The Multiple Functions of Tripods Explained

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

All tripods are not equal. If they were, I would only own one.

In my tripod collection, I have one that is very small and a large couple. Some are tall, others are short. Many of them have removable heads, and some of them have quick-release systems. One has carbon fiber legs. Another has alloy legs. One even has plastic legs.

They all have two things in common. They all have three legs and a universal 1/4-20 UNC thread that allows me to attach any of my cameras to them.

Tripods are a bit like camera bags in that I’ve never found one that will suit all my needs.

Recommended Reading: If you’d like to learn more and improve your landscape photography, grab a copy of Photzy’s bestselling premium guide: The Complete Landscape Photography Guide.

Keeping It Steady and Safe

The main reasons for mounting your camera on a tripod are:

  • To keep it from moving during an exposure
  • So you don’t have to hold the weight of your camera and lens
  • For maintaining a constant position so your composition remains the same

Not all cameras and lenses are the same weight and size, and tripods are helpful to photographers who enjoy taking many different types of pictures. If all tripods were the same, they would never meet the diverse needs of photographers and remain limited in their usefulness.

Photograph by Kevin Landwer-Johan

Keeping a camera steady is important, especially during longer exposures. Making sure your camera is safe when it’s mounted on your tripod is also important.

If you have a heavy camera and lens, you must have a tripod that’s able to hold the weight. A heavy camera/lens combination on a lightweight, flimsy tripod is a bad combination. It would take very little disruption for the camera to end up on the ground.

Mounting a small camera on a large, heavy tripod is overkill. Smaller cameras may have the same mounting thread as larger ones, so will fit onto any size tripod. But you’ll soon get tired of lugging around a big heavy tripod when you hardly notice the weight of the camera you’re carrying.

Photograph by Kevin Landwer-Johan

Key Lesson: Match your tripod to the camera, lenses, and types of photography you enjoy. Make sure your camera is steady and secure when mounted and will not easily fall if the tripod is knocked slightly.

The main aspects of tripods you need to consider before buying one include the following:

  • How strong and stable is it?
  • What are the legs made of?
  • What type of head does it have?
  • Are the leg clamps effective?
  • Will it hold the weight of your heaviest camera and lens?

Let’s have a look at what makes one tripod different from another.


The legs are one of the main components of a tripod. There are always three of them that are connected at a point. Many tripods also have a center column. This can provide greater height and flexibility.


Tripod legs are commonly made of aluminum. They can also be made from carbon fiber, wood, or plastic. 

Aluminum legs have a good strength-to-weight ratio. They are also cost-effective compared to carbon fiber legs and are very durable.

Carbon fiber legs are lighter in weight but are usually much more expensive than alloy legs. They have an excellent strength-to-weight ratio and are not susceptible to corrosion.

Plastic legs are used on small tripods and are fine to use with lightweight cameras.

Wooden tripod legs are not so common. In the past, they were very popular, but with more modern materials that are lighter and more durable, you don’t see wooden legs used these days.

Photograph by Kevin Landwer-Johan

Leg Clamps

There are two common types of tripod leg clamps. They are flip locks and twist locks.

The flip-type clamps are quick and easy to use. They can loosen with a lot of use or with temperature changes. Most can be tightened.

Twist-type leg clamps can be slower and more difficult to use, but they do a great job of securing your tripod at the height you set it to.

The key thing with leg clamps is to make sure they hold your tripod securely. There’s no point in using a tripod with clamps that don’t hold and cause your tripod to slump.


The flexibility of a tripod is mainly determined by the type of mechanism that connects the legs. This is also where the head of the tripod is mounted.

Most tripods are designed so each of the legs spreads out the same distance around the head. This means that when the legs are all extended to the same length, the tripod is stable. On level ground, the head also remains level.

A center column provides extra flexibility. This allows you to extend the height of the tripod beyond the height of the fully extended legs. Center columns can also have a hook on the bottom that you can hang a weight on to provide extra stability.

A center column provides extra flexibility. This allows you to extend the height of the tripod beyond the height of the fully extended legs

One of my favorite tripods has a universal joint that connects the legs and center column. With the head clamp released, the legs can be moved independently while still attached to this joint. I can position the center column at any angle I like. This is great in confined spaces or when I want to photograph something flat on the ground.

Photograph by Kevin Landwer-Johan

You can usually mount a camera directly where you mount a tripod head, but it’s more practical to use a head and mount your camera on it.

