the accessories section of any photography forum, and
you’ll see that one of the most common question
comes from photographers seeking help in finding a tripod
that is light and sturdy enough to hold their gear,
and yet cheap.
I find it amazing that people try
to economize when it comes to tripods – which
are probably one of the most important items when it
comes to maximizing sharpness. Indeed, a lot of people
think nothing of spending thousands of dollars more
for that fixed-aperture f2.8 L or ED glass, and then
stick it on a wobbly $50 Blue Light special tripod.
The mentality is to get the cheapest ‘pod they
can get away with it.
But I can also understand and relate
to this way of thinking – like virtually all photographers
who have been shooting for a while, I too have gone
through this cycle: I first bought a cheap $30 tripod
with a build-in pan and tilt head, and the rather optimistic
leg braces. This P.O.S. fell apart after a week, which
was probably a good thing as it was incapable of supporting
a whim, let alone a camera and lens. So then I did my
Internet research and, upon asking for recommendations,
got a bunch of suggestions for Gitzo and a few for Manfrotto.
The B&H website produced the first
shock – at the time, the thought of spending $400
on a tripod seemed ridiculous. So I did what most people
in that position do, and bought myself the highly-recommended
Manfrotto 055 (Bogen 3021). At last I began to realize
the benefits of a sturdy tripod. A whole new world of
low-light and night photography opened up to me and
I actually started carrying the tripod around with me.
At that point, a not-entirely-unforeseen
problem reared its head. The tripod, though sturdy,
was heavy. My surgically fixed knees were in hell while
hiking in the Himalayas with a full backpack and this
tripod on my back. I was still looking for “light,
sturdy AND cheap”, but at some point, I realized
that I wasn’t the first to need something like
this. Virtually every photographer (especially an outdoor
shooter) has at some point or the other tried to find
a tripod which meets all three of these characteristics,
but with no success – because it doesn’t
really exist. You can get any two of those three characteristics,
and that’s about it. So decide what is important
My knees were getting worse after
every hike, to the point of taking months to become
pain-free. With photo sales starting to increase, there
was no way I could leave a tripod behind. So I bit the
bullet and got a Gitzo 1228 Mk2. After the pain of dealing
with the credit card bill was taken care of, I realized
how much I enjoyed having and using a lighter tripod.
Not only was it easier to transport, it was also easier
to use in the field – moving it from location
to location was a lot less of a hassle, which meant
I experimented more with shots, angles and lenses. And
it provided the same stability as the Manfrotto –
able to support a camera, vertical grip and lenses as
big as the 100-400, even in breezy conditions.
I was finally convinced about the value of a good tripod.
When I got my first supertele, a 500/4 IS, I didn’t
mess around and straight-away got myself a Gitzo 1548
CF jobbie. It was such a natural purchase that I was
actually nonplussed when a friend expressed amazement
at spending so much money for a tripod – by now,
the value of a good tripod had become such an ingrained
part of my psyche that I forgot that a vast majority
of photographers are still looking for something “sturdy
and light, and yet cheap.”
That got me thinking – why?
I have come to the conclusion that for most people,
a tripod is a decidedly low-tech piece of equipment.
It is, in essence, a glorified rock or wall for resting
your camera. Then take into account the fact that few
people actually like using a tripod (I sure as hell
don’t – I appreciate a light yet sturdy
tripod, but it is still an infernal pain in the rear
to carry, setup and adjust). Given this hate-hate relationship,
no wonder people want to pay as little as possible for
To make it worse, a top-end tripod
costs the same as high-quality lenses: other than my
telephotos, all my other lenses (200mm and smaller)
are cheaper than my most expensive tripod – and
all these lenses are leading optics in their class.
Is it any wonder that first-time tripod buyers react
in disbelief and completely ignore the suggestions for
a Gitzo or similar carbon fiber tripod?
All this is rather long-winded way
of getting a simple point across – viz, if you
are buying a tripod, get it right the first time.
A Manfrotto 055 is certainly a very
good tripod. I have had one for the longest time, and
when I damaged my old unit in Zimbabwe, I got another
one, which I still own. It is sturdy and can support
all except my super-teles. However, it is heavy. And
that means that I am less inclined to carry it around,
so it doesn’t get used as often as it should.
If you have more discipline and stronger will-power
than me, and the weight doesn’t bother you, by
all means get it.
However, keep in mind that even if
the weight didn’t bother you initially, odds are
good that at some point in the future it will –
especially if you travel and have to deal with airline
weight restrictions. And at that point, a mid-end Gitzo
or similar carbon fiber unit is going to start looking
mighty attractive. Consider it this way – the
tripod will last you 10 or 20 years, at the very least.
Spending $300 extra over that period means $15-20 extra
per year. That’s 2 rolls of Velvia (remember it?)
a year. Is that a good price to pay for having all the
benefits of a usable tripod?
It may be tempting to just opt for
a cheaper tripod, thinking that you can make do with
it. But do realize that lots of other people have gone
through the same thought process – and eventually
ended up with high-quality tripods. Withthe exception
of Galen Rowell, whose style of photograhpy dictated
handheld shooting, I cannot think of any leading nature
or outdoor photographer who uses a $30 (or even a $100)
Of course, not everyone needs a $700
tripod. Depending on what your current and future gear
configuration is, you might be ok with a less expensive
tripod. Also, given your shooting style, you may not
need "sturdy and light", but can get by with
"cheap and light."
Regardless, take your needs into account
and, despite your mind and wallet
rebeling at the idea of doling out so much cash on a
tripod, get the best tripod that fits your needs, even
if means spending more than what you would prefer. It
is cheaper in the long run.