Tripods are like lenses, if you buy a good one you will keep it for a long time. I don’t recommend getting cheap tripods for video. If you shoot video and stills then I highly recommend a good tripod. For stills, having a stable tripod is extremely important. Having a sharp image for still photography is more important than it is for video. If your take a picture of something and the image is blurry because your tripod shakes, then you are going to focus on the poor quality of the image rather than the subject matter. The same cannot be said for video because it is usually shot at 24 frames per second with a 1/48 shutter speed resulting in a fairly blurry image. You can shoot video and it can be really grungy, and people will still watch it (if the story is interesting). And if your video is shaky you can usually fix it in post. If you are just using a DSLR with a few lenses and you are not mounting anything too heavy, you can get by with a fairly cheap tripod for video. But I don’t recommend this. Anyway, keep in mind that it is really hard for one person to write an in depth article about all the tripod models because individuals usually only have experience with a few tripods. So I hope this guide doesn’t come off too vague.
Here is my case for why you should opt for something a bit more robust than a cheap tripod:
When you buy a really cheap tripod, you are skimping out on engineering, quality materials, and quality control. The engineering is pretty darn important because if it cuts down on the frustration that goes hand and had with tripods. Lets be honest, tripods can be a nuisance to work with. If you have ever worked with a cheap tripod it can be the most frustrating thing ever because it is most likely poorly engineered. Instead of focusing on the shot, you are usually preoccupied with trying to get the tripod to function adequately.
It obviously goes without saying that cheaper tripods use cheaper materials. Cheap tripods are flimsy, have lots of parts that don’t feel rugged, and have a looming aura of failure. Basically they are the polar opposite of rugged. If you buy a cheap tripod, be prepared to deal with replacements parts. Also make sure to coddle the tripod with extreme care because it will not be able to withstand everyday stress for very long.
Cheap tripod are usually less stable than expensive tripods. Now, when I say “cheap tripods” I am not talking about old Bogen tripods that are cheap on Ebay because they are old, used, aluminum and heavy. I am talking about new tripods you may find on Amazon that sell for cheap prices and have decent reviews because people who have never owned a real tripod write glowing reviews about them. These cheap tripods really suck when you extend the legs and the center column. So if you end up buying one of these, it will be fairly flimsy and you will want to weigh down the legs and center column with sandbags or some sort of weights.
Tripod Dampening Time
A loosely assembled tripod is going to have longer dampening times. Furthermore if the material is flimsy it’s going to vibrate more. Dampening time is a big deal when you shoot stills at long focal lengths. For video it is not a big deal if you shoot at normal focal lengths, but if you shoot at over 100mm on a crop sensor, dampening time will come into play. Carbon fiber tripods have much lower dampening times than aluminum tripods. If you don’t believe me check out this excellent review of the popular Manfrotto 055cxprob, just scroll down to the bottom third of the page and read the Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 Vibration results. If you are too lazy to read, just watch this video instead.
Load capacity on cheap tripods usually maxes out at 15 lbs. Most have a load capacity of 7-10lbs. Generally, the load capacity doesn’t mean much because there is no industry standard by which manufacturers abide. If I was debating between two tripods, one rated for 24lbs and the other for 30 lbs, other variables would more important to me in the decision making process. Usually, you can overload your tripod. But I don’t recommend that. Which tripod would I expect to handle weigh better, a tripod rated for 42lbs or a tripod rated for 7 lbs? Well, that is a pretty obvious answer.
Lightweight tripods cost more. Lightweight tripods are not necessarily better. Buying a tripod that is light in weight is a luxury, and not necessary. However, when you buy a lightweight tripod (by the way, you can interchange the word lightweight with carbon fiber) you actually get better dampening times because of the carbon fiber material. So in my opinion it is worth going light weight because you lighten the weight of camera setup, plus you get better dampening times because your lightweight tripod is made out of carbon fiber.
