The tripod is one of the most important accessories for photography and video. Here we talk about the different types of tripods, their most common uses and the criteria for choosing the most suitable tripod for your needs and budget.
What is the tripod for
Basically the tripod serves to keep the camera in a stable position , to avoid shaking, vibrations and unwanted movements.
In photography, camera shake or shake during shooting (the time the shutter stays open) results in a shaky image , a shaky image : blurred or less sharp due to involuntary camera shake.
In many cases, the lack of sharpness in a photo is attributed to the camera (resolution / focus system) or the lenses, when in reality it may be due to camera shake.
Jitter is more likely the slower the shutter speed is.
In photography it is often considered that shooting freehand requires a shutter speed greater than 1 divided by the equivalent focal length used.
For example, to shoot freehand with a 50mm in an APS-C camera (cropping factor 1.5 with respect to full frame) the equivalent focal length would be about 75mm (50mm x 1.5) and the minimum speed to avoid jitter would be 1 / 75 seconds, but it depends a lot on each person and situation.
Image stabilization systems give extra headroom when shooting at slow speeds but cannot guarantee shake-free images in all situations.
For long exposure photographs it is essential that the camera is totally stable, and in these cases the tripod is our best ally.
In the case of video, the shake and involuntary movements of the camera (for example when we record freehand) are even more annoying and very unpleasant in most cases.
Parts of a tripod
Parts of a tripod
- The tripod itself (legs and joints)
- The center column (optional, not all tripods have it)
- The head or ball joint (allows you to anchor the camera to the tripod and perform different movements for the frame, later we will see the most common types of ball joint)
On tripods that allow the head to be interchanged, the head is normally attached using a 3/8 inch (3/8 ″) thread. The chamber is attached to the ball joint by a 1/4 inch (1/4 ″) thread.
In some cases, for example to attach accessories to the ball joint, a 1/4 ″ to 3/8 ″ adapter may be required
The hook at the bottom of the central column is used to add extra weight to the tripod (for example a backpack, a bag with rocks, dirt, etc.) to lower the center of gravity of the set and add more stability.
In general, a greater number of sections on the legs implies less stability of the assembly but on the other hand allows the tripod to be collected in a very small space for transport.
Some models allow the central column to be removed and placed horizontally. Other models allow the column to be positioned at different angles. This option comes in handy for some types of photography: macro, product photography.
Types of tripods
There is no ideal tripod. Each type of tripod and each model seeks a compromise between different characteristics, many of them incompatible with each other:
- That provides the maximum possible stability
- That is usable and facilitates the photographer’s work
- Keep it small and light to transport
- High enough to work comfortably in most situations
- That allows very flexible configurations : variable height, independent leg mobility, spine mobility …
- That it has a good relationship between benefits and price
Types of tripods according to their use / characteristics:
- Lightweight low-end tripods (all in one) These
are usually made of aluminum and plastic. The head and legs form a whole (all in one), they cannot be separated or interchanged with other models or parts.
- Lightweight mid and mid-range travel tripods
They have a more robust construction, with more metal parts or resistant materials. They seek the balance between stability and lightness (weight and size for transport). Depending on the model and / or the range, they can be all-in-one tripods (the head cannot be interchanged) or with an independent body. As we go up in the range, most of them allow to exchange a ball joint.
- Medium load tripods (medium and high medium range)
These are tripods that support heavier equipment, for example to work with large telephoto lenses in nature. They also seek the balance between stability and portability, but giving more emphasis if possible to stability. Almost all tripods in these ranges are sold separately from the head.
tripods They are usually heavy and very robust tripods, to provide the greatest possible stability. They are widely used for example for video recording.
It is an option widely used in sports and nature photography (birds, wild animals, etc.). The monopod supports the weight of the camera, provides much more stability than shooting freehand (it minimizes shake although it does not allow shooting with long exposures) and compared to the tripod it offers the photographer a lot of freedom of movement.
- Pocket tripods
They are very small, just a few inches long. They are perfect to carry everywhere and allow the camera to be placed on the ground (on a rock, on the ground, on a table …) providing stability and preventing the equipment from getting dirty or damaged.
- Flexible tripods (Gorillapod type)
It’s quite a different concept. The legs are flexible or articulated, so that they can ‘grip’ poles, branches, bars … providing stability to the camera and different points of view than a conventional tripod.
Types of ball joints / heads
While the legs (the tripod itself) are primarily responsible for stability, the ball joint is the part that most influences the usability of the tripod.
