Do You Need a Tripod?

The kind of tripod you select is directly related to the quality of image you will receive, and the safety of your mounted apparatus. This helpful Tripod Guide will help you make this important decision.

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Tripod Basics

Tripods are an indispensable accessory for numerous types of optical equipment - spotting scopes, cameras, observation binoculars, telescopes and more. A tripod is used to 1) improve steadiness when using high magnification instruments and/or 2) support the weight of large, heavy instruments. Which tripod is right for you? Here are some basic thoughts to help you make a decision.

For the purpose of simplicity, think of tripods as having two fundamental parts - a tripod head, which holds your optical device and a tripod leg set.  

On less expensive tripods, mostly less than $100, tripod heads and tripod leg sets are bundled together as a unit with no necessity to buy them individually. The heads on most tripods in this price range are not removable. More expensive tripods, however, offer interchangeable legs and heads, so you may need to buy both sections to make a complete tripod. When ordering a Bogen Tripod , for instance, you only get a leg set if you order a model labeled as a "tripod". If you require both a leg set and a head, you must order a tripod by Bogen labeled and described as a "kit". If in doubt as to what is included, check the specifications. If it is a leg set, only, there will only be specifications for a leg set. If a head and leg set are included, there will be specifications for both.


    Section I: Tripod LegsManfrotto by Bogen Imaging 055CXPRO3 3-Section Carbon Fiber Tripod Legs (Black)Magnesium Top Plate & Central Castings Supports 17.6 lbs (8kg)

  1. Tripod legs - Sections
  2. Table Top/Shooter's Tripods
  3. Compact Tripods
  4. Full Size Tripods
  5. Tripod Leg Materials
  6. Tripod Center Columns
  7. Tripod Leg Locks
  8. Tripod Leg Braces
  9. Tripod Leg Warmers
  10. Tripod Feet

    Section II: Tripod Heads

  1. Motion
  2. Motion - Two Way Tripod Heads
  3. Motion - Three Way Tripod Heads
  4. Motion - Ball Heads
  5. Tripod Heads - Weight
  6. Thread Size
  7. Quick-Release Plate (QR)
  8. Bubble Level


Section II: Tripod Legs

Tripod Legs - Sections

Most tripod legs telescope in and out to accommodate various heights, but there is a limit to the range of heights a single tripod leg set can handle. For instance, there is no such thing as a tripod that can be fold down to the size of a compact tripod, then extend out to the height of a full size tripod. The problem is the number of leg sections required - the more sections used, the less stable the tripod. In theory, you could make a standing height tripod with 6 leg sections that would collapse to 12" or so, but such a tripod would be very unstable at full height and that defeats the very reason for using a tripod. Most full size tripods, therefore, limit the number of leg sections to three or, at most, four. That's enough to cover all uses from sitting to standing. In general, you can divide tripods into four categories, based on their range of extension and/or use.

Table Top/Shooter's Tripods :

As the name indicates, a table top tripod is designed to be used on a table or a shooting bench and will typically be between 8" and 18" in height, depending on the model. Table top tripods in this category generally do not have telescoping legs - what little range of adjustment they have is through an extendable center column, though many tabletop models lack even this. A shooter's tripod s basically a short table top tripod with a knob(s) for fine adjustments in evaluation and, sometimes, also windage (horizontal). Due to their lighter weight and rather narrow width of leg span, table-top tripods are a good choice where space is limited, but for the same reasons, table top tripods are not good choices for heavy, large instruments.

Compact Tripods

In terms of height, compact tripodsbegin where table top tripods end. A compact tripod tends to be a bit  too large to use conveniently on a table, but will be comfortable to use when sitting in a chair. Compact tripods are the favorites of backpackers and mountain hunters who are willing to sacrifice height for portability. Compact tripods are ideal for spotting scopes of 70mm or smaller and for any digital point camera, but are not good choices when you need to stabilize 80mm and larger spotting scopes or SLR cameras with telephoto lenses.

Full-Size Tripods

A full size tripod allows a user of average height to use a spotting scope, binocular or camera while standing. Full size, however, does not automatically mean heavy duty. As always, you should match tripod weight and strength with the size and weight of the spotting scope, binocular or camera. Keep in mind, there is no such thing as a tripod that is both "cheap" and "stable". The larger the load on a tripod, the more you should expect to pay to do the job, properly.

The average full size tripod with head attached, extends from about 26" to 57" with legs fully extended, center column down, and up to 72" with the center column at its highest.

Tripod Leg Materials :

The traditional tripod leg material is aluminum and it is always a solid choice. To shave weight, carbon fiber legs are also used.  The carbon fiber leg is also less prone to vibrations and shakes and is a great choice for high magnification photography and spotting scopes. Carbon fiber, however, compared to aluminum, is very expensive and the weight savings will generally one pound or less than the same model offered in aluminum.

Tripod Center Columns

Nearly all full size and compact tripods offer an extendable center column to get more height, but height achieved via the center column is never as stable as height achieved with the legs. Use only as needed. Center columns can be elevated via a geared system or pulled up, manually. Geared center columns allow micro fine elevation adjustments and are preferred by some photographers, but are not needed for most field applications and add unnecessary weight. A simple pull-up design with a sturdy lock is the best choice for field work.

Tripod Leg Locks

Tripod legs are extended and then locked into position with various mechanisms. The slowest, but most durable locks are a simple wing nut or a twist collar that must be tightened for each tripod leg section.  For some applications, such as birding or hunting, where you may need to get setup quickly, this may be a bit slow. Lever locks are much quicker. Simply flip a lever and the leg section is fully locked - no tightening needed. If good quality, lever locks are quite durable. Lever locks on cheap tripods, however, are notoriously prone to failure - usually the first thing to go.

Tripod Leg Braces

These are arms that connect the lower portion of some tripod legs. The idea is to add support and rigidity. Leg braces are used for locations with a smooth, level surface, such as a photography studio or a living room, lawn and so on, but tripods with leg braces are not suited for use around rocks, bushes, and other objects. The braces will jam against large objects beneath the tripod and may even prevent you from using your tripod.  Not a feature that is helpful out in the field.

Tripod Leg Warmers

Many of the better tripods have a layer of foam on the top section of the legs that protects the legs and insulate your hands when using the tripod in cold weather. This cushions the leg when the tripod is carried over your shoulder, as is often the case with spotting scopes and cameras, out in the field

Tripod Feet

Spiked feet are the traditional type of foot used out in the field for the sake of traction, but not something you want to use in a studio or living room. For these applications, a rubber foot is a much better choice. Many tripods therefore offer a retractablespiked foot, which can be threaded back into the leg. That way you get both a spike and a rubber foot.

Necessity and usage

Among the first things youíll need to consider when choosing your tripod is the size and weight of your camera equipment. Your new tripod must be capable of supporting it. Look at the tripodís stated load capacity to check this and, if you can, test your camera and lens combination on the tripod before purchasing to ensure it feels right.

Tripods are used for both still and motion photography to prevent camera movement. They are necessary when slow-speed exposures are being made, or when zoom lenses are used. Any camera movement while the shutter is open will produce a blurred image. In the same vein, they reduce camera shake, and As a result are instrumental in achieving maximum sharpness. A tripod is also helpful in achieving precise framing of the image, or when more than one image is being made of the same scene, for example when bracketing the exposure. Use of a tripod may also allow for a more thoughtful approach to photography. For all of these reasons a tripod of some sort is often necessary for professional photography as well as certain video uses. Tripods are also used to support small to medium-sized telescopes, large firearms, handheld optics (like binoculars), spotting scopes, and similar applications.


For maximum strength and stability, most photographic tripods are braced around a center post, with collapsible telescoping legs and a telescoping section at the top that can be raised or lowered. At the top of the tripod is the head, which includes the camera mount (usually a detachable plate with a thumbscrew to hold onto the camera), several joints to allow the camera to pan and tilt, and usually a handle to allow the operator to do so without jostling the camera. Some tripods also feature integrated remote controls to control a camcorder or camera, though these are usually proprietary to the company that built the camera.

Screw thread

The de facto standard threading for the screw that attaches the camera to the tripod is 1/4"-20 UN for small cameras or 3/8"-16 UN for larger cameras.

Lighting/Accessory Tripods

Tripods are also used as an alternative to C-Stands to support lighting, flash equipment, and other photographic accessories.


An innovative tripod with flexible legs that can attach to many stationary objects.
There are several types of tripod. The least expensive, generally made of aluminum tubing and costing less than US$100, is used primarily for consumer still and video cameras; these generally come with an attached head and rubber feet. The head is very basic, and often not entirely suitable for smooth panning of a camcorder. A common feature, mostly designed for still cameras, allows the head to flip sideways 90 degrees to allow the camera to take pictures in portrait format rather than landscape. Often included is a small pin on front of the mounting screw that is used to stabilize camcorders. This is not found on the more expensive photographic tripods.

More expensive tripods are sturdier, stronger, and usually come with no integrated head. The separate heads allow a tripod-head combination to be customized to the photographer's needs and budget. There are expensive carbon fiber tripods, used for applications where the tripod needs to be lightweight, such as hiking to remote locations. Many tripods, even some relatively inexpensive ones, also include leveling indicators for the legs of the tripod and the head.

Many of the more expensive tripods have additional features, such as a reversible center post so that the camera may be mounted between the legs, allowing for shots from low positions, and legs that can open to several different angles.

Small tabletop tripods (sometimes called tablepods) are also available, ranging from relatively flimsy models costing less than US$20, to professional models that can cost up to $800 USD and can support up to 68 kg (150 lb). They are used in situations where a full sized tripod would be too bulky to carry. An alternative is a clamp-pod, which is a ball head attached to a C-clamp.

An apparently new one is also actually made of string. Forming a triangle with the two feet of the photographer and linking to the camera. This negative string tripod, can give up to three stops.


In addition, some photographers use a one-legged telescoping stand called a monopod for convenience in setup and breakdown. A monopod requires the photographer to hold the camera in place, but because the photographer no longer has to support the full weight of the camera, it can provide many of the same stabilization advantages as a tripod.

Section II: Tripod Heads

When focusing on a tripod head, you need to consider 1) what type of  motion it provides as well as 2) the weight it will support. Other features are optional.


As far as how they move, tripod heads fall into three general categories - two way tripod heads, three way tripod heads, and tripod ball heads. The one you choose is mostly a matter of your application and optical instrument, but there is a great deal of overlap. For instance, you can use a spotting scopeon any type of head and you can also use a cameraon any type of head. Why? Because all tripods heads (that we sell), all cameras (that we sell) and all spotting scopes and all binocular tripod adapters use the same 1/4x20 thread to attach to the tripod head.  It's universal, so you do not need to match a brand of tripod with a brand of spotting scope, camera and so on.

Motion - Two Way Tripod Heads

A two way tripod head is the most basic tripod head and is sometimes called a video head or camcorder head. A two-way head, as the name suggests, allows you to move the head in two directions - vertically (up-down) and horizontally (right-left) motion. This is all you need with a spotting scope, video camera, giant binocular and many types of camera applications. Two-way heads are usually the simplest and most stable.

Motion - Three Way Heads

A three-way tripod headadds an extra motion to the basic two-way head. In addition to up-down and right-left, three-way headsallow you to flip a camera on its side. This allows a photographer to change from a horizontal frame pic to a vertical frame pic. This same feature can also be used by a photographer to take pictures of objects below the tripod. Thus, a three-way head is mostly of interest to a photographer, but, again, you can use this tripod head with any kind  of optical instrument, including spotting scopes and binoculars. You do not have to use the three way feature if you don't need it.

A 3-way pan-tilt head on a tripod, showing panoramic rotation, lateral tilt, and front tilt controlsThe 'head' is the part of the tripod that attaches to the camera and allows it to be aimed. It may be integrated into the tripod, or a separate part. There are generally two different types of heads available.

The pan-tilt head has separate axes and controls for tilting and panning, so that a certain axis can be controlled without risk of affecting the other axes. These heads come in two types, 2-way and 3-way. 2-way heads have 2 axes and controls, one for panoramic rotation, and one for front tilt. 3-way heads have 3 axes and controls, one for panoramic rotation, front tilt, and lateral tilt. The controls on these heads, are usually handles that can be turned, to loosen or tighten the certain axis. This allows movement in one, a few, or none of the axes. When movement of all axes of rotation is needed, a ball head is used. There are some pan-tilt heads that use gears, for precision control of each axis. This is helpful for some types of photography, such as macro photography.

Motion - Ball Heads:

As the name suggests, a ball head tripodis a head on top of a ball. This allows you to move the head in any direction with one motion. For instance, to target an object both up and off to the side with a two way or three way head, you must move the head up in one motion and then over in another, separate motion. With a ball-head, you can accomplish this with one motion. Ball-heads come in several varieties - some lock with conventional levers, some lock with a trigger. Keep in mind, however, that all but the largest (and most expensive) ball-head tripods are not as stable and cannot support as much weight as a good two way head. Ball heads also sit higher on the leg set than two way and three way heads. This can create balance problems with heavy loads. In a tripod, stability should always come, first.