If your tripod is lightweight but it is not made out of carbon fiber then that means you have a lightweight aluminum tripod. Lightweight aluminum tripods are usually cheap and not suitable for semi serious work.
Extra Tripod Features
When you get a quality tripod, you often get improved features:
- Illuminated leveling bubble
- Twist locks (some people prefer flip locks)
- Top plate locking
- Weight hook
- Ratcheting legs
- Offset leg joints
- Anti rotating legs
- Bowl mount
- Foot spikes
- Ball feet
- Improved aluminum and carbon fiber (at least that’s what they claim)
All that stuff listed above is designed to improve performance and make your experience more enjoyable. Bowl mount support is particularly useful for video, and I will talk about that later. If you get a decent tripod right off the bat, you will save yourself a lot of headaches and be more motivated to go out into the field with your tripod. If your tripod sucks, you will be less motivated to use it and you will most likely end up buying a good tripod down the road anyway.
Really Right Stuff
The best sub $1,000 tripods are made by Really Right Stuff (RRS). The engineers at RRS basically looked at the Gitzo design and figured out how to improve every aspect of the Gitzo. If you buy a Really Right Stuff Tripod, you are buying and amazing piece of gear that will last you a lifetime. Really Right Stuff tripods are completely built in America, and carry a five year warranty. RRS tripods are lighter than gitzo and are rated for more weight. They have a more compact design, better engineered carbon fiber legs, and come with a locking plate that better secures your tripod head. RRS tripods are not mass produced, so if you want to buy one you often have to wait since they are back ordered.
All of the Versa 3 series RRS tripods can be adapted with leveling bases. If you plan on using video equipment with a fluid head, a leveling base or bowl adapter is very important. The reason you want a leveling base is because leveling a fluid head is not as easy as leveling your typical ball head or 3 way pan/tilt head. A leveling base will allow you to attach flat base fluid heads to your tripod. A bowl adapter will allow you to attach bowl versions of fluid heads to your tripod. Most fluid heads only move up/down (tilt) and left/right (pan), which means leveling becomes problematic because you would need to be constantly adjusting your tripod legs. A bowl mount allows you to circumvent this problem because you are able to adjust your fluid head in any position without having to fiddle with the tripod legs. You can buy many fluid heads in bowl mount format, so you would not need an extra leveling base, you would just place the head into the bowl (often requiring an adapter). A leveling base would be needed if you want to attach a non bowl mount fluid head to a tripod bowl. Well, technically you can attach your fluid head to a typical flat plate that comes with your tripod, but that would make leveling much more cumbersome. I know I have explained this poorly, but later on in this guide you will see a video of a fluid head with a bowl mount being operated.
All RRS Vers 3 series tripods use a 75mm bowl which is a commonly used bowl size for many of the smaller fluid heads. For instance, the bowl version of Manfrotto’s 502HD fluid head is designed for 75mm bowls. All you have to do is buy a Really Right Stuff Versa Video Bowl adapter and you are ready to go.
If you are looking to spend $800-$1100 on a tripod, I would suggest getting a RRS, specifically a 3 series carbon fiber model. Checkout this page to see why RRS beats out the competitors: http://reallyrightstuff.com/WebsiteInfo.aspx?fc=68
Gitzo 3 series, 4 series, and 5 series Systematic series models can be used with video bowl mounts via an adapter. So I would recommend getting a 3 series as a minimum. Keep in mind that the adapter is going to add an extra $100 to your cost (alternatively you can get a cheaper RRS adapter that works for Gitzo tripods as well as RRS tripods). And if you have heavy photo or video gear that you want to use without a bowl, you will most likely want to buy a safety plate so that your gear stays secure. One weakness of Gitzo tripods is that the top plate is not as secure as the RRS plate, which is why many people opt to buy a safety plate. It’s not a big deal if your camera gear is very light, but if you are using video gear chances are you will want a safety plate so that your head does not come loose. Other than the plate issue, you can’t really go wrong with Gitzo. They make a great line of tripods and they are manufactured in Italy. Yes, you heard me right; made in Italy, not China. If you are willing to drop $600+ on a tripod, I don’t see why you wouldn’t go with a RRS or Gitzo. Used RRS tripods go for as low as $700 on Ebay, which is around the same ballpark that new Systematic 3 series Gitzos cost. Gitzo comes with a base + 5 year warranty extension. Many people go with Gitzo over RRS because of brand loyalty. Gitzo has been making excellent tripods for a very long time, while RRS is a bit more of a new kid on the block when it comes to carbon fiber tripods.
