What is a Camera Tripod? Definitive Guide for 2020

There are so many options available to us, beginners, when looking for the right tripod. This research was so odd to me. What is a camera tripod? I mean, it’s basically a three-legged stand made to hold up your camera and keep it steady and still while filming or shooting. Right?  So why are there so many options? And what the hell is a monopod? How does that even work? 

My brain was so confused by the time I had begun to filter through all of the possible brands, designs, materials, and uses. At first, I was sure there would be colors – that’s an obvious difference. There would be weight standards. Sure, again, that made sense. But these tripods come with so many adaptations! And here is why. 

what is a camera tripod?

Photographers come in so many styles. They shoot film for various purposes. They have their own favorite niches.  Some use telephoto lenses with heavy DSLRs, while others are into portraiture. Some travel a lot and need easy access to a lightweight tripod, while others need a smaller version; something that can be hung on other things easily or used in their home office as a webcam for vlogging.

Some people, like yours truly, we use our phones for most of our art captures. No matter what I use, I need it to be convenient for the use of my phone with adapters for such, and I need it to fold down into a smaller package. So, when you think about how many different styles of photographers we have out there, you begin to understand why there are so many variations on the tripod.

The good news is, once you have a tripod that works well to compliment your style – you don’t have to necessarily purchase another one. Tripods never go out of date. The investment is worth the return, unless you happen to get a shoddy tripod. Hopefully, the listing at the end and the accompanying reading materials will keep you from making that kind of mistake.   

Camera Tripod Basics

The best starting point for any article about a product is to explain that product’s basic features. I barely touched on this in my article concerning the essential basics every photographer should have. These are the things that hardly ever change from one tripod to the next. The only changes will be in design, not in function.  

Two very important things to know before buying a tripod

Collapse Size – This is a measure of how long the tripod measures when it is fully collapsed and folded up. So it’s important to know what kind of space you plan on using for your tripod. This is especially important if you travel a lot and you need to allot space in your bags for a tripod. 

Maximum Load Capacity – You need to know the total weight of your camera while the heaviest lens is attached. Why? Because not all tripods can hold all that wright well. If your rig is heavier than the maximum load capacity for a tripod, you risk the tripod collapsing, the holds wearing out easier, and eventually you might have damage to the tripod, or worse – to your camera and lenses. 

Materials

Most photographers are using carbon-fiber tripods. Carbon-fiber models are lightweight, have a good strength-to-weight ratio, and are very portable. They are corrosion resistant and temperature tolerant. The cons? They tend to be more expensive and the material can fracture more easily than aluminum. 

Metal-alloy tripods – including aluminum, offer a good value for the money, although they’re heavier and over time can be dealt damage by weather and temperature variations. This takes time, so no worries there, but you just need to understand the differences up-front before you purchase. One thing to consider is that because this is a metal alloy, temperature can make the legs and shaft be hot or cold and then affect your handling. 

Wooden tripods are not often seen around, mainly because they weigh so much and you can’t normally fold them into a compact size for travel and transport. The pros to owning one? They absorb vibration more, they are temperature tolerant, and they are corrosion resistant. 

Head Design and Plates

The uppermost portion of the tripod is the head. Most tripods come with a head included, but you can often switch out heads depending upon what kind of filming you happen to be doing. Most heads, whether they came with the tripod or are purchased separately come with a quick-release plate for your camera equipment that can be locked into the head as-needed. 

There are several basic types of tripod heads. The primary purposes of the tripod head are to provide a way to attach your camera to the tripod, allow repositioning of the camera to frame the image you wish to capture, and then hold the camera steady while the photograph is taken.

B&H Photo

The head you choose should allow for adapters to fit whatever camera you plan on using. I use my phone camera, for instance. So I have an adapter that grips the phone and is clamped into the head. 

The head should not only attach your camera to the tripod securely, but allow for easy repositioning of the camera. The positioning and flow of movement is what has led to the different designs for the head of a tripod.  

Pan-and-tilt head: This is the most traditional design for a tripod head. It has three arms extending from the body. This type allows you to precisely position your camera in one plane at a time. You loosen one of the arms to adjust for the vertical axis, then tighten it where you need it. Another arm loosens so you can adjust the horizontal axis, then you tighten it to keep it in place. The last arm is for panning. It also can loosen and then tighten as you need it. 

Gear heads are nearly the same as pan-and-tilt heads. The difference lies in the adjustment apparatus. Instead of arms that loosen and tighten for adjustment, these have smaller gears or handles. This gearing allows for a finer set of adjustments to be had compared to the standard pan-and-tilt head. Again, these kinds of heads can be slower than others that are available. 

Ballhead: This is a more recent design and is mainly for quick convenience. It consists of a ball enclosed in a housing that has a tightening knob on one side. When the knob is loosened, the head can be moved around like a ball and socket joint moves. Then, you just tighten it up when you’ve got your camera in the proper position for the shot you want. 

Some of these heads have multiple controls that allow for friction control – making the adjustment of the position more precise. Others may also include a panning control. There are even cut-outs to some sides allowing the camera to be positioned at a right angle from vertical. 

The pistol grip head is a variation of the ballhead. The adjustments looser or tighter so that the head can move come from a spring-loaded squeeze grip instead of knobs. This quickens the repositioning of your camera. 

Gimbal head: Gimbals can hold a big telephoto loosely so it can be rapidly positioned for action oriented photography, such as sports or wildlife. When the subject is moving quickly and has to be tracked while shooting, these tripods are indispensable. Because of this specialized use, the head is actually attached to a large lens’s tripod attachment, not to the camera. These tripods are stable for the purpose to which they are assigned.

