There is a place, and time, for hand holding supertelephoto lenses. Hand holding larger lenses allows you to move more dynamically, however after a prolonged period fatigue will kick in. For me, a good tripod has four main characteristics: stability, portability, functionality, and durability. Tripods are expensive, and so are your lenses. Buying a cheaper tripod will save you money in the short- run, and just like anything cheap you buy now, 99% of the time you will end up upgrading. However, don’t use price to determine quality; there are many expensive pieces of junk (Gitzo).
Having a stable tripod is vital to being able to photograph at low shutter speeds. If you look at the blog post: Wildlife vs. Landscape Photographers you can see an image at a focal length of 840mm with a shutter speed of 1/60. Without a stable tripod I would have struggled to capture consistently tack- sharp photos. Each company has different tripod ratings. For Really Right Stuff and Gitzo, carbon fiber tripods rated series three and above are good options for 300-1200mm focal lengths.
Tripods with the least number of leg sections tend to be more stable. After using many tripods, I found the sweet spot is four sections from top tripod manufacturers (Really Right Stuff and Feisol). If you try to get a cheap, four-section, tripod prepare for instability. Purchasing a tripod with four sections gives you the balance between stability/ portability.
Photographing wildlife, 99% of the time, causes you to travel/ hike to their locations. It could be a couple mile hike, or a flight across the world. Trust me; get the smallest tripod that you can buy. Small tripods are great if you are flying because they don’t take up the valuable space in your checked bag. Also, the smaller tripods work great when you are walking around in the field. Generally, small tripods are lighter. The reduced weight allows you to trek more comfortably by alleviating your arms/ shoulders. When I was looking for a tripod, twenty-five inches was the maximum folded length acceptable to me.
Functionality of a tripod is a detrimental quality. Functionality means ease of use; ease of use means being able to setup in time to take that once- in- a- lifetime action shot. When looking for a strong, stable, tripod skip those with center columns. Center columns, extended to the maximum height, provide little stability. You might as well be hand holding your supertelephoto lens. For capturing eye- level perspectives, look for a tripod that can lay flat on the ground.
To find the minimum “maximum height” measure when looking for a tripod, measure the distance between the floor and your eye. Ideally, you want a tripod to go over your head, so you can adjust for uneven terrain. Note that the Wimberley head/ different ballheads/ natural height of the camera will allow for some wiggle room to this number (because the viewfinder is a little more elevated).
Now, to the most debatable option: twist vs. lever locks on the legs. I’m a twist lock guy. For me, it’s much faster to twist the locks with one hand vs. operate a lever because I have big hands/ can untwist them all at once. Also, if you are going to use a tripod in the water, buy the twist locks. Twist locks are a lot easier to clean/ take apart because they are constructed with fewer parts.
Durability is the last important characteristic; great tripods should last you years. The top companies used by photographers are Really Right Stuff (RRS), Feisol, Gitzo, and Manfrotto. After shooting with all the brands, RRS are the best option with Feisol taking second.
RRS tripods offer the most durability in salt water, and if cleaned after each use, don’t corrode. This is attributable to their anodized coating (others use powder coding). If you are using your tripods anywhere near salt water avoid Gitzo. They are the most susceptible to corrosion, and even if you clean them each time, they will corrode. My old Gitzo snapped from the cold when photographing Snowy Owls, and I experienced first- hand their horrendous customer service.
RRS tripods are the most stable option because they use CNC milling for a perfect fit vs. others using mold castings, have a larger base when the legs are open (better stability), and have thicker carbon fiber legs (better stability). Feisol come in second, and are the best budget option. They have a smaller spread when the legs are opened, which cause them to be a little less stable vs. RRS. Also, RRS fare better in water. Gitzo/ Manfrotto are overpriced, and Feisol offers the same features at a better price point.
Overall, you can’t go wrong with a RRS/ Feisol tripod. Remember, buy a tripod for your future longest focal length lens. This will prevent unnecessary upgrades, which will save you money in the long- run. I currently use a RRS TVC-34: Versa series 3, 4 leg sections tripod. This tripod checks all the boxes on my list because it's compact, stable, easy to clean, and doesn't corrode.