Even though Manfrotto is manufactured by the same company as Gitzo, the quality in product is completely different. Many people buy Manfrotto tripods because it is the standard for entry level photographers or videographers. Manfrotto tripods are better than average. They are mostly made in Italy, but some of the lower budget stuff is manufactured in Italy and China. So if you buy something made by Manfrotto that is very cheap, don’t expect Gitzo quality. Manfrotto makes some excellent carbon fiber tripods with bowl mounts for their video series tripods. The video tripods are a bit heavy by carbon fiber standards, but they are rated for a lot of weight and they extend very high. Most Manfrotto products are covered 2-5 years, but in some cases the 2 years warranty is extended to 10 years with registration.
Benro and Induro or basically the same thing, so I will just refer to these legs as Benro. Benro is the poor man’s Gitzo. They are very popular because they are well engineered and cheaply priced. These tripods are engineered in America, but are manufactured in China. Benro makes bowl mount carbon fiber tripods called the Combination series which is equivalent to the Gitzo Systematic series. If you can’t afford Gitzo or RRS, I would suggest going with Benro, Manfrotto or Fesiol. Only one word of caution; avoid buying any Benro tripod heads. Unlike the Benro tripod legs, the heads are complete garbage. If you buy a Benro, hope you get a good one because the US warranty is only 1 year. The good thing about Benro is that their customer service is very helpful. Also a very trusted ebay seller (dc-photo-stuff) provides a 5 year warranty when you purchase through them. If you buy the Induro brand name, you can get a warranty from Induro/Benro for up to 10 years.
This brand is similar to Benro: a poor man’s Gitzo. Lots of people choose Benro over Feisol and lots of people choose Feisol over Benro. Fesiol has very good customer service, something that cannot be said about Manfrotto and Gitzo (their customer service is inconsistent). An advantage Feisol has over Benro is that it is easier to attach fluid heads to the tripod. Feisol has more options than Benro when it comes to bowl mounts and leveling bases. Feisol ships with a 3 year warranty.
These brands that I have listed above are standard tripod choices for professional and amateur photography. They are not the industry standard for professional video. If you want more professional legs, then look at brands like O’Conner, Vinten, Cartoni and Miller. These manufacturers are overkill if all you are mounting is a small DSLR rig.
There are other brands that are similar to Benro and Feisol that I have omitted from this guide. I guess I had to draw the line somewhere. If you are curious to see what’s out there, just do a search on Adorama or B & H.
Conclusion about manufacturers:
There are a bunch of professional tripods that are very heavy and provide excellent stability for video equipment. I don’t think these tripods are very practical for amateur filmmakers. Of the manufacturers I discussed, Really Right Stuff is far and away the best. The next best option is Gitzo. If you get the right legs from either of the manufacturers, you will be a very happy person. After Gitzo there is a slight drop off in quality and you are left with Manfrotto, followed by Feisol, and Benro. You still get a decent tripod from those brands but they are not as polished and they may not hold up for as many years.