A ball head, showing panoramic rotation lock lever, and ball lock knob.

An Outdoorsmans pistol grip ball head, showing panoramic rotation lever and quick release plate.
A ball head utilizes a ball and socket joint to allow movement of all axes of rotation from a single point. Some ball heads also have a separate panoramic rotation axis on the base of the head. The head has two main parts, the ball, which attaches to the camera. and the socket, which attaches to the tripod. The camera is attached to the ball via quick release plate, or a simple 1/4"-20 screw. The socket is where the ball rotates in, and also contains the controls for locking the ball. The socket has a slot on the side, to allow the camera to be rotated to the portrait orientation. Ball heads come in varying styles of complexity. Some have only one control for both ball and pan lock. While others have individual controls for the ball, pan, and also ball friction. Ball heads are used when a free-flow movement of the camera is needed. They are also more stable, and can hold heavier loads, than pan-tilt heads. However, ball heads have the disadvantage that only one control is available to allow or prevent movement of all axes of rotation, so if the camera is tilted on one axis, there may be risk of tilting on the other axes as well. When movement of one, or two axes or rotation is needed, a pan-tilt head is used.

Other tripod head types include the fluid head, alt-azimuth, and equatorial heads. Fluid heads move very smoothly, avoiding the jerkiness caused by the stick-slip effect found in other types of tripod head.

Tripod Heads - Weight

The single biggest mistake beginners make is to select a tripodthat is too light for a given optic or task. The heavier and and/or the higher the magnification of the optical instrument you are attaching to the tripod, the more important the weight and size of tripod heads. The main issue is sag or flex in the head and parts. Put a giant binocularon a light head, find an object, lock the head on the target, let go and look through the binocular. The target will not be in the field of view because the head sagged under the load. You then loosen the mount, re-aim, this time guessing how much to compensate for the sag and try again. Still not in view? Try again.

The situation is worse when you add more magnification, because we are not only magnifying an object, but also every little vibration, shake or tremor in the optical system. At 60x, even a slight breeze can render an expensive spotting scope useless if mounted on a cheap tripod.

Big instruments and/or high magnifications require heavy tripod heads and these do not come cheap. Be sure to budget for a tripod that matches your instrument and needs. Anything less is a waste of money. Indeed, most tripods under $100 have plastic heads, which can crack and drop your expensive camera or spotting scope on the ground without warning. Cheap tripodsare only suitable for small loads and small instruments.

Some manufacturers offer weight or payload capacities of their tripods. These should not be taken too literally and are nearly always inflated. Payload specs can be used as a basis for comparison, but rarely translate into anything real in actual use. A tripod or head rated for 13 pounds DOES NOT automatically make it a good choice for a 13 lb giant binocular.

Thread Size

1/4x20 thread size is standard on all cameras, up through SLRsize, all spotting scopes and all binoculars and binocular tripod adapters. Unless otherwise specified, this is the size of the mounting stud on all of our tripods. In other words, any tripod will thread to any spotting scope, camera up through SLR (cameras with removable lenses) and binoculars. The only exception to this 1/4x20 standard is the larger 3/8x16 thread size used to support some larger format cameras and video/camcorder units, survey equipment and so on.

Quick-Release Plate (QR) :

This is a plate that goes between the tripod head and your camera, spotting scope or any other optical instrument. A QR plate eliminated the need to thread and unthread your optic from the tripod head every time you use the tripod. You simply thread the QR plate onto your spotting scope or camera and leave it there. When it's time to put your spotting scope or camera on the tripod, you just slip the QR plate into the head, simply and quickly.  Note that QR plates are specific not only to brands, but also to specific models within a brand. They are not universal in size.

Bubble Level

This is a feature mainly of interest to a photographer to insure that a subject is properly framed and leveled in the camera, but is not always used, even for photography. It has no essential application for spotting scopes or binoculars.

If you are serious about landscapes, architecture photography, long telephoto shots or low light and night photography, a quality tripod and an even better tripod head may represent your best digital camera accessory. The importance of a good tripod can not be underestimated when you demand the ultimate image quality.

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