Tripods and tripod heads are two of those things that many photographers don't give too much of a second thought. They exist, purely to support the "important" part of the kit - the camera. Photographers will spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on the highest-end camera they can find, only to put it atop an unstable $100 tripod and head setup. Now, this multi-thousand dollar camera they so dearly flaunt to all their friends produces muddy, blurry images. While these now-frustrated-photographers may blame it on a poorly designed image stabilization features in their multi-thousand dollar camera, a poorly designed, cheaply made tripod and head setup is most likely at fault.
Is this you? Well you're not alone. There are thousands of photographers I see just like you. If you know me personally or follow me closely on social media, you will know I am a sucker for fantastic gear. I'm the first to admit it - I have gear acquisition syndrome (from here on known as GAS). I have been this way my entire life, about every endeavor I have attempted to devote my life to - way back to my elementary Pokemon days. Some look down upon GAS I may have, and say I should take care of it, but if it has taught me one thing in life, it's that you get what you pay for.
Buy once - buy right.
Take this following narrative for example:
You are enthused about the idea of buying a camera and taking fantastic photographs - great! You run to your nearest mega-mart and plop yourself down into the electronics department where a dozen shiny cameras are glistening in the bright fluorescent lights. An overly-enthusiastic sales clerk greets you and sells you on the latest consumer DSLR body and kit lens - not the most inexpensive model, but one step above it. It's on sale! He offers you a starter kit, which includes a small shoulder bag, a few slow-speed SD cards, and an aluminum tripod. You take this excellent deal and carry your happy-new-photographer-self home.
As you begin experimenting with your new camera, you fall in love with photography. You buy another lens - this time it's a zoom long lens to accompany your zoom kit lens. You still haven't touched your tripod. You are attempting to master every aspect of photography, from food, portrait to puppy photography. Then you decide to go on an early morning hike with a few of your friends and bring your camera along. That morning you all witness the most magical sunrise of your life. You would love to photograph it, but remember someone telling you that if you increase your ISO too much, you'll start to see grainy images, but everything you've learned about photography so far tells you that you need to slow down your shutter speed in this low light - that's when you remember your tripod! You screw it into the bottom of your camera, extend the legs (one of them falls out while you're extending it, but you quickly reassemble it), find the perfect composition, and start clicking away with exposures as long as 2 seconds. You really feel like you're getting the hang of this whole photography thing, and are especially now interested in landscape photography.
When you get home, you upload all of your 1000 masterpieces you just created and not a single one of them is sharp. In fact, as the sunrise progressed, your composition even changed. As you click through image after image, it's almost watching a time lapse, but the horizon slowly begins to drift to the right. Frustrated, you blame it on yourself and press on. You continue working with this rickety excuse of a tripod that could barely support a floor lamp until one day it just magically falls apart. You wander onto the depths of the internet to your favorite online camera supplier and find a list of $100 tripods that even include a head and purchase the best seller in this price range.
When it arrives a few days later, you analyze it and determine it to be 100 times sturdier than your previous tripod. You put the tripod through its paces and find that it's keeping images much more stable than your last tripod. Both the head and the tripod seem to simultaneously break about 6 months later, so you buy another set. When that one breaks about 6 months into its life again, you determine it's time to upgrade and get a slightly better tripod. Your head is still fine, so you spend $250 on a tripod now. You feel like you've gotten the creme de la creme of tripods now. A few local people start to hire you and purchase a few of your small canvas prints of the local landscape and you begin to take photography seriously as a career.
Your family decides they want to go on a spring break road trip to the southwest and from all the images you've idolized taken at the Grand Canyon, you are ecstatic. You decide you want to learn from a "real" landscape photographer, so you find a local pro and book a workshop with him. What you didn't realize about the Grand Canyon in March was that it sits at 7000 feet elevation and gets snow - a lot of snow. You barley make it into the park and this perfect stranger greets you and gives you the rundown for the 5 am wakeup call. The next morning is beyond frigid - the snow storm had cleared and the temperatures were around 0 degrees Fahrenheit with a high relative humidity....and windy as you couldn't believe. You came prepared with plenty of clothes and you're dedicated to this art of landscape photography, so you stick it out and create a few images, but your gear doesn't hold up so well. Your $250 tripod freezes up and you can't collapse the legs, plus the aluminum feels about 15 degrees below the air temperature and the head that came in your last tripod package barely moves either. The wind batters your tripod and you realize you're only getting sharp images 1 out of every 10 exposures. You fight the gear for about an hour past sunrise until you both decide to call it a day and go eat breakfast. Over breakfast, this stranger that you've now bonded in the sub-arctic temperatures with explains to you that if you're serious about landscape photography, there's no substitute for a good support system.
