Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes | Death Valley

My Budget Specific Tripod Recommendations

Over the course of the past several years, one of the most common things I’ve had to do during workshops is convincing students that the quality of their tripod is just as important as the quality of their gear. Now, hold on a second….I’m not saying that you need the absolute best gear and the absolute best tripod. No, what I am saying though is that you could have a top of the line camera and lens but it won’t mean squat if you’re in a tripod situation and your tripod sucks.

Since I began teaching and leading photography workshops, the importance of this topic has become even more apparent. I’ve had students using Nikon D810’s with $2,000 lenses and all they brought in terms of a tripod was a cheap, plastic off brand that they picked up at the local camera store for $70. I’ve also seen students with ginormous tripods that are decades old and weigh upwards of 8 pounds. It’s just as much work getting their tripod to a location as it is their camera bag. We had other students who had cheap aluminum tripods that still weren’t built to support the cameras on top of them.

So before we go into tips on how to choose a good tripod, let’s first discuss why you need one because if I can’t convince you of that, there’s no reason to read on!

So I Really Need A Tripod, Huh?

Workshop students and their tripods at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park.

Workshop students and their tripods at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park.

Yes! A thousand times yes! If you’re reading this post, chances are that you’re interested in travel or landscape photography. At this point in my photography career, I use a tripod for probably 90-95% of my shots. Carrying a tripod is just part of it for me. I don’t even think about it anymore. So why do you need a tripod for travel and landscapes?

First off, travel photographers typically use a completely different group of settings as compared to a portrait or wedding photographer. Fast glass doesn’t matter as much. We use small apertures most of the time to create a really large depth of field so we can get the entire scene in focus. We also tend to keep our ISO around 100 or lower. This ensures the maximum quality of pixels in our final image. The combination of those two settings greatly affects the final key to the exposure triangle — shutter speed. A low ISO and a small aperture mean long exposures. Add to the mix the fact that most landscape photographers tend to shoot scenes around sunrise, sunset or well into blue hour where light can be very low and now you are looking at very long exposures. It’s not uncommon for me to be shooting at several seconds, thirty seconds or even several minutes at times. Because of that, hand holding a camera is totally out of the question. I simply would not be able to do what I do without a tripod.

The quality of the tripod becomes vitally important when you start getting into seconds and minutes. These super long exposures mean that your camera is sitting in one place, exposing a scene, for a long period of time. During that exposure the camera is just sitting up there on the tripod, exposed to the elements. Therefore, the stability of the tripod is now a huge factor. If you don’t have a sturdy, stable, strong tripod then just the slightest gust of wind could ruin an entire image.

So How Do I Know If My Tripod Is Good Enough?

For starters, just go test it out. I think that you will most likely know in the back of your mind if your tripod is good enough or not. All of the students I’ve talked to with cheap tripods knew full well that they had insufficient tripods, they just didn’t know it was so important until they got into the situations we put them in :-). So grab your biggest camera and your biggest lens and mount it to your tripod. Now extent the legs out on the tripod and get it to it’s average height. Next, grab the camera and see how much it moves when mounted to the tripod.

It shouldn’t move at all…

And if it does move at all it should be very, very minimal. The only way you should be able to get the camera to move is by moving the entire tripod with the camera.

Characteristics of a Bad Tripod

The Camera Bobble – I’ve seen big, heavy DSLR’s bobbing up and down on the tripod mount of a cheap, plastic tripod. The plastic just wasn’t meant to support that heavy of equipment. Plastic tripods are meant for people with point and shoot cameras or camera phones. Nothing more.

Plastic Tripod Mounts – Even some aluminum tripods have these. There are certain areas on a tripod where plastic can be acceptable but your tripod mount isn’t one of them. Everything between your camera and the tripod should be made of metal. Plastic mounts will wear down over time and lose their form, which leads to instability and could even lead to your camera falling off the tripod.

Super Thin Legs – The thinner the legs of your tripod, the less stable it will be. DSLRs are heavy and they need tripod legs that can support them. If your bottom leg section of your tripod is approaching the thickness of a sharpie, you are probably in need of something better.

Plastic Tripod Head – Most really cheap tripod heads are the type with a bunch of arms stocking out everything that you have to turn to loosen or tighten. Not all of these types of heads are necessarily bad but if it’s all plastic, it’s bad!

