If I want to sum up the most important consideration when purchasing a tripod, using only two words, it comes out like this:
Really. No matter how good your tripod is, if the attachment between camera and tripod is not reliable, the camera will sooner or later come loose – at the most inappropriate moment.
The Arca-Swiss system is sturdy, reliable and quick, and makes sure that when you put your camera on that tripod, it stays there.
It’s way too common to put a $1500 camera on a $50 tripod – that thing being all that keeps your camera from falling to the ground. Let’s not forget that $1000 lens mounted to that camera. It’s no great fan of gravity either.
A lot of these cheap and cheerful tripods have this in common:
- They are in fact video tripods – that’s why they have a panning arm, which frankly is of little use to a photographer.
- They have an alarming amount of plastic used in key areas.
- The tripod is so flimsy that the legs have to be connected to the center column, making it useless on anything but level ground.
- The head of the tripod is plastic, can’t be replaced, and clamps down another piece of plastic attached to the tripod mount of the camera.
- The aforementioned plastic attached to the camera will often start to twist itself loose, especially if the camera is tilted to the side for a portrait shot.
- It is difficult to adjust the positioning of the camera correctly, because everything just sags. All those plastic parts make up for an exceptional amount of play, making it a borderline nightmare to quickly compose the shot.
Don’t buy a big, bad tripod. Buy a small, good one.
There is no use for a tripod that you never take with you because it’s just too big and cumbersome.
Buy a compact tripod that still is big enough to raise the camera to eye level when fully extended. These tripods will often fold down to a length comparable to the height of a mid-size backpack, and therefore lends itself well to being attached to such a backpack.
A good reference point would be a compact tripod from Benro, which may appear to be just another cheap chinese knock-off of more expensive brands, but in reality offer reasonable quality for reasonable prices. A tripod like the Benro Travel Angel II, is a reasonable compromise between sturdiness and portability. The legs are independent, there is a center column which allows for quick height adjustment, it comes with an Arca-Swiss style ball head, and an Arca-Swiss style metal plate to attach to the camera.
Take a look around – there are countless manufacturers of quality tripods, like Benro, Gitzo, Manfrotto, etc.
The next step towards pure bliss is to replace the simple metal plate screwed into the camera, with an L-plate. Specialists like Really Right Stuff have L plates matching most cameras, and by using such a camera specific plate, you get something that’s 100% form fitting and never falls off.
Using an L-plate, switching between landscape and portrait shooting is just a matter of releasing the camera, turning it 90 degrees and fastening it again. Hassle-free without any risk of the camera twisting off the head and falling to the ground. The camera stays in more or less the same position above the tripod.
A bigger tripod is useful for big, heavy lenses, but such a small-to-medium sized tripod will work well up to e.g. a 200 mm lens. If it’s windy, hang something heavy from the hook attached to the center column – like a backpack. Weighed down, the small tripod will rival a bigger one in sturdiness.
And don’t forget to always use the tripod mount of a lens whenever it has one – mounting a lens big enough to have it’s own tripod collar means that it’s the foot of the lens and not the camera that needs to be mounted to the tripod. In such cases the camera acts as a counter-balance for the bigger lens, and mounting the camera itself to the tripod gives a very unstable system susceptible to very unsharp images. Manufacturers like Really Right Stuff have Arca-Swiss plates for various lenses, and you may even replace the entire foot of some lenses with a new all-in-one Arca-Swiss type.
To top it off – there is an endless amount of equipment that can be bolted onto other Arca-Swiss equipment. When using an L-plate, you will always have one “free” side, onto which you can attach a bracket for flashes, etc.