As good as image stabilization has become at steadying your camera while holding it, there are always occasions, such as time-lapse or macro photography, when it makes sense to put your camera on a tripod. After spending 40 hours researching tripods and 15 hours testing four, we found the Vanguard Alta Pro 2+ 263AB100 kit to be the most versatile platform for challenging shooting situations. It has the tallest maximum height and the most flexible range of positions among the tripod models we tested, and it’s very stable. It’s also easy to set up and break down, and built to withstand years of use.
The Vanguard Alta Pro 2+ 263AB100 offers the best balance of size, stability, and versatility of all the models we tested. It gets taller than any of the other picks (68.2 inches at maximum height), its legs can splay outward at four angles (most models offer only three), and its angling center column lets you position your camera as low to the ground as you want. This mixture allows photographers to find a steady shooting position on all kinds of surfaces, whether the camera is up high or down low. The included ball head (the part that connects the camera to the legs and allows adjustments to the camera’s position) is better than what you usually find bundled with tripods in this price range: It adjusts smoothly, locks down solidly, and has a quick-release plate for you to easily attach and detach the camera. And its 15.5-pound weight limit is more than sufficient for any of the camera-and-lens combinations we suggest.
The combination of Benro’s SystemGo Plus FGP18A Camera Tripod and BH00 ball head isn’t quite as durable as our main pick, especially when reached to maximum height. It also offers only three leg angles to choose from, and its knobs are a little more difficult to use. But if you value size and weight over stability, the Benro kit weighs noticeably less (3.9 pounds versus 5.3 pounds) and can fold down smaller (14.6 inches versus 29 inches). It’s otherwise likewise well-made and versatile, with a tilting center column and angling legs, and its price tag is about the equal. The Benro can also manage more weight than our top pick, but the Vanguard already carries more weight than most people need.
If you plan to submerge your tripod in the water regularly, Sirui’s W-1004K10 Camera Tripod Kit River Runner is worth paying more for. Solidly built and easy to set up, the W-1004K10 has a ball head that adjusts smoothly, and its 33.1-pound load capacity means that even if you rent a huge lens for a once-in-a-lifetime nature vacation, the River Runner can handle it. It doesn’t have a tilting center column like our other picks, but you probably won’t miss that feature when you’re waist-deep in a lake.
Manfrotto’s Element Traveller Big Camera Tripod is both tall and highly portable, collapsing down to 16.5 inches long and weighing 3.5 pounds, and extending to a maximum height of just over 64.5 inches. It was one of the most stable models we tested, and it costs less than much of the competition. The Element Traveller Big offers everything we sought in a travel tripod: easily employed twist leg locks, a significant load capacity of 17.6 pounds, smooth and simple controls over the ball head—as well as extras like two bubble levels to help keep perspectives straight.
This guide covers general-use and travel tripods with an emphasis on adjustability, versatility, and portability to cover a wide range of photography applications. If you’re looking for a tripod for a smartphone, try our guide to the best camera tripod for iPhones and other smartphones.
How we picked
We’ve seen plenty of cheap tripods, but if you spend less than about $150, the tripod is likely to be of poor quality, less versatile in how high or low you can position the camera, and slower to set up properly—making it a much less valuable piece of equipment, especially if it breaks after a year (or sooner). In our experience, a solid, versatile tripod costs around $150 or more. On the other extreme, while carbon-fiber models are a bit lighter than their metal counterparts, they are far more expensive but fail to provide a lot of benefit for most people: You’d have to spend an extra $160 to get the carbon-fiber version of our top pick, and doing so would save you only about 9 ounces.
With that in mind, we focused on quality aluminum models. To narrow things further, we looked at the following factors:
- Load capacity: This represents how much weight a tripod is designed to support. We sought models that could hold a camera-and-lens combination of at least 15 pounds, which is enough to handle even the heaviest camera bodies and lenses we recommend.
- Maximum height: We scouted for tripods that could reach at least 50 inches without the center column extended and at least 60 inches with the column extended, so even if you’re 6-foot-2 you won’t be too uncomfortably hunched over when trying to get that shot.
