Any photographer knows the surefire way to get sharp images is to use a tripod. When I can, I will use a tripod. Landscapes, HDR, panos, portraits, star trails, light painting, time-lapse…the list is long. Of course there are many times I don’t use a tripod either, like in busy markets or shooting portraits when I want quick flexibility to move around. But that said I always bring a tripod with me on shoots. Here are some considerations for ‘the perfect tripod/head’ depending on your shoot.
1. How tall will it go without the center column raised? Listed with any tripod is the maximum height without the center post raised. If you are going to be using a tripod a lot, then having one that will extend to your height will save you lots of back aches. Why not consider the center column? Because the second you start raising this your tripod is more like a monopod and not as stable. Better to keep your big lens and camera nicely settled on the tripod platform.
2. How heavy is it? Yep, weight is a big consideration, but maybe not like you think. First, having a light tripod is nice for travel, less weight to carry around. But on the other hand, super light tripods may not be stable enough to deaden vibration. Many tripods have a hook on the center post to hang some weight to stabilize the tripod.
3. How small does it collapse? I generally throw my tripod into my suitcase when I travel, so it needs to fit inside this. The number of leg sections determine how small your tripod will collapse. 3 and 4 section legs are common.
4. Do the legs indepently adjust? This is huge in my book. I often am shooting on uneven terrain, and being able to indepently adjust legs is a big plus.
5. What about the tripod head? Tripod heads should match the size of the tripod. I use larger heads on my biggest tripod which can easily hold my 200-400mm, while my smallest tripod has a tiny head but still just fine for holding my 70-200mm. Just make sure you can adjust the drag on your head for silky movements. Most heads have a rating for the amount of weight they can support.
My favorites? I have a virtual tripod family in my office (see the pic above), each one suited for specific shooting. My largest is a Gitzo 2541 with a Really Right Stuff BH55 head, my go to tripod for heavy lens work and long exposures. I also have a Really Right Stuff gimbal head I attach to this tripod to photograph birds using my 600mm F4. Next up is a Gitzo 1542T with BH40 RRS head. This is significantly lighter than my heavy setup, and what I use for normal day to day shooting. Finally, on many travel photo workshops I bring my Gitzo GK1580 with a RRS BH30 head. This rig only weighs a few pounds and collapses to one foot. Perfect for a few trip shots when traveling, but not something I would bring if I expected to use my tripod a lot.