That being said, you don’t often find photographers that need this type of head for their tripod as they are heavier and much bulkier than the less specialized heads available.  

 Fluid head: Ideal for video use, the fluid head design is very similar to the pan-and-tilt head. However, it contains a chamber of fluid that dampens vibrations that are made from movement of the camera and tripod. It also allows for smoother tracking and panning. On a fluid head there is usually just one long arm and multiple gears that adjust the positioning. It offers a counter balance, tension control, and fluid drag that is more precise than the other models of tripod heads. 

Chassis and Center Column Design

The chassis or sometimes referred to as the “canopy” of the tripod is that portion of the tripod where the legs connect. The head can be mounted directly to the chassis. In another design, the tripod may have a center column. A center column can move up and down through the chassis or be attached to the top of it. In the case of having a center column – the top of the column holds the platform for your head and plate, not the chassis itself. 

Why use a center column? You can usually reverse them, so that your camera is held below the chassis instead of above it. This can get your camera very low to the ground for specific shots or macro shots. 

Most of the center columns on portable tripods are adjustable by the use of a friction band that tightens or loosens for slide. This is the same kind of adjustment used on most tripod leg locking designs. However, some of the heavier and more professional tripods may have a crank for the raising and lowering of the center column.

An addition to the center column may be what’s called a “gear hook” which would be on the bottom of the column itself. This is here so that you can hand dedicated weights, or maybe even your camera bag to the bottom of the tripod to give it more stability. 

Center columns can also sometimes be adjusted and adapted to become a “lateral arm”. This allows it to lie across the chassis and multiple cameras can be then connected to the one tripod. This is a very specialized use and so, feel free to look it up, but I won’t go into it further here.   

Leg Locking Design

You want your legs to be telescoping, which means you need to decide what kind of locking mechanism works best for you. If you don’t have telescoping legs, your ability to transport and adjust to uneven ground has just flown out the door. The higher you make your tripod, the less stable it will be. I like extending only the upper portions of a tripod first and seeing if this allows me a good shot. I then adjust the leg lengths accordingly. I only use that last section if I absolutely have no choice. 

For leg locks, you have everything from the dominant friction band around each section, to pull out tabs, spring loaded mechanisms,  flip locks, and friction knobs. I have found that most have the friction bands or the flip locks. 

The flip locks are quick and easy, but get loosened over time. It’s good to have a tool with you in the field, in case you may need a minor adjustment on the go. These things can be completely replaced if you ever need it. 

I prefer the bands, because there’s a lesser chance that I’ll get pinched by those suckers compared to the flip locks. They’re less likely to be affected by dirt and grime and have fewer parts to deal with. Plus, they don’t get caught on as much when I’m transporting the tripod. However, there is a con – sometimes you have to twist a lot to get them to tighten or loosen. That means wasted time. Also, if anything goes wrong with them, they aren’t as easy to replace. 

Da Feet 

Tripods come with a variety of options when it comes to the feet. They could just be rubber. They might have both the rubber foot and a retractable spike to use when needed. Some tripods allow for interchangeable feet – this meets the needs of the photographer based on where he plans to use his tripod. 

Mini-Tripods, Table Tripods, Window Mounts, oh my!

With the advent of the smartphone which has its own camera and the need for webcam support and out-and-about vlogging, a new cast of tripods have been developed. Welcome in the mini-tripod or the tabletripods… or well, there are just a LOT of names for these things! 

Just like a light DSLR or Mirrorless Camera, a smartphone camera is capable of customized shots. You simply have to take your settings off of “auto” anything and begin practicing with those settings to get what you want. A tripod gives any of these cameras a chance to capture good still-life shots or selfie shots that would normally not work without having a place to put your camera for that perfect angle.

They are smaller and lighter than a normal tripod, so they can travel easily. To be honest, they have been adapted much more than your standard tripod. They come in all sorts of shapes that allow for shots in places you couldn’t even begin to use a normal tripod. 

There are a few important factors to consider while looking for the right mini-tripod for you. Make sure the head is large enough to do what you need; the smaller the head the more limitations. Make sure the legs give you the height and stability needed and that the weight the tripod can carry is enough for your equipment.

If the tripod comes with extra gear – all the better! And remember that some models aren’t just made for a tabletop – they were designed for an on-the-go experience – either attaching to other surfaces or being able to convert into a selfie stick of sorts! 

Monopods

A monopod is a fast and easy support when you can’t use a tripod and is common with sports photography. When you’re at an event and you are using a large lense, but there’s a lot of movement involved, a monopod comes in very handy, indeed. Most have extendable legs that are short and help it to stand, but they are definitely not intended to support the campera by itself.

A monopod provides support and stability for large cameras, but the photographer has to be willing to hold it, and therefore the camera, at all times. It’s like having your camera perched on top of a stilt, to be honest. A lot of tripods now offer some sort of conversion into a monopod. 

I can see why they are used, but it’s not something I need and would be impractical for me. So, I’m mentioning them and I may even list a top five for you in the end – because it may be something my readers are interested in.  

Conclusion

You should purchase your chosen products from wherever you feel most comfortable purchasing camera products. I always look over reviews from multiple sources before I make a decision on a purchase. If you want to see my picks for the best tripods then check out my Best Tripods for Cameras article. Also be sure to take a moment to look at our other beginner’s guides on the website.

Question: Which of the different types of tripods are you most interested in? Be sure to comment below.

Rachel Adams

I have used a wide variety of cameras over the years and wanted to share my experiences and knowledge with my readers. I don't have a degree in photography and I don't do this professionally. So, if you were looking for a photography expert - sorry. But if you prefer a practical person who admits she’s been a noob to photography and has learned from good people and through trial and error? I’m here for ya!

Leave a Comment

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This