Purchasing a tripod can be a major investment, so not only should you investigate which are the best tripods on the market, but you also need to have a very clear idea of what your personal photographic needs are. While the old adage that ‘you get what you pay for’ is perhaps more true for tripods than for any other piece of photographic equipment beyond the camera and lens, the right solution for your requirements may not be as simple as just buying the most expensive tripod you can afford. With that said, here are a few things to keep in mind when deciding which is the best tripod for your needs.
Ideally you should always test the tripod with the camera you will actually be using. Is it convenient? Any annoyances? Does it feel sturdy and secure? We don’t list maximum load capacities here because the general consensus is that limits stated by manufacturers cannot be trusted at all (or even very easily tested in a scientific manner). Indeed, you should count on the actual safe maximum load being way lower than the manufacturer’s claims. Really the only way to know if a tripod is appropriate for the weight of your camera and lens is by trying it. Not only to check how sturdy it feels under the weight, but also to see if their is a risk of the tripod easily being knocked – or even blown – over. Do you feel comfortable seeing hundreds or thousands of dollars in camera equipment precariously perched on those three spindly legs? If even screwing the quick release plate onto the camera has you twitching nervously you might want to pick another model.
Again, regarding height, you’ll probably want to test the tripod with your camera attached, as although a tripod’s maximum extension may be lower than your eyes, it could be that the added height of the camera brings the viewfinder up to exactly the right level for you. Is eye-level tall enough though? Might you sometimes want to shoot from a higher vantage point? Only you know the answer to this.
Are you going to be driving everywhere and taking the tripod directly out of the trunk and setting it up next to the car? Or are you going to be hiking for hours across arduous terrain? How heavy is too heavy for you? Try carrying it around the store for a while. Will you need to take it as carry-on? Does it need to fit in a backpack? Bring the backpack and check that it fits.
This may all seem like pretty obvious advice, but you’d be surprised how few people actually follow much of it before putting down hundreds of dollars on a piece of equipment that directly affects both the quality of their photographs and the safety of their cameras and lenses. You can spend a fortune on the best camera body and optics, but it won’t do you the slightest bit of good if the tripod is prone to vibration, insufficiently strong and stable, or if you never use it anyway as it just gets left at home each time you shoot because it weighs too much.