Also, as you are reading this, I am going to assume that you are actually looking for a tripod and do not need convincing to get something decent, either because you have already bought a cheap tripod that is not suitable, or the cheap tripod is now broken (again, either because it was cheap, or because you smashed it against a lamppost or rock out of utter frustration!)
So how do you select a tripod without breaking the bank or completely going over the top?
Firstly I would suggest that you look at your current equipment, but also at what you expect your equipment to be in, say, five years or so. Remember, a tripod is a long term investment, so think about it in this way. You would also need to think about the type of photography you would want to do… Some people use tripods for long exposure stability, others to support a heavy lens during fast action.
1. What does it weigh?
So how much does your equipment weigh? If you do landscapes or macro work with something the size of an average DSLR and a decent lens, you can expect a working weight of about 2-3kg (don’t forget the weight of the head you choose) and you would need the tripod to stand still without movement while taking longer than average exposures.
As a general guideline I would suggest you choose legs that can carry AT LEAST double the weight of the heaviest equipment you for see in your mid range future.
2. How tall are you?
Almost all tripods have a centre column that can extend out and give you a bit more height, and I honestly don’t know why! Extending the center column just increases the leverage and torsion and makes it very difficult for a tripod to remain steady. Just don’t use it!
Rather buy a tripod that is tall enough so that you don’t need to stand semi bent over for hours on end. Your back will thank you the next day.
The actual weight of a tripod becomes a serious issue when you have to manhandle it everywhere, or take it on flights, so I would suggest you go as light as possible. Look for sturdy Carbon Fibre legs. They are generally a lot lighter than aluminum and a lot sturdier for their weight.
4. When is three more than four?
Various tripod brands will make the same size and model tripod with either three or four sections. If you are going to travel with your tripod… You might want to take a tripod with four sections instead of three.
Three section legs are generally sturdier than four sections (one less joint) but four sections fold up smaller (handy for packing in suitcases and backpacks)
5. Twisted clips?
Most tripod legs will come in one of three varieties: twist lock, clips, or a butterfly tension screw. What you prefer is up to you, just make sure that the clips and butterflies are adjustable. Over time the connecting screws tend to unscrew a bit, allowing slight slippage on the legs when loaded.
Some tripods, like the manfrotto Neotec tripods have a quick release system that works extremely well, but again, does influence the price.
6. Carbon or aluminum?
Carbon fibre tripods (as mentioned before) will give you a lot more carry weight for actual tripod size and weight, but come at a cost premium. Aluminum is generally cheaper but heavier and weaker with a bit more “give”. In the end your budget will most probably decide which you choose. Keep in mind that aluminum legs do not really like sea water! If they get wet or sprayed, make sure you clean them off well!
At the end of the day, I would suggest that you buy the best for the budget you have… If the ‘best’ is not that great, rather save up a bit, and shoot from a beanbag in the meantime, or make another plan. Buying the wrong tripod will just frustrate you and you will need to take out money again for a better tripod in any case… Don’t waste your money, and if you absolutely must have a tripod, but can’t afford what you really need, buy a tripod with a re-sale value!
As for me, I own 2 tripods, both carbon fibre. The one is a large Benro C3770 which is my day to day usage tripod. Super sturdy and well priced, it can handle anything I have or intend to put on it. The other is a Velbon ElCarmaigne sub 2kg (that is with the head included) travel tripod. It’s a bit short to work comfortably for long periods, but the weight saving on flights makes it ideal. So it’s a bit of a compromise, height for weight… But no compromise on stability!