Like most of the equipment required for wildlife and nature photography, tripods can get expensive.
Do you even need an expensive tripod for wildlife photography? Are professional grade tripods that much better than cheap tripods?
So how much should you spend?
Read on to understand how your needs determine the tripod attributes required and how the attributes drive the price.
How to choose a tripod for Wildlife and Nature photography
There are 9 factors to consider when choosing a tripod for wildlife and nature photography.
- What is the primary use of the tripod?
- What type of tripod head will you be using?
- Where are you going to use the tripod?
- What is the weight of the equipment you will be supporting?
- Do you want carbon fiber or aluminium?
- How high does the tripod need to extend?
- How low does the tripod need to go?
- Do you want flip lock tripod legs or twist lock tripod legs?
- How much do you want to spend?
What is the primary use of the tripod?
The most important deliberation when choosing a tripod for wildlife and nature photography is determining its main use.
Landscape and nature photographers may not need as big a load bearing capacity as wildlife photographers, but they both would probably be interested in the build quality and robustness of construction of the tripod.
This is because landscape photographers may be clambering around rugged terrain, be wading into rivers, be taking photographs of seascapes from a beach etc.
Wildlife photographers are similarly operating sometimes under harsh conditions, dust, rain etc. and so build quality is key.
Another factor for landscape photographers is weight. Most landscape photographers carry their gear on their back or in their hands for long distances. It stands to reason that the lighter the overall load the better.
Wildlife photographers are usually putting a heavy load on top of the tripod as the lenses they use are often large and heavy. The tripod heads that they use are also often larger and heavier than those used by landscape photographers.
I have yet to meet a wildlife photographer who is not also a nature or landscape photographer. It stands to reason then that the various types of outdoor photography require similar attributes from a tripod.
In contrast, a professional food photographer is either using a specialized salon camera stand indoors, or is using a lightweight tripod inside a restaurant or kitchen environment.
What type of tripod head will you be using?
Different types of tripod head suit different uses and there are many different types.
For the sake of this article we associate the type of tripod head with the amount of panning or movement required by the genre of photography.
Landscape and nature photographers lock their composition down and usually only make small adjustments from there. The type of tripod head that works for this are the ball head tripod heads, usually used with a lock plate.
Wildlife photographers invariably need the ability to rapidly move their point of focus – to track either a bird or a fast moving animal. The best choice of tripod head for wildlife photographers is a gimbal head, particularly if you are using a large telephoto lens.
A cheaper option is to use a pan and tilt tripod head which are usually used for video cameras. These do not have the range or speed of movement required and so are not recommended for wildlife photographers.
Gimbal heads are a lot more expensive than ball heads and so the total cost of an optimal camera support set up for a wildlife photographer is more expensive than that required by a landscape photographer.
Where are you going to use the tripod?
Where you use the tripod also has a material impact on the tripod you choose and how much you pay for it. There are two factors to consider here and both are relevant to landscape and wildlife photographers.
Photographers flying to different countries, or even long distance domestically, will have to be aware of the baggage and weight restrictions of the various airlines.
This then places a big emphasis on the size and weight of the tripod. Some tripods can fold into a very small, compact size and there is a whole range of travel tripods to choose from.
Nature, landscape and wildlife photographers are often working in harsh environments.
Sometimes extreme weather conditions are a factor. Rain, extreme heat, extreme cold and dusty or sandy desert conditions, all have an impact on the functioning of your equipment.
Landscape and wildlife photographers are often working close to water or perhaps even high up on a cliff. You need your tripod to be able to withstand bumps and falls. I once dropped a tripod 50 feet down a ravine and totally destroyed it.
Robustness and build quality impact the price and make such tripods more expensive than those designed for light work indoors.
What is the weight of the equipment you will be using?
The single most important factor in your deliberation is the load bearing capacity of the tripod.
If your tripod is only designed to support a total weight of 10 lbs then you should not be putting a large DSLR and a telephoto lens with a combined weight of 15 lbs on top of it.
In order to work out the load bearing capacity required you need calculate the total weight of the following:
- Camera body including battery
- Lens including any adapter or tele-converter
- Tripod head
- L plate or locking plate
The table below shows the load requirements assuming you are using a large camera body with a top of the range prime or zoom lens. The 20% allowance is for the additional weight of the tripod head etc., as explained above, plus a bit extra.
Carbon fiber or aluminium tripod?
Choosing a carbon fiber tripod over a aluminium tripod has a major impact on the price, and this is one of the reasons that tripods are so expensive.
Carbon fiber tripods are stronger and lighter than aluminium tripods. Carbon is five times stiffer than aluminium which means its legs are unlikely to bend or warp.
Aluminium tripods are usually more stable as they are heavier. Both carbon and aluminium are extremely weather resistant and both are good material choices for tripods.
The major consideration is the price difference. Carbon fiber tripods are very expensive and are usually more than twice the price of aluminium tripods.
How high does the tripod need to extend?
The height of a tripod may be less of a factor when comparing makes and models but it is worth mentioning.
Many tripods extend the height of the legs by way of an extendable center column. This column drops down when not in use and can extend almost halfway down the length of the tripod legs.
It is not advisable to use the central column as a height extender as this reduces stability and can increase the danger of everything toppling over.
I use the central column to hang a sand bag from to add additional stability in high wind. My advice would be to look for a tripod that has a weight hook under the center column to hang a bean bag or sand bag from.
How low does the tripod need to go?
Perhaps of more interest to landscape, nature and macro photographers than wildlife photographers, is the ability to get as low to the ground as possible.
Some tripods have the ability to spread the legs out to 80 degrees so that the head of the tripod is only a few inches off the ground.
If getting close to the ground is important to you, then look for a tripod that has a removable center column as well has the ability to extend the legs out by 65 degrees or more.
Flip lock tripod legs or twist lock tripod legs?
There are two types of leg tube locks used on tripods. Flip locks, also known as lever locks, or twist locks.
Flip locks have a lever that clamps the upper tube to the lower one at the determined height. Twist locks screw together with a thread mechanism that locks the two tubes together.
There does not seem to be any difference in stability between the two different types of leg locks and a twist lock tripod is only marginally lighter than a lever lock one.
It may be the case that some users find the lever lock tripod easier and faster to set up but personally I think it comes down to personal preference and ergonomics.
This should not have any material impact on the pricing decision as you can get very expensive lever lock tripods and equally expensive twist lock tripods.
How much do you want to spend?
The best tripod to buy is the best one you can afford.
We have already established that tripods can be a considerable expense and that you should do your research before buying.
Carbon fiber tripods are usually around USD 250 more expensive than the aluminium ones – for the same specification.
Carbon fiber tripods are very expensive indeed and you may not need to consider these if weight is not a problem for you.
Prices of tripods range from USD 45 to over USD 1 000. The difference in price is usually down to the difference in the quality of materials used.
If you want your tripod to last you for many years then you should definitely avoid the cheaper makes. I have broken many cheap tripods.
Yes I am clumsy, and I need a tripod that is not necessarily professional grade, but I need a tripod that I can rely on to support my precious gear safely.
My advice when reviewing how expensive the different types of tripods are, is that you buy the best tripod you can afford.
This is not an area to skimp on – not when you have thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment at stake. Buy the strongest tripod you can and after that decide on how important weight is to you.
The cost of tripods should not deter you from buying one, no matter how expensive they seem to be. They can dramatically improve the quality of your images and I consider my tripod to be an indispensable part of my kit.