Camera Tripods and Ball Heads: What to Consider Before You Buy

Silhouette photo of people and tripods on the beach at sunrise by Margo Taussig Pinkerton.
© 2011 Margo Taussig Pinkerton. All right reserved.

OK, let get down to brass tacks, or in this case, tripods and ball heads.

Lots of questions come to Arnie and I around the subject of photography equipment.

“What camera should I buy?”

“What lens(es) should I bring?”

I was looking at a review on …”

Beach photo of Margo Taussig Pinkerton with her foot on top of a tripod by Martha Wells.
Photo used with permission.
© 2011 Martha Wells. All Rights Reserved.

Rarely, however, do people consult with us on tripods and ball heads.

Are we the do-all-end-all in advice? Of course not, but Arnie and I made our living for decades as full-time working professional photographers, and as such, we know what works. And as long-time teachers, we have seen the frustrations of those who try to “save” money.

“I just spent $X on my camera, and those things are expensive.”

Yes, they are, no question, but it’s rather akin to filters. Why would you put a $20-30 filter on an expensive lens? After all, your lens is only as good as the weakest piece of glass on it. Yup, you’ve got it. That expensive lens is now only as good as the glass in that cheap $20-30 filter.


Is there any difference when you contemplate buying a tripod and ball head? You spend, let’s say, $3,000 on a camera body and some lenses. That’s conservative in many cases. And you buy a flimsy, $125 combo deal on sale? Your $3,000 investment isn’t very safe on that “I’ve-saved-money” piece of equipment. That is not to say that getting something on sale or second hand isn’t a good way to go, BUT … Having a substandard system for your camera and lenses is worse than having no tripod at all. We have seen cameras fall on rocks, head for the drink or briny deep, teeter off porches, and a host of other mishaps. Fortunately, the cameras were caught or rescued in the nick of time, but — and this is a BIG BUT — they were really lucky! There are those who are not so lucky.

“OK,” you ask, “what should I buy?”

The first answer is, “Get the best you can afford.” That is obviously a simplistic answer, so we’ll delve further.

Image of camera on a tripod weighted down with a camera bag by Laura Adler Palka.
Photo used with permission.
© 2011 Laura Adler Palka. All Rights Reserved.


First, weigh your camera and your heaviest lens. Add a few pounds in case you want to buy an even heavier lens later on. Both your tripod and head should be rated to handle that weight with a margin of safety of at least another couple of pounds!

We generally recommend looking for something with a load capacity of an absolute minimum of 14 pounds — 18 is much better — for a DSLR camera, and considerably more if you have a medium-format or larger camera.

In the long run, it is cheaper to buy a good system than an entry-level one. Skimping on a tripod means frustration when in the field and ultimately buying something better, and guess what? You’ve wasted your money on that first system. Realistically, however, budgets are budgets, and each person has to weigh those decisions.

Features we like to see in a tripod…

~ Weight: Carbon-fiber tripods are lighter (easier to carry in the field and reduces weight when traveling), but they are more expensive than the standard metal ones. That said, the prices are coming down every time you turn around, so just wait for a sale.

~ Sturdiness/Stability: If you rap one leg, and the other two move or vibrate, then the tripod is too flimsy.

~ Three-or Four-segment Legs: These provide for greater height adjustment and more compact length when collapsed.

Image of tripod with ball head standing on a beach by Margo Taussig Pinkerton.
© 2010 Margo Taussig Pinkerton. All right reserved.

~ Adjustable and Reversible Center Column: This would preferably be one that can also be taken out of its vertical position and put in horizontally.

~ A Bubble Level: This is not critical, but very useful for stitches (panoramas).

~ Legs and Leg locks: You have choices here too – quick lock, twist lock, and self-locking (one simply pulls down on the legs and they automatically lock in position).

I am one of those people who invariably tries to turn twisting leg locks in the wrong way – tightens them instead of loosening them. Guaranteed! On top of that, Arnie calls me “Goddesszilla.” It is often challenging for anyone to collapse the legs after my iron grip has been applied. So, if you’re like me, I would recommend quick lock or self-locking legs.

You may also want to consider those with legs are that are structured where the “fattest” section is at the bottom, and the other two sections pull out from or collapse back into this bottom section. This avoids sand, gravel, dirt, etc. from getting into the above sections of the legs and jamming them.

~ Ease of use:
If it doesn’t work for you, you won’t use it, and it is a total waste of money.

If you don’t buy a tripod with a built-in, carrying strap, you may want to either buy or fashion one yourself.

When photographing with a lens with image stabilization (IS) or vibration reduction (VR) — two different names for the same thing — we recommend turning it off while working on a tripod. These lenses look for shake, then compensate for it. If they don’t find shake, they can shake in an effort to seek out the now-non-existing movement! Don’t forget to turn that feature back on if you are hand holding the camera.

Arnie and I carry our tripods over our shoulders with the cameras still mounted. For more comfort, we put some pipe-insulating foam around the legs, secured with gaffer’s tape — NOT duct tape. This is much cheaper than buying fancy custom tripod “tea cozies” from $30-60. We prefer our local hardware store’s prices. And make sure the lens on the camera is facing DOWN. Birds have been known to fly overhead!

Who provides great tripods?
Our recommendations go towards Bogen-Manfrotto, Really Right Stuff and Gitzo – take a look and compare and consider them. You would do well to shop the internet for the best price, keeping shipping costs in mind. Also weigh the integrity/reputation of the supplier into your decision of where to buy a piece of equipment.

We used to recommend some lower-budget, private-label tripods put out by the various big camera stores, but it seems they only last a couple of years under regular use. Some come with ball heads. Again, the critical element again is load capacity. Remember those stories above of cameras and lenses meeting with near disasters?

Rain hat sitting on top of a tripod and ball head by Margo Taussig Pinkerton.
© 2010 Margo Taussig Pinkerton. All right reserved.


Even more important than the tripod is the ball head. If your head does not securely hold your camera body and lens, it is useless. In today’s world, the vast majority of experienced photographers use a ball head for good reason. It is just plain easier to use and more accurate for fine adjustments. And it is really a ball head. If you don’t see the ball, you are probably looking at one of those Machiavellian, two-handled, multi-knobbed models from the Dark Ages that frustrate so many photographers.

Arnie and I have been using ball heads since the 70’s. Today, there are some great ball-head-and-mount systems on the market, and you really do “gets what you pays for,” as the old saying goes.

Things you may want to consider are:

~ Smoothness of movement;

~ Precision, multi-angle versatility;

~ Independent adjustments for both for panning and ball position;

~ Adjustable drag;

~ Secure clamping;

~ Quick release plates rather than having to screw the camera onto the head; and

~ Built-in level.

When you are photographing with a longer lens with its own mount/tripod collar, always use that instead of the camera body, and you can just rotate the lens for horizontal or vertical views without un-mounting it. This means that you will have to get a second, two-screw plate for the long lens. If you don’t have a collar, we strongly recommend you getting one. It keeps the weight distribution on the tripod balanced.

First, it is easy to switch from horizontal to vertical mode. Secondly, your camera will not sag.

Who provides great ball heads? Consider Bogen-Manfrotto, Really Right Stuff, Acratech, Kirk, and Gitzo.

And no, we do not get any “sponsorship” from them nor from any other manufacturers whose products we recommend. There are always different opinions.

You now have the knowledge, so you can make an educated decision for yourselves.

by Margo Taussig Pinkerton (aka, TBC–The Barefoot Contessa)
Barefoot Contessa Photo Adventures with Margo Taussig Pinkerton and Arnie Zann
Article: © 2014 Margo Taussig Pinkerton. All right reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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