As well as a great camera and set of lenses, having a solid and reliable tripod that’s fit for the job will really help you to take your landscape photos to the next level. With the growth of Instagram and run-and-gun landscape photographers, tripods are somewhat of an afterthought for many. And, for a lot of my adventures, I’m fully part of this group.
However, when you’ve got a good tripod as part of your kit list and you take your time setting up the shot, you’ll notice a world of difference. Your images become sharper, you can get more creative, you’ll capture colors better, and you can enhance your composition.
In this article, I’m going to cover:
- Why do you need a tripod?
- How to choose a good tripod
- What’s the best tripod for landscape photography?
Why Use a Tripod for Landscape Photography?
Image by Robert Lukeman on Unsplash
I get it. Tripods can be a pain to carry and a hassle to set up, especially if you’re more adventurous and like to hike up mountains or take long walks to get your shot. And, in many cases, it can actually be quite liberating going out without one. But, frame-worthy landscape photography is all about slowing things down and taking the time to set up and compose your image.
The image above, for example, would not be possible to achieve without a decent tripod. The photographer has used a long exposure (1.6s) to smooth out the movement of the waterfall on the right. Without a tripod, there would be far too much camera movement to keep the image sharp while blurring the water.
Additionally, many landscape images benefit from exposure bracketing. To use the image above as another example, notice the bright section of the image on the left and the dark area underneath the waterfall on the right. It can be hard to balance the difference in exposures in just one image. A common technique is to capture multiple exposures and blend them in post-production, which is hard to achieve properly while shooting handheld.
Depth of field is another consideration. In more cases than not, you want the majority of your image to be sharp, from foreground to background. To achieve this, you need to dial down the aperture to something like f/11+ which decreases the amount of light entering the camera. To counteract this, it’s best to slow down the shutter speed in order to let more light in and thus, requiring a tripod to keep your shot sharp. Sure, you can go handheld and crank up the ISO instead but you risk introducing too much unnecessary noise into the image.
Lastly, composition is another key reason you should be using a tripod for landscape photography. Really fine-tuning your composition while shooting handheld is hard to do because no two shots will ever be taken from the same spot – you can only really make guesswork adjustments to your composition. Once you’ve set up your overall composition, a tripod allows you to make very minor tweaks by adjusting your gear or ball head. The result is a much more deliberate and thought-out image.
How to Choose a Good Tripod
You can be forgiven for thinking a tripod is just three legs and a bit to put your camera on. There’s a surprising amount that goes into the making of a tripod and the different features make the world of difference to your images, from durability to ease of use. And, like always, budget.
So what actually goes into choosing a great tripod for landscape photography?
Carbon Fibre vs. Aluminum
TLDR: if you have the money, choose a carbon fiber tripod.
Aluminum tripods are generally cheaper which is great if you’re on a budget. However, the major downside is that they’re heavier which can make your adventures far more uncomfortable than they need to be. If portability is the main consideration for you, aluminum is not the way to go.
Carbon fiber tripods, while more expensive than aluminum, offer a few advantages. Firstly, they’re super lightweight which is hugely beneficial if you’re having to hike to your location. Also, despite being lightweight, good carbon fiber tripods are much stiffer and less likely to introduce camera shake, resulting in a sharper image. That said, in windy environments as you often are as a landscape photographer, it’s hard to beat the sturdiness of aluminum. Many photographers who opt for carbon fiber hang a heavy bag from the center column to keep it steady.
If made (and kept) well, both aluminum and carbon fiber tripods should last you years. They’re sturdy materials and unless you’re really abusing them, you won’t notice much difference in longevity. If you’re more prone to a clumsy drop here and there, carbon fiber is a sturdier material and should hold up better in the long run.
One of my main rules when choosing tripods is to avoid cheap no-name brands. You really do get what you pay for and when you go cheap, you really notice it. The build quality, robustness, and ease of use make a huge difference and cheap tripods just don’t match up.
Avoiding cheap doesn’t mean you need to take out a loan and invest a four-figure sum for a good tripod. Unless the sky is your limit when it comes to budget, I’d recommend investing in a popular name-brand like Manfrotto tripods – they’re tried, tested, and won’t break the bank.
Twist Lock vs. Lever Lock
The simple answer is that both twist locks and lever locks are great and it’s mostly down to personal preference.
Real enthusiast landscape photographers tend to prefer twist locks because they are usually a bit more sturdy. However, (and this is a big however), a cheap tripod with twist locks does not beat a good tripod with lever locks. Your main consideration here should not necessarily be what kind of leg locks does it have but how good is the overall tripod.
