The goal of this article is to help you narrow your choice of options, pick through what is important to you, and make it easier to choose the right tripod to suit your needs and your budget. For the purposes of this article, the term "tripod" is used to include the head and legs, with each component being discussed separately. Price, of course, is always a determining factor in your choice, but the focus of this article is on the available features to consider when you're making your selection.
The most important consideration in buying a tripod is the weight of the camera that it is going to be supported. Tripod legs and heads have a weight range in which they operate best. A camera that is too heavy for the legs or head can cause damage to the head, make for jerky camera movements, or cause the tripod to tip over, or the legs to collapse. Using a tripod that is rated for significantly more than what your camera package weighs may seem like a good idea, but heads have a weight range in which they work optimally, so why carry around a bigger and heavier tripod than you need to? It will just slow you down and wear you out. So you want to be sure that the tripod head and legs match the weight range of your camera, and don’t forget to factor in any accessories you may attach to your camera.
With that determined, let's now take a look at the video head.
The video head provides your camera with a platform for smooth pans and tilts and it mounts on the tripod legs. For most users, video heads should feature 360 degrees of continuous pan, and at least 75 degrees of forward and backward tilt, with some form of fluid-dampening system, whence the name fluid heads. Basically, a viscous fluid is used to enable you to feather your stops and starts and provide resistance for pans and tilts. This resistance allows for smooth moves at varying pan and tilt speeds. Some heads offer fixed pan-and-tilt drag resistance, while others offer adjustments using either stepped or continuously variable settings. The more levels of drag adjustment the head features, the more control you have in producing smooth moves, with heavier levels of drag resistance used for making slow, smooth camera movements.
Another important feature is the head’s counterbalance capabilities. Without a counterbalance, when you tilt the head forward or back, the head will tend to want to continue tilting. This means you end up fighting the weight of the camera during your tilt moves. This is where counterbalance settings come into play. You want to be able to set the counterbalance so that there is a neutral effect. Not enough counterbalance will have you fighting to keep the camera from tilting too much on the head, but with too much counterbalance the camera wants to stay level, and you end up fighting to tilt it up or down. When you have properly counterbalanced the camera, the fluid head ought to stay at whatever angle of tilt you set it. Sachtler and Manfrotto offer a wide range of heads with stepped counterbalance, while other manufacturers feature stepped settings varying between 2 steps, 4 steps, 7 steps, and more, up to 24 steps. Still other heads provide more precise variable counterbalance control, such as the OConnor 1030D series, which is based on its 2575 head, but OConnor is no longer the only option for heads with continuously variable counterbalance adjustment.
Some form of quick-release plate system is fairly standard, and you would be hard pressed to find a head without one. Some quick-release systems feature a simple plate that pops into a carrier. This is a true quick-release system, and can go speedily from tripod to handheld mode. Other systems feature camera plates that slide into the top platform of the tripod. This method provides you with balancing adjustment but does not allow the plate to go on and off the tripod, with a heavy camera attached, quite as easily as a quick-release system does. With its relatively recent 500 head, Manfrotto has introduced a hybrid of the two systems, allowing you the ease of a quick-release plate with the balance adjustment of a sliding base plate.
The head will feature either a flat base or a half ball for mounting on a tripod. The larger the base, whether flat or half ball, the more stable, and generally the more weight it can support. A head with a 75mm ball is a good choice for many of the smaller professional camcorders in the 6- to 12-pound range (with accessories). Heads that fit that size handle the weight well, and the 75mm diameter of the fitting provides a wide support stage, which is good for balancing cameras.
100mm half balls are going to provide more stability, and 150mm-diameter half balls or flat bases are good for camera systems that weigh 80 pounds or more. Smaller sizes, such as a 60mm half balls, are appropriate for smaller, lighter cameras. The big advantage of ball bases, also referred to as half ball or claw ball, is that they allow quicker and easier leveling of the fluid head. Without a ball base, you have to adjust the individual leg heights to level the head. Most heads have a built-in bubble level. One that is illuminated for working in dim conditions is more desirable, but any kind of bubble level is very useful for leveling.
Many heads are available with either a flat base or a ball base, and while it may seem an obvious choice to get a head with a ball base for fast and easy leveling, there is a compelling reason to consider a head with a flat base, especially when using a camera system that weighs less than 20 pounds. The reason is the camera slider. Small, portable, lightweight camera sliders for medium-sized and smaller cameras have made it easy to add production values to shoots.
If you want to put a tripod head on a slider, either you need one with a flat base with a 3/8”-16 mounting screw, or you will need to use a high hat for a head with a ball base, which will add about four inches to your rig's height. However, with a flat base, you can mount the tripod head directly on the slider. You can, of course, have both types and use one just for sliders, but there’s also another option—a ball level adapter for flat base tripod heads. These are available in varying sizes, including 75mm, 100mm, and even 150mm. These adapters provide easily removable ball-level capabilities for your flat base head, giving you the best of both worlds.
