Indoors or outdoors, a sturdy tripod should help you stay steady, even when you’re using the heaviest D-SLR cameras and lenses. Matthew Richards tests the best options at a range of prices
It’s not just about going over to the dark side. Naturally, a tripod is all but essential when there’s very little light, keeping the camera steady when the shutter speed is slow, but that’s just the start of the benefits. Taking time to adjust the camera position very precisely can make a world of difference when it comes to good composition, for example. Tripods are also great for taking self-portraits (see page 47); for time-lapse photography (page 58); and for using neutral density filters to enable long exposures (page 8). Further possibilities include keeping the camera locked in position for a series of exposures that you combine to create an HDR image, or for precision panning for capturing a sequence that will form the basis of a panorama.
In issue 37 we tested travel tripods, which are a bit of a compromise because while they aim to be sturdy, they’re also designed to keep carrying size and weight to a minimum. This time around, we’re focusing on full- sized tripods that are built to give optimum rigidity. Nobody likes to spend more than they need to, so the first eyeopener is that the tripods on test range from just £120/$170 to over £1000/$1500. That said, the least expensive (in the UK) in the group is a Velbon with a maximum load rating of four kilograms. That’s sufficient for a chunky D810 body with a Nikon AF-S 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II telephoto lens attached, but not quite enough for shooting with Nikon’s more massive supertelephotos. The majority of other tripod and head combinations on test have maximum load ratings of eight kilograms or more.
One money-saving option can be to buy a ‘kit’ that includes both legs and head in one package. Indeed, it’s not possible to buy the legs and head separately for some of the cheaper kits on test. As you move up the price range, any savings you get from buying a kit instead of separates can be negligible, even if kits are available. Buying separates also gives you the freedom to mix and match the legs and head, so you get the components you really want. There’s no need to stick with the same manufacturer for both.
The materials used for making tripod leg sections and centre columns are usually aluminium and carbon fibre. The latter is more expensive but tends to save weight without impacting on rigidity or load rating. For example, the Benro A2970F (aluminium) and C2970F (carbon fibre) tripods on test have essentially the same design. When used with the same head, the carbon fibre outfit is 20 per cent lighter in weight, but costs an extra £95 ($195).
Most current tripod designs have legs that can lock at varying angles to the centre column, which is useful for maintaining stability in low-level shooting. Some also feature pivoting centre columns, and the debate continues over whether clip locks or twist locks are the better option. Let’s take a closer look at the contenders.