Why Do I Need A Tripod Anyway?
Many people don't understand what a tripod does, why it's important, and how it can make such a huge difference to your photography - seeing them only as instruments of mystery only used by the professionals. This isn't so and should not be so. You can get a tripod fairly cheaply (or very expensively if you prefer). Tripods aren't limited to a professional DSLR body and do not look out of place underneath a bridge camera, a lower end DSLR, or even some compacts. It is the laws of physics and light that make them useful - not the quality of the camera. In other words it is what the photographer knows about photography, not necessarily the price of his/her kit which makes for great pictures.
A tripod enables you to eliminate "camera shake", and to take photographs at very low shutter speeds. It also enables you to take pictures in ways in which the naked eye could never see them - impressing the heck out of your friends and colleagues. Have you ever seen those images where running water looks like "candy floss", or car headlights have merged into one long beam of light? That's done with a tripod or other stabilizing device. The picture right was taken way back in around 2002, on a tourist holiday in Rome. We used a film camera and a pocket sized tripod balanced on top of a box containing the electronics which controlled a set of traffic lights. It wasn't taken with expensive kit - and needed considerable improvisation, but this is the kind of photograph which needs a stabalisation. The stationary objects are sharp, the moving objects deliberately have motion blur - which can be used to stunning effect using a tripod. Tripods also enable you to totally "cheat" at photography - see our article about "Photographing Things Your Eye Will Never See". A tripod is the best way to stabalise your camera to create motion blur. It is designed with that purpose in mind, and you don't need to improvise by resting on objects which nature, or a city-scape happen to provide. You can choose exactly where to take the photograph from and at what angle.
Another time when a tripod will really aid your photography is when you are using a telephoto lens. Hand-holding a telephoto lens can sometimes be done successfully with certain lenses and shutter speeds, but if you want a "pin sharp" shot a tripod is your best bet. Hand-holding you are far likely to get camera shake if you are using a telephoto lens - due to both the weight and the magnification.
What Do I Need To Know Before I Buy A Tripod?
When deciding on a tripod there are several things to consider (this mainly relates to full size tripods):
The weight of your kit - Tripods tend to have a maximum support weight / load capacity. If therefore you have heavy kit and/or lenses you will need to consider whether the tripod can support it. An aluminium tripod will usually buy you a larger maximum weight load for the price than carbon fiber, but at a cost - aluminium is heavier to carry around...
The Material the tripod is made of - Aluminium is heavier than carbon fiber. We have carbon fiber tripods for that reason, (otherwise we may require the assistance of a small donkey when carrying kit.. actually a donkey would be a great kit carrier...). Camera kit can get heavy very quickly - especially if you keep adding to it. Aluminium is cheaper though - so if you are on a budget you might want to choose aluminium. If you choose aluminium, just make sure you are able to carry it comfortably, and in cold weather make sure you use gloves!
The number of leg sections - The more leg sections, the shorter the tripod will fold down, which can be convenient. This may make the tripod slightly heavier and perhaps less stable.
A central column - Can come in handy, but know that this isn't the most stable way of gaining height. It is better to have taller legs on the tripod than to rely on the central column too much.
A Tripod Head - You can buy tripods with a fixed head, or ones where different types of heads can be fixed (which may or may not come with a tripod head) - see our section on tripod heads.
Buying Options and Advice
"Stick in the Bag" or "Pocket" Tripod
Pictured above is the Joby GorillaPod SLR-Zoom Tripod for DSLR Cameras. This particular model of GorillaPod is pretty heavy duty and will do the job far better than the tripod which was used to take the Rome picture above. A GorillaPod also has the advantage of being able to bend around objects and grip to them. In Rome this could perhaps have been used to attach the camera a lighting post, or tree-branch.
Joby do a range of GorillaPods. The key is to look at the specifications and make sure the GorillaPod you opt for can handle the weight of your kit.
For a compact camera this is possibly the best option of the three we have given here. There is a time and a place for them to be used with a DSLR also. You don't always want to carry a full size tripod around!
Manfrotto is a great brand of tripods especially at the intermediate level. It also has the advantage of being cheaper than the Gitzo brand tripods (which tend to be very high end with a price tag to match). There are cheaper brands than Manfrotto, but none that we feel comfortable recommending here at this moment. That does not mean that a cheaper brand is not right for you.
When deciding which is right for you make sure you take account of the bullet points above. Much will depend on your budget and the weight of your kit.
Aluminium tripods generally carry a higher weight than their counterparts in the carbon fiber range - which tends to mean they come in cheaper to buy per pound of kit.
Carbon Fiber Tripod
Always consider the bullet points above when choosing a tripod.
We would not hesitate in recommending these tripods.
As mentioned with the aluminium tripods we would recommend Manfrotto.
We mainly use Manfrotto Carbon Fibre ourselves. It's lightweight and a reliable brand.