For lighting photographers, the first thing to consider about a tripod is this: a tripod is your most powerful light.
That's because time (AKA shutter speed) is what we use to bring up the exposure in a large environment, which we then tweak/improve with judicious use of added flash. It is very difficult to light a large space, so just let the ambient do the heavy lifting and finish it off with your lighting genius.
And even when you are not lighting, you'll frequently need a tripod for a variety of reasons. And when you do, you want it to hold your camera still.
To that end, every photographer needs good sticks.
There are a couple of schools of thought about how to choose a good tripod. But no matter which way you go, the most important thing is this: don't waste your time and money on a piece-of-crap version. You'll just have to re-buy it later.
Ask any photographer who has been around long enough to make mistakes, and you'll probably hear tales of woe over misspent dollars in an attempt to save money on tripods. Alas, good tripods aren't cheap and cheap tripods aren't good.
I just had a direct experience with this problem on a recent series of assignments for Lynda.com, wherein we were traveling around the world shooting and filming in various cities. My (young) shooting partner saved some money by buying an inexpensive, "feature-ladened" tripod.
Actually, scratch that obfuscation. Let's name names. He bought a "Vanguard" Tripod, and it turned out to be a piece of crap. (Don't judge. It's a common mistake.) The Vanguard was wobbly up top, and very quickly, one of the legs would not grab and click into the open position.
(You had ONE JOB, Vanguard tripod…)
After much swearing on Andrew's part (and general uselessness on that of the tripod) he looked into repairing the probably-not-worth-fixing piece of gear. Though clearly defective—and still in warranty—Vanguard wanted Andrew to pay shipping both ways for the repair. Essentially, he'd be buying the cheap tripod again.
Look, don't do this. Just don't. Instead, do your research, ask around, buy a good tripod and be done with it.
Independent of the factors listed below, here's my first advice: go for a name brand with a good reputation.
Manfrotto, Gitzo and Induro are good examples. None of them are cheap, but they are also likely to not let you down. They are supported by a great reputation and solid service, the same way your camera is supported by a good tripod.
Don't save money by buying a tripod that is spec'd to do less than you need it to do. That's another mistake. And you may find there is not a one-size-fits-all tripod for you. The optimal tripod for your big bird-watching rig might be overkill for your travel photography needs.
Similarly, a tripod designed for travel photography—even if a quality brand—might be way under-sized for your big lens work.
So like most shooters you'll probably end up with two tripods. One as a heavy-duty platform and one that is much more portable.
General Purpose Tripods
Your first tripod will probably be one that can do everything well, but maybe sacrifices extreme portability. And that's a good strategy.
Again, go with a good brand and buy enough support for your needs. If money is tight, rather than skimping on the brand I would suggest buying good quality, but buying used.
The 20-yr-old old metal (more on that variable below) Gitzo Reporter Performance pictured above is total, rock-solid support. It was bought used (eBay) reasonably and will last me the rest of my life and well into someone else's.
Used quality is a better choice than new crap. But if you have the money to spend, by all means take some time and test drive some new tripods in person. You'll quickly get a feel for the solidity and quality of the various options.
But go with a brand that has a good reputation. Or skimp, curse a little and get it right on round two.
By specialty, we generally mean portability: small, light, reverse-folding, etc. This is the tripod you take with you when you travel, or when shooting smaller mirrorless cameras. Or both, obviously.
For extreme portability in addition to solid support at the mirrorless level, I like the MeFOTO Backpacker, ($139 - Amazon) seen above. It is not full-sized, as it only goes to about chest-height.
But—BUT—it reverse folds to a very compact 12.6", which makes it a total win for travel or backpacking (duh, the name) with mirrorless cameras. It is super-compact, and well-built. I used it with a Fuji X100s to make the photo of London's Big Ben, above.
If you shoot full-sized DSLR, I would suggest stepping up to a MeFOTO GlobeTrotter. It is bigger, more stable, goes up to 64" in height and has a retractable center column while still keeping the reverse-fold design. Even still, it folds to just 16.1" long. ($209 - Amazon). As a bonus it converts to a monopod, which is nice.
You can spend an extra $160 on the GlobeTrotter and go carbon fiber, which saves you a pound. But for that price you can literally buy both and have $20 left over. Or $160 would get you a great, second general-purpose tripod used.
Carbon Fiber or Metal?
Tough choice. Carbon fiber is more expensive—sometimes shockingly so. For instance, an Induro (carbon) CT-214 cost $400—for just the legs (no head). But you can get the same legs (an AT-214) in aluminum for $149.
Those are both great supports. And identical, except for the material used in the legs. But is the weight difference, at 3.3 vs. 4.4 lbs, worth that much to you? Or, perhaps will the size of the tripod itself be the limiting factor in your suitcase or backpack that outs it from travel for you?
If the carbon version really fits your total needs and you can afford the price tag, maybe that's cool. Or maybe you buy metal for big support and a MeFOTO for travel. You would save money (over $100 in this example) in the process.
And honestly, that's what I'd do.
Either way, the worst, worst, worst thing you can do is to throw money away on a crap tripod. Consider my lessoned learned (and that of literally millions of photographers before you) sufficient warning.
NEXT: Cases and Carts