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Who Needs a Tripod?

(And which one should you get?)

  2011 or '12 probably;  updated 2016 May.    Tech   Camera


"What's the best tripod for the money?"  I hear this question a lot, usually from people who have had an unsuccessful go with the cheap department-store ones.

A tripod that was solid yet affordable was, for many years, almost an impossible thing. 

Today, things might be better.  Let's find out.

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In This Article

Who Still Needs a Tripod?

Department Store Tripods

Should You Get a Tiltall?

What Tripod to Get?

Ball Heads

Pan-Tilt Heads

The Ultimate


Who Still Needs a Tripod?

If you have a digital camera, chances are that you don't even need a tripod unless you're using long telephoto lenses (e.g., for wildlife).  That's because most digital cameras-- or their lenses-- have image stabilization. 

In the days before digital, the rule of thumb was that a camera could be used hand-held at about the same shutter speed as its [inverse] focal length.  The units are not the same, but photographers understand such things. 

If you have a 50mm lens, you could hand-hold the camera down to about 1/50th of a second without blurring the picture.  If you have really steady hands, 1/30th is possible.  Anything slower, and you have to brace it against a tree or something. 

Today, film photographers still need tripods.  

If you're using, say, a 135mm lens at sunset with Velvia 50 or 100, a tripod is not optional.

Medium format and large format photographers need tripods, too.  Some people say the larger piece of film offsets the longer focal length, but I kind of don't think so.  And even if so, why use up the extra resolution with the slop factor of handheld shots?

If you're shooting large format, you're going to need a tripod for most things.

There are some situations where digital still requires a tripod.  Perhaps you want to use low ISO settings in very low-light conditions. 

Sometimes I use lenses that don't have IS or VR.   Here again, tripods can become necessary.

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Department Store Tripods = Junk

I say this having used these tripods a lot, sometimes even successfully

At some point, nearly every photographer has tried a cheap, department store tripod and found it lacking.  If you look around on this site, I think there's a photo an old Soviet film camera on one of these tripods.  I used it to photograph some town fireworks, but it would have been much easier with a better one.  

What's wrong with department store tripods?  Simple.  They tend to flex, wobble, and sag exactly where you need them to be the most steady. 

Cheap tripod heads don't give enough support.  Sometimes they will droop even after you crank everything down as far as it will go.

With an SLR film camera, there's a critical shutter speed range where vibrations from the mirror-slap will cause blurring of your picture or loss of detail.  That range is pretty much anything slower than 1/30th and anything faster than two seconds.  (For a telephoto lens, that range could extend to as fast as 1/60th or even 1/125th of a second.)

In other words, right where you need a tripod the most, the cheap ones are the least useful.

Longer shutter times give the camera a chance to settle down.  I've used four-plus seconds on cheap tripods without a problem, but only if it's not windy.  At all.

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Should You Get a Tiltall?

There was a time when I would have told you to get an old Tiltall tripod, but I think there are better choices now in the affordable range.

(If you use a 4x5 press camera, though, it's still a good choice.)

First off, this tripod is heavy (about 8 pounds).  That's a lot of extra weight to be lugging down trails all day. 

"Ah, it's not that heavy," you say.  Everyone says that about gear, until they have to lug it a couple of miles into the field.  The nature walk stops being fun after about ten minutes.  

The Tiltall is OK to have in your car, but even carrying it a few hundred yards with camera gear is a bit of a chore.  I know this all too well.  For large format I probably wouldn't care if the tripod were solid stainless (actually I'd prefer it)... unless it was for long walks into the countryside.  Just No.

Second, even if you don't care about the weight, there's another problem.  On a Tiltall, the central post for the camera is held in place by a cardboard ring.  Over time, this becomes worn and can slip out.  Either way, it can introduce headshake.  The shake can be hard to notice, but your pictures will show it. 

Third, you could easily lose one of the adjusters while out in the field.  They can unscrew completely and fall off.  I've almost had this happen several times and am just waiting for the day it does.  Then:  useless!

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What Tripod To Get?

Assuming cost is a concern, let's check out some realistic choices.  There are cheaper tripods that could work for you, but in my experience they're poorly made. 

Below a certain price range, they're all the same $24.95 department store tripods that prompted you to shop for a new one in the first place.

Most pro tripods today consist of two components:  the tripod, and the head.  These usually have to be bought separately. 

The tripod merely provides a steady base.  The head is what connects to your camera and allows you to adjust the camera's position.

Many tripods will work with different heads.  That means if you try a ball head and don't like it, you could always switch to a pan-tilt head without having to buy a whole new set of tripod legs. 

Let's look at some specific models in the two categories: ball-head and pan-tilt.

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Ball Heads

These are stable and easy to set, but there is sometimes a very slight bit of sag after you lock everything.  Actually, it's just the weight of the camera causing some flexion.   Much more expensive ball heads do not have this problem, but we're going to look at affordable models.  

Here are some pretty good tripod / ball head combos, at least for the money.

Unless you shoot 4x5, you can probably do alright with a Manfrotto 190XPROB3, which should be available through this link.  Get the ball head for it (here). 

Next up, with a higher load capacity, is the Manfrotto 055XPROB Pro, which you should find here (again, separate ball head must be purchased;  get it here). 

The Manfrotto 496 RC2 ball head used on either of these tripods will support up to about 13 pounds, which is more than enough for any DSLR, unless you've got a reflector telescope for a lens.  I really like Manfrotto products and have had good results with them for years, but before we conclude this article, let's look at a few more choices.

