I'm in the process of buying myself a new tripod, and boy, it can be confusing to know what you are looking for! So, I thought I'd write up a quick post on how to choose a tripod: what to look for, and how to narrow down the choices. On thing I want to point is that I write all my posts with people like me in mind - lifestyle / portrait photographers who mainly shoot at home or in the local park, maybe dabble in macro or landscapes and so on, so if you intend going trekking in the Amazon for National Geographic, this post on tripods might not be the best one for you :)
Why get a tripod?
With that in mind, let me tell you why I think you might want to invest in a tripod at some point. If you are looking to document your children's lives, you will actually want to be IN some of the pictures you take, and a tripod makes this process much easier. Another is for macro shots - it can be difficult to handhold a heavy macro lens for extreme close ups, and since you need to use a very small aperture for macro work, it is very useful to be able to put the camera on a tripod to enable you to use slower shutter speeds. These are the two that apply to me, but they are also brilliant for shooting landscapes (particularly if you want to shoot HDR image) or for example if you want to shoot things like the moon or star trails, or just in low light generally - for example if you want to photograph your sleeping child and need to use a lower shutter speed than you can get away with handheld.
Onto the tripod itself. A tripod is made up of three different parts - the three legs, a centre column which allows you to further raise up the tripod head if needed, and a head, which is the part that the camera actually rests on. Cheaper/ mid range tripods tend to come with both together, whilst more expensive options tend to need to be "put together": you choose the legs, and then the head (and sometimes different feet which go on the end of the tripod legs) so you get exactly what you want.
Here are the main things you need to look at when purchasing a tripod:
1) The Weight Rating
This is the reason I am upgrading from my old tripod! Different tripods are designed to take different amounts of weight, so you get some that are suitable for point and shoots, and some for heavier pro-camera gear, so the first thing to look at is how much weight the tripod can support. Work out how much you need by taking into account the weight of your camera, battery grip if you use one, and your heaviest lens (or heaviest lens you might want to invest in in the future) A general rule of thumb is to buy one that can support 1.5 time the total weight you have just worked out to give you a bit of wiggle room (say when you want to add on a camera flash) If you are a beginner, then I would buy bigger than that to give you room should you decide to upgrade your lenses at some point.
2) Tripod Weight
If you intend to take your tripod out and about with you, then you will need to consider the weight. Tripods made from carbon-fibre are the lightest, but also the most expensive, cheaper ones tend to be made from aluminium which are a bit heavier, so better if you intend to just use your tripod indoors or somewhere you won't have to walk with it. You can also get plastic ones (way down at the bottom of the price ladder) which are of course lightweight, but not too durable, but if you only ever intend using it in your living room, perhaps not too much of a problem.
3) Tripod Head
Tripods also come with different heads, such as a Pan Tilt head which come has one or two levers to allow you to adjust the camera angle (or three on high end tripods) which is useful for very precise work, or a ballhead, which, as the name suggests, has a ball that you simply rotate the camera around on to get the right position, then tighten it into place. You also get Gimbal heads, which are for supporting those really long lenses, and ones that are specifically made for video. For general use, a ball head is your best bet.
4) Quick-Release System
That little hole on the bottom of your camera is where your camera threads onto the tripod head. It's a bit of pain in the you-know-where to attach, since you have to rotate the camera to thread it onto the head. There is a solution that makes attaching the camera to a tripod much easier, and that is a quick release plate. It's simply a plate that attaches to your camera, which then simply slides onto the tripod head. You can buy this as an extra, although some models with come with this as standard.
Choosing Your Tripod
Once you have looked at these four main requirements then you can start choosing your tripod. Manfrotto, MeFoto and Vanguard are well recognised makes and I don't think you can go far wrong with them, but you can also get some excellent cheaper tripods if you don't want to spend too much.
If this is your first tripod, and you are not sure how much you are going to use it, then you can easily pick one up for $150 or under. If you know that you are going to be using a lot, or need something very study and good for travelling with (or trekking in the Amazon!) then I would invest more heavily. Above all, remember that your tripod will be taking the full weight of your camera, so make sure that you are happy that it can support the weight, and it feels sturdy. Don't scrimp to save a few dollars on a tripod when you have $$$ of camera gear resting on it!
Although everyones needs are different, depending on your camera model, what you intend to to use it for and so on, here are some ideas to get you started, and all are under $200 - each type has different options so you can get one to fit your weight needs and so on.
Dirt Cheap but Heavy
Theses are good options if you want something cheap and cheerful, but sturdy, and don't worry about the weight of the tripod too much i.e you'll mainly be using it indoors, or setting up in one location at the park for example. Both of these have great reviews, and are cheap!
Great for Travel
These are some good travel ones - they are lightweight and therefore easier to carry, and also fold down into a more compact size.
Good All Rounders
I hope that helped narrow down the choices!
Just in case you are curious, I actually plumped for the "dirt cheap and heavy" option of the Amazon Basics one, since I only ever really use this at home, or very nearby, and I'm not a heavy user. Once I have had a better chance to play with it, I'll write up a little review of it for those that might be interested.
Happy tripod shopping!