Choosing Tripods and Tripod heads

©Rod Barbee


Don't have a tripod yet? Looking to replace your current rickety old friend? Below is short guideline on what to look for and what's available (well, as current as I feel like being anyway). Having trouble deciding if you even need a new tripod? Then check out my Tripod Therapy article.




Look for a tripod that will, with the tripod head and camera attached, be tall enough for your height without extending the center post. The Bogen 3221/3021 is a good choice if you're less than 6' tall.

Get a tripod that will go to ground level. This is important for close ups and for landscapes.

Make sure your tripod has independent leg movements. In other words, no braces between the legs. The legs should also be able to swing out 90 degrees (or close to that)


A tripod, especially for outdoor work, is nothing to scrimp on. A tripod that is perfectly adequate for indoor work on a flat surface can be a challenge to use in an outdoor environment where the ground is seldom flat and solid. 

The following is a general guide. Keep in mind that new models are being added all the time and prices change. I can't keep up with it all so use this as a starting point.




Bogen/Manfrotto           3021/3221. Same tripod 3021 is silver, 3221 black. $140-187, depending on features.

3001 Shorter, different leg locking mechanism. $87-140 depending on features


Gitzo                            Very good, expensive. Carbon Fiber and aluminum tripods.

                                    GT3530LS, G1325—carbon fiber, tall enough for a 6’ person, three leg sections

                                    1320—aluminum, tall enough for a 6’ person, three leg sections

                                    GT3540LS. G1348 --carbon fiber, tall, 4 leg sections.

                                    GT1530, GT1540, G1257 and G1258—carbon fiber. For shorter people, 3 and 4 leg sections has a very useful Tripod Specs Overview Chart that can be very helpful in choosing the tripod you need.


Tripod Heads


Pan Tilt:


Bogen 3047                 3-way pan/tilt, built in level. Uses hexagonal quick release plates. Supports 16.5 lbs. $80


Bogen 3030                 3-way pan/tilt. Smaller than 3047. Uses a smaller, rectangular quick release plate. Supports 13 lbs. $60


Ball heads:


Bogen 3055                 Entry level head, good price. Does the job. Not for heavy loads such as big telephoto lenses. About $50. Good choice for all around, inexpensive head. Uses Bogen Hex plate quick release system. Supports about 15 lbs.


Bogen 3413QR            Proball Head with hex shaped quick release. Supports about 9 lbs.  $50


Bogen 3265                 Pistol grip ball head. Light duty only, $85


Arca-Swiss B1             Top of the line, rock solid, expensive. Supports up to 500mm lens, $400 with quick release.


Kirk BH-1& BH-3       Another pro quality ball head. Just as good, if not a bit better than the Arca-Swiss. About $350. BH-3 is a smaller version with same build quality, $250, comes with a standard plate.


Really Right Stuff          BH-25 for very light equipment, $100-175

                                    BH-40 for mid-weight equipment, $295-375

                                    BH-55 heavy duty (up to 50 lbs), $355-455
(variations in price due to clamping system options)


Acratech Ultimate Ball Head        Lightweight, strong and sturdy. Comes with Arca-Swiss type quick release. $270



Ball heads versus Pan-tilt heads


There are two basic types of tripod heads: ball heads and pan-tilt heads.

Ball heads usually have two or three controls. The main control loosens the ball, allowing the photographer to move the camera in any direction. Another control the head may have will loosen only the panning base. This is a very convenient control to have. A third control will set the drag on the main control. What this drag control does is to allow you to set the tension on the ball head to a certain point. Once set, you can tighten down the control, locking the ball, but when you loosen the control, it will only loosen to the point where you set the tension. This is critical to have for large and heavy lenses. With the tension set properly, you can maintain free movement of the head without worrying about your big expensive lens taking a big “flop.”


Pan-tilt heads, sometimes called 3-Way Pan-tilt heads also have three controls. One control controls panning, another controls fore-aft tilt, and the third controls the horizontal/vertical tilt.


Both types of heads have pros and cons. With a pan-tilt head you can make very precise adjustments in one direction without changing positioning in other directions. However, you need to use a different control for different changes.

With a ball head, changes are made in all directions by using just one control, although by loosening the main control, the camera can move in all directions.

Ball heads tend to be quicker to adjust and use.

Quality ball heads tend to be more expensive.

Ball heads are often lighter and the also take up less space because there aren’t three controls sticking out in three directions.


Another type of head is Bogen’s pistol grip head. This is essentially a ball head. While convenient to use, the pistol grip head doesn’t support a lot of weight, tends to exhibit some “creep” when placed in any position other than straight up and down, and is vulnerable to damage. I’ve seen these heads break off right at the stem.


A note on quick release systems


Using a quick release system can greatly simplify your photographic life, making it easier to work more quickly and efficiently in the field. They also offer improved stability and security as well as making it easier to use your tripod. If it’s easier to use your tripod, you’re more likely to use it. If you use a tripod, your photos will greatly improve.


There are basically two types of quick release systems, the kind that capture a plate in a matching cavity, like those used by Bogen, or the dove-tailed plate and clamp style pioneered by Arca-Swiss and now simple called the Arca-Swiss system.

Both work. The Arca-Swiss system will be more expensive to get into but it offers greater flexibility, convenience, and stability/security.


When using a quick release system, you’ll want to have plates on all your camera bodies and all lenses that have a tripod collar. If you need to swap plates between bodies and lenses, then it’s not a quick system at all.


Before deciding, be sure to visit a well-stocked camera store to try out the different kinds of tripods, heads, and quick release systems available. If there’s a local photo club, consider joining one of their outings and asking members what they prefer and why.




Kirk Enterprises

tripod heads, clamps, quick release plates, flash brackets, accessories, tripods


Really Right Stuff

tripod heads, clamps, quick release plates, flash brackets, accessories, tripods



gimbaled tripod heads, quick release plates, flash brackets


Ball heads, clamps, plates

B&H Photo

Everything you need under one roof

Naturescapes store
Good place to buy tripods and other accessories