A Photo In The Life Of

A Photo In the Life Of is a weekly photo blog written by Larry Lewis. Topics include photo opportunities, past and present, product reviews and other topics of interest to photographers and photo lovers.

A Layman's Guide To Tripods

If you've read any of my blog articles you will notice that, when relevant, at the end of the article I like to share the equipment I have used to shoot the images featured. If you have noticed these equipment lists you will likely have noticed that in many cases I have used a tripod. A tripod will improve the quality of your photography period. 

How does a tripod improve your images? 

  1. Helps you achieve sharper photographs by reducing camera shake - even at higher shutter speeds. 
  2. Allows for more deliberate composition by slowing down the composition process and freeing your hands and eyes to use composition aids such as a bubble level or a remote.
  3. Increases your artistic options by allowing for slower shutter speeds resulting from small apertures, low light shooting or the use of lens filters.
  4. Allows for specialized techniques for post production such as bracketing for HDR processing or creating time lapse photography videos.
  5. Improves the professional look of your video by producing shake-free footage and smooth pans.
All images featured are from a day shooting the The Canada Linseed Oil Mills Building in 2011.
— Larry

Canada Linseed Oil Building

There are several factors that should go in to your Tripod System purchase decision. I call it a Tripod System because your camera support requirements may call for anything from one tripod head and legs to the versatility of multiple heads, legs and add on accessories. The following are some factors to consider when making your tripod purchase decision. Later in the article I'll share some things to watch for when making the final model selection.  

Size and Weight

If you plan on travelling with your tripod or carry it regularly the size and weight of the tripod is a prime consideration. Compact tripods are made of lightweight materials and tend to fold comparatively small. Before purchasing a compact tripod check the specifications for the maximum weight it will bare. Ensure that the tripod will carry the weight of your camera and heaviest lens. Additionally ensure that the maximum height of the tripod is sufficient for your purposes since some of these tripods sacrifice height for compactness. One disadvantage of a compact tripod is it's stability. Since it is made of light material it may be prone to being blown over by wind or inadvertently knocked over. Many of these tripods have a hook on the bottom of the center column that allows you to connect your camera bag, increasing the weight and stability of the legs and lowering the center of gravity. This is a good thing.

Height and Leg Positions

Maximum height is a prime consideration, but also is the versatility of the legs positioning. A variety of leg positions will allow the camera to be set up in awkward positions such as in a blind when shooting wildlife or on rugged, uneven surfaces. The leg positions may also effect how low to the ground the camera can be set up. 

Type of Tripod Head

  1. 3-way head - A 3-way head allows the camera to be manipulated and locked independently on 3 different axes. It is an excellent choice for any category of photography that relies on pin point composition accuracy.
  2. Ball head - Ball heads generally tend to be lighter and more compact than 3-way heads. They offer fast, intuitive manipulation of camera position utilizing only 1 lever to lock and unlock the position on all axes. Ball lenses are ideal for lighter camera and lens combinations, however they may be somewhat awkward to manipulate when attached to longer, heavier zoom lenses. Additionally, without practice, composition may be less accurate than other heads.      
  3. Pistol Grip - A pistol grip operates similarly to a ball head but it is larger than a ball head. A pistol grip is rarely part of a tripod kit and must be purchased separately. It is an excellent choice when using long zooms because it tends to be heavy duty and the lock/release trigger is quick and easy to use. Before purchasing a pistol grip try one in your local camera store to see if it is an intuitive option for you. I don't own one of these heads. For me it is a nice to have, not a need to have item put if you do a lot of super-zoom photography it may be worth a look.
  4. Pan-tilt head - Pan-Tilt heads allow manipulation on 2 axes, horizontal and vertical. They can be used for stills, however they are ideally suited for video capture. They offer stability and smooth, even panning.
  5. Specialty heads - There are several specialty heads available such as Gimbal heads for long zoom lenses and Gigapan , an  automated head designed for stitching photos. If you have a specialized requirement visit your local camera store for possible solutions.  

Versatility - Available Accessories

Versatility is extremely important if you shoot a variety of subject types. Can the tripod legs support a variety of heads or only the included head? Are there additional features such as a removable or swinging center column? Does the system support or include add-on accessories such as a bubble level, carrying straps or  a travel case? Additionally if you share tripods or use additional support systems the camera shoe is important. A camera shoe attaches to your camera, allowing quick and easy attachment and release of your camera to the tripod. If the shoe is not compatible with other systems that you use regularly it will add time and frustration to your shooting.

Once you have decided upon the type of legs and head that you require there are a few additional things to consider when purchasing a particular model.

  1. Are the leg locks intuitive and easy to use?
  2. Does the tripod head adjust easily and smoothly? Check to ensure it locks easily and once locked the camera and lens remains in position? (sometimes with lower priced systems the lens will tilt forward slightly with a heavier lenses attached)
  3. Does the camera shoe connect and release easily and smoothly with your camera? Is the lock easy and intuitive?
  4. Is the camera shoe compatible with other tripod heads? This may be a consideration if you use different tripods or heads.   

My system consists of full size steel Manfrotto legs, Manfrotto 3-way, compact ball and pan-tilt heads, a Manfrotto carry strap and a travel case. Additionally I have a monopod that is compatible with all 3 of my Manfrotto heads, a Blackrapid camera strap system that I reviewed here and a Peak Design Capture Clip.  
Although my legs are an older model and heavier than many available today, I find that when combined with my compact ball head and carry strap the weight and size are comfortable to take on hikes. The 3-way head supports my longer zooms and my tilt-pan head is ideal for video, although I rarely shoot video. The Manfrotto shoe transitions seamlessly with my Blackrapid straps. The only device that is not compatible is my Capture Clip. I suppose you can't have everything! 


Before you buy a tripod think about your shooting style and requirements, then visit your local camera specialty store and handle the tripod systems on display. Your photography will improve with a tripod, however if you purchase something that isn't right for you it will probably never leave your closet - regardless of the cost or quality of the product. Additionally, if you've thought about your requirements you will be comfortable purchasing a higher grade of tripod, knowing that you will get great use and results from it.

Once you have brought your new tripod home use it often. With practice you will manipulate it effortlessly when shooting for inspiring, fabulous images. 

All images in this post are shot with a Sigma 70mm f2.8 Macro lens using a Manfrotto tripod.


A Photo In The Life Of is a weekly PHOTO blog on LARRYLEWISPHOTO.COM.   It is an evolution of my original blog A Photo in the life of  that began in 2006.  I hope to give a little context to my photography and maybe make a few new photography friends. To purchase a print visit Shop. If the image is not listed Contact Me for availability.

Visit my Weekly Blog Archive for more posts.