The Benro A0690T, available here.   includes the required ball head.  This tripod is only 2.6 pounds, which helps explain why they call it the "Travel Angel".   The tripod has a central hook to allow you to suspend more weight, should you want to make the tripod even more stable. 

The Benro has twist-lock legs (similar to the old Tiltall), which some people might find kind of slow.  I don't mind it, but this type of design can become unwieldy when you already have a heavy camera in place and you need to adjust the tripod "now" or miss the photo.

I should note here that very lightweight tripods are always a trade-off, because they just can't have the inertia or solidity of more massive tripods.  A tripod like this may be too heavy for people who want ultra-light, but too light for someone who wants rock-steady.  The specs still make this tripod a good choice, and there are many satisfied users.  If you can budget it, though, get the better A2691T (see below).

Another budget choice, also good, is the Induro AKB1 kit (get it here).   Like the Benro A0690T, it comes with a single action ball head, which some people will find much more convenient.  I like the double-action models because there's more flexibility of adjustment, but I doubt you'll care if you're coming from a cheap department-store tripod.   The Induro AKB1 weighs in at 3.6 lbs.  It has the flip-lock legs, which many users expect on a tripod.

Now for the dual-action ball head tripods. 

While I wasn't paying attention, there appeared on the market something called the MeFoto Roadtrip.  This highly-rated aluminum tripod has a dual-action ballhead, holds up to 17.6 lbs, and goes to a maximum height of just over five feet.   The MeFoto Roadtrip seems to be an extremely popular tripod, and presumably for good reason.  The MeFoto typically sells for $199 at the time I write this;  get yours through this link and it helps keep my website on-line.

Actually, I'm beginning to think the MeFoto is a newer, lower-priced incarnation of the Benro A2691T, which was my top choice in the original version of this article.  While the Benro A0690T has a single action and supports up to 5.5 pounds, the Benro 2691T has a B1 ball head, which is double action and supports up to 26.4 pounds.  The MeFoto Roadtrip, like the 2691T, has a double-action head;  the Roadtrip supports a very respectable 17.6 pounds.

If you have a heavy camera and/or a big telephoto lens, these are the ones to get.  

In fact, the MeFoto tripod was announced by Benro in 2012, which explains why it looks so much like the A2691T.  Therefore, in 2016 I'd get the MeFoto Roadtrip, since Benro seems to have discontinued the 2691T. 

The Benro Travel Angel weighed in at 4.6 pounds, still quite a bit lighter than a Tiltall.  The Mefoto is about a pound lighter, yet it still supports over 17 pounds.

The double action ball head allows for great flexibility of adjustment, even though it means dealing with slightly more complex controls.  Once it's locked into whatever tilt position you choose, you can still pan the camera if you haven't tightened down the other adjustment.  This is not possible with a single-action ball head (you have to unlock the whole thing).  That for me is kind of a major consideration.

These would be my top choices in the under-$300 range.   I think the best one for the money right now is the MeFoto Roadtrip.  It's not the $75 tripod you might have thought you were looking for, but then again it's not $1,000 as you could easily spend for a Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod with ball head.  

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Pan-Tilt Heads

Most cheap department-store tripods are pan-tilt, but don't let that form your impression of pan-tilt heads.  A pro-quality pan-tilt head is extremely solid and reliable. 

The old Tiltall is a simplistic pan-tilt design, but new ones use the same basic idea.  You can adjust the camera for front-to-back tilt, side-to-side tilt, and rotation about the vertical axis.    The pan-tilt, unlike the ball head, requires you to make these adjustments separately.

End result?  It takes longer to position your camera, but a pan-tilt head allows for high precision with no "sag" or settling.

For anything up to and including a 4x5 press camera, I'd probably get this tripod and head, available as a bundle.   As with ball heads, these are really two separate components, but I'd just get the bundle and save time.

Another good choice would be this head and this tripod (or perhaps this one), both from Induro.

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The Ultimate

If you want to head straight for something that will be rock-solid all the time, get this ballhead, this plate, and this tripod

You'll notice that the more expensive ballheads require you to buy a separate plate.  Also notice that the best tripod loadouts are in the $1,000+ range.  This is what it takes if you want those ultra-sharp 4x5's that can be enlarged big enough to see from the Moon.

At the moment I'm not using this kind of tripod, because I'm shooting 4x5 press cameras with common lenses.  The resolution is still better than digital, and I'm not doing billboards.  But if I ever did get into that, I'd know what to get.

One thing about a good tripod is that you will forget the expense, but you'll have the quality forever. 

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Don't skimp on a tripod.  In the conditions where you need a tripod, you need a steady one that's not going to blur your pictures.

Today there are highly serviceable choices in the $200 range;  this one is very good for the money, perhaps the best choice in its whole class.  It's still a travel tripod, though, so there are some design trade-offs.

If you want lifetime quality and rock-solid performance for larger cameras and lenses, prepare to spend upwards of $1,000. this head with this plate on this tripod ought to provide that. 

This has been a look at some tripods that are good enough for serious use while still being relatively affordable.  I hope you've enjoyed it.

Please help me keep this site on-line by purchasing your gear through any of the links on here. It is the only way I can bring you helpful articles like this one.

If you still think you'd rather get a Tiltall, please help me out a lot by shopping for it through this link.  It will take you directly to some search results.  

I hope you've enjoyed your visit.  Thanks for reading!

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