What to look for in a Tripod for Landscape Photography
Updated: Apr 2, 2019
Now that you have persuaded yourself of the need for a tripod, "what tripod should I get?" you may ask. Price wise, tripods cover a wide gamut, from under $50 to over $1000. Here are some issues you may want to consider when making your selection. While many tripods, especially cheaper ones, come with a head, I am only going to address the actual tripod in this post.
How far am I going to walk or hike with the tripod?
Are you taking 10 mile hikes up a mountain or just a 50 foot stroll from your car on a scenic pullover? If you are planning on longer hikes or bike rides with your tripod, weight can be a significant factor in your choice. No one wants to carry a 10 pound tripod on a long hike. On the other hand, if you rarely stray very far from your car, saving an extra pound or two is not likely not be worth the tradeoffs lighter tripods come with. Some manufacturers will have both an aluminum and a carbon fiber version of a tripod. With the aluminum being somewhat cheaper, but the carbon being lighter. Many higher end tripod manufacturers only make their tripods in a carbon version.
If you carry the tripod long distances, you may also want to be able to strap it to or inside your backpack. In this case, the height of the tripod, when collapsed, may be an important consideration. Is it important that it fits in your suitcase?
How heavy is my camera and lens combination?
If you are using a heavy camera, or long telephoto lenses, the stability and weight capacity of the tripod become more important factors. Maybe you are going to take exposures that last several seconds. These scenarios require a tripod that can remain exceptional stable, in order to get consistently sharp results. If you have a large camera but don't shoot with long telephoto lens, the stability becomes less of a factor. Even though your camera/lens setup may fall well below the tripod's stated weight capacity, it is no guarantee of a tripod's abilities. The cheaper brand tripods, in particular, seem over inflating these claims. There is no "industry" standard for calculating these values. Also, what may work OK in an indoor studio, with no wind and a solid floor may be of little value with a breeze or sitting in a flowing creek. For landscape photography, a good rule to follow is the tripod capacity should be at least triple the weight of your heaviest camera/lens combination.
As an example, I own 3 tripods. The lightest of which, has an impressively optimistic weight capacity of 26 lb. My heaviest camera/lens combination is around 4 pounds giving me about a 6 to 1 capacity to equipment ratio. Some of the high end tripod manufacturers like Gitzo and Really Right Stuff are much more conservative about their capacity claims. So don't assume because one brand states they have a 50 lb capacity that they are more stable than a Gitzo rated at 25 lb.
Where am I going to be taking pictures?
If you like the beach, salt water and sand can be very hard on a tripod. Salt water can quickly corrode metals and the fine sand can get into the log joints and stop them from operating smoothly. Are you going to be standing in a steam taking waterfall pictures? Some tripods advertise themselves as water and dust resistant and come with additional sealing to keep them operating in harsh conditions.
If you take pictures in colder climates, you may appreciate the foam grips that some tripod come with on the top leg segments. That sure beats grabbing a frozen aluminum pipe with your hands. Perhaps you have gloves on. Are the moving parts large enough to easily grip with your gloves?
Is it windy a lot of the time? You will benefit from a heavier more stable setup. When the wind picks up:
Remove the lens hood, as it adds more surface area for the wind to catch.
Longer or bigger lens give the wind more to grab on to.
Lower your tripod, if possible to create a smaller profile.
Telephoto lenses will magnify any vibrations or movements
Remove your camera strap. Buy a camera strap that has a quick release or alternatively, wrap the strap around the tripod to keep it from flapping.
Use your body as a windbreak.
Some tripods have a hook in the center, allowing you to weigh them down, which can add stability. I leave my backpack on the ground and use a bungee cord (see below). I don't leave my bag dangling directly from the tripod hook, as this will introduce unwanted movement if the bag starts swinging around.
How tall or short do I want to go?
The majority of images I take are shot from a "normal" standing position. You are going to be most comfortable if your tripod can raise your camera to your natural eye level. This is going to different orf someone that is 6'2" than someone who is 5'2". For maximum stability, it is best if your tripod can reach the desired height without raising the center column (if your tripod has one). As the head you have mounted on your tripod and the camera body height itself will raise your camera, and your eyes are not on top of your head, you can subtract around 9-10 inches from your height to find the ideal "minimum" tripod height for you. So, being 5'9", a tripod that can be raised to 5 feet (with the center column down) would be ideal. Even a tripod that is 3-4 inches below this "ideal" height will still provide a very comfortable position to work from.
Some interesting landscape images are taken very low to the ground. You can get your tripod down low by not extended the legs and by spreading them in a wider stance. If the tripod has a center column, this will often be the limiting factor in how low you can go. Tripods that do not have a center column or have the option to switch to a "short" column (sometimes included with the tripod) can usually get even lower. Some tripods have the option of reversing the center column and shoot upside down.
Some photographers advocate for tripods that have no center column. The column does add extra weight, and they can get in the way of taking shots low to the ground. However, you will notice that all the tripods I own have center columns.
In my experience, when the center column lowered, the stability advantage of having no center column is negligible.
The additional weight is usually just a few ounces.
I rarely need to go lower than my tripod with column will allow or I have a short column option.
Then why bother with the center column at all? Because, I take a surprisingly large number of images from overlooks where there are plants or other obstructions directly in front of me. Having the ability to raise the camera up an extra foot, or more, can make a real difference in seeing over the trees or bushes in front of you. The added height also gives you more setup latitude on steep terrain. While raising the column reduces stability, it's still going to be better than hand holding your camera over your head.
There are also some columnless tripods that can go very high (over 6 feet) to give you this flexibility. The downside is they will be heavier and their folded length will be quite long, making them more awkward to travel or hike with.