How Many Tripod Leg Sections?
More important than the type of leg locks is the number of leg sections your tripod has. Usually, the more leg sections your tripod has, the less stability it has. For landscape photographers, I’d recommend always opting for tripods with 3 leg sections. As you get to tripods with 4 or 5 leg sections, you start to seriously compromise on sturdiness.
Tripod Height (and Center Column)
You want a tripod that provides flexibility for a variety of shooting requirements while remaining sturdy. That’s to say, your tripod should allow you to take your camera to near ground level by spreading the legs wide and it should also come up to around eye heigh, ideally without having to use the center column.
Although useful for extending the height of your tripod, the center column provides far less stability. They should only really be used when you absolutely need to get that extra height, otherwise, you may be comprising on image sharpness.
Believe it or not, tripods don’t always come with a tripod head. What’s more, even if they do, it might not be the best one for the job.
With ball heads, you only have one control – loosen or tighten. When you loosen the knob, you can freely move your tripod head to any position you like but you do lack that granular control and it’s harder to make fine adjustments.
Pan & Tilt Heads
As the name suggests, pan and tilt heads have two axes that allow you to pan or tilt your tripod head. You can be far more precise with this type of head because you have different knobs for each movement of the head, rather than one universal adjustment. Granted, if you’re looking for speed of adjustment, this probably isn’t for you but most landscape photographers prefer to take time with each adjustment.
For even more control, you can opt for a geared head. It’s similar to a pan and tilt head in that you can be very precise over the adjustments of each axis. However, rather than unlocking a knob and adjusting, you have to turn a wheel for every adjustment. It’s much slower than both the previous options but gives you much more control.
Best Tripod for Landscape Photography
Image by Richard Lee on Unsplash
So, now that we know what to look for, what is the best tripod for landscape photography? Affordable means something different to everyone but generally speaking, if you want a solid and reliable tripod, you should look at the $200-500 range. If you have to stick under the $200 mark, I’d recommend opting for a second-hand tripod from a reputable brand.
$200-500 Tripods (Best Affordable Tripods)
Manfrotto are synonymous with tripods and it’s the go-to brand for many. You’re not short of options with Manfrotto but they’re not the only reliable brand on the market.
Some notable mentions include:
This is a really popular choice of Manfrotto tripods and for good reason. Personally, I really like lever locks and this one has those, meaning it’s really quick to set up. The center column allows you to extend the height with ease or use it as a horizontal boom, depending on your needs.
The Benro TMA38CL is simple and reliable. It has fewer features than some other tripods but it’s incredibly easy to use. It comes with a set of spiked feet which is really useful for added stability when you’re shooting outdoors and has a great strength-weight ratio.
Another reliable option is the Manfrotto 190 3-section aluminum tripod. It’s easy to use with lever locks, has a versatile ball head (although can come without), and has a center column that can be used as a horizontal boom.
$500+ Tripods (Best Money Can Buy)
When you get into the $500+ category, you’re either needing the best of the best or budget isn’t a consideration. It’s absolutely not necessary to spend more than $500 to get a good product but, nonetheless, there is a demand for the real top of the line tripods.
Check these out:
Gitzo is known for making super high-quality tripods and this one is no exception. For this carbon fiber tripod and 3-way fluid head, you’re looking a parting with around $1200. Gitzo’s Mountaineer range bridges the gap between its Traveler and Systematic ranges, offering both portability and sturdiness – an ideal combination for landscape photography.
This Gitzo tripod (without a tripod head) falls in their Systematic range, designed to better handle heavier cameras and bigger lenses. It’s a great choice for people who more frequently use heavier gear yet also have a need for portability.
The TFC-24L Mk2 from Really Right Stuff weighs 3.7lbs and features twist locks, a fixed apex, and is the ideal choice for people shooting with mid-weight gear. The fixed apex, which is a new feature for this tripod, means that it is more compact and better suited for the traveling photographer.
As a landscape photographer, you want a tripod that bridges the gap between portability and durability. One of the most important takeaways from this article is to avoid cheap if you can. If you do need to cut costs, consider buying a decent second-hand tripod.
There are many variables at play with landscape photography such as unstable ground, high winds, and potentially lung-busting hikes up hills. Try to think about your end-use and what kind of features are important to you.
Finally, the majority of people should aim for the $250-500 range. Under that and you compromise on quality. Above that and you’re getting fancy (which is totally ok) but not 100% necessary for most uses.
Connor Mollison is a full-time photographer with a passion for exploring the highlands of Scotland in his free time. His love of landscape photography kick-started his career into commercial photography.