Anyone who knows me as a photographer, knows I prefer to shoot handheld as much as possible. I love the freedom of complete movement and to get into position quickly without losing the moment, or pose on a model's face or the sun bursting around the corner of a barn. There are however times where it is essential, or a least a huge benefit to giving your camera and lens a sturdy platform (other than your knee or camera bag!).
Every photographer has their own taste, and reasons for making the equipment decisions they do - from experience to budget - so I am going to share my own personal preferences here.
I shoot focal lengths from 14mm to 500mm on full frame bodies, so things can get a little heavy. I also shoot portraits, landscapes and wildlife. When I am shooting outdoors, it almost always involves a hike to get to location - sometimes through deep snow or tall grass. The prairies also offer up some of the strongest winds, uninhibited by trees or mountains. So, you pretty much have to count on wind being a factor when shooting.
I am not a fan of center columns, they tend to rattle around in the wind (after a few uses) and add unnecessary weight to the tripod. I am not a tall guy, so I can get away with using the regular leg extensions on most setups. Also, good tripods can get very low to the ground without the center column. I am also not a fan of using my main tripod as a monopod - I would rather use a dedicated monopod for those occasions. Monopods can be very light and fold up to near nothing.
I have owned a variety of tripods over the years and usually get 5 or more years out of them. But once they start to rattle, or the legs won't extend easily - its time to look at maintenance or replacement.
My criteria for a good tripod and ball head (not in any particular order):
- Carbon fiber - both ball head and tripod - must be as light as possible
- Padding on each leg - this is purely a comfort thing
- Large load capable - big camera body and big lenses
- A wide stance with good spikes - I can't overstate this!
- A very strong ball head - it must be able to stay in place with no creep once set - even with a long lens
- Ability to get very close to the ground - I love those low POV shots in landscapes
- Dual locking for the release plate
- Excellent customer support from the manufacturer
Currently my main tripod and ball head setup consists of the Feisol CT-3472 and Feisol CB-50DC ballhead. Not only is this setup meet all my criteria above, this is a very strong and stable rig. The CB-50DC has a 41 pound load capacity and the CT-3472 an enormous 66 pound capacity. All this and they weight only 1.23 and 3.99 pounds respectively.
I always purchase extra release plates for my longer lenses, don't be taking those plates off to save on $10-$20. Also, I would highly recommend buying the manufacturers plates for a proper fit. Match your parts - not all Arca-Swiss plates are made with the exact same dimensions or quality. Buy larger plates for your longer lenses.
There are so many accessories for tripods these days, you can get a great setup to suit your shooting needs if you do your homework and go with a good company who are investing in quality engineering, innovations and understand photography in the first place.
As a note, Really Right Stuff also make great products and have a great lineup of tripods, ballheads and accessories. But I have not used their gear so I cannot personally vouch for them.