Why Do You Need Tripod And How To Choose One
I avoided having a tripod for many years because I traveled often and wanted to minimize luggage and weight. Although I developed “creative” ways to do long exposure without a tripod, such as setting up a tripod on a bridge, rock or bench etc., I could not always use such methods. As you can see from the pictures below where I stand to photograph landscape, using a tripod is inevitable.
So if you are an amateur photographer, do you need a tripod? My answer is "it depends". But if you enjoy taking landscape photos and haven't tried taking photos during sunrise or sunset - you've gotta have a tripod. It will change your entire photography world! OK - here's the basics. We use tripod to stabilize our camera and avoid camera shake in hand-holding position, particularly in dim light situation - when we need to slow down our shutter speed to get more light.
There are so many tripod choices. You can spend hours researching online and still have no clue what to buy. So below is my best advice based on my own experience.
I own a Gitzo Carbon Fiber tripod. Technical name on Amazon is Gitzo GT1542T Series 1 6X Carbon Fiber Traveler 4 Section G-Lock Tripod. I purchased it on Amazon at $550 and right now it might be slightly cheaper. After using the tripod for a great deal, I would recommend you considering the following 5 factors before your purchase.
1. Weight and size
It has to be light and compact. Carbon fiber tripods could be half the weight of aluminum ones. If you are a regular traveler and are into landscape photography like me, you don't want to pack a super heavy tripod on a hike or a climb. Even if you are much bigger than me and don't mind carrying the weight, it is still a lot better to have a light-weight and compact tripod that can easily fit in your backpack. The heavier the weight, the more unlikely a regular backpack can hold your tripod. You end up having to invest in a professional camera bag (which could cost just as much as a tripod), or have to hand carry it which is inconvenient.
Total height of a tripod is also important. Apparently you don't need a tall tripod if you are short. Read carefully how tall a tripod is before extending the middle column. You want to avoid extending that for stability reasons - the longer you extend the middle neck (or column), the less stable your camera is. I extend my middle column a maximum of 2-3 inches. In high wind conditions, I typically don't extend it at all.
Carbon fiber tripods are less susceptible to corrosion than aluminum ones if used in rainy or wet conditions. They also handle cold better. In my recent 2.5-month national park road trip, it rained almost every day when I was in Waterton Lake, Yellowstone, Grand Teton for 2-3 weeks. Of course I didn’t intentionally use tripod in the rain, but the wet ground, mud was inevitable. It’s important to consider these factors particularly if you are into wilderness or remote countryside travels.
Stability is affected by many different factors. Apparently the heavier, the more stable. Does this make carbon fiber an inferior choice? Not really. Carbon fiber dampens vibration faster than aluminum. And many carbon fiber tripods come with a hook at the bottom of the middle column so you can hang a bag to increase weight.
In my case, since my tripod is among the lightest models, and I chose a medium sized ball head (Really Right Stuff BH40 instead of BH25, or 30), I did have a stability issue when I mounted my camera with the Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens in high wind conditions. The total weight of my camera (Canon 5D Mark III) plus this lens is around 5 pounds (3 for the lens, 2 for the camera). In the same high wind conditions, when I mounted my Canon EF 16-35mm F2.8L II USM Ultra Wide Angle Zoom Lens, which is half the weight of the telescope lens, there were no vibration issues. However the solution was pretty easy: hang my camera bag from the middle column of the tripod. Others might advise you to use a tripod collar for the lens and mount the lens on the tripod instead of mounting the camera on the tripod. I personally prefer bringing less equipment so I typically don’t bring the tripod collar for the long lens during travel. Plus, I use my tripod mostly for landscape and the most common lenses I use are the Canon wide angle 16-35mm 2.8L II and Canon 24-70mm 2.8L, which are a lot lighter and could totally be handled by my tripod.
To summarize, carbon fiber tripods have much a stronger stability/weight ratio than aluminum ones. So if I have to purchase another tripod, I will still go for the carbon fiber model. Gitzo is by far the most reputable brand for carbon fiber tripods, but there are quite a number of others that are less expensive.
Number of leg sections is a big factor. Apparently it takes longer time to extend a six section tripod than a 3 or 4 section tripod. But this has to be balanced with the "compactness" after everything is folded. Of course the more section, the more compact you can fold a tripod.
Another design factor is how you extend the tripod legs. Twist and turn, or using a lever or switch. I prefer the twist and turn because it’s simple and takes less time to set the legs in position. A lever or switch extends from the leg and is more likely to get caught on something if you are in a hurry. I’d recommend trying various tripods in a camera store and getting familiar with how to extend the legs before purchase. It’s important if you use a twist and turn model, you need to turn it tight. In the field, when I was in a hurry to set up my tripod, sometimes I didn’t turn the tripod leg tight enough, causing the leg to shrink into its upper section during the shoot. That’s definitely something we need to avoid. However, the worst scenarios is that if you have multiple section legs, and you don’t know which section was shrinking, it would take you extra the time to inspect and fix the problem. This is the only caveat for using a twist and turn tripod.
Last but not least, budget is of course important. For me I’d rather pay twice for something that lasts twice as long instead of getting something of inferior quality and having to replace it often. The total cost over time is what I consider. If you take a long trip like I did, and will visit wilderness where there is no camera store within a radius of hundreds of miles, the last thing you want is to have unreliable equipment. Generally carbon fiber tripods cost twice as much as comparable aluminum models. If you would like to seriously improve your landscape photography and will use your tripod outdoors often, get a carbon fiber one.