If you are new to photography or even a bit experienced, I admit that there is a jungle out there that can confuse the most determent ones. If you look a little bit closer you will notice that there is actually some kind of system in the mess, and there is a form of standardization of screws and threads, and quick release plates.
To start with the camera, the screw hole in the bottom of most DSLR cameras is ¼” -20 (most of the time just written ¼”). This means that all standardized and proprietary quick release plates (that are not model specific) with a ¼” screw will fit your camera. For example the screw that sticks out on top of a monopod is ¼” and fits right into your camera. For monopods it’s quite okay to screw it directly to the camera, although a good head is recommended for monopods too, it is not as critical as for a tripod.
That brings us over to the “head”, which is the adjustable link between your camera and tripod. For photography we can simply divide them into Ball Heads and Gimbal Heads, whereas Ball Heads are meant to be used with the camera itself and moderate telephoto lenses with tripod mount mounted on it, while Gimbal Heads are meant for the bigger telephoto lenses (camera directly won’t fit on a Gimbal Head). There is also Monopod Heads that are more optimized for use with monopods (¼” screw) and Video Heads that normally comes with an arm for easier control over camera movements while filming.
While many use a Video Head for photography too, Ball Heads are considered to be the best option. Anyhow, all of those come with quick release plates and unfortunately there isn’t any one standardized type to choose from. That said, I will highly recommend the “Arca Swiss” (often also called Arca Type) that are awesome and many brands of tripods and heads are using. Interesting side note is that Tamron has built in Arca Swiss into the tripod mount on several of their newer telephoto lenses like the 70-200 G2 and 150-600 G2 (unfortunately and strangely they hardly mention anything about it in their documentation!).
Other brands that produce Arca Swiss quick release plates, clamps, ball heads and other accessories are: Arca Swiss, Acratech, Giottos, Henjar, Jobu Design, Kirk Enterprises, Markins, MeFoto, Novoflex, Really Right Stuff, Sirui and Sunwayfoto (and probably some more too). So as you can see, you may have a lot of options if you buy into the Arca Swiss system and not get locked into a proprietary system from only one brand. That said, there are proprietary systems that are great too, but I doubt any of them gives you the flexibility and options as Arca Swiss does.
When talking about the “normal” quick release plate we need to mention the L-bracket too. The L-bracket mounts as a normal quick release plate but it’s shaped as an “L” and goes around the corner of your camera and up against the side, means you can mount your camera on the head in portrait orientation too and still have the camera and lens straight over the center of the tripod. I should also mention that there is model-specific quick release plates too, that is somewhat shaped after the bottom surface of your camera body, making it a more secure fit against rotation. I see the benefit but also the drawback, as after some years you’ll sell your camera body and end up with quick release plate that doesn’t fit on your next camera, and hardly get some money for if you want to sell it. So I would actually recommend getting a couple of universal fit quick release plates so you can enjoy them on your next camera body as well without buying new ones.
Choosing witch ball head to get is still difficult after all this information, but I advise you to get one that can take the weight of your heaviest lens and camera, and then some to make sure it won’t come crashