Tripod Selection

Gary Hart Photography: Morning Light, Wildflowers and Upper Yosemite Fall from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

Morning Light, Wildflowers and Upper Yosemite Fall from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
1/50 second
ISO 400
105 mm

More than just a platform to eliminate camera shake, a sturdy tripod is an essential part of a landscape photographer’s creative success. Read why here: The Tripod Difference

A photography axiom (popularized by Thom Hogan) says that photographers purchase three tripods:

  1. Your first tripod is a cheap, flimsy, aluminum/plastic monstrosity that sags when even moderate weight is added, and vibrates like jello with the slightest breeze
  2. Next comes a sturdy but heavy “value” tripod that does the job but you quickly tire of lugging
  3. Finally, you spring for the tripod you should have purchased in the first place—a sturdy, light, expensive tripod that serves you for decades

In other words, you’ll save yourself tons of money by biting the bullet and just starting with the tripod that you covet (and probably already know you’ll eventually end up with).

Purchasing a tripod can be an expensive, daunting process, fraught with opportunities for error. While there’s no one-size-fits-all option, there are things you should know as you search for your tripod life-partner.


Sturdiness is the single most important quality for a tripod/head that’s so obvious I shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time on it. But “sturdy” is a subjective term, and sturdy enough for an APS-C mirrorless system may be woefully inadequate for a DSLR mounted with long telephoto.

Factors that can a affect a tripod’s sturdiness are:

  • Weight: All things equal, a heavy tripod is sturdier than a light tripod. But the best (and usually most expensive) tripods compensate for their lighter weight by using better materials and quality design and construction.
  • Build material: Most tripods are made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Pound-for-pound, carbon fiber is stronger than aluminum, but it’s also more expensive.
  • Number of leg sections (usually 3 or 4): The advantage of more leg sections is that the tripod will collapse smaller. but the intersection of leg sections is inherently the weakest part of a tripod leg, so it stands to reason that the fewer leg sections, the sturdier the tripod. My experience has been that, for real-world use, the number of leg sections makes little to no difference. On the other hand, the number of leg sections could be a problem for the budget tripods.


If you have a mirrorless system, you can probably get away with a lighter tripod than someone who still shoots with a DSLR. When considering tripods, a good place to start is to weigh your heaviest body/lens combination, then check the specifications for the tripod and head (usually sold separately) you’re considering for a “Maximum Weight” rating. Most tripods and heads offer this payload information, but it’s often (usually?) more driven by marketing than empirical data, so I wouldn’t take that number too literally.

And while a tripod’s payload rating isn’t terribly useful for comparing tripods from different manufacturers, it can help identify the sturdiest tripods from one manufacturer. In general, I recommend avoiding any tripod or head whose maximum weight isn’t more than double the maximum weight you might put on it. (More on heads below.)

How tall?

Stooping, even just a few inches, may not seem like a big deal at first, but it gets old really fast. Your primary tripod should be tall enough to elevate your camera to eye level without extending the centerpost. While not essential, even taller than eye level is better because extra height adds compositional flexibility, the ability to elevate above obstacles, and makes it easier to handle uneven terrain.

Your minimum tripod height (MTH) determines the shortest tripod you can use without stooping or raising the center post. But you don’t need a tripod that’s as tall as you are because you’ll be mounting a camera and head atop the tripod, and your eyes are probably not on top of your head.

Here are the steps for determining if a trip is tall enough for you:

1. Start with the tripod’s fully extended height (legs extended, center post down), easy to find in the manufacturer’s specifications
2. Add the height of your ball-head
3. Add the distance from the base of your camera to the viewfinder
4. Subtract 4 (or so) inches from your height, including shoes (unless you photograph barefoot), to account for the distance from the top of your head to your eyes.

Variables dictated by need and preference

  • If budget is a concern, it’s okay if your tripod has a centerpost, but ideally your tripod will be tall enough without one because a centerpost is less stable, adds weight, and makes it impossible to lower your camera all the way to the ground (without a convoluted system).
  • Carbon fiber is lighter and and less prone to vibration than aluminum, but more expensive (see Tripod axiom above). Carbon fiber also doesn’t feel as cold on those frigid winter mornings.
  • Three leg-section tripods are less work to set up and take down; four leg-section tripods collapse smaller. In theory, the more leg sections a tripod has, the more it’s prone to vibration (each junction is a point of weakness), but I haven’t found this to be a big concern with a quality tripod.
  • And speaking of leg sections, you’ll need to choose between twist locks and flip locks. That’s a personal preference thing. I find the flip locks a little easier when I’m fully extending and collapsing the tripod at the beginning and end of a shoot, but the twist locks easier for partial adjustments of the legs while I’m shooting. The flip locks can be noisy, and can catch on things.

