Five Key Elements of Tripod Leg Purchasing

Mac Madness (Mac Systems)

It doesn’t matter whether you are a seasoned veteran or new to the field, the purchase of a tripod  is something that we all consider and eventually make the plunge with in the field of photography.  Let’s face it, we get sharper shots, are forced to plan composition more carefully, and in general, a tripod will improve your photography ten-fold over not using one.  Having said that, there are degrees of effectiveness in a tripod, and as in most things – you typically get what you pay for.While we all can recognize that a $40 tripod will likely not deliver the same degree of durability, stability, and reliability as a $400 set – who’s to say that a $200 set is half as good as a $400 set?  Or a $150 set is 37% as good?  It’s not as hard and fast a science as that, and (surprise surprise), it depends on what kind of photography you are shooting, and what your budget is, because after all, we all have different needs and budgets.

Setting aside the budget factor for a moment, let’s take a look at some of the criteria to take into account when getting your first (or next) tripod.  It really can be a situation where too much information can lead to paralysis, but if you compartmentalize things out, the elements can be much easier to manage one step at a time…

*Point of order*  When I started writing this article, I was going to talk about the entire tripod purchase, but it got pretty extensive as a tripod generally refers to two different items – the legs and the head (or camera mount).  So, in the interests of brevity, I’ve decided to split this into two separate pieces.  Today, we’ll be looking at the factors that go into purchasing a good set of legs for your tripod setup.

1.  Composition (weight)

Of probably utmost consideration these days is weight.  No longer are we encumbered by the heavy aluminum tripods of yesteryear and the days of yore – carbon fiber has made its way to the masses, and we can now get super light tripods that offer rock solid durability.  The problem of course is price here, and as always, there is a trade-off.  Naturally, the more money you have to throw at a set of legs, the lighter your set will be, but there are other considerations to take into account when considering what type of legs to get.

For instance, if you are going to be doing a lot of hiking, or toting around of your gear, weight can be a critical component.  However, if you are in a studio all day every day, the weight factor may not be as big a concern since it will likely either be stationary or move very little.  Putting aside genres such as street photography and photo-journalism that usually go sans tripod, landscape artists, architecture photographers, and even portrait specialists will all have different needs depending on their shooting location.

Consider also the weather and elements of your shooting location and conditions.  Light carbon fiber on a windy beach might not be a good idea.  A strong gust of wind could take the tripod, camera, and whip the entire set 50 yards away before upending the whole rig and smashing your camera on the driftwood (rendering the camera itself driftwood in some cases).

2.  Segments

Another element to consider besides Aluminum and carbon is that of leg segments.  Many vendors are starting to offer both 3-segment and 4-segment legs.  The factors to consider here are portability and height.  With more segments, you can benefit from having a more compact tripod when collapsed down, which makes for easier porting to and from various locations (especially for travel photographers).  now if you don’t travel a lot, or do not do much outside your studio, then segments might not be a consideration, but let’s not forget the factor of height in this equation as well. Finally, when it comes to segments, you may want to consider the latch system versus the twisting mechanisms offered by various vendors.  Some find the twist-lock mechanism easier to manipulate when extending and closing their legs, while others prefer the latch-lock system.  Whatever your preference, it’s just another part of the equation to calculate before making a purchasing decision.

3.  Height

Standing at 6’1″ myself, I have learned from experience that hunching over those 3-6 inches to the top of my tripod can be straining on the back.  For shorter folks, this may not be as much of a consideration, but the extra 3-6 inches of a longer set of legs can be the difference between paying $100 to a massage therapist or not after a long day of hiking, and shooting.  Typically longer legs are also associated with the 4-segment pieces.


4.  Accessory Features

I know – how many accessory features can a tripod have, right?  You’d be surprised!  You can pimp out a set of legs with foot spikes, horizontal bubble levels, vertical bubble levels, dual bubble levels, and even tripod bags for transport.  Some legs come with built-in bubbles, others feature them as add-ons for an extra $5-$25.  The same goes for the foot spikes and the bags – add-ons can increase the price to a degree, so make sure you keep these in mind when purchasing.

5.  Manufacturer

Last but not least is manufacturer.  Note here that I am referring to who makes the legs, not who sells them.  There are several competitive manufacturers out there that offer similar products in the tripod family, and while tastes may vary, there are some notables in the crowd that do seem to be the cream of the crop in stability circles.  Whether you go through B&H Photo (my preferred vendor), Adorama, Amazon, or anyone else, there are some preferred manufacturers to keep at the top of your selection list.  While I’ve not rank ordered these, they are probably the most respected names in the industry when it comes to tripod legs, tripod heads, and complete sets.  So, take a look at:



Lots to consider when purchasing or upgrading your legs.  I’ve got a lot to think about myself, as I alluded to yesterday in my post about maintenance.  The legs are clearly an important part of helping us capture the images we see, so be smart and research things before jumping in legs-first – you want your first purchase to be the right one!

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4 comments for “Five Key Elements of Tripod Leg Purchasing

  1. Hal Warren
    September 29, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    The last podcast gives me a message that it is unable to play on my iPod because it is not compatible.???

  2. September 30, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    I am seeing that too – not sure what’s going on – it’s an mp3 file, so know that the format is compatible…quite odd. Will submit another ticket to iTunes. Thanks for the heads up! 🙂

  3. October 6, 2010 at 5:58 am

    We’re big fans of Manfrotto when it comes to a professional quality tripod. We also have a tripod we purchased at target as an extra. If you’re only going to use the $40 tripod in a controlled environment once in a while, the $40 option would probably save some money.

    • October 7, 2010 at 7:00 am

      The $40 version is my monopod (from Wal-Mart). My logic there was that with a monopod it’s not going to matter as much…lol! 🙂

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