The leg material accounts for most of a tripod’s weight and steadiness. For years, there were two choices: wood or aluminum. Today, you can still buy wood or aluminum tripods, but higher-tech materials that are sturdier and dampen vibrations more effectively are available. Wood is favored by many large-format shooters because it’s sturdy and dampens vibrations better than aluminum and is more comfortable to handle in very cold or hot weather (although accessory “leg warmers” can solve this issue for aluminum). Wood also looks great. Wood’s main drawbacks are that it’s heavier than other tripod materials and costly.
There are several types of locking mechanisms for tripod legs. Twist-lock collars offer quick operation and won’t snag on things as you carry the tripod. Locking knobs are straightforward. Quick levers are easy to use and generally easy to adjust for tension. Try different locking mechanisms at your camera store and see which work best for you.
Aluminum is lighter than wood and less costly. Today’s high-tech aluminum is lighter than ever, and higher-end aluminum tripods provide excellent shooting platforms at a reasonable cost.
Studio photographers generally prefer geared center columns, so they can make precise adjustments in camera height for product shots and still lifes. For most outdoor work, a nongeared column is quicker and easier to use. Try both types and see which works most comfortably for you.
Compactness, Easy Transport
The more sections a tripod’s legs have, the smaller the tripod will be at its collapsed height, allowing easy transport. But the more sections the legs have, the less sturdy the tripod will be at full extension. Two- to four-section legs seem to be the most popular with outdoor shooters, a good blending of compactness and sturdiness.
There are even newer high-tech materials. Gitzo’s basalt tripod legs use fibers created from molten basalt rock, impregnated with resin and formed into three-layer tubes that are 20 percent lighter than aluminum—between aluminum and multi-ply carbon fiber in performance and price. Giottos offers lava tripod legs in a similar vein.
For some special purposes, you need a stable platform that can literally grab onto a surface. Part tripod and part clamp, these devices keep your camera steady in tricky locales.