Characteristics of a Good Tripod

Aluminum or Carbon Fiber Legs – This is an absolute requirement. Aluminum is the bare minimum. No plastic legs!

Steel/Aluminum Tripod Mounts – We’ve already discussed why plastic mounts are bad. Just make sure it’s metal.

Thick, Sturdy Legs – The thicker the legs, the more sturdy your camera will be.

Ball Type Tripod Head – These are the best kind of heads in my opinion. Most ball heads have knobs that you turn to tighten, rather than arms. This means a lower profile and less chance of breaking. The ball head also makes it extremely easy to pivot the camera into just the right position.

Delicate Arch milky way

Here’s an image that simply couldn’t have been made without a tripod. That’s me beneath the arch, lighting the scene with a head lamp. My was all by itself on the other side of the “bowl” on my RRS tripod.

Tripod Recommendations

I’ve used a lot of tripods over there years. Yes, even the cheap ones. I’ve also worked with a lot of other photographers in the industry and have seen what they use. With that said, here are some tripods recommendationsthat have earned my stamp of approval. I’ve divided them into levels of budgets to hopefully cover most (if not all) bases.

Low Budget

Manfrotto MK294A3-A0RC2 294 Aluminum Tripod Kit with Ball Head with Quick Release

At just around $170, this tripod is the bare minimum that we suggest, but if that’s what you can afford at the time then it will do. It’s an entry level kit tripod from Manfrotto which is a great tripod company. The ball head and aluminum legs mean that it will support a decent sized camera and allow it to move into position easily.

Leg section diameters in mm: 26, 22.5, 19.
Closed length 27.6″
Maximum height 70.5″
Maximum load capacity 11lbs
Weight 4.8lbs.

Mid Range Budget

Manfrotto MK294C3-A0RC2 3 Section Carbon Fiber Tripod Kit with Quick Release Ball Head (Black)

This combo comes in at around $280 and it’s a really significant upgrade from the low budget option. With this kit, you’re already getting carbon fiber legs which is a big upgrade from aluminum. Carbon fiber legs are lighter but just as sturdy as aluminum. They also don’t get freezing cold or scalding hot which is always welcome. These are considered pro level legs by Manfrotto and they will be much sturdier than the low budget ones. Same ball head as the other option.

Closed length 27.95
Leg tube diameters 25.3 – 21.7 – 18.2mm
Maximum height 70.47
Maximum height (with center column down) 59.06
Minimum height 19.57
Load capacity 11.02lbs
Weight 4.41lbs.

Mid to High Budget – Our Top Pick!

Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 Carbon Fiber 3-Section Tripod Legs with 327RC2 Light Grip Head

A mid to high budget tripod setup like this will run you around $600 but keep in mind that you get what you pay for and this is yet another big leap above the previous option. Now we are getting pro level carbon fiber tripod legs and a pro level grip action ball head. The ball head in this kit is really awesome! No need to loosen or tighten any knobs or arms. Just squeeze the grip and move the camera around the ball head. To tighten the camera in place, just release the grip!

With this setup, you’re also getting thicker legs, over six pounds of added load capacity and only .4 more pounds. If you can save up for a few months extra to get this option over the previous two, you will not be disappointed.

Closed length 25.6 in
Leg tube diameters 29.4, 24.8, 20.4 mm
Maximum height 68.9 in
Maximum height (with center column down) 55.1 in
Minimum height 4.5 in
Load capacity 17.6 lb
Weight 4.8 lb

High End Budget

Legs – Induro CT-414 8X Carbon Tripod 4 Section 77-Inch Max Height 55lb Load
Head – Induro Tripod BHL-Series Ballhead 66lb Load Capacity

Now we’re getting into the really good stuff! This tripod level is typically for the working pro, or the amateur who just happens to have a larger budget for such things. This tripod kit will run your around $935 but this is just about as good as it gets for a tripod. For the extra dough you’re forking over you get around 10 inches more of maximum height, a load capacity increase of nearly forty pounds, twist lock leg sections (so much better than the tabs on the Manfrotto) and less than 2 lbs added weight. Make no mistake about it, this setup is a high end beast of a tripod.

