Did you know there was a fee associated with getting a tripod when you first get into photography? There is and it is usually paid when you find a great deal for $25.00 which includes the legs and a head. The reason it is a fee is because you will soon, and by soon I mean that day, realize your mistake. This tripod will be flimsy and likely have a crank for the center column making it even more flimsy. All of this and it will be short too causing you all kinds of issues when you are trying to use it. Before long you will just hand hold every shot because your images will be sharper. There is a way to avoid this fee but most people don't want to hear it...
So how do you avoid the fee? Well, if you have decided to take up nature photography then you can avoid the fee by finding a good tripod and head (usually purchased separately). These can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to well over a thousand. Yes, this sounds like a lot of money for three legs but your images will thank you for it and tripods will generally last forever. Provided you take at least marginal care of them.
When it is time to purchase a tripod you have a few things to consider. The material, size and weight, if you want a center column, and the cost.
There are two types of material largely accepted for tripods. Aluminum and Carbon Fiber.
Aluminum is typically less expensive than carbon fiber. They are reasonably stable and weigh more than a carbon fiber of equal size. In most circumstances aluminum is adequate but carbon fiber offers a few more advantages.
Carbon Fiber is the material often sought after by nature photographers because it is lighter than aluminum and transmits much less vibration. Because it is lighter nature photographers can have their standard sized tripods and shave a few pounds off. Another benefit is they can have slightly larger tripods yet leave the weight manageable for long hikes.
Size and Weight
Personally I seek a tripod which can at the very least put the camera to my eye when it is fully extended even though the composition requires a lower height. The extra reach will allow you to extend a leg down the side of a hill or into water in order to keep the tripod level. With size comes weight and with weight comes difficulty carrying it in the field. So, when you consider the size of the tripod you will have to weigh the pros and cons in order to choose the size which best suits your needs. While it is easy to have too little tripod it is often difficult to have too much.
Ah, the good ole center column. Do you know what you have when you raise a center column? A three legged mono pod. Some of the stability you gain from having a tripod is diminished when the column is raised.
I am sure there are times when the center column is useful for nature photography but it seems to get in the way more often than now. It gets in the way when you try and place the tripod low to the ground while composing an image. Because of the column you can only go so low. You have to decide if you find the center column useful or if you need to look for another set of legs. If you are considering one because the center column bring it up to your eye level consider buying a larger tripod.
With all the flashy camera equipment out there it is easy to get distracted with the latest camera body or lens. When you look at really good tripods you can get sticker shock as some are well over a thousand dollars. While this may seem extreme look at it from another point of view. You spent several thousand dollars on a camera and many more thousands on your lenses yet you put all the expensive gear on a tripod which costs less than a hundred dollars. In photography, like most things, you typically get what you pay for.
Tripods are extremely important for sharp images when you are at slower shutter speeds and the higher end tripods help deliver sharper photographs. It is that simple. You should treat the tripod as part of your overall camera system. So, like lenses, when it is time to purchase a tripod get the most expensive you can afford to help avoid the tripod fee. Otherwise, do what I did which was survive on the less expensive ones and work your way up. Yes, I paid a heavy tripod fee...
Below, is a list of tripods and tripod heads from the reasonably good to the really good.
Manfrotto is a very old company and they produce a wide variety of quality support products. Their tripods range from about $99.00 on up to over $1,000.00. The one featured to the left is made of aluminum and features a center column which you can orient horizontal without removing. It runs around $220.00 and would be a good tripod especially if you are starting out and not up to spending a grand.
Induro Tripods are good all around tripods. Recently, they stopped producing aluminum based tripods electing instead to concentrate on carbon fiber which is now the industry standard. The model pictured to the right runs $299.00. Their prices for their "Classic" models range anywhere from $299.00 to $425.00.
Feisol has been producing carbon fiber tripods since 2002. Their products have quality features with a mid-range price. They have various models ranging in price from $271.00 - $660.00. The one featured to the left is on the upper end at $570.00.
If you are looking for a decent carbon tripod for under 700.00 take a look at Feisol.
Really Right Stuff TVC-34L
Really Right Stuff (RRS) is a industry leader in camera support systems. They have much more available than just their tripod legs. They also have some of the best ball-heads in the business. The model pictured to the right runs $1,048.00. RRS prices can range from $700.00 to $1300.00 depending on what model you choose.
If money is no object and you can afford an RRS tripod then you may very well never have to buy another set of legs.
Gitzo Mountaineer GT3542L
When discussing top of the line tripods we would be remiss not to mention Gitzo. For many years now Gitzo has manufactured some of the highest quality tripods around.
The one pictured to the left is a Gitzo Mountaineer GT3542L. Its price runs $1,040.00. The Gitzo prices range from $700.00 to $1400.00 depending on the chosen configuration.