It was a cold winter afternoon. There I was, standing at the edge of a 200 foot pier on Lake Tahoe. The wind was killer at the lake. I’m guessing 30+ miles an hour. 200 feet into the lake, on the edge of the pier it was probably 40+ miles an hour. It was miserable and I didn’t know what I was doing.I managed to get down onto an area where boaters/kayakers and jet skiers get onto their aquatic vessel of choice. This vantage point meant I was closer to the water and that no railings would obstruct my views.
All I remember from that day was how frustrating it was to use my cheap crappy tripod. The aluminum was cold. The feet were impossible to level, and the whole thing felt like it was going to fly into the lake. I was squatting throughout because I was afraid to extend the legs, figuring the whole system would topple into the lake or onto the icy pier. I don’t even think I got any scenic photos form this particular visit. I packed my gear and got the hell out.
Using Cheap Tripod for Telephoto Lenses
When people say that you can put a telephoto lens onto a cheap tripod; say a 300mm f/4L onto and AmazonBasics tripod, what they really are saying is: Under perfect conditions, the tripod will hold a heavy lens. What they are not saying is:
- The tripod setup will be hassle free
- The tripod will be very stable
- You will get good vibration dampening
- The tripod is versatile
Can I mount a telephoto lens on my crappy old Velbon? Yes. It will easily hold a telephoto lens. Its not like mounting 5 or 6lbs on a tripod makes it explode. Most tripods will hold gear weighing 5, even 10 lbs. Does this mean you should mount heavy gear on cheap tripods? Not really. Chances are it won’t be stable, won’t dampen the vibrations well, and be a pain in the ass to use.
Tripod Height: Why 60 Inches is Not Enough
Usually cheap tripods don’t extend very high. If you are a six foot human, your eyes are probably around 64 inches off the ground. This means that you likely need a 56 inch tripod. The problem with cheap 50-60 inch tripods is that to get the tripod head 60 inches high you need to extend the center column all the way up. Extending the center column introduces lots of vibration and instability. Not only that, but extending the feet all the way out on a cheap tripod generally sucks because the feet are very flimsy.
So to optimally get the tripod to eye level you need solid feet and must avoid extending the center column. I wouldn’t bother looking at cheap 60 inch tripods, and even the 70 inch tripods wouldn’t cut it (remember, the bottom leg section of a cheap tripod will be very flimsy). In other words, I wouldn’t buy any cheap tripods if I needed a stable setup for my personal eye level.
Forget About Fancy Features: Focus on Build Quality and Design
The main function of a tripod is stability. Thicker aluminum tubes result in more stability. Lack of plastic parts results in fewer breakable parts. Adjustable screws allow for customizing the tightness of your legs and levers to suit your needs. This is what really matters in a tripod. Whether or not a tripod has weight hooks (you can usually add your own), a storage bag, or foam grips is not as important as stability and build quality.
A Good Tripod Head
Part of the reason cheap tripods suck is that they come with crappy tripod heads. The more expensive tripods usually don’t come with tripod heads because the manufacturer expects you to add a custom tripod head that fits your needs.
Manfrotto 055xProB ($150) vs Dolica Proline ($60) vs Velbon ($???) vs Ambico ($???)
You literally get what you pay for. I’d say each tripod has the same bang for your buck. The Manfrotto is big, heavy, almost entirely aluminum (has a few pieces of plastic), and well built. The Dolica is light, has flimsy lower leg sections, is mostly aluminum, and makes a great light travel tripod (for light gear). The Velbon is old and also mostly aluminum. It is made in America, and that counts for nothing. It is clunky, old, fragile, and not stable. The Ambico is also a piece of crap. I either got it for free, or paid less than $1 for it.
Who Should Buy a Cheap Tripod
Cheap tripods have their place. Basically you should buy one if you feel like you will not use a tripod often. What’s the point of shelling out money for gear you seldomly use? If you need a tripod in an easy going environment (like a family portrait) a cheap tripod is fine. If you don’t have heavy/expensive gear a cheap tripod is fine. If you are a patient person who is gentle and won’t get frustrated by the quirks of a cheap tripod then by all means get one. And if you need a second tripod, for a second camera body, or flash, or ??? a cheap tripod may fit the bill.
Who Should Not Buy a Cheap Tripod
If you have expensive gear, you may want the security of a better designed tripod. If you are out in the elements, and need something that is well built and can handle stress, avoid buying a cheap tripod. If you shoot at the telephoto end, don’t buy a cheap tripod. If you are tall, don’t buy a cheap tripod. If you care how you look, get an expensive tripod. If you want to focus 100% on your photography and video and not worry about the shortfalls of your tripod, spend the money on a better system. If you can afford $150 on a tripod, get a $150 tripod. If you don’t mind spending a bit and having gear that will most likely last a decade+ don’t buy a cheap tripod.