A bit of stability in life is always a good thing, especially when it comes to beating the shakes in photography. And while a growing number of cameras and lenses have built-in sensor-shift or optical stabilization, there's no substitute for a sturdy tripod.
Not only is a tripod essential for shooting with slow shutter speeds and long exposures, and for macro photography, but it also helps with composition. Taking a little time to level the camera and to make precise positional adjustments can make a huge difference to the end result. It's true in anything from landscape and architectural shooting to environmental portraits, still life images and extreme close-ups.
Sturdiness is a must. Balance a beefy body and chunky lens on a flimsy tripod and your photography simply won't have a firm footing. For this group test, we've selected tripods that aim for rigid construction and have a maximum load rating sufficient for even the largest SLRs with a telephoto lens attached. That said, nobody wants to lug around a massively heavy tripod when they're out and about, so most tripods in the group weigh about 2kg and can safely support loads of at least 5kg.
Clever tricks often include multi-angle legs, which can typically lock at three alternative positions. Increasing the angle of the legs from the centre column adds stability in medium-level shooting, when you're not extending the legs very much, as well as enabling low-level shooting by reducing the overall height of the tripod.
For even lower-level shooting, most tripods enable you to invert the centre column and shoot from between two legs, using the camera upside down. Some also feature a pivoting centre column, which enables quicker rotation for inverted shooting, plus the ability to use the centre column as a horizontal boom. This is especially useful not only in macro shooting, but also when using ultra-wide or fisheye lenses, where it can cut the risk of tripod feet getting into the shot.
Mix and match
You can often save money by buying a complete tripod kit that includes both legs and head. However, it often pays to be picky and choose the legs and head separately, so that you can ensure getting the ideal combination to suit your needs. There's usually no need to stick with the same manufacturer, but there are some important criteria to bear in mind.
Getting back to legs, the main construction material is an important factor in choosing which tripod to buy. Aluminium tripods are best value and should prove robust, rigid and hard-wearing. For equivalent sizes and maximum load ratings, carbon fibre tripods typically offer a weight-saving of about 25%, but are usually much more expensive to buy. They don't tend to take the knocks quite as well either, as a sharp impact can result in the material shattering. Even so, the reduction in carrying weight with no compromise in rigidity makes carbon fibre tripods an attractive proposition.
Equipment know-how: Tripods explained
1. Mounting platform
Full sized tripods usually have a mounting platform that's between 50mm and 60mm in diameter. A close match to the diameter of your chosen tripod head's base will help stability.
2. Multi-angle legs
Ideal for low-level shooting, or on tricky terrain, multiple leg angles are a real bonus. Most modern tripods have three lockable positions, whereas a couple of the Manfrotto tripods in this group have four.
3. Centre column
Pivoting centre columns are becoming increasingly popular. In most cases, you can lock them at almost any position through a 180-degree arc. In Manfrotto's pivot design, you can only lock the centre column in vertically upright or horizontal boom modes.
4. Leg sections
Legs that are made from three separate sections (two extending) are most common. With larger numbers of sections, there's a risk that the bottom ones may be quite thin and spindly. The plus side is that the tripod folds down smaller for more compact stowage.
5. Leg locks
Clip style clamps are most popular and are generally slightly quicker to operate than twist locks. However, manufacturing precision is required to ensure firm locking when closed, as well as smooth extension of leg sections when released.
Rubber pads work well in most conditions. On very soft surfaces like carpet or loose dirt, spikes can be better as they give a more secure footing. Some designs feature retractable spikes within rubber feet, for ultimate versatility.
As mentioned above, it helps stability if the diameter of the tripod's mounting platform and your chosen head are roughly the same. To aid a secure fitment, grub screws are often incorporated into the tripod platform, which can be tightened to lock the head firmly in place. The main locking screw will either have a 3/8-inch or a smaller 1/4-inch diameter. There's no problem mounting a head with a larger 3/8-inch adaptor on a tripod that has a 1/4-inch locking screw, as adaptors are widely available and are often supplied with the head. However, you can't fit a head with a 1/4-inch mounting thread on a tripod that uses a larger 3/8-inch screw.