The ball joint or head must allow us to easily frame with the camera, fix a stable position or make smooth framing movements on video (pan – tilt)
Ball head or ball head
The head is literally a metal ball that has almost complete freedom of movement within its socket. Once we have the exact framing, a pressure shoe is tightened that leaves the ball totally fixed.
It is probably the most suitable for photography in general as it allows you to frame and fix the camera very quickly. They are not usually very heavy or bulky heads, so they are perfect for travel tripods.
There are different variants depending on the ball fixing mechanism: screw , pistol , joystick …
The joystick or pistol ones are faster and very easy to use, but they take up more space than the screw ones.
2D (pan-tilt) and 3D (3-way) head
Basically the 2D heads have two movements:
- Rotation around the vertical axis ( pan / horizontal pan movement / horizontal pan )
- Rotation around the horizontal axis ( vertical tilt / pan / pitch / vertical pan )
3D heads include one more axis of rotation:
- Lateral tilt of the camera relative to the tripod base
In this type of ball joint, each of the rotation axes has its own fixing system, they are normally independent of each other. In this way you can adjust the framing quite precisely, although the operation is slower than with a ball head.
Zipper ball joint (geared head)
It is a variant of the 3D head, with the difference that the rotation of each axis is controlled by wheels or micrometric control levers (with an internal gearbox). That is, each axle is fixed and we can adjust it to the millimeter by turning its corresponding wheel.
In most cases there is a system to unlock the axle and leave it free to easily make the first framing, and once fixed, the micro-adjustment is carried out with the wheel.
They are heads that allow enormous precision, for example for macro photography or certain types of photography with telephoto lenses.
They are usually very robust and are normally designed to support quite heavy equipment.
Video head / head with fluid or hydraulics
They are designed to make very smooth pan movements , without jerks and with constant turning speeds.
They are usually specialized 2D (pan-tilt) heads in which some internal fluid is used to add inertia to the movements of the axes. In most of these heads, the friction can be adjusted to suit the needs of the shot (for example, depending on the weight of the equipment, the type of panorama, user preferences, etc.) and each axis can be locked. separately.
They usually have a fairly large control lever to facilitate very smooth camera movement.
Some video heads are mounted on a hemisphere that allows the head to be leveled without having to adjust the tripod legs. It is a very useful element that makes work much easier. If you buy the video head separately, you should take into account if the hemisphere can be attached to your tripod.
They are heads designed to be used with large telephoto lenses (very heavy equipment), for example for sports photography, photography of birds, nature, etc.
Obviously they are very robust ball joints and will normally be mounted on a tripod that provides a lot of stability to the set.
They usually have two axes of rotation (pan-tilt) that can be set independently.
The telephoto lens is usually anchored to the head so that the whole (camera + lens) is in balance, as if it were a balanced scale.
In this way, camera movements can be very fast and effective, for example in bird photography when following the movement in flight.
Macro photography head / focus rail
More than a head itself, it is usually an accessory that mounts on a standard head.
It is usually made up of one or two rails on which the camera slides with millimeter precision using wheels.
In macro photography, autofocus is rarely used and the focus itself is achieved by moving the camera closer to or away from the scene, so the focus rail makes work much easier.
Panoramic or nodal head (panohead)
It is a head that is used to take panoramic photographs. The idea of this ball joint is that it allows to adjust the position of the camera in such a way that the entrance pupil of the objective (imagine that it is a kind of optical center of the objective) is located just above the vertical rotation axis (point of non-parallax also known as nodal point).
Why is it important to find the point of no parallax?
To take a panoramic photograph, several shots are taken by turning the camera a certain angle in each shot, in such a way that the frames between shots are overlapping. Then in editing programs are used that join all the photos to form a single panoramic image.
If the camera is not rotated around the point of non-parallax (for example, when we make freehand panoramas by rotating the body), parallax and perspective errors occur, which mainly affect the closest objects in the scene.
That is, between shots, nearby objects appear with a different perspective with respect to the background .
When the program tries to join all the shots to form the panorama, nearby objects will appear distorted or with artifacts (strange elements, edges or cuts that the program has generated when trying to merge the shots, which are not part of the real scene)
With the panoramic head, once the camera + lens set has been adjusted, all the objects in the scene will appear correctly aligned in all the shots and the program that generates the panorama will offer an optimal result, without artifacts or deformations.
The point of non-parallax is a characteristic of each lens (although of course we will have to adjust the panoramic head for the camera + lens set)
Panoramic heads are normally mounted on a standard head, that is, they are accessories that can be used with almost any tripod.
The most common is to use a panoramic head with an L-shoe that allows the camera to be positioned both horizontally (landscape shots) and vertically.