Tripod legs also feature a variety of design elements that define their performance. These include: type of material; height range; the type of leg locks; whether the leg sections are single or dual; whether a center column, foot spikes, and spreader are available; and if the legs have a flat base or a bowl for leveling.
Tripod legs are made out of either aluminum or carbon fiber, and they each have their own benefits. Aluminum legs, lightweight and strong, have been the standard for years, but now carbon fiber legs represent a compelling alternative. They are lighter than aluminum legs and support a little more weight. They tend to be more expensive than aluminum legs, but other than that, both types do the job equally well and many tripod legs are available in both aluminum and carbon fiber versions.
The tripod legs themselves come in different configurations, with many lightweight tripods featuring single-tube leg sections. Medium to heavy-duty tripod legs come in double leg sections, each section featuring two tubes. However, a growing number of medium-range tripod legs now offer single-tube construction, providing medium-weight-range camera users more options.
Tripods that use a single tube for their leg sections incorporate a stepped hinge system, allowing you to lock the legs at preset angles. This saves you from needing a spreader to secure the legs. Single-tube legs use either flip locks or twist locks, and while flip locks are quicker to open and close, twist locks are like collars around each leg section, offer more gripping power, and tend to wear better than flip locks. Single-tube tripod legs are also more likely to feature an adjustable-height center column, which is a nice feature when you need that extra height. Of course, the more you extend the center column, the more unsteady it can become, so you don’t want to exceed the manufacturer’s recommendations.
All tripod legs feature some kind of foot, either foot spikes or rubber boots. Often the legs will have a combo, referred to as retractable foot spikes, where the rubber boot spins down over the metal foot spike. When shooting indoors or on hard surfaces with a tripod with spiked feet, either extend the rubber boot, or if it doesn’t have the rubber boot, use a ground/floor spreader—or you may need a set of rubber boots that snap on to the spikes.
For handling heavier loads, legs with double-tube extensions provide increased load capacity and greater torsional stability, meaning they allow you to use a larger head and camera without the legs twisting and shifting as you pan. Double leg extensions also feature stronger leg locks, either rotating clamp-style locks or some variation on lever locks. Rotating clamp locks turn around a center axis, and provide variable tension as the clamp engages with the legs. The rotational clamps are also easier to adjust and service than quick flip or twist locks. Lever locks move a preset amount from open to closed to prevent you from over-tightening the locks and damaging the locking mechanism. This is a nice feature that rotating clamp locks don’t have; however, the trade-off is that eventually the lever locks will need to be adjusted, and you can’t just keep tightening them because of the built-in stop. All manufacturers use some variation of lever or rotation clamps. Vinten has created their Pozi-Loc system, which is a rotational clamp that requires a 90-degree turn to lock, and makes an audible noise when the lock is engaged.
As far as spreaders go, there are two basic kinds: ground-/floor-level spreaders and mid-level spreaders. Spreaders do the opposite of what their name implies, and keep the legs from spreading all the way out. They allow you to control the height and stability of the tripod legs. Ground-level spreaders are extremely useful when shooting on hard flat surfaces such as tile floors, and they usually fold up inside the legs so they can stay attached during transport. Since the ground-level spreaders also attach to the feet, you don’t need spike covers when shooting on delicate surfaces. Spreaders can be removed when shooting on soft ground, and the tripod legs’ foot spikes driven into the ground. However the big drawback of ground-level spreaders is that they can cause instability when used on uneven surfaces. This brings us to mid-level spreaders, which feature many advantages over ground-level spreaders. The most notable advantage is that the legs remain stable on uneven surfaces, such as dirt roads. Although, when removable mid-level spreaders were first introduced, they would often bind, bending or breaking when the legs were folded for transport. This issue has pretty much been resolved, but you still need to take care when folding the tripod legs.
Some legs feature non-removable mid-level spreaders. The big disadvantage of these is that you are unable to spread the legs extremely wide for low-angle shots, which you can do with removable spreaders. Also, some legs that feature a center column will also incorporate a built-in mid-level spreader. This adds to the stability of the legs and the center column, but again, it will limit how wide you can spread the legs, and how low you can go.
Tripod heads and legs can be purchased either separately—great for when you need to upgrade one of them—or they can be bought, matched up, as part of a tripod system. These systems are available with both consumer and professional aluminum and carbon fiber legs. Often, a manufacturer or B&H will build a tripod kit, consisting of a head, legs, a carry bag, and sometimes a tripod rolling dolly, which can be good for moving your tripod around in between shots when on a smooth surface. On the whole, with or without a rolling dolly, kits represent an excellent value and make assembling your tripod system a breeze.