As with everything, there’s always more information when you dig a little deeper. This is the same with tripods, believe it or not. It’s not simply a case of which manufacturer is the best and buying their more reviewed model.
I wish it were that easy.
Tripod Buyer's Guide
The higher the magnification of your chosen optical equipment (telescope, spotting scope, binocular, monocular etc.) that you use, the more they’ll be affected by any movement whether caused by vibration, the shakiness from your hands or the wind. For maximum image clarity you’ll need maximum stability from your tripod.
Let’s start with the basics though. A tripod is a stand with three legs to give your binoculars or spotting scopes a stable, level platform with which you can view birds or animals.
I’ll tell you this for free. All the tripods I review have three legs.
That’s the most important feature. What are the other often overlooked ones?
The tripod needs to reach the height that’s comfortable for you. It also needs to be a weight that fits its use. The heavier the optical equipment, like a spotting scope, the larger and stronger the tripod will need to be. The more portable the optics, such as binoculars, the more important the combination of light weight (so you don’t get a hernia from carrying it) and increased rigidity in use. Typical questions to be answered when deciding on a tripod arrangement are: What load capacity can the tripod support? How easy is the tripod to set up and pack away? How smooth do you want the movement to be when panning and tilting and how secure do you need the plate to be?
All of these factors come into play when the most experienced birders consider a new tripod.
And now, my friend, it’s time for you to consider them too.
The features of a tripod
When reviewing tripods to see if they’re suitable for your situation, here are the things you want to make a mental note of.
How tall can the tripod reach when it’s full extended? This isn’t just how far the legs extend by the way. There’s also the center post which can be adjusted to give you extra height. The compromise comes between wanting as much height as possible and needing a decent level of portability. Which leads us nicely onto the next feature.
If you’re using an angled spotting scope, you can get away with having a shorter full size.
The maximum height determines how small the tripod can get. Will it be able to get into your backpack? Hills, mountains, forests and woods can all be tough places at the best of times, let alone when you have to carry a metal tripod in your sweaty right palm.
Load capacity is how much weight can the tripod head can hold without becoming unstable at best and breaking at worst. Considering each piece of equipment can cost upward of several hundred dollars, it’s not worth risking it in my opinion. Load capacity shouldn’t be confused with the weight of the tripod itself.
This is the interface connecting the spotting scope, binoculars, or camera to the tripod set and is the most important component in the whole tripod. It sits on the adjustable center column. The head is the part of the tripod anatomy that people often neglect to understand or are ignorant to the different types and subtleties. Cheaper tripods will have a fixed head whereas more expensive makes will be modular.
Extend or collapse them as you see fit to get the height you desire. They come in either twist (tabular) or lever (non-tabular) mechanisms. Carbon-fiber tripods are all twist mechanisms whereas plastic and metal are often lever mechanisms. The number of sections to the legs is dependent on its maximum height.
Think of the tripod feet actually having socks on. The socks are made from different material depending on the environment the tripod is being used in. Rubber feet are used for standing indoors. You don’t want to scratch the new mahogany flooring, do you? If you’re outside on soft ground, use spikes to dig into the ground like a football player has on his boots. Replaceable feet/socks are reserved for higher-end models.
As with most products, the cheapest tripods are made from plastic. They won’t last very long but in the short term they’re fine. Aluminum tripods are the most commonly seem tripod. They’re average but that’s kind of the point. They aren’t the most durable products but they aren’t going to crack if you drop them either. Carbon-fiber tripods are lightweight and strong. They’ll do you go in pretty much any situation but for that’s what you’ll be paying for as they cost more. Lastly, there are wood tripods. At first glance, wood seems archaic but nature does it best (again). Wood absorbs the majority of vibrations and reduces shakes to the spotting scope/binoculars and is seen as more stable.
How much should the tripod hold?
Back to the load capacity, it depends on your equipment. Of course, you want to be able to hold the heaviest piece that you’re likely to mount on the tripod but if you’re willing to spend a bit more money then matching it with the spotting scope, binocular or camera will be the most helpful.
I say this because there’s no denying that, although essential to great birding, tripods are annoying and cumbersome.
If you’re only bringing your binoculars with you then you’ll want to take as compact a tripod as possible to make the trip easier. It doesn’t make you a better or more committed birder for having hauled half the contents you own across the shoreline so you can see a Sandpiper.
If you’ve packed your Swarovski ATS (amazing scope, by the way) then you’ll need something that can support its 47.6 oz. A rule of thumb I’ve seen mentioned is buying a tripod set that can hold at least 2.5x but pushing up to 3x the weight of the tripod head, scope and accessories you may wish to add.
Make sure you cover all the bases.
Mounting scopes, binoculars and cameras to tripods
Modern scopes, binoculars and cameras have an industry standardized hole of ¼-20 drilled into them. You’ll see them if you have one at hand.
This means they’ll attach to any tripod.
However, the method of attachment differs between price points. Cheaper tripods will have a screw poking out of the head which you can twist the scope or binoculars onto. It’s a slow and clumsy process. Alternatively, the best models have quick-release mounting plates.
You actually pre-mount the plate onto the spotting scope and detach it with one flick of a lever. Want to put it back on? Just slide it on again. It’s so simple. The plate remains on the scope even when it’s not in use, be as prepared as possible and you’ll accomplish anything in this life.
Types of Tripod
This is more of a spectrum of various attributes rather than a the hard and fast rule of tripod categorisation.
The attributes you seek depend on what you’ll be using the tripod for and what environment you’ll be using it in.
Full-size tripods mean the average adult human can look through the viewing equipment when standing up. This doesn’t necessarily mean the tripod has to be heavy though but you’ll have the pay extra.
The average full size tripod is 26” at its smallest and 57” at full extension without the center column lengthening and 72” with it.
Compact tripods are smaller than their full-size cousins and I like to use them whilst sitting in a camping chair, not because I’m lazy but because I’m efficient.
You’ll lose height and distance in what you’re able to view in exchange for an increase portability. They’re unlikely to be suitable for spotting scopes with an objective lens diameter wider than 70mm or cameras with large telephoto lenses.
The entire lifecycle of a tabletop tripod can be tracked on the spare seat at your dining room table. They’re small and are great for using in places with little room to move but this means heavy equipment is a no-go.
If you're a beginner and you're searching for equipment on a budget, check out a review I've written on the best tripods you can buy for under $100