Someone in the Viewfinders photo club asked an interesting question. What to look out for when buying a tripod?

Maybe not the most high-tech of questions, but interesting none the less!

I don’t know the particular brand of tripod they were looking at, but my experience covers things to look out for which are not really brand-specific. Here’s my list, in no particular order.

For the record, I use Manfrotto with quick-removable plate.

– Is it TALL enough? What is the maximum height you can get out of it with the legs still being reasonably stable? Sounds odd, but all my first tripods were too short – I had to stoop to use them, which gets tiresome after a while. One with a central pole that can raise up quite high is surprisingly useful. I also use the tripod as a flash stand for special effects, so it sometimes needs to be quite high.

– Rigidity/stiffness. THE most important. Mine is aluminium tubing and is really very rigid. I have seen some good quality carbon fibre ones of comparable stiffness, but also some cheaper ones which flex far too easily. Definitely a false economy.

– A model with some soft wrapping near the top, where you might want to hold onto it (mine doesn’t have this, and I miss it). This has no photographic function, but if you’re outside in the cold, without gloves (so you can feel what you’re doing), the tripod can be VERY cold to the touch, and these soft wraps make it more manageable.

– Flexibility to do alternative configurations. Standing straight up, they’re all OK, but ones where the legs can be independently splayed much wider, for example, and where the central column can be mounted “upside down” and/or placed fully horizontally are very useful. Use for macro shots close to the ground, document copying (horizontal), positioned on uneven surfaces or on stairs, … you name it, this is probably the most useful.

– Fast release plate, of course. And I find the butterfly screw tightening used on the legs of my (already quite old) model fiddly but they have one big advantage: they don’t go “CLICK!!!” in that quiet church when photographing weddings. (No Velcro on the camera bag for the same reason).

– Light weight is good, but if it compromises on any of the above, it would detract too much from its functionality for me. I borrow a cheaper portable one for more touristic applications.

– Some models have a hook at the bottom of the vertical column, on which you can hang a heavy bag. Good for stability in windy conditions.

– The head. Mine came with 3 locking levers, for “roll/pitch/yaw”. I actually left only the pitch in place, and pre-tightened the other screws to be able to move them by hand, yet still tight enough hold their position. I find this most useful in practice. (Heads designed for video applications don’t work too well I have found, but that’s maybe just me).

– Can you put the plate on backwards? I sometimes do this to allow me to point the camera to very high elevations (star photos).

– Can you use it as a monopod too? I have used mine with just one leg extended for extra stability in difficult lighting when doing events (where you need to be agile).

  • Oh, and a spare plate. One on the camera, of course, but also one on the tripod mounting plate of my pretty hefty 70-200 f2.8 zoom. Really useful, that!