Tripod and head buying guide

What to think about when buying a tripod

I think a tripod is one of the most important pieces of equipment a photographer has. I shoot over 95% of my photos with my camera on a tripod. Yes, even street photography. I'll have that discussion with you anytime. Anyway, I make big prints that I sell in my gallery and if they aren't the sharpest possible I'm not going to make a sale. Using a tripod helps slow me down and think more about what I am photographing but I've used one for so long that it has become and extension of me and I can get mine into the position I need extremely fast so I don't miss a shot.

I have many people come to my workshops with a cheap, flimsy tripod and it makes me feel bad. They think they are getting steady shots, and they may look that way on the back of their camera, but after they see them on their computer they are extremely disappointed. I think there is nothing worse than buying a light weight travel tripod and going to an exotic place where they will never go again and come home to blurry photos. My tripod is huge, it goes up to over seven feet high and I had to search hard to find a suitcase that it would fit in, even after I take off the ball head. But I want the best photos I can get and a solid tripod is essential.

When getting a tripod these are the key questions to answer:

How tall are you?

You don't want to be bending over all the time when using the tripod. I'm a big believer that the best angle for a photo probably isn't your standing height, but there are many times when it doesn't matter. Many tripods come with a center column, which is the weakest part of the tripod. So I usually don't recommend pulling it out all the time. So get a tripod that is as tall as your are, and include the height of the head in that calculation.

What type of head do you want?

There are many options for tripod heads and most good tripods don't come with a head, you purchase it separate. The head allows you to align the camera on the tripod and hopefully quickly remove it, using what is called a quick release. I highly recommend, maybe even insist, that you get an Arca-Swiss style head, sometimes just called Arca. Quick release heads hold a plate that you put on your camera. Since Arca heads have become the standard, your plate will fit on many other tripods and if you forget your plate, someone else will probable have a spare.

There are different types of heads: ball, pan and tilt and gimbal are the most common for still photographers. Pan and tilt have handles that stick out and can be cumbersome, so I don't recommend them. Ball heads are the most common and are the best type in most situations. Gimbal heads are for large lenses, the gimbal balances the weight of the lens and camera and allow for fast action movement.

I'm selling the SIRUI K-40X, K-30X and K-20X ball heads. SIRUI has a less expensive line but I find them much harder to use. These are good heads at a good price. I personally use a Really Right Stuff ball head with a lever clamp. It is strong, expensive and about the best you can get. If you need the best, get Really Right Stuff, but most people will do great with the SIRUI. You can use any brand head on most tripods.

How heavy is your camera and biggest lens?

This goes hand-in-hand with what head. If you have a tripod that you can wiggle easily, then it is no good. Any wiggle, even a slight wind, will shake your camera and make your images blurry. And if you get too much weight on a small tripod the legs bow or slowly collapse, again, not a desired effect.

Most tripods have three, four or five leg sections. Many times the more sections you have the more compact the tripod will be, which is handy for traveling. But it is a bigger hassle to extend five sections than three. If the section with the smallest diameter is about the size of your pinky, then the tripod won't be very steady.

Usually the bigger the head the more weight it can hold. The last thing you want is a head that is too small and sags under the weight of your camera and lens. There's nothing more frustrating than getting your shot perfectly aligned and then watching your camera slowly droop.

How much are you carrying the tripod?

Tripods are made of two things, either carbor fiber or aluminum. Carbon fiber weighs much less but costs more. Aluminum is heavier and is less expensive but it reduces vibration less. I'm a big fan of carbon fiber but if you are shooting in a studio or not carrying your tripod much, then you can save some money with aluminum. They are both about equally durable, carbon fiber won't wear out but you can smash the tubes.

Leg lock types

There are two main types: twist lock or lever lock. The most popular is the twist, where you literally twist a ring to tighten the tripod leg. The lever lock is also like it sounds, pull the lever to loosen the leg and push it back to tighten. Level locks can be quicker to operate but they tend to not be as tight with time. Of course they get soft at the worst possible time so you should always carry the allen wrench that comes with it. Twist types don't loosen with age, you tighten it as much as you want every time you use it. But what frequently happens is people twist the wrong direction when tightening and unscrew it all the way and the leg falls out. When that happens to you, immediately look on the ground for two small pieces of arch-shaped plastic. They are what keep the legs from pulling out under normal conditions. If you don't reinsert them your leg will continually come out.

My recommendations

One of the things photographers ask me about the most is what tripod to get. So I am dealer for SIRUI tripods (pronounced SUE-ray). I've been using them for years, they are affordable and durable, which is a great combination.

While I can get any product they make, I'm only stocking a selection of tripods and heads that I would recommend to photographers.

Starter or Lighter weight

For people getting their first tripod, I suggest the SIRUI ST-124 carbon fiber. You'll need to add a head, either the K-20X if you have a small or light mirrorless camera or the K-30X if you have a DSLR or larger zoom lenses.


If you are a little taller or using larger zoom lenses, you'll want a larger tripod. The SIRUI ST-224 is a good carbon fiber tripod for a reasonable price. It is waterproof, which is handier than you might think, and not too heavy. Again, you'll need a ball head and I have a kit package with the K-20X ball head or if you have heavier lenses move up to the K-30X or maybe even the K-40X.

Really Good

I use the SIRUI W-2204 Waterproof Carbon Fiber tripod a lot (if you are in Peru and see mine somewhere on a train, please grab and send it back to me). It is a good waterproof tripod that has plenty of strength and height but not too much weight. Pair it with a K-30X or K-40X ballhead or the SIRUI PH-20 Carbon Fiber Gimbal if you are shooting with a big lens.

My main tripod is unfortunately no longer made, SIRUI was sued by Really Right Stuff for patent infringement and they stopped making it rather than fight, which is sad since most tripods are designed the same way and the SIRUI was half the price of RRS. But if you want the best, RRS makes it and it will be the last tripod you buy, unless you leave it on a train.

Since I'm selling gear mainly as a service to photographers, I'm selling everything at the lowest allowed advertised price, so even B&H can't beat my price. Check out the selection on my Gear Store page. If you know you need a new tripod but don't know which one, let me know and I'll help make sure you get what you need. When in Vermont, you can see a nice selection at my gallery Focus - A Vermont Gallery.

Photo © copyright by Loren Fisher.