- Leg and center-column angling: We favored tripods that allow you to angle the legs outward for setting the tripod low to the ground, as well as to angle the center column for shooting directly downward or getting the camera closer to subjects for macro photography.
- The head: A good tripod head lets you position the camera at nearly any angle, and most have a quick-release plate that attaches to the bottom of a camera, allowing it to be quickly mounted on the tripod or removed. Tripod legs and heads are often sold separately so you can upgrade them independently, although you can also find kits (such as our top pick) that include both. We advise a ball head, which enables you to tilt and rotate the camera together. Ball heads tend to be more compact and easier to use than three-way heads, which let you adjust the amount of left/right tilt, up/down tilt, and rotation independently. (All of our picks include a ball head.)
- Length when collapsed: Although size is much more important for travel tripods, it’s always more convenient to carry something smaller.
- Leg grips: Tripod legs can get cold when you’re shooting on chilly days. Foam or rubber grips can keep your fingers happy—and give you a better grip than bare metal.
- Spikes: When you’re setting up on a soft surface such as grass, spiked feet can help set a tripod more firmly in place. That said, a lot of photographers don’t bother to use them. We looked for tripods that either includes them or offer them an optional accessory.
- Weight: If a tripod is really heavy, you won’t want to take it with you; if it’s too light, it won’t be sturdy enough. We looked for tripods less than 6 pounds—light enough to bring along even if you’re also carrying a camera and a few lenses. If weight is very important to you, our travel tripod pick holds it to a minimum while still giving solid support for your camera.
Between earlier versions of this guide and the most recent update, we’ve analyzed approximately 50 tripods and tested seven.
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How we tested
Stability is the main objective when you’re using a tripod, so we mounted different camera-and-lens combinations to each tripod model to make sure it stayed steady with various setups and on different surfaces, including hardwood and carpeted floors indoors and cement pavement, grass, and other uneven terrain outdoors. We purposefully used gear that was bulkier and heavier than the cameras and lenses we recommend in our guides, including the Nikon D5, D850, and D500 cameras with various lenses. The longest and heaviest lenses we used were the Nikkor 70–200mm f/2.8 lens and Sigma 150–600mm f/5–6.3 lens.
We evaluated how easy it was to operate each tripod by setting up and closing down the legs and checking the leg-lock mechanisms. For tripods that included a head (and for our Benro head pick), we checked the stability of the head, whether it moved when it was supposed to be locked, and how smoothly and evenly it moved when unlocked. We also examined each tripod’s build quality and made sure that the different parts didn’t get in the way of one another when in use.
Finally, we tested any special features; if a model had a movable center column, for example, we angled it into different positions.
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Our pick: Vanguard Alta Pro 2+ 263AB100
Vanguard Alta Pro 2+ 263AB100
The Vanguard Alta Pro 2+ 263AB100 Camera Tripod offers the best combination of stability, versatility, ease of use, and build quality of the models we tested, and it comes with a ball head that makes setup simple and quick. It has the tallest maximum height of the tripods we tested (68.2 inches), its legs can angle outward at four angles (most models offer only three) to bring the camera closer to the ground, and its angling center column lets you position the camera in a multitude of ways when the tripod is set at any one of those leg angles. Although it’s a little heavier and longer than some other models when collapsed, the added weight and height increase its stability and versatility, respectively, and it’s still small and light enough to carry around for a day’s shooting.
The Alta Pro 2+ is rated to support up to 15.5 pounds. In our testing, it was very stable, even when we mounted pro-level gear that was heavier than any of the cameras and lenses we recommend in our guides. Each leg has three extendable segments, and although we experienced some play in the lowest segment when the legs were fully extended, it wasn’t enough to negatively affect our picture taking and was typical of all the tripods we tested when they were raised to full height. When the center column is fully extended, the tripod’s height (not including the head) is about 68.2 inches, the tallest of the models we tested, so it’s easier for taller photographers to use without having to stoop much. (With the center column collapsed, the maximum height is about 57 inches.) Although the center column is relatively stable when extended, keep in mind that all tripods are most stable when you have the center column lowered flush against the top of the legs.
