Camera Tripod Guide and Shopping Tips

It came time recently for me to buy a tripod (my Christmas gift from my wife). So I started the research online and quickly discovered that I did not know squat about tripods. I knew I wanted a strong and light tripod. My old one was an aluminum leg, very inexpensive (under $40) tripod that I have used for the last eight years. It worked, but it was a little heavy, and it was not the most sturdy tripod. I sometimes had to brace it against my leg to keep it from shaking—and forget about using it in the wind.

guide to camera tripods

Photo captured by Erin Applebee (Click Image to See More From Erin Applebee)

I soon learned that you can have a sturdy tripod, you can have a light tripod, and you can have cheap tripod, but you can only have two of the three, with the “cheap” part going out the window first. Scott Kelby and Joe McNally (two of the best photographers that I follow) recommended Manfrotto Carbon Fiber legs (around $375) and a Really Right Stuff Ball Head (that is the thing on the top that moves and rotates and holds the camera) (another $350+) for a total of over $700. Well I don’t know about you, but that is still out of my budget so I had to go looking for some options, not quite as good, but a lot less expensive.

When do you need a tripod?

  1. You need it when it is getting dark or in other low light.
  2. You need it when your shutter speed is slower than one divided by the focal length of your lens (oh no, math–see examples below).
  3. You need at tripod if you are going to enlarge your photo a lot.

The first issue comes when you need to capture a lot of light in aperture and also need a slow shutter speed and high ISO.

using a tripod in photography

Photo captured by Tommy-Mathias (Click Image to See More From Tommy-Mathias)

The second bullet describes the shutter speed math as an example of a standard 50mm lens needing a shutter speed of more than 1/60 of a second without a tripod, and on a 500mm telephoto lens you would need to be 1/500 or faster. The logic is that the longer lens magnifies any vibration in the camera or the way you hold it.

The last is that large enlargements will bring out any little imperfections, including camera shake at high magnification.

There are two kinds of tripod heads: ball heads and pan heads. The ball head is simplest and provides a full range of movement for your camera. If you tend to shoot quickly or at moving objects you will like a ball head. With pan heads you have multiple locking levers that adjust the pan in different planes of movement to allow you to move the camera on the tripod. Pan heads are quite useful for panoramic shots. The trade-off is speed, it takes more time to unlock and adjust the levers than with a ball head.

For the legs of the tripod you are limited to aluminum or carbon fiber. The aluminum is fairly strong, but not compared to the stronger carbon fiber. Aluminum is heavier and carbon fiber is far more costly.

I came down to two options. I wanted a carbon fiber leg and chose a pan head. Because cost was a factor, my budget was in the $150 to $220 area (sorry Scott and Joe). I would love to have one of those $700+ babies, but its just not in the cards until I win the lottery. I first chose to reject the component tripods where you buy the legs from one company and the heads from another. I wanted an integrated leg/head setup.

My first option was the Sunpak Pro 523PX 64″ Tripod sold on Amazon and at Best Buy. It featured a 64″ inch reach and collapsed down to 12″. It weighed in at 4 lbs. The pan head was controlled by a pistol grip mechanism that seemed very slick. It retailed for around $199.

tripod photo

“c l a s s i c” captured by Federico (Click Image to See More From Federico)

My other option was the Rocketfish 65″ Carbon Fiber kit. It reached up to 65.5″ and weighed in at 5.8 lbs. Rocketfish is owned by Best Buy which sells their tripods exclusively. It listed at $ 150. So it came down to one unit that was slightly lighter and more expensive. The other unit was very solid with a sturdy feel and smooth moving levering that tilted to allow both portrait and landscape modes.

Both units would work for me and were within my budget. The Sunpak had a that very cool pistol grip mechanism and the Rockfish seemed more solid. What sold it was the Christmas sale at Best Buy that dropped the Rockfish down to under $120. Well, sometimes you just have to buy the most economical option. These are not the only good and reasonable tripods on the market. I urge each of you to do your own research and learn from what you have read.

About the Author
Randall Jackson (known to his friends as Randy) is an experienced Arizona photographer. His photography is about nature and events such as sports. He writes about photography and technology on his blog and displays his work at a photography site. More information can be gleaned about Randy at his blog:

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One response to “Camera Tripod Guide and Shopping Tips”

  1. William Beem says:

    I can appreciate your cost concerns. I could’t imagine spending so much on a tripod, either. However, I’m changing my mind. Much like the article by Thom Hogan predicted (, I’m actually spending much more money by purchasing cheap tripods when I’m ultimately going to end up with a pricey component model.

    I like doing time exposures and HDR, so a decent tripod really does matter. It’s even more expensive than you imagined in your post. I bought a BH-40 ballhead and a couple of plates. That alone was roughly $600. The Gitzo legs that I want are likely another $700.

    However, that weight gets to you when you are hiking around a city or out in the field. A camera bag full of heavy gear is one thing, but then adding a heavy tripod gets to be like the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    There’s also the matter of easier adjustments on better tripods. If you do it long enough, you start to wonder if there’s a better way. Yes, there is. It just costs more money.

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