Most common uses of the tripod in photography
Long exposure photography
It is imperative that the camera is still and totally stable during shooting so that static parts of the scene appear sharp in the image.
Examples of long exposure photography:
- Silk effect of water (waterfalls, rivers, waves …)
- Night photography in general (Milky Way, night sky, startrails …)
- Light painting (effects with moving lights)
In this type of photography, the lighting of the product and the sharpness of the image are very important.
In most cases the tripod is essential for:
- Maintain a fixed camera position , a static point of view that will serve as a reference to the lighting scheme
- Get a perfect image in terms of sharpness , without any jitter
- Being able to use the base ISO of the camera to minimize noise , increasing exposure times as necessary (for example if we work with natural light or continuous light)
Architecture and interior design photography
Very similar to product photography in the importance of image sharpness.
In indoor photography, for example, you often work without flash or additional lighting and you need a tripod to avoid any type of shake.
Panning is also often required to achieve a larger framing than that provided by the optics or to avoid geometric distortions.
Photography for time lapse
This technique consists of taking pictures of a scene every so often (for example every second or every minute) over a much longer period of time, for example for hours.
Then all the photos being edited are joined to convert them into frames of a video.
The effect is a sequence in which the scene evolves very quickly over time.
There are many techniques and different types of time lapse, but in general you need a tripod or a stable support so that the frame is always the same or changes following some very very smooth movement scheme.
HDR (high dynamic range) techniques
These techniques can be used in many situations: landscape photography, indoors …
As a quick summary: cameras can only capture a certain dynamic range of the scene, below the range captured by the human eye. If the scene has very bright areas and very dark areas, the camera cannot capture detail in that entire brightness range. If we expose to capture detail in the most illuminated areas, the dark areas will appear without detail, black. And on the contrary, if we expose to take detail from the shadows, the illuminated areas will appear burned, without any type of detail.
HDR techniques consist of taking several photos of the same scene, with exactly the same frame, but each one of those photos with a different exposure. This is known as exposure bracketing or bracketing.
Then in editing, using specialized programs or HDR modules, the images with different exposures are joined to generate a final image that has detail in both the lights and the shadows.
It is about obtaining a final image with a viewing angle greater than that provided by the optics we are using.
As we have mentioned above (talking about the panoramic heads) the technique consists of taking several overlapping shots by rotating the camera a certain angle each time until the entire scene is covered.
In general, it is advisable to use a tripod, at least to ensure that the frame remains with respect to the horizon, even if the lighting conditions allow shooting at very high speeds.
Furthermore, to avoid parallax problems, which mainly affect nearby objects in the scene, it is essential to use a tripod with a panoramic head to adjust the non-parallax point of the lens .
Using the tripod in video
In the case of video recording, the tripod is basically an extension of the camera.
One of the characteristics that are part of the cinematographic style and that is associated with the technical quality of a video or a film is the stability of the shots, both in static scenes and in scenes with camera movement.
The human eye uses its own image stabilization system and is used to seeing a stable reality with continuous and smooth transitions, even when we are walking, running or riding in a vehicle.
When we see a scene with sudden camera movements, tremors, shake, etc. generally we find it unpleasant. Only in very rare cases is it purposely sought to create that feeling, for example in scenes with a lot of action, chases … to provoke that feeling of anxiety and lack of control in the viewer.
For video, tripods with ball joints are usually used to facilitate the most natural camera movements, horizontal and vertical pan-tilt, smoothly and continuously, without jerks.
Criteria for choosing a tripod
The ideal would be to choose the tripod based mainly on the use that we are going to give it, that is, a tripod and a head that fit perfectly with our type of photography (or video).
Said like this it seems simple, but in general we will have to find a balance between:
From the physical characteristics and functionalities of the tripod and the head …
- Criteria for choosing the tripod itself
- Criteria for choosing the patella
Criteria depending on the characteristics of the tripod
Range / materials / basic typology
In the case of tripods, there is usually a more or less direct correspondence between quality and price , at least in the quality jump between the low-end and the mid-range. Then the transition from the mid-range to the high-end is more gradual in terms of performance or build quality.
Low-end tripods are usually made of aluminum and plastic. The joints between elements and / or moving parts are usually made of plastic, thereby losing some of the rigidity in the whole. To compensate for this, they usually include reinforcements, like spokes, that join the legs with the central column. This option is not the best for photography because in certain situations we will need the legs to be able to tilt and move independently.
I would recommend a low-end tripod only if it is to be used very sporadically and with light equipment . If you want to use telephoto lenses, they are not a good purchase option because any vibration will be very noticeable.
