The 10 Best Tripods
10. Manfrotto CXPro 4 MT190
9. Neewer Carbon Fiber 63-Inch
8. MeFoto Classic A1350Q1K
7. Benro Travel Angel Series 1
6. Slik Pro 700DX
5. Grand Induro PHQ3
4. Benro Mach3 Carbon Fiber
3. Gitzo Series 1 Traveler
2. Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB
1. Manfrotto MVH502A
Steady As She Goes
There are only two types of photographers that don't need tripods: street photographers and war correspondents. Both of those genres tend to gain a little extra impact when there's a reminder of the photographer in the image, a sense that the camera was there in the hands of a real human being whose interaction with his or her subject was a thing of beautiful chance or of terrible danger.
For everyone else–landscape and nature photographers, portrait artists, headshot photographers, and the rest–tripods are an absolute necessity. The required sharpness of our images depends on them. For the record, I consider wedding photographers to be a kind of war correspondent.
Among all the momentary variables you can't control in the sharpness of your images–the movement of your subjects, the quality of your lenses, etc.–the steadiness of your camera is the one thing over which you ought to exert your will, for it is that steadiness that will translate to uncanny sharpness.
A good tripod relies on the simple mathematical fact that a triangle is the steadiest geometric formation. A mass evenly distributed onto three legs will vibrate less than any other configuration of supports, even at significant heights.
To reach those heights, tripods will use two to four leg sections in decreasing diameter, all layered into one another like cylindrical Russian nesting dolls. You release the sections by way of a locking tab or screw mechanism that you then re-tighten to keep a whatever height you select consistent.
Once in position, your camera attaches to the tripod by way of a small screw that is standardized across the industry. Often, this screw lives on something called a quick-release plate, which allows you to take the camera off your tripod head and reattach it again without having to do all that pesky screwing.
Those tripod heads differ from model to model, as well, and each has its specific benefit depending on your intended use, which will help you determine which tripod is right for you.
It's All In Your Head
It's important to evaluate your tripod options based on what you actually want to shoot with a camera mounted on it. Depending largely on your subject and your shooting environment, your choice of tripod could vary significantly.
The head that comes with each of the tripods on our list is probably the first place you should start to compare units. If you're shooting landscape and portrait photography, you need a simple head that you can set up and lock without going back to it for very many adjustments. The best type of head for this is also usually the least expensive type, which is the ball head.
On a ball head mount, your camera sits on a small platform that sticks out from a ball living inside of a joint. It greatly resembles the human shoulder in this regard, except that you can tighten, loosen, and sometimes lock this joint into place. The downside to these heads is that they aren't suitable for tracking moving subjects, and they tend to be weaker with heavier camera loads.
The sturdiest among head designs is the pan and tilt head, which has two arms jutting out from its center, each of which controls a single axis, allowing you to tilt the camera forward and backward, as well as side to side. When you loosen the bottom portion of this head, you can pan 360˚. Like the ball head, these are not ideal for tracking subjects, but they are much stronger and their adjustments are more specific.
When you do want to track a moving subject, or if you're interested in videography, a fluid head is the head for you. These heads have one long arm sticking out the back of their bodies. With its axes loosened, you can smoothly use this arm to guide your camera along X and Y lines with subtle resistance from a fluid counterbalance system. When made to quality specifications, these tend to be the most expensive heads on the market, so if you see one for very little money, it's safe to assume that it's more trouble than it's worth.
Carbon Fiber Cometh
The tripod itself reaches back in its design to well before the advent of the camera. It found itself useful in land survey equipment, as well as the classic painter's easel.
Early cameras had extraordinarily long exposure times due to the rudimentary nature of their exposure plates, so both camera and subject had to remain as still as possible for minutes at a time. Photographers in those days set up their cameras on relatively tall wooden tripods that neither collapsed into their middles nor broke down into smaller components.
Later, collapsible wooden tripods came along, and the item saw its transition into metals after the second World War. In those booming post-war years, camera technology and the equipment built to support it accelerated at an incredible rate, with lighter and more durable steel tripods becoming the standard.
By the 1980s, however, experiments with carbon fibers led an exploding Japanese camera market to invest heavily in carbon fiber builds for their camera gear and other manufactured goods. Today, carbon fiber is the lightest, most durable tripod material available at a reasonable price, but if you don't mind the extra ounces, you could save a little more money by sticking with aluminum.