This is the Ultimate Food Photography Tripod Buying Guide. Lately in the Facebook group there’s been lots of talk about tripods. Weekly, members are asking what’s the best tripod to buy without really knowing any of the options they have available. So, hopefully this will help.
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FOUR TYPES OF TRIPODS
So this is easy – you’ve got:
- Small, lightweight tripods
- Regular tripods
- Full sized heavy duty tripods – my favorite
- Video tripods
I’m not going to go into details about the video tripod here because -that could be its own post, and the tripods I am going to recommend can be used for some food photography video, but as soon as you want to do more thematic types of video shooting, you should invest in a video tripod. They are much larger, heavier, and have larger heads that can support much heavier cameras, AND they have very fluid movements when panning and tilting.
Video/fluid tripod heads usually do not allow you to shoot vertically. They are mounted only for horizontal, landscape images.
As soon as you put anything heavier than a small compact camera, or small, cropped sensor DSLR camera (like the Canon Rebel or the Nikon D3400), this tripod will become unstable, and possibly fall over. Now seriously, what is the point of that???
I use this little Slik tripod , pictured left, to hold camera phones shooting video. That’s it. It’s only $60.
YOUR TRIPOD MUST BE HEAVIER THAN ANY CAMERA AND LENS COMBO YOU ARE PUTTING ON IT.
This means that if you have a small Canon Rebel, then put on a heavy zoom lens like the 24-105mm lens, that’s going to be too heavy for most lightweight tripods.
Here is my suggestion – NEVER buy a tripod that is called lightweight, unless it’s a larger full size tripod that actually does have some weight to it. They are calling that lightweight because compared to the other heavy duty full sized tripods, it’s less heavier than those.
MEDIUM WEIGHT TRIPODS
This type of tripod is what I suggest you start out with. This is the Manfrotto MT055XPRO3 Aluminum tripod. Currently at $250. Price changes weekly for some reason. This one comes with a tripod head – more details on that later. So this price is for the head and the tripod.
You are not going to find a decent tripod for less than about $150, in my experience. This tripod without the head is $200. So those of you trying to find a tripod for only $40, let me ask you this, how much did you pay for your camera? How sad would you be when it falls over on the tripod? Enough said – it’s not worth the risk.
Raise your hand if you have ever accidentally kicked or bumped into your tripod? You are not human if you have not done this. I do it ALL THE TIME. It’s so annoying. Your tripods have to have some weight to them, so that when you accidentally bump them, they don’t crash to the ground. This tripod with head is 5.5 lbs.
I’m going to mention this tripod again below because of another cool feature it has – the ability to do overhead shots without an additional piece of equipment.
HEAVY DUTY FULL SIZED TRIPODS
These are the tripods I use. The brand is Gitzo – now owned by Manfrotto. Large, heavy, and can get very tall, the legs can spread out very far around your set. I have a much older version of this one (by 28 years). Without a tripod head this is 5lbs. So add a few pounds more with a tripod head. You’ve seen this one in a lot of my behind the scenes shots.
I accidentally drove over mine with my car – and it’s fine. I’m not joking. It’s the same exact color as asphalt in a parking lot at night. This tripod will last beyond your 9th grand child.
ANATOMY OF A TRIPOD
Now that you know about those three types of tripods, it’s important to know all the parts a tripod has, and the options you have when buying a tripod.
The tripod consists of three parts; the legs (or sticks as film and video folks call them), the center column, and the head that attaches to the center column. That’s it. However, there’s a lot of options for each part, so that’s why there are sooooo many different types of tripods, and it starts getting confusing very fast.
THE LEGS (OR STICKS)
Remember the first shot with three tripods fully extended? I always get tripods that can get very tall.
If you like to do overhead shots, the maximum length of the legs is very important. I have done shots where my tripod is as tall as it can be, and I’m on a ladder.
Also, even if you are not shooting that high, if your tripod has very long legs, you can easily do overhead shots on the floor as pictured above, where the legs can easily get out of the way and not show up in your pictures OR cast shadows on your set.
Some legs have what’s called a quick release. This means you undo that, and the leg rapidly can go up or down. We don’t need that option in food photography.
THE CENTER COLUMN
You now have three options for center columns. Quick release, geared, 90 degree overhead options.
QUICK RELEASE/NON-GEARED COLUMNS
With this type of column, you loosen one knob and the center part can go up and down very quickly. Again, we don’t need this for shooting food. It’s usually the cheapest option.
Many tripods have a non-geared version of the centered column that is NOT quick release. It actually has an air cushion inside it so that when it releases, you don’t have to worry about your camera getting jostled as it goes up and down. Very nice feature that the Gitzo’s have as well as other high end tripods.
GEARED CENTER COLUMN
My personal favorite – pictured right. This is excellent for moving your camera up and down slowly to get it exactly where you want it.
I use very heavy cameras on my Gitzo, so when I want to move it just a tiny bit up or down, the geared column really helps with that. It cost an additional $200 to have that when I bought it 28 years ago, but it was worth it.
COLUMNS FOR OVERHEAD SHOOTING
This is a super fun new thing that showed up a few years ago – the option to have the center column go out over your set by 90 degrees. The Manfrotto I mentioned above can do this. This is good for smaller overhead shots – not for shots of a huge table surface.
Always put a counter weight on your camera when doing this with these tripods.
For more info on shooting overhead, see this post.
The one pictured to the left is by Manfrotto. This thing is $100, so you can see how a tripod that has this function can save you a little cash.
You put this onto your tripod, then put your tripod head on one of the ends.
You’ve got three kinds of tripod heads. One is the video/fluid head that I mentioned above, we won’t go into much detail about it, but just know about it. I always have students show up in class with video tripods, totally baffled about how to make it shoot vertical. Then when I explain that they aren’t crazy, and that it can’t be done, they’re completely shocked.
PAN TILT HEAD
This is my personal favorite. I have these on all of my tripods. This enables you to do three movements. Rotate your camera left or right (pan), tilt you camera up and down, or tilt your camera’s horizon line. Each movement has its own handle or knob to do these.
This is perfect for when you are trying to get you horizon line straight and only want to tilt your camera that way a tiny amount.
There are versions of these heads that are geared (pictured left) that I love, so you can really fine tune your camera set up very easily, one axis at a time. You just turn the handle a little bit, and the gearing does all the work for you. This is about getting very precise camera movements. Perfect for food shooting.
Again, lots of students have these, and that’s the biggest complaint, the ball head is losing its grip over time. That means it’s useless, because the whole point is to hold your camera without moving.
But, a lot of people do love using these for some reason. My guess is that they haven’t used the pan tilt head, and just got used to it. There are a few different types of ball heads. The one pictured above, and this one to the left: The Grip Head. It’s got a little pistol grip, which I hear also loosens a lot over time.
HOW YOUR CAMERA ATTACHES TO THE TRIPOD HEAD
My nickname for this is the Quick To Loose Plate. Seriously, just writing this, I know my Manfrotto came with two extra plates – I have no clue where they are right now.
It’s really hard to find a tripod head without one these days. My favorite older tripod head doesn’t use these plates.
So, the last thing I look at is how does the pin in this plate screw into the camera. I HATE it when they force you to use a flat head screw driver to mount the dang thing to the camera – like the one to the right above. Yet another tool you have to have with you at all times just to put your camera on a tripod.
I like the quick plates that have a little flip piece that you can use to tighten the thing down – no screw driver needed – the plate on the left above.
Ok so there you have it. I will do a separate post showing you how to set up and use your tripod.