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Choosing The Best
Tripods and Tripod Heads
Jim Doty, Jr.

A good tripod can be your most valuable photographic accessory.  Despite being a nuisance to carry around, tripods make some photos easy that are otherwise difficult or impossible. Do you want to take lightning pictures on a dark night?  Simply put your camera on a tripod, point it at the storm, focus, lock open the shutter and wait. Want to take fireworks pictures? Use the same procedure.  Do you want to take 3, 6 or 12 minute long photos of moonlit landscapes? Not a problem. As long as your subject isn't moving and you can see it, you can take a picture of it if you have a tripod.  One of the most important assets of a tripod is that the whole range of shutter speeds is possible as long as your subject isn't moving. This 6 second photo of bungalows in South Pacific would not have been possible without a tripod.

Bungalows, Moorea, South Pacific. Photo copyright Jim Dpty Jr.
Bungalows, Moorea, South Pacific.


Tripods also slow you down. Often this is a good thing.  Photos taken with a camera on a tripod are often more carefully composed than handheld photos. Put your camera on the tripod and pretend it is a large format camera and that you are setting up a classic image, worthy of the finest publications. Think about the overall composition and the placement of the various elements in the frame. Check the corners and edges of the frame to make sure nothing distracting is showing. Try different focal lengths to find the one with the most dramatic impact.

Taking photographs with a graduated neutral density filter is much more difficult without a tripod.  The use of other filters which require critical alignment are made much easier when your camera is mounted on a tripod.

A tripod also saves you from the weight of holding your camera while you are waiting for just the right moment.

Photographer, Telephoto Lens, and Tripod. Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo copyright Jim Doty, Jr.
Photographer, Telephoto Lens, and Tripod. Rocky Mountain National Park.


Important Tripod Features

1. Sturdy.  A flimsy, unstable tripod is a pain. Get one that is well built. Size depends on the weight of your camera and lens. A small SLR and a light weight zoom lens don't require as heavy-duty a tripod as a heavy pro camera attached to a mega-monster zoom lens (like the gear in the photo above). Check the weight capacity of the tripod and head that you have in mind. Don't get one that is so heavy you won't use it.

2. Interchangeable heads.  If you want to try a different head tomorrow, or next year, you will want to be able to change heads without replacing the whole tripod. Get a tripod with a 3/8 stud on top.

3. Convenient height without raising the center post.  The more you raise the center post, the less stable the tripod is, especially in the wind.  Get a tripod that is close to your viewing level without extending the center post. If you are backpacking, size and weight may over rule this height consideration, but for all other use, you want a tripod that is tall enough.

4. Wide spreading legs.  Get a tripod that lets you get close to the ground.  This means legs that spread wide apart and an optional short center-post, or a center-post that comes apart in the middle.

5. Optional short center-post or a center-post that comes apart.  See 4.

The photographer below is photographing the same elk as the photographer in the photo above. You can see the elk on the LCD on the back of his camera.

Tiny Tripod. Photo copyright Jim Doty Jr.
Small Camera and Tiny Tripod. Rocky Mountain National Park.
"Whatever works!"


Tripod Head Features

Video heads are great for video photography so you can pan with the action and when you never need to turn the camera on its side.  They are not the best choice for still photography because it is important to take a variety of vertical as well as horizontal photos.  There are two very good options for still photography, 3-Way (or 3D) heads, and ball heads.

3-Way (3D) Heads

These heads have three separate knobs to control the three directions a camera moves: left-right, up-down, and horizontal-vertical. They allow very precise alignment of a camera for static subjects. Loosening one control allows careful realignment of the camera in one direction without changing the others. They are great for architectural, scenic, landscape, cityscape and close-up photography. They are too slow to use with moving subjects (like wildlife).

Ball Heads

Ball heads have a ball and socket joint with a control knob that tightens the socket.  When loose, the camera can be moved in any direction, tightened and everything locks up. These are best for quick realignment of the camera.  They are a favorite of nature photographers that specialize in wildlife.


These recommendations are based on tripods and heads that I have used.

The most commonly used tripods by professionals are made by Manfrotto and Gitzo. Both are imported into the in the U.S. by Bogen Imaging.  (Manfrotto tripods used to be called Bogen-Manfrotto tripods in the US., and before that, simply Bogen.) They have always been manufactured by Manfrotto and imported by Bogen. 

Both tripod systems are very well made.  The Gitzos are high priced, making Manfrotto the tripod of choice for many photographers.

New Tripods

If you are looking for a smaller, lighter, economical tripod that it still sturdy and very well made, it is tough to beat the Manfrotto 190X series. The basic model is the Manfrotto 190XDB. I prefer the Manfrotto 190XPROB because it is so convenient to move the center column to the horizontal position.

For a normal size tripod in the 055X series, I recommend the Manfrotto 055XB. For a little more money I prefer the Manfrotto 055XPROB because it is easier to move the center column to the horizontal position.

If you want high quality in a lighter weight, and don't mind paying a much higher price, I recommend the Gitzo Mountaineer series. I've been using the Gitzo Mountaineer G1228 Mk2 since shortly after it was first introduced. With the head off, it fits into my airline legal carry-on. It's tall enough to do what I want it to do out in the wilderness. The model numbers have changed.