After you get home, your peers are stoked about the images you made out at the Grand Canyon and even buy a couple small canvas prints. You decide the head has to go, so you upgrade to a $150 ball head and it is a dream to use. It breaks a year later and the company didn't have a decent repair service, so you were forced to buy another. You decide you're over the cheap gear and you really want to take photography seriously, so you upgrade to a professional level tripod and head and you still own it, years later.
Sound familiar? Well that was my story (more or less), as I'm sure it's similar to a lot of those who will read this. All in all, I spent nearly $2000 over the course of about 2 years on tripods and heads that continuously could not be trusted. The tripod and ball head I now use retails for about $1,100.
Now, I'm not saying everyone should go out and spend a thousand dollars on a tripod setup for their first camera they own. Everyone will have that floor lamp of a tripod at some point in their long history of their passion for photography. What I caution to you is to upgrade intelligently. There is a reason your $100 tripod broke. There is a reason it freezes up in sub-zero temperatures. My general rule of thumb is that your support system should cost no less than 20% of the gear sitting on top of it. For example, a modern "inexpensive" pro-level DSLR and 24-70 lens will run you about $3,000, so spend $600 on your tripod and head, if not more.
You wouldn't put discount tires on a Lamborghini, so why have $100 sitting below your medium format digital camera?
Below, I have compiled a list of my favorite gear, spanning the full price range for those of you interested to know what I would (and do) use.
- Manfrotto MT055XPRO3 Aluminum Tripod - $250.00
- Best bang for your buck for the leap from that floor lamp of a tripod.
- Manfrotto MT055CXPRO4 Carbon Fiber Tripod - $500.00
- For when you first realize that aluminum gets really cold, really quickly.
- Gitzo GT3542L Mountaineer Series 3 Carbon Fiber Tripod - $995.00
- "The one tripod that rules them all." - If I had to own one single tripod, this would be it. Although I have a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with any center column, it is removable in a super-cool way.
- Gitzo GT1545T Series 1 Traveler Carbon Fiber Tripod - $740.00
- I own this and I love it - I use it for backpacking and when I travel anywhere on a plane.
- Gitzo Series 3 Systematic Carbon Fiber Tripod - $925.00
- "The other tripod that rules them all if you don't like center columns - like me."
- Gitzo Series 5 Systematic Carbon Fiber Tripod (Giant) - $1,600.00
- Great for getting shots from a ladder (it happens, trust me) and great for supporting a super heavy load like my 8x10
- Manfrotto MHXPRO-BHQ6 XPRO Ball Head with Top Lock Quick-Release System - $200.00
- Don't buy anything less expensive than this. This should be your first head.
- Gitzo GH3382QD Series 3 Center Ball Head - $450.00
- If you want to stick with the same manufacturer of your tripod, you can buy this in a package with it
- Arca-Swiss Monoball P1 S Ball Head with Classic Quick Release - $460.00
- I really enjoy this "inverted" ball head. It allows for more control due to the head rotating around the ball.
- Arca-Swiss Monoball P0 Ball Head with Classic Quick Release - $391.00
- My backpacking / travel ball head of choice. You can't beat it.
- Arca-Swiss C1 Cube - $1,650.00
- If you shoot a heavy large format (or any camera) I can't stress to you enough how incredible this head is. I own it, and I'd buy it three more times if I had to. Read my review, here.
- Arca-Swiss D4 - $1,250.00
- I use this for my smaller cameras like my 4x5 and Linhof 6x17. Still packs a punch and the microadjustments are crucial to precision compositions and camera control.
For information on purchasing Arca-Swiss equipment, I highly suggest contacting the USA representative, Rod Klukas by visiting his website or shooting him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can assist you with purchasing any piece of Arca-Swiss equipment you could desire and lead you in the right direction, offering you years of insight and help you find the perfect setup for you.