Key Lesson: Choose legs that are long enough and provide the flexibility you need for the styles of photography you enjoy. Some tripods are suitable for many types of uses, whereas others are more suited to more specific uses. For example, a studio photographer will choose a different tripod than a bird photographer.

Recommended Reading: If you’d like to learn more and improve your landscape photography, grab a copy of Photzy’s bestselling premium guide: The Complete Landscape Photography Guide.


Tripod heads come in many different shapes and sizes. A good head makes it easy to attach your camera and position it so you can frame your compositions easily. The size and strength of your tripod head relate to the size and weight of your camera. There’s no point using a small head with a big, heavy camera, no matter how strong your tripod legs are.

Ball Heads

This is one of the most popular tripod heads. They consist of a housing that encloses a ball. There are one or more tightening knobs on the side of the housing. One knob tightens or loosens the ball, and another controls the horizontal movement of the head. An additional knob is found on some heads that control the tension in the ball movement.

A good ball head will hold a camera firmly when it is tightened. A poorly designed head, or one that is worn or overloaded, will drift after tightening due to the weight of the camera and lens mounted on it.

A good ball head will hold a camera firmly when it is tightened.

Some ball heads have a pistol grip. Instead of having knobs to control the ball, this type of head has a handle with a squeeze grip. When you want to recompose, you simply squeeze the handle which loosens the grip on the ball. Once you release the squeeze, your camera remains in place. This type of head is bulkier than a regular ball head.

Photograph by Kevin Landwer-Johan

Pan Tilt

Pan tilt-type heads come in many shapes, sizes, and designs. They typically have one control to manage the horizontal swivel, one for the vertical tilt, and another to change the orientation of your camera from horizontal to vertical, and vice versa.

This type of head allows you to make precise movements around one axis at a time. You cannot do this so easily using a ball head. They are bulkier than ball heads because of the arms required for tightening the head.


Gimbal heads are used mainly with heavy cameras and long lenses. They are often used by bird and wildlife photographers because they allow for fast-moving subjects to be easily tracked. To achieve a good balance, it’s common to mount the gimbal head to the tripod mount on the lens rather than the camera itself.

Photograph by Kevin Landwer-Johan


Geared tripod heads allow for the most precise positioning of your camera. These are often used by product and still-life photographers. Similar to the style of the pan-tilt head, the geared head moves around three axes. The handles used to make adjustments are geared, which allows for very precise adjustments to be made, giving you the greatest degree of control.


Fluid heads are designed for use when recording video. They provide for much smoother movement while recording compared to other types of tripod heads. A good fluid head on a steady set of legs is a primary tool of the videographer, but not necessary for still photography.

Electronic pan heads are a more modern tool that can produce similar results to a fluid head. They are also great for making timelapse and hyper-lapse videos.

Quick Release

A key feature of any tripod head design is how you attach your camera to it. Some heads allow you to attach your camera directly to the head. Others have a quick-release plate.

These plates make it easy to take your camera on and off the tripod without having to screw and unscrew the connector each time. You simply attach a quick-release plate to the tripod mount on your camera. This then fits into a mount on the tripod head and is fastened with a clamp. To remove the camera from the tripod, you simply have to release the clamp in the head. This type of system makes it much easier to manage when you’re moving from place to place with your camera and tripod.

Key Lesson: A good tripod head is an essential tool. A cheap, ineffective head that does not hold the weight of your camera and lens will drift and is practically useless. Having the right head for your camera and the style of photography you like makes life more enjoyable.

Recommended Reading: If you’d like to learn more and improve your landscape photography, grab a copy of Photzy’s bestselling premium guide: The Complete Landscape Photography Guide.


This is me with my trusty, versatile Benbo tripod, which I’ve been using for nearly 30 years. Photograph by Kevin Landwer-Johan

If you have one camera and lens and engage in one type of photography, I’m sure you’ll only need one tripod.

I use my cameras for both photography and video and need to cover a diverse range of subjects and styles, so I have a collection of tripods. They are all somewhat different and can be used for a variety of purposes.

Hopefully, the information in this guide will help better understand what type of tripod will best suit your needs. Taking the time to research and consider which tripod will suit you best is worthwhile. A good tripod can last you a lifetime if you treat it well.

Photograph by Kevin Landwer-Johan

Self-Check Quiz:

  1. What are the two things most tripods have in common?
  2. Can one tripod meet every photographer’s needs?
  3. How can you explain this to your partner if they are not a photographer?
  4. What are tripod legs most commonly made from?
  5. Why is the type of head you fit on a tripod important?
  6. What is a fluid head most commonly used for?
  7. What is the main advantage of using a quick-release plate?

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