Tripod head

For landscape photography, I strongly recommend a ball head (pivoting ball that can be controlled by loosening and tightening a single knob) rather than a pan/tilt (a lever for each axis of motion). And beware of the pistol-grip ball heads—they may seem cool, but I’ve found that they don’t handle weight well.

As I mentioned earlier, every reputable tripod head manufacturer provides maximum weight guidelines for their heads, but take these numbers with a grain of salt. All things equal, the heavier the head, the better it will handle weight. Frustrations with having an inadequate head include wind-induced vibration and camera droop after the head is tightened.

Quick-release system 

You’ll definitely want some kind of quick-release mechanism that allows you to quickly attach/detach the camera to/from the head. The simplest kind is a metal plate (don’t even consider anything with plastic parts) that mounts to the camera’s tripod screw and matches a complementary clamp on the head. The clamp might engage/disengage with a lever or twist-knob—I prefer the lever kind because they’re easier, but I have a friend who will never use one again after accidentally jettisoning his camera after the lever caught on something.

The flat plates are okay, but the easiest, sturdiest quick-release system is the Arca-Swiss L-plate (the Arca-Swiss style is a standard offered by many quick-release manufacturers). An L-plate is a 90-degree (L-shaped) piece of machined aluminum; one axis mounts flush with the bottom of the camera body, attaching via the tripod mount screw, and the perpendicular axis hugs one side of the camera body (providing a quick-release plate on the bottom and side of the camera), forming an L shape. The entire length of both plate axes are quick-mount rails that attach (with a lever or knob) to the corresponding mounting clamp on the tripod head.

This rail setup makes switching between horizontal and vertical orientation a simple mater of releasing the clamp, rotating the body, and re-securing the clamp (it takes longer to read the description than to execute it). Another advantage of an L-plate is that whether your camera is oriented horizontal or vertical, the camera is always over the tripod’s center of gravity (more stable), and stays at more or less the same height.

If you’re really serious about your photography, you’ll invest in an L-plate system—once you do, it’ll be hard to imagine how you lived without it. Because every camera model has its own dimensions and unique cable, control, memory card, and battery access points, the best L-plates (like those from Really Right Stuff) are custom-machined for the body (when you get a new camera, you’ll need a new L-plate).

My tripods

I use two Really Right Stuff tripods: as of summer 2022, my primary tripod is a Really Right Stuff Ascend with the integrated head. It’s as close to a perfect tripod for my needs as any tripod I’ve ever used or seen, and is the first tripod to check every box for me: It’s super light, sturdy enough for my heaviest body/telephoto combo, compact enough to fit in a small suitcase, and tall enough to use sans centerpost without stooping (I’m 5′ 9″). (As you might expect, the Ascent is also far beyond the budget of many photographers.)

My second tripod is the RRS TVC-24L with a RRS BH-55. Since getting the Ascend, I only use this tripod if I’m driving to a shoot, won’t be hiking, and plan to shoot extreme telephoto. The Ascent can handle the extreme telephoto, but the 24L’s weight and sturdiness is even better.

2023 update: While the Ascend remains my primary tripod (and I still love it), I have had some problems with vibration blur in moderate to strong wind. Given the tripod’s lightness this makes sense, but as a result I find that I’m quicker to switch to my 24L when concerned that wind might be a problem.

A few words about this image

Morning Light, Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Dome

Like so many of my images, this one was a process that would have been much more difficult without a tripod. My objective was to ensure sharpness in the sunlit rocks, wildflowers, and tree in the foreground, and to allow Yosemite Falls to recede into the background. Finding the right combination of subject distance, focal length, framing, focus point, and f-stop/shutter/ISO was a painstaking process that spanned multiple images.

Being on a tripod allowed me to review and refine the previous image without completely recreating it each time (as I would have had to do if I’d been hand-holding). And using a tripod without a centerpost enabled me to drop all the way down to the flowers’ level.


Making the case for using a tripod
Really Right Stuff

Photo Workshop Schedule

Using my Tripod to Build an Image

(Click, evaluate, refine, click…)

Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE

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