing your subject.
  • For the greatest stability, use the center column only after the legs have been fully extended.
  • If using a DSLR, learn how to lock the mirror or shoot in live view mode.
  • If you don’t have a remote shutter release and are using the self-timer, choose 10 seconds rather than just 2. Often there are vibrations too fine to be seen with naked eye still occurring after just 2.
  • Secure the camera strap so that it doesn’t blow in the wind or get caught on things.
  • When using a tripod, turn your stabilizers off—both on the lens and in camera.
  • If your tripod has a ball head, check to see if your camera has a leveling mode.
  • If you use more than one camera, keep some extra quick release plates in your kit.
In-camera leveling

Your camera’s leveling mode will take the guesswork out of trying to figure out if your horizon is level when using a ball head tripod.

The truth is, no matter how informative videos like these are, the best way to make an informed decision is to get real-time experience with different tripods and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. This could mean borrowing a friend’s for a couple of days or renting one, but merely testing one out in the store for a few minutes isn’t going to give you all the information you need. Go out, get shooting, and try out as many different types of tripods as possible in the field before buying.

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3 Comments

  1. Bill Spicer says:

    Great information. Thanks so much. Take care.

  2. Denise Watson says:

    Wow – that was really informative! Thanks for explaining tripods so well, Phil. I’m ready to (finally) put mine to good use!

  3. Gringuk says:

    The best video I have seen on this subject! Well worth going through a couple of times. Thanks.

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