Setting up the Alta Pro 2+ is quick and easy: Just turn the two twist locks on each leg—they unlock with a simple quarter turn—and then tilt the legs down so they slide to full extension. You lock the legs with a similar turn in the opposite direction. We like the nice feel of the textured grips on the locks.
Those three-section legs offer four angles relative to the center column: 20, 40, 60, and 80 degrees (most tripods offer only three angles). That gives you more versatility in terms of both lower height and the ability to adapt to uneven surfaces. The angles are marked at the top of the legs, and the legs ratchet into place so you can hear and feel when they’re in position. With the legs at the 80-degree position, the tripod is almost level to the ground; this position is perfect for low-angle and macro shots, especially in combination with the tripod’s multi-angle center column. A bubble level helps ensure that the tripod is level even if the legs are extended to different angles.
Compared with other tripods we’ve tested (including our previous pick, Vanguard’s predecessor to the Alta Pro 2+), it’s easier to put the Alta Pro 2+’s center column into multiple positions: You just turn a couple of knobs, lift the center column (it automatically stops when fully extended, so it won’t come all the way out in your hand), and angle it to whatever position you want. The hexagonal column won’t twist when extending or retracting, making angled work easier. However, although this column is generally stable in its angled position, even when horizontal, be sure to check the balance: If the center column is positioned too far to one side, the weight of the camera and lens can cause the entire tripod to tilt over and fall—a law of physics that applies to any tripod with a multi-angle center column.
The included ball head and quick-release plate also work well. The ball head moved smoothly when we adjusted it, and it locked solidly into place. It has its own bubble level (to supplement the one on the legs), as well as a rotation gauge at the base of the head to help you duplicate panning positions when you’re shooting multiple images to stitch into a panorama later.
We also like the overall build quality of the tripod—none of the pieces seemed to be straining substantially even when we subjected them to heavy camera-and-lens combinations. The smoothness of the sliding parts was impressive, too. The Alta Pro 2+ feels like it will last a long time, and it comes with a two-year warranty.
In addition to the ball head and the quick-release plate, the Alta Pro 2+ 263AB100 kit comes with Allen wrenches in case you need to swap out the head or replace a broken leg, as well as a carry bag with a shoulder strap. The bag isn’t as well-made as those that accompany some other tripods we’ve tested, but it’s good enough for moving your tripod from one place to another.
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Flaws but not dealbreakers
Of the tripods we tested, the Alta Pro 2+ is one of the heaviest, at 5.3 pounds, and one of the longest, at 29 inches, when fully collapsed. If you’re hiking in the woods or traveling on a plane or train, you have smaller and lighter options (including our pick for travel tripods, or even our runner-up pick from Benro). But the Vanguard’s weight helps provide stability, and its added height makes it more versatile—we think these are reasonable trade-offs for a full-size tripod.
Unlike the previous Alta Pro model, our former top pick, the Alta Pro 2+ has angled rubber feet instead of round rubber feet with retractable spikes; spiked feet are now an optional purchase. The rubber feet of the Alta Pro 2+ work well on uneven terrain, but we felt them slide a few times when we were shooting indoors on wooden floors.
Unlike some tripods, the Alta Pro 2+ has no hook at the bottom of the center column to hang a camera bag or other weight to stabilize the tripod. Instead, it has a small canopy-suspension loop on the bubble level. The loop is very small, and we wouldn’t trust it to hold anything of measurable weight, but Vanguard makes a “stone bag” accessory that you can attach to the legs to add weight.
Some reviews on Amazon refer to issues with the Alta Pro 2+’s center column either coming off entirely when the owner is trying to angle it or not being able to tighten in a place completely, but we didn’t encounter this problem in our testing. When we reached out to Vanguard, representatives explained that this happened because some units that were meant as photo samples accidentally ended up distributed for sale; the reps said it shouldn’t be a problem going forward.