Your tripod of choice needs to reflect your needs. First, figure out how much weight you will be putting on the legs. Here is an example:
- Canon 7D (820g)
- Canon 50mm 1.4 (290g)
- BG-E7 Battery Grip (340g)
- (2) LP-E6 Battery Weight (~180g)
- Anamorphic Lens (~500g)
- Miscellaneous (350g)
- Fluid head (1,600g)
- Zoom H4N (280g)
This comes out to about 10lbs. Now using an old rule of thumb that I have picked up from the astronomers from my favorite astronomy forum, I take that 10lb value and multiply it by 2. Astronomers are very hesitant in accepting the manufacturer specs when it comes to using astronomy equipment on tripods design for photography, so I figure it’s not a bad idea to extend that rule towards video equipment. Maybe I am paranoid, but I think it’s better to under mount a tripod than to over-mount a tripod. Plus you future proof yourself in case you decide to get heavier gear.
So now, I am looking at a tripod that support a minimum weight of 20lbs. But, I figure I should get something a bit more sturdy because I plan to get a follow focus system and a 5 inch LCD monitor. So maybe I need a tripod that supports 30lbs.
My next decision is carbon fiber vs non carbon fiber. That’s easy, I want carbon fiber.
Four section versus three sections:
If you travel a lot, you might want 4 sections so that the tripod folds down more compact. Furthermore, if you are very tall a 4 section tripod will likely extend higher than a three section tripod. On most tripods extending legs means less stability. So if you extend all four sections the tripod should, in theory, be less stable than if it had only 3 sections extended. Personally, I prefer the three section design over 4 sections.; less knobs to twist, shorter dampening times and added stability. I should note that Really Right Stuff claims that their tripods don’t exhibit performance loss when all the leg sections are extended.
Avoid center columns, they introduce a bunch of vibration when extended. If you need extra height, get some longer tripod legs. Using a cheap tripod without the center column will usually result in better image quality than a decent tripod with the center column extended. So personally, I don’t require a center column. But if you want a center column for the added height or ease of use, go for it. Read this excellent series of tests to learn about the hazards of using center columns.
How important is it for you to be able to take your tripod apart so that you can clean it or lubricate it? If you are always in a controlled environment then your tripod won’t need much cleaning. But if you are outdoors amidst rocks, dust, dirt, sand and saltwater, you will most likely want to clean your tripod. All modern day Gitzo and RRS tripods can be disassembled easily. Most Benros and Feisols can be disassembled as well. In general, carbon fiber is a higher maintenance material than aluminum, so if you have carbon fiber legs try to get a design that is easy to disassemble. The best way to learn about the disassembly and maintenance procedures for specific tripods is to google the tripod model with a key word added like “disassemble” or “maintenance”. I take my gear to the beach and snow a lot. The snow does not pose many problems but the beach does. I don’t know how it happens but sometimes sand gets into the legs. So for me, easy leg disassembly is a nice bonus. If you go into dusty areas the dust will get into your tripod as well, often getting deposited in areas with grease.
Flip lock vs twist locks:
For years we have asked the question and for years our questions have not been answered. Go try out some tripods and see which system you like more. Either way you will get used to whatever system your tripod uses. Both have pros and cons. Twist locks are easier to operate in the cold, flip locks get caught on random stuff more often. Some people claim that they are more confident that their system is secure when they use flip locks. It’s honestly all preference. Twist locks look more professional, so if you care about what others think of you get twist locks… and a sports car. If it was up to me, I would use screw locks. Screw locks need to be twisted like a screw into a thread to apply pressure and keep your legs locked. This system is not very popular today, so you will not find modern carbon fiber tripods with screw locks. Personally, I prefer twist locks over flip locks. I don’t know why, I just do.
I have discussed the importance of having a bowl system. It is not a deal breaker by any means, but it does make leveling a fluid head easier. If you don’t understand the difference between flat base heads and bowl heads, check out this video of a bowl head being demonstrated. If you have never used a 3 way pan head before (which does allow you to level without adjusting the legs), then let me tell you: those things are a pain in the butt because getting a shot perfectly level requires a lot of knob turning and adjusting. There is a reason why pro photographers love ball heads; you can frame your shot quickly and efficiently. Using a fluid head without a bowl base will be even more tedious than using a 3 way pan head. So for me, is bowl mount all the way.
