Photography's expensive. Bodies, lenses, filters, software: it all adds up. But what about tripods? Do you really need to spend big on them to get what you want?
Much to my wife's chagrin (and my mother's for that matter), I'm a bit of a sentimentalist when it comes to camera gear (I much prefer "sentimentalist" to my wife's "hoarder" tag). Thus, I find it very difficult to part with even the smallest purchase that's helped me over the years, and that includes tripods. Currently at home here in Japan I have four perfectly functional tripods but I realized just the other day that I've barely used three of them for years now because the one I use most does everything I need, and more. And coming in at a paltry $70 it strengthened my belief that most photography enthusiasts (or pros) really don't need to spend big on tripods because you can get pretty much everything you need for a very affordable price.
I live in the far south of Japan, in Kyushu. It's smack bang in the middle of typhoon alley and we get more than our fair share of natural disasters year on year. Add to that the fact that I mostly shoot landscapes, nature, and surfing and do a lot of bracketing and composite work, it means I have an essential need for a reliable tripod. That's precisely why I have four: to cover me in almost any environmental condition. But as the years have rolled by I've found I only ever use my $70 Rangers tripod because no matter the conditions, it never lets me down. To be clear, this is not a sponsored post of any sort and I have absolutely no affiliation with the tripod manufacturer. I just want to explain why I use this tripod and why I think, for most people's needs, this type of tripod is more than suitable.
So what do I look for in a tripod? I'm really not too fussy, but it must be:
- Stable (obviously, but I mean for a variety of bodies and lenses)
- Functional (in that you can move it into various positions easily)
- Light and portable
- A hook to hang my bag on
That's pretty much it, really. I just want something I can transport from A to B effortlessly that will hold my camera and lens in place in a variety of situations and positions. Give me that and I'm happy. Over the years, I've used three main tripods, which you can see in the photo below.
The first two are small, portable travel tripods and the one on the right is my bigger Vanguard Alta Pro. I used the Manfrotto BeFree tripod before I got the Rangers one and also have the newer BeFree at home in Australia. It served me well here in Japan for a number of years but eventually it pretty much fell apart, no doubt because of my less than stellar handling I'm sure. One thing I really didn't like about the Manfrotto Be Free was that the little rubber stoppers on the legs fell off after only about a month of use. You can see that at the bottom of the center picture below.
This in itself was no big issue but it subsequently meant that when I collapsed and folded up the legs for storage, the last leg would often get trapped inside the leg above it because it had no stopper protection. You have no idea how many frustrated times I spent (particularly on freezing sunrise mornings) trying to dig those legs out with my fingernails. Thankfully, the stoppers on my Rangers tripod are still securely in place.
One thing to be aware of is that with these smaller, portable travel tripods you usually need to extend the center column to its maximum height. The Rangers tripod extends to a maximum height of 56 inches, so if you're very tall and you don't like stooping down, this tripod might not be for you. You can see in the image below I'm holding the Rangers tripod. The center tripod is the Manfrotto and the giant behemoth is the Vanguard, fully extended (you can see that without extending the Vanguard center column it's pretty much the same height as the two others).
Many people will tell you that it's not best practice to use your tripod with the center column fully extended, as it reduces stability. And they would be right. But when you attach your camera bag to the hook like in the image below, it adds a huge amount of extra stability. And while there's no doubting that extended center columns are theoretically less stable, I can say that using the Rangers tripod has never left me images that displayed some kind of camera shake, even during long exposures of up to five minutes. It's very stable and reliable, even when Japan throws its most inclement conditions at me.
With Lenses Attached
I shoot landscapes and surfing mostly, which means I have lenses ranging from wide angle to super telephoto zoom. And I can use all of them on my Rangers tripod. In the first image below, I have attached my Canon f/4L 70-200mm lens to my Canon 5D MKIV. It holds the lens very easily whenever I use it and according to the manufacturer's specs, it can hold up to 26.5 pounds (compared with Manfrotto BeFree's 8.8 pounds). That tall center column may be slightly off-putting but I can only speak from experience and sa I've never had an issue with camera movement during exposures.
In the second image here, I'm using my Sigma Art series f/1.4 50mm lens. I deliberately chose to put that one on because the Art Series lenses, while optically beautiful, are very big and chunky compared with some other 50mm lenses. But my Rangers tripod handles the Sigma Art without a care in the world.
This final shot is with my super telephoto Tamron f/5-6.3 150-600mm lens. It's a whopper of a lens but the Rangers tripod handles it easily. Admittedly, if it was quite windy out or if I was shooting for considerably long periods of time I'd probably use my Vanguard but if it's a quick sunrise shoot in relatively calm conditions then my Rangers tripod easily gets the job done.
One thing I absolutely love about the Vanguard Alta Pro is the ability to fold over its center column so you can shoot perpendicular to the ground. It's a really great feature and one that I often use, especially when I'm shooting running water in rivers or over rocks. It's hard to beat it but the Rangers tripod does a pretty decent job. You can see in the photo below that it doesn't get as low as the Vanguard, nor can it get perfectly parallel to the ground, but when you fold out the legs and maneuver the ball head you can get the camera pretty low to the ground. Obviously the center column is a bit of a nuisance but you can see that the final difference in distance from the ground isn't that much.
Another great thing with the Rangers tripod is that you can convert it into a monopod. You just unscrew one leg (which is labeled as in the image below), then unscrew and detach the center columns then screw the center columns and the detached leg together. The monopod can be used at a maximum height of 57 inches (perfect standing height for me at 167 cms) or you can use it at kneeling or sitting height. I never had that feature with the Manfrotto BeFree. It might be there on newer versions but I can't be sure. I love having the monopod when I'm shooting surfing from the beach. It's great to just rest the camera on it when I'm not shooting, or when I'm talking to someone in the surf and it saves my arms a lot of aches and pains.
I first wanted to finish off by saying that while I'm comfortable paying a premium price for gear such as bodies and lenses, I'm also happy to sacrifice a little on tripods. But then I thought that was wrong because I haven't sacrificed anything. I now use a $70 tripod that meets every single one of my needs and has more than many of its more expensive counterparts — some of which I own. Particularly with photography, I've nearly always been of the belief that you get what you pay for, but with tripods I feel differently. When I wanted to replace my Manfrotto I took a chance on this much cheaper version and I have barely picked up a different tripod since. I think for most people's needs a tripod such as the one I've outlined today is more than suitable. Of course, you can compare similar items and get one that you like most for your circumstances, but for most of us I really don't think there's any need to spend much more when you can get so much bang for buck with tripods on the market today.
Of course, all of this points to me having paid far too much for my previous tripods but it's better late than never to get it right. What are your thoughts? How do you feel about tripods and what do you think is an acceptable price? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.