Tripods are an essential accessory for many types of optical equipment - spotting scopes, cameras, observation binoculars, telescopes and more. A tripod is used to 1) improve steadiness when using high magnification instruments and/or 2) support the weight of large, heavy instruments. Which tripod is right for you? Here are some basics to help you decide.
For the sake of simplicity, think of tripods as having two basic parts - a tripod head, which holds your optical product and a tripod leg set.
On less expensive tripods, typically under $100, tripod heads and tripod legs set are sold together as a unit - no need to buy them individually. Most tripods in this price range do not allow you to remove and switch heads anyway. More expensive tripods, however, offer interchangeable legs and heads, so you may need to buy both pieces to make a complete tripod. When ordering a Bogen Tripod, for instance, you only get a leg set if you order a model labeled as a "tripod". If you want both a leg set and a head, you must order a tripod by Bogen labeled and described as a "kit". If in doubt as to what is included, check the specs. If it is a leg set, only, there will only be specifications for a leg set. If a head and leg set are included, there will be specifications for both.
Big instruments and/or high magnifications require heavy tripod heads and these do not come cheap. Be sure to budget for a tripod that matches your instrument and needs. Anything less is a waste of money. Indeed, most tripods under $100 have plastic heads, which can crack and drop your expensive camera or spotting scope on the ground without warning. Cheap tripods are only suitable for small loads and small instruments.
Some manufacturers offer weight or payload capacities of their tripods. These should not be taken too literally and are nearly always inflated. Payload specs can be used as a basis for comparison, but rarely translate into anything real in actual use. A tripod or head rated for 13 pounds DOES NOT automatically make it a good choice for a 13 lb giant binocular.
In terms of height, compact tripods begin where table top tripods end. A compact tripod tends to be a bit too large to use conveniently on a table, but will becomfortable to use when sitting in a chair. Compact tripods are the favorites of backpackers and mountain hunters who are willing to sacrifice height for portability. Compact tripods are ideal for spotting scopes of 70mm or smaller and for any digital point camera, but are not good choices when you need to stabilize 80mm and larger spotting scopes or SLR cameras with telephoto lenses.
A full size tripod allows a user of average height to use a spotting scope, binocular or camera while standing. Full size, however, does not automatically mean heavy duty. As always, you should match tripod weight and strength with the size and weight of the spotting scope, binocular or camera. Keep in mind, there is no such thing as a tripod that is both "cheap" and "stable". The larger the load on a tripod, the more you should expect to pay to do the job, properly.
The average full size tripod with head attached, extends from about 26" to 57" with legs fully extended, center column down, and up to 72" with the center column at its highest.
Table Top/Shooter's Tripods
As the name indicates, a table top tripod is designed to be used on a table or a shooting bench and will typically be between 8" and 18" in height, depending on the model. Table top tripods in this category generally do not have telescoping legs - what little range of adjustment they have is through an extendable center column, though many tabletop models lack even this. A shooter's tripod is basically a short table top tripod with a knob(s) for fine adjustments in evaluation and, sometimes, also windage (horizontal). Due to their lighter weight and rather narrow width of leg span, table-top tripods are a good choice where space is limited, but for the same reasons, table top tripods are not good choices for heavy, large instruments.