A tripod is an essential accessory for any photographer. Some shooters use tripods as much as 75% of their working time, and many view it as the difference between taking a photo and making a photograph.
There are many different types of tripods available, suitable for levels of travel, budgets and tastes. The two most common styles are the 3 section vs 4 section tripods. Which is right for you?
A tripod can be broken down into 3 components that effect stability:
- center column
- head unit.
The number of sections refers to how many times you need to extend the center column to provide maximum height. The more sections, the less solid the entire tripod becomes due to extra joints and weak links in the mechanics of each leg. Tripod legs are typically attached using a twisting locking mechanism which is usually manufactured into the tripod’s leg. The more legs you have, the smaller grip surface you have to attach these twist locks. This can be especially problematic when conditions are cold, or your fingers are stiff from low temperatures. Low temperatures cause the metal to contract and become brittle, so if a tripod is stored in an unheated environment overnight, for example, the legs may be very stiff and difficult to adjust. A 3 section tripod is much more solid than a 4 section simply because there are less moving parts.
The center column usually attaches directly under the tripod head unit using a threaded attachment system. This is also where you will find the leg angle adjustment, which enables you to quickly rotate each leg to the horizontal (90 degrees) position. Twist locks will be found on either end of each tripod leg to enable you to quickly adjust the height and width of the tripod. Both 3 and 4 section tripods can vary in width fully extended for low angle shooting, or collapsed down to a minimum working height which is helpful for travel and transport.
The more leg sections you have, the less solid and stable your tripod becomes. The general rule is to keep it as short as possible by only extending each section to its full length when needed, i.e. get down low or shoot in cramped conditions such as indoors.
The final component that effects stability is the center column which connects directly under the tripod head unit. A 4 section tripod will always be less stable than a 3 section simply because there are more joints that can effect the stability of each leg. The trade-off is that this design makes for a much more compact and portable solution that fits easily into your travel gear or backpack.
If you like shooting low to the ground and aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty, a 4 section tripod is for you. A 3 section tripod, on the other hand, is ideal for those who shoot from a higher perspective and enjoy shooting panoramas or stitched images.
Did You Know? On average, photographers use their tripods 70% of the time. There are many different styles of tripods available, from lightweight travel tripods, high-end carbon-fibre models and heavy-duty aluminum alloy designs. You can view a full range of tripods available on Amazon by clicking here.
This is a question that haunts many aspiring astrophotographers. In short, there are three main aspects to consider when choosing between a 3 section tripod and a 4 section tripod: flexibility, weight and convenience.
In simple terms, more leg sections allow for greater flexibility as you can extend each set of legs independently. The minimum number of leg sections allowable is 2 (a monopod), but it’s worth noting that this provides no real benefit over a 1-section setup other than saving weight and reducing size. With only two sets of legs, telescoping the innermost set fully will allow your tripod to reach its lowest possible height; similarly, the outermost set will allow your tripod to reach its highest possible height.
Additionally, adding more leg sections allows you to get lower to the ground and also provides some stability when at its lowest position. This is useful if you plan to use your setup in any terrain where it may be uneven or rocky; by extending one or two sets of legs, you can achieve a greater area of contact with the ground and improve both stability and safety.
A 3 section tripod will give you greater flexibility than a 4 section tripod without requiring additional parts such as extenders (see below). However, there is no real benefit in having more than 4 leg sections (or 2+extenders) other than saving weight and space. Keep in mind that each time you add an extra section to your tripod, this will also add weight.
The legs of your tripod are the biggest contributor to its overall weight, but depending on what you’ll be using it for, you may place greater emphasis on other parts such as the head or centre column, which can also contribute significantly to its overall weight. For example, photographers shooting long exposure landscapes will likely use a full-size ball head with their DSLR and a large telephoto lens mounted directly to the tripod’s top plate. In this scenario, there is no benefit in going overboard and buying a carbon fibre tripod over a slightly heavier aluminium one – if anything, aluminium tripods will actually provide more strength and stability due to their higher density (mass per unit volume).
Conversely, astrophotographers often use lightweight mirrorless cameras and small refractors, in which case there is no benefit to using a heavy aluminium tripod (whose legs will also be longer than needed).
Most people think that lighter tripods are easier to carry around, but this isn’t always true. The heavier the tripod, the more stable it will generally be; weight acts as ballast, so if you double the weight of your tripod, you halve the vibration amplitude at its natural frequency. Assuming friction between each leg section is negligible (as it should be), heavier tripods are therefore less prone to small vibrations caused by walking or wind gusts. Longer tripods with more leg sections can introduce flexure into the system, too – easily seen when you extend each set of legs to their maximum and watch as the centre column wobbles around.
There is a balance that needs to be made here – on the one hand; a heavier tripod will reduce vibrations at its natural frequency and reduce any external vibration input. On the other hand, a heavier tripod takes up more space in your bag and may require extra effort to carry around before or after usage (especially if you plan on hiking for several hours). In general, if weight is smaller than a concern, then flexibility is increased with a 4-section tripod; however, this typically comes with greater manufacturing cost due to the materials required to assemble such a complex structure. If weight is more of an issue, then having more than 4 leg sections will only increase the weight of your tripod without giving you much benefit.
The type of locking system used on tripod legs can also affect its weight. Twist locks are usually lighter than lever-lock mechanisms, but they require more time to both tighten and loosen each leg section. Some photographers will twist each leg section several times before locking them in place; others may only tighten them enough to hold the camera steady. Twist locks are also known to get stuck occasionally, requiring you to manually rotate each leg section until they finally release. On the other hand, lever locks can be pulled (after loosening them) with a single finger, and they also lock each leg section more securely. Some photographers prefer to twist each leg section just enough to hold the camera steady, but others prefer to tighten their tripod legs as much as possible since there is less chance of something breaking under stress.
Do you own a 3 or 4 section tripod? Why did you go for that model? Let us know in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this article, please post a comment below or share it socially with friends.