Should you own a tripod?

by Nick Kelsh

posted Thursday, March 19, 2015 at 9:40 AM EDT

Love them or hate them, you probably need one. The quest for the perfect tripod can last a lifetime.

Tripods are a pain and you should own one…maybe.

And if the answer is yes, the problem is which one. They come in a myriad of flavors—there are big ones, small ones, light ones, heavy ones—and they all do the same thing in a slightly different way; they hold a camera perfectly still. Maybe that’s why I own eleven.

Very simply, a tripod holds a camera more still than you ever could. And in the end, despite the inconvenience of buying and shlepping another piece of gear, that’s why photographers love their tripods. I love three of my eleven tripods. The other eight have their moments, but they don’t get out much.

This I know with all my heart, it’s a mistake to buy a cheap, flimsy one; it will only frustrate you. Tripods that frustrate people don’t get used much. They give tripods a bad reputation.

This I also know. Any tripod that’s difficult to set up and take down, regardless of how much it costs or how solidly it holds a camera, is flawed. If you buy a tripod, make sure you are comfortable with what it takes to set it up. And unfortunately, the only way to find out if a tripod is really the one for you is to use it over a period of time.

What looked great on the camera website or in the photo store will begin to show it’s annoying little details only after days of use. That probably explains why just about every serious photographer I know is on the an eternal quest to find the right tripod.

But that’s not what amateurs want to hear. The main tripod question for amateurs is whether they should even own one.

How do you know? Here are a few thoughts:

  • If one of your goals is to occasionally shoot a high-quality photograph it a low-light situation your should probably own a tripod. If you’re getting serious about taking pictures, it just might be time.
  • If you would gain a lot of pleasure from doing family portraits of your family with you in the picture using your self-timer then you should get one. There is no substitute for a tripod under these circumstances.
  • If you’ve ever thought about doing a lot of close-up work you’re going to wish you had one. It’s tough to photograph exreme close-ups of flowers without one. Or if you’re planning to do some copy work—like taking pictures of old family snapshots—you’re going to be happy you have one. It’s really the only way to do it right.
  • If you’re the kind of person that would only buy an inexpensive tripod, don’t bother. Save your money. Bad tripods are torture devices and you’ll probably end up blaming me.
  • If you can’t picture yourself carrying a tripod anyplace don’t get one. Tripods need to be carried. It’s a love / hate relationship for even the most ardent tripod user.

You can buy the legs and the head as separate components and that’s another discussion. The basic question is whether or not you should even buy one.

Here’s a very broad brush conclusion. If you’re an amateur and you’ve never owned a tripod you should probably get a tripod that’s the complete package—head and legs—and you probably need to spend around $175.

My little Gorillapod can attach itself to some unlikely solid objects that can keep your camera still enough to use a long shutter speed.

Also, a tripod is the perfect piece of used equipment. It’s going to get dinged and banged around anyway, so who cares what it looks so just so it does its job. Craig’s List or eBay might be a great way to go. There are probably tons of neglected tripods out there looking for a good home. Some of them live at my house.

And if you make me go way out on a limb, I guess this tripod by Manfrotto would be in the ballpark of what I consider an amateur level starter tripod. Not too heavy, but heavy enough. Easy to use so it won’t scare you away. It’s around $175.

And here’s the Gorillapod. It weighs almost nothing, it’s super-easy to travel with, and can hold a single-lens-reflex camera. It’s $35. This may be all the tripod you will ever need, or use.

(An exceptional educator and a world-class photographer, Nick Kelsh is the founder of How To Photograph Your Life, an excellent source of affordable photography training and tips. Nick’s courses can be conducted by yourself in your own time, or with feedback from Nick and your fellow students. If you appreciated this article and want to improve your photography, visit How to Photograph your Life and sign up for a course today!)

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