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Runner-up: Benro SystemGo Plus FGP18A with BH00 ball head
Benro SystemGo Plus FGP18A
The combination of the Benro SystemGo Plus FGP18A Camera Tripod and BH00 ball head isn’t quite as stable as the Vanguard Alta Pro 2+, especially when extended to maximum height, and this tripod’s adjustment knobs aren’t as easy to use. But it’s otherwise simple to set up and solidly built, and at only 3.9 pounds and a mere 14.6 inches long (including the ball head) in its most compact configuration, it’s noticeably smaller and lighter than our 5.3-pound, 29-inch top pick. Like our top pick, the FGP18A has an angling center column for low-angle or macro work, but it doesn’t include a ball head, so you have to pair it with the BH00 head we suggest or another head of your choice.
The FGP18A’s stability is quite good as long as you don’t raise the center column to more than about half its maximum extension (about 55 inches). Its maximum height (not including the head) with the center column fully extended—again, a position that sacrifices stability—is 60.63 inches, almost 7 inches shorter than our top pick. With the center column retracted, the tripod reaches a height of 56.3 inches. Taller photographers will find our top pick more comfortable to use.
The FGP18A is easy to set up and customize to whatever position you need—even ground level. Using twist locks similar to those on our top pick, you can extend each of the four-section tripod legs to whatever height you want. You adjust the angle of each by releasing the sliding lock at the top, allowing it to snap into place.
Despite its light weight, this Benro tripod is well-made and sturdy feeling. Like the Vanguard Alta Pro 2+, the FGP18A offers a multi-angle center column that allows you to position the column (and the ball head) at various horizontal and tilted angles. Again, this design is great for otherwise challenging overhead and low-angle shots, and very helpful for capturing macro images. Unlike our top pick, this model also has a calibration scale, with markings to set the position of the column, to make duplicating a shot easier.
In addition to offering the multi-angle column, the FGP18A can convert to a monopod; you simply remove one of the legs and mount the center column on top of it. A hook on the center column lets you hang a camera bag or other weight to help stabilize the unit. The tripod includes spiked feet, although you have to switch them out with the default rubber feet whenever you want to use them. This Benro model also has one of the nicest tripod carry bags we’ve used: The bag is padded, designed with two external pockets and a shoulder strap, and big enough to fit a few accessories in addition to the tripod.
Benro doesn’t offer a package that includes a ball head with the SystemGo Plus FGP18A, so you have to pick up ahead separately if you don’t already own one. We tested and recommend the company’s BH00 single-action ball head as a solid, inexpensive option. Its snap-in quick-release plate isn’t as nice as the open-and-close “jaw”-style plate of the more expensive, triple-action Benro B1 ball head, but the BH00 is comparable to what you get with other tripods at this price. Of course, you can instead use any other standard tripod head.
As with our top pick, if you’re doing long exposures or getting near the FGP18A’s 22-pound load capacity, it’s best to not extend the center column to its maximum height.
We also found that the FGP18A’s center-column angle-adjustment knob was tight and difficult to move into position. And the knobs—including the center column’s height and pan control locking knobs—could end up blocking each other depending on how we positioned them.
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For water photography: Sirui W-1004K10 River Runner
Sirui W-1004K10 Tripod Kit River Runner
If you plan to shoot with your tripod partially submerged in water, the Sirui (pronounced “sue-ray”) W-1004K10 Tripod Kit River Runner Camera Tripod is worth spending more on for the peace of mind it’ll provide. This waterproof tripod has comfortable controls and is well-built and stable. It can’t match the height of the Vanguard Alta Pro 2+, and it doesn’t have the angling center column of either of our other picks, but it is the best tripod for fans of aquatic subjects.
The Sirui W-1004K10 Tripod Kit River Runner provides very good stability, with a load capacity up to 33.1 pounds. The tripod weighs just 4.2 pounds and folds up to a compact 19.3 inches for travel—only a bit heavier and larger than the Benro FGP18A. With the center column fully extended (which, as we noted above, sacrifices some stability), it reaches a height of 65 inches; with the column lowered, 53.5 inches.