Closed length 25.79 in
Maximum height 77.56 in
Maximum height (with center column down) 66.93 in
Minimum height 7.44 in
Load capacity 55 lb
Weight 6.3 lbs

I’ve Saved My Pennies. Show Me The Best!

rrsLegs – Really Right Stuff TVC-24L
Head – Really Right Stuff BH-40 LR II

Alright, you asked for it! This is of course our opinion only and is certainly open for debate, but when I think of the absolute best, high end behemoth of a tripod…I think of just about anything from the great folks over at Really Right Stuff. This is a tripod company out of San Luis Obispo in California that specializes only in the best of the best tripods. They don’t make cheap versions. These are only pro level, high end, high price tag works of art. If you want the top of the line, this is it.  This tripod setup is going to set you back somewhere in the range of $1,300 but that’s before you purchase one of the things that makes RRS so great; their L-Plates. You’ll have to buy the L-Plate that was specifically made for your camera and those will probably set you back around $160 for each camera you own. So if you have two camera bodies you are now looking at something closer to the $1600+ range. 

So what makes these tripods so great? The build quality. RRS tripods are second to none in terms of build quality and ease of use. There’s just no question about it. RRS tripods feature the same twist-lock functionality of Induro tripods so that’s one big plus. Another is just how thick the legs are. The bottom section legs on my RRS tripod are thicker than the top section legs on my old Manfrotto. It’s ridiculous. On top of that, there is no middle section which I really love. That means I can get really, really low to the ground without having to remove a section of the tripod or fumble around with trying to make it horizontal. The spring loaded legs locks are incredible. The ball head is rock solid and made of all aluminum parts. The L-bracket allows me to switch from landscape to portrait orientation on my camera without shifting the actual camera to the side of the tripod. You can also purchase separate feet for the tripod, such as spikes if needed.

The support from RRS is simply amazing. They are a small company that doesn’t mess around. It took me a long time to finally convince myself to upgrade to this tripod setup but man am I glad I did!

Note: This is just one possible setup at Really Right Stuff. I highly suggest calling their customer service department and telling them what camera setups you have, then they will tell you exactly what you need. You can spend a bit less or a lot more than the option above. My setup was based on me now using a Sony A7 for my main body and a Canon 6D as my backup. Much lighter than my 1DsMIII that I used previously!

Closed length 23.3 in
Maximum height 66.8 in
Minimum height 4.0 in
Load capacity 40 lb
Weight 4.9 lbs

Antelope Slot Canyons | Page, Arizona

A tripod is absolutely vital when exploring the slot canyons of Page, Arizona. Having a tripod that is good at yoga is even better when dealing with tight places ;-). ISO 80, f/13, 1.3 sec

Bear Lake Civil Twilight

As the light fades, shutter speeds slow down. As landscape photographers, we need to hold on to quality pixels as long as possible, and that means keeping your ISO down until it’s absolutely necessary to raise it up. ISO 100, f/10, 1/4 sec

great sand dunes

Taken at peak twilight light at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/15 sec

Kilauea's Glow | Volcanos National Park

Taken at the Jagger overlook at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on a starry night. ISO 1000, f/5, 8 sec

Wailuku Beach | Kailua-Kona Hawaii

Having creative control over the outcome of an image is a crucial element in capturing memorable images. Having my camera of a sturdy tripod helped capture this image, considering the water was rushing out of this hole up to waist high levels. ISO 80, f/16, 1/4 sec to create a slight motion blur in the water.

  • Hey James:
    Thanks yet again for a great bit of insight into the world of photographic equipment. Actually, based on a previous article you did regarding your personal favorite tripod (RRS) I decided if you liked it so much why wouldn’t I? I love that tripod! It is just the perfect combination of quality and functionality that make it such a pleasure to use. Thank you for setting me on the right road.

    How are plans going for the Southwest Roadtrip? Will we have a chance to shoot in the Valley of Fire? I hear it is a fantastic place.

    • Hey Brent! Yes, we will be doing Valley of Fire the very first day, as we leave Vegas :-). Can’t wait! And that’s awesome that you got a RRS tripod, aren’t they just the best? Sometimes you just don’t know what you’re missing.

  • Steve Hadeen

    James, just finally got this RRS tripod after talking with one of their support people what would suit me best. Saved up for it and paid cash. Stoked to have this tripod that I feel is going to be something that will last me years with good care. Looking forward to it as this is my first tripod…ever…well, I take that back, I had a cheap one about 25 years ago that I hardly used.

    • Dude that is so awesome! And so glad you saved up and paid cash, very proud! Yes, it will last you for years and years and years with proper care.