The lighter weight of a Mountaineer carbon tripod tripod is a huge asset when carrying gear for miles into the wilderness. I recommend the Gitzo Mountaineer GT1540 for a good combination of light weight, small size when closed (21.3 inches), reasonable maximum height with the center column down (54.3 inches) and a very workable maximum height with the center column up (62.6 inches).  If you prefer a taller tripod, there are other models available like the Gitzo Mountaineer GT3540L which has a maximum height of 71.3 inches with the center column up.

An interesting alternative to the Gitzo Mountaineer series tripods is the National Geographic Expedition MagFiber series . For the best balance of fewatures for the outdoor photographer, I recommend the National Geographic NGET2. Closed it measures 22.6 inches. The maximum height with the center column down is 53.3 inches. With the center column up, the maximum height is 66.9 inches. It has retractable rubber feet for smooth floors and spikes for outside use. If I went out to buy a tripod today, this would be at the top of my list.

The Manfrotto, Gitzo, and National Geographic tripods are all distributed in the United State by Bogen Imaging. They are a first class company and I have dealt with them for years.

New Tripod Heads


The Manfrotto 056 3D (or 3025) will hold a film or digital SLR and normal lenses in sizes up to a 70-200mm or 75-300mm with apertures of f/4 and f/5.6 (or even a 70-200 f/2.8 lens). For larger lenses, you will need the Manfrotto 115 3D head.

If you want the ultimate in 3-way control, get the Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head at about $250.


If cost is a consideration, the Slik Pro Ball 800 head works well and costs about $100. I used one for a number of years before it finally began to wear out and slip. The Pro Ball 800 has a quick release disc that screws on to the bottom of your camera. Drop the disc into the top of the head, close the clamp and you are ready to go.

If you are ready to step up in price and quality, I recommend ballheads by Kirk Enterprises and Really right Stuff. Both companies use the excellent Arca-Swiss quick release system. You buy a mounting plate or L-bracket that mounts to your specific camera model. The grooves in the bottom of the mounting plate or L -bracket fit into jaws in the clamp on top of the tripod head. It is quick and very secure.

The Kirk Enterprises BH-3 and Really Right Stuff BH-40 are the smaller, lighter , less expensive models and the smallest I would recommend for a film or digital SLR. Both heads will easily handle an SLR with lenses up in size to 70-200mm f/2.8 and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6. If you are using really big lenses like a 300mm or 400mm f/2.8 or larger, you will need to go to the larger Kirk enterprises BH-1 or Really Right Stuff BH-55.

Kirk Enterprises and Really Right Stuff sell directly to the consumer via their web sites. I use products from both companies. They both have excellent customer service and I recommend them highly.

Kirk Enteprises BH-3 ball head with Arca-Swiss style clamp. Photo copyright Jim Doty Jr.
Kirk Enteprises BH-3 ball head with Arca-Swiss style clamp

The large knob to the left releases the tension on the ball so you can point the camera freely in any direction. Tighten it and the camera doesn't move. Opposite it to the right is a small knob that you can use to set a small amount of tension on the ball, even when the main knob is loose. The knob on the lower left loosens the body of the ball head so that it can rotate on it's axis without loosening the ball and camera. You can loosen this knob to take simple panoramas (although you can have parallax problems if you are photographing anything close to the camera).  The knob on the upper right tightens and loosens the clamp that grabs the mounting plate attached to the bottom of the camera.

Older Model Tripods and Heads

Model numbers have changed, but a tripod can last for decades with reasonable care. Here are some tripods and heads with older model numbers that will serve you well. You can find them on the used equipment market

I like the Manfrotto Model 3021 series (predecessor to the current 055X series) and the lighter weight Model 3001 (predecessor to the current 190X series). One or the other of these tripods would serve you well for many years. I have one of each and they both work fine after more years of regular use. The 3021 is taller, heavier, and sturdier. If you think it is too heavy for you, the 3001 is the lightest weight tripod I recommend.  I have used both to shoot hundreds of rolls of film and they are still going strong.

If the higher price isn't a problem (even on the used market) and a sturdy but light weight tripod is what you want, Gitzo has come out with a line of tripods made of carbon-fiber.  For all around use, outdoors and in, I recommend the Gitzo 1228 Mountaineer (as I mentioned above). It provides about the same size,  support and sturdiness of a Bogen-Manfrotto 3021 but shaves off almost half the weight. I drag my Mountaineer all over the country and it works great

My two favorite 3-Way tripods heads are the Manfrotto Model 3025 and Manfrotto Model 3028.   Both operate the same way. The 3028 has a larger base plate to mount the camera on and has long levers instead of knobs. 

My favorite low cost (under $100) ball head is the Slik Pro Ballhead 800.  It has three control knobs. The main control knob controls movement of the ball and socket joint.  The tension knob sets the tension on the joint when the large knob is loosened.  A third knob allows panoramic movement (left and right) without loosening the main control knob. This ball head has a quick release system built in. A thick, round plate screws onto the bottom of your camera or large lens. This plate drops into the tripod head and lock firmly into place. It works well provided the round plate is screwed tightly to the bottom of your camera. If it isn't, the camera will slowly rotate when you turn it to vertical.

If you are looking for a good way to get close to the ground when using a tripod with metal legs, try the Bogen Super Clamp.


My blog article on some of the best tripods.

My blog article on the some of the best tripod heads.

My blog article on the best quick release system.

You can buy tripods and tripod heads in this section of my photography store (which is powered by's great prices, ordering system, and excellent return policy).

June 16, 2000
Updated May 4, 2012

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