The Sirui River Runner looks and feels solidly constructed, from its four-section legs to the bundled ball head. Whether you’re extending the legs after releasing the twist locks or adjusting the angle of the ball head, the movements are smooth. This is especially true of the excellent ball head, which has separate controls for panning and locking, and a friction knob to adjust the tension on the control movement. It also has three bubble levels—in addition to the bubble level on the tripod itself—for photographers who need extremely accurate placement.
The tripod is waterproof up to the top of its foam grips, so you can step right into a river, lake, or ocean to get a shot. Those waterproof seals also mean that the Sirui is protected from the dirt and sand you might encounter on your outdoor adventure. You can easily swap the stock rubber feet with the bundled spiked feet, and you can remove one of the tripod’s legs to convert it into a waterproof monopod. As with the Benro model, a hook on the center column lets you hang a camera bag or other weights to help stabilize the tripod. The bundled carry bag is well-constructed, just like the rest of the kit.
Unlike our other two picks, this Sirui tripod does not offer a multi-angle center column. This omission can make macro work more difficult, but it’s an acceptable trade-off if you need the Sirui’s waterproof design.
Because the Sirui uses four-segment legs, the last section of each leg is a little thin, so you give up a bit of stability when you fully extend all the legs. This drawback is common for four-segment legs, but something to be aware of.
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Best for travel: Manfrotto Element Traveller Big
Manfrotto Element Traveller Big
If you plan to bring a tripod with you when you go hiking, or on a vacation, you should consider a travel tripod that packs down small and won’t weigh you down too much. The moderately priced Manfrotto Element Traveller Big Camera Tripod is both small and tall—able to unfold from a collapsed height of 16.5 inches to a maximum height of just over 64.5 inches. The Element Traveller Big was one of the most stable travel models we tested, with five leg sections that ended in a pretty narrow circumference, but with a single center column that offered more stability than models with expandable center columns.
At 3.5 pounds, it weighs almost 2 pounds less than the Vanguard Alta Pro 2+ 263AB100, but it can handle a significant load capacity of 17.6 pounds—that would be far more gear than you’d ever need to support at once while traveling. It’s about as girthy as the rest of the competition, with a circumference of about 3.5 inches, and it easily fits into a larger backpack or small suitcase.
The Element Traveller Big features smooth leg lock twists with plenty of grip and three leg angle locks that snap into place and release with a simple push. One leg can detach to convert to a monopod. Two knobs control panning and ball head rotation smoothly with secure tension, while two bubble levels help keep perspectives straight from horizon level as well as above.
The Arca-Swiss–style mount looks small, but it easily accommodated a 2.6-pound Canon 5D Mark IV camera and 50mm lens during testing. The mount includes a tiny handle that works great in a pinch if you don’t have an Allen wrench or a coin handy.
The Element Traveller Big’s slightly spiked small rubber feet offer plenty of grip. Optional rubber spikes are included in the bag the tripod comes in. Thankfully, both bag and tripod are small enough to tuck into most backpacks or large bags.
Perhaps we’re simply used to a mounting system that slides into the full-size tripod we use most often, but it took a bit of mental retraining to get used to the Element Traveller Big mount, which must be set directly on top of the tripod and then tightened. This top-down mounting method works just as well as the side-slide method we’re accustomed to, but it did give us pause during testing.
Similar to many tripods, the Element Traveller Big uses twist leg locks. Although we prefer twist leg locks to the flip kind when it comes to a travel tripod—because they help keep the overall aesthetic sleek and are less likely to snag—they come with potential problems, too. Resist the temptation to over-loosen twist locks. It takes only a slight turn to loosen them; much more than that and you’ll discover that those legs are a bit tricky to put back together. Once they’re extended, you’ll also want to be sure to firmly tighten the twist leg locks. Unlike with flip leg locks, with twist leg locks it’s harder to tell whether they’re completely secured, so use your hand to double-check.
Like most tripods in this category, the Element Traveller Big comes with a bag that you’ll likely end up discarding. It’s a drawstring bag with a thick cord, so it could cut into your shoulder after a while. There’s not much advantage to using a dedicated bag, as opposed to just tucking the tripod into or attaching it onto a bag you’re already likely using in your travels.