The subject of tripods and monopods always seems to turn into a big debate. Brand slips in here too, but there are so many other things that need to be taken into consideration. What type of construction, what type of head, how tall is it, how short can it get, how much can it hold, and how many leg sections does it have are some of the issues involved with tripod and monopod selection.
To make things worse, there are many inexperienced users out there who will tell you that the $20 tripod they purchased at [Insert your favorite department store name here] does anything and everything they ever wanted. I suppose if that is true, they got a great deal. I wouldn’t expect that would be the cause for most photographers and particularly for those who have many needs to satisfy with one piece of equipment.
Just like any other piece of gear, there are many types of tripods and many reasons a photographer would have different tripods. I just looked around and discovered that I have four tripods and three monopods. Each one satisfies a different need. This gear definitely follows the old saying, “you get what you pay for.” While some might get by with a cheap tripod, there really is a huge difference in quality and durability.
There are several brands of extremely high quality tripods (Really Right Stuff, Gitzo, Giottos, etc.), but be ready for some sticker shock when you see the price. It is typical for their high end tripod, without a head, to run anywhere from $800 to $1,000. A head for one of these tripods will be around $300. Are they worth it? It depends on who you ask. They are great quality and extremely durable.
Price seems to follow several key features of a tripod with weight, size, and capacity the three main factors. Carbon Fiber tripods will be much less weight than an Aluminum for example, but the cost of the Carbon Fiber will be substantially higher. Tripods that can hold heavy equipment will have much higher prices than those that can hold very light equipment. The same goes for those that fold up extremely small, they will be more expensive than those that don’t collapse down to a small size. Researching what you really need and how you will use the equipment will really help in determining how much you will ultimately need to spend. By the way, this all works the same for monopods too although you can get by without a head for a monopod depending on how you will be using it.
This is one type of purchase that I would highly recommend visiting a camera store and trying out the different options. There are some very good generic brand tripods out there but you need to be able to try them out first. This is not the type of purchase you want to make without knowing the quality first. The biggest problems I have found with generic brands is with the quality of the head and of the leg section connectors. The worst thing you can have is a head that will not lock in place with equipment you are using. Test it out to make sure it will work. It is surprising how much a camera and lens will weigh.
I have a small, compact carbon fiber tripod that I keep in my car at all times and take on hikes. It is lightweight and can support my heavy camera/lens combinations. It wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t the top of the line either. It is a generic tripod but a nicer model. My main studio tripod is aluminum and weighs a ton. It is built like a tank and does go with me when I need something heavy duty and don’t have to carry it great distances. I selected it because it was a top quality tripod but sacrificed weight for cost. I also purchased it used on eBay, so the cost was less than half of what I would have spent new.
I have tried several generic heads that were basically worthless. They weren’t too expensive but they won’t lock in with the weight of my system. I gambled and it didn’t pay off. I have since made sure I have good heads but not top of the line. They work for what I need and they lock in place. Most of them are Manfrotto brand that I have purchased. The type of plate for the head is important too. Unfortunately this is where the different brands like to slip in their own unique systems. They are usually called Quick Release systems and each brand seems to have their own. The most standard type of plate is the ARCA style. Most brands will have options for that or they will just sell their heads without a plate, you would then need to purchase the plate independent of the head. Kirk Enterprise Solutions makes some good plates that are reasonably priced and ARCA compatible.
One last thing to note, there will be many out there who will claim you don’t need a tripod at all. That is something you will need to decide before you invest all of your time and money in tripod equipment. There are definitely times when you don’t need a tripod and others where they are required. There does need to be much thought and planning before a purchase should be made.