Mid-range tripods have a sturdier construction, typically aluminum with metal joints. They are usually ‘all in one’ tripods, that is, the usual thing is that the head cannot be interchanged.
Carbon fiber tripods appear from the upper mid-range. Compared to aluminum, carbon fiber provides more rigidity for the same weight and better absorbs small vibrations.
The manufacturer usually indicates the maximum weight supported by the tripod. It is interesting to choose a tripod that supports the weight of our photographic equipment with a considerable margin.
To know this maximum weight we will have to make an estimate with the heaviest camera + lens combination (plus other accessories in case they are supported by the camera or tripod)
The higher the tripod (fully extended), the more flexibility it will give us when working, but it also implies more material (size and weight) or, if it is a light tripod, the higher the height usually implies more instability.
That it reaches the height of the shoulders is usually a good reference, to allow us to work comfortably in most situations.
Keep in mind that in many cases the maximum height is indicated with the central column raised in its entirety (on tripods with a central column) and that raising the column implies raising the center of gravity a lot and increases the instability of the set. The ideal is to work whenever possible with the center of gravity as low as possible and in any case try to avoid extending the central column.
Folded size and weight
They are very important features and have to do with portability. In general, what we want is to be as light and small as possible to facilitate transport (going to the field, going up the mountain, going on a plane trip …)
But it must be taken into account that these positive aspects generally go against the stability of the whole:
- For the tripod to weigh little, it must be manufactured with very light materials or make the structure thinner
- The best ratio between weight and stiffness is offered by carbon fiber (more expensive)
- To make it fold down to a small size you usually have to include more sections on the legs. The more sections, the less overall stability
In the end we will have to find a balance.
In this sense, mid-range travel tripods can be a good balance point for most users.
Aluminum or carbon fiber?
In general, carbon fiber offers more rigidity and less weight. Then it will depend on the build quality of the joints, moving parts, etc.
The decision criterion here is usually the price. Carbon fiber tripods tend to be more expensive compared to a similar model made of aluminum.
If you are going to use it a lot and take it everywhere: I would perhaps bet on a carbon fiber model. In the end, the investment pays off and when you have been carrying the tripod for a long time, every gram is noticeable.
Tripod ‘all in one’ or Tripod + head?
A tripod that allows interchangeable heads offers more flexibility:
- You can choose the most suitable tripod for your needs and the most suitable head for your type of photography, even from different brands
- You can have several tripods, for example one for study and one for travel, with a single head
- You can have several heads to use with the same tripod
- When it comes to improving the equipment you can invest for example in a new head separately or a new tripod separately
- The same happens if any of the parts is damaged … You can replace it independently. In addition, in these ranges there are usually spare parts for almost all the components of both the tripod and the head
The main ‘downside’ of this option is the price. In general, these types of tripods are in the high and medium-high range. They offer a very high quality but so is their price.
All-in-one tripods are typically in the mid-range and low-range.
If you use heavy equipment or do a specialized type of photography (that requires specific heads) it will surely be worth investing in a high-mid-range tripod.
For an amateur user who is going to do a bit of everything but is not going to use the tripod intensively, perhaps a mid-range ‘all-in-one’ tripod with a generic head (ball or 3-way) will work perfectly.
Leg section locking system, thread or flange?
The thread is normally more robust (tends to last longer if there is heavy use) but it is not as fast as the flange: to extend each leg you have to loosen the thread of each section and then tighten it.
With the tabs, you only have to make one movement to release and another to lock each section. With intensive use, and depending on the quality of the tripod, materials, etc. some tabs may fail.
Here the criterion of choice depends on the preferences of each one. For normal use the two systems are generally reliable and durable.
Hook, skewers and other details
Tripods that have a central column usually include a hook at the bottom of the column, which is used to place additional weight (the backpack, a dirt bag, etc.) and thus achieve more stability when there is a lot of wind for example.
If you are going to do nature photography, it can be an interesting element when choosing a model.
Another element that we can look at is the feet of the tripod (the end that rests on the ground). The simplest models usually have rubber or plastic feet.
Other models have a small metal spike with a thread on each leg, covered with a rubber foot that is threaded. As we screw the rubber foot, the skewer appears. This is good for setting up the tripod outdoors, for example on the ground, on the grass … for more stability. Indoors, you simply have to lower the rubber foot (unscrewing) to hide the metal skewer, so we have more grip on hard surfaces and avoid scratching the floor.
It may also be interesting that the tripod or the head include bubble levels, to facilitate the task of leveling the tripod and the camera with respect to the horizon, the vertical, etc.