Anti rotating legs:
This is truly a luxury feature. All it does is allow you to extend your legs out faster and easier.
Leg angle stops:
I would like to be able to spread the legs in a wide range of angles. I don’t need anything crazy like 88° (the tripod will basically be laying flat against the ground), but something with a range of 30° to 75° would be nice. Most default angles start at around 24° to 28°. Old tripods often had just one setting (around 25°). Make sure to read up on the specs to make sure the leg angles meet your needs.
Number of legs:
I want single legs. Many of the heftier video tripods feature a double leg design. It makes the tripod heavier, but not always more stable.
Based on my own preferences, it seems I have expensive taste. I want a carbon fiber tripod that can handle a minimum of 30 lbs. I want three leg sections that use twist locks, and I want the legs to be fairly long so that there is no need for a center column. I also want to have a design that is easy to disassemble and maintain. Finally I want the tripod to have a 75mm or 100mm bowl so that it can take most fluid heads. But that’s just me. My needs are most likely way different than yours. Maybe you shoot with a GH3, don’t need a monitor, don’t use anamorphics, and just want a small grab and go solution. Whatever. If you want an aluminum tripod that is rated for 15 lbs, that is fine as long as it is not cheap and crappy. Heck, maybe you just need a monopod. I don’t subscribe to the belief of always getting the best. I do, however believe that you should avoid getting very cheap stuff. Usually you are better off saving up and getting something that isn’t bottom of the barrel.
The minimum tripods I recommend are:
- Slik Pro 700DX
- Manfrotto 055X Series
These two tripods are somewhat heavy, especially the Slik Pro 700DX. Both are aluminum and sturdy. Snobby pro shooters would consider them to be “cheap”, but in my opinion they are solid and a good value for the price. They are excellent choices if you do not need a grab and go setup. The Manfrotto comes in a bunch of flavors, the most popular one is the Manfrotto 055XProB. I don’t recommend getting a 055XProB because it comes with a fancy center column that is pretty useless for most photographers as well as videographers. Basically you pay extra for a center column that can be used horizontally. Stick with a Manfrotto 055XB or 055XDB, you will get a more stable setup and you will save a little bit of money. Neither comes with bowl leveling options. Both are tall and use flip locks.
I would not recommend getting the carbon fiber version of the 055xproB. It costs around $350 and has an awful load to weight ratio (in other words it’s very heavy for the amount of weight it supports). You are better off spending an extra $120, and buying a quality carbon fiber tripod such as the Gitzo GT2531 Mountaineer. The 2 in GT2531 signifies that it is a 2 series tripod. The higher you go, the stronger the tripod. If you get a 0 series or 1 series Gitzo, you may find out that it is way too flimsy to support your video gear.
- Gitzo GT-2531
- Gitzo GT4330LS
- Benro C4770T
- Manfrotto 535
- Manfrotto 536
There are too many tripods that fall into this range so I decided to list only a few. The Manfrotto tripods are very tall and handle a ton of weight. The legs on the Manfrottos do not spread out as wide as on most photographic tripods (the Manfrotto 535 and 536 are considered to be video series tripods). The important thing for you to conduct further research on particular models that interest you. Keep in mind, not having bowl head support (like with the GT-2531) is not the end of the world. You will need to level the tripod using the legs, which is not a big deal if you have a high quality tripod. Personally I rather have a nice tripod with no bowl mount than a crappy tripod with a bowl mount.
- Gitzo Systematic 3 Series
- Gitzo Systematic 4 Series
- Gitzo Systematic 5 Series
- Really Right Stuff Versa 3 Series
Doesn’t matter what you get off this list. They are all well engineered, have quality materials, take bowl heads and are rated to handle plenty of weight.
Everyone has different needs, so it is really hard to give universal advice. I hope you better understand the variables that determine a tripod’s performance. It is up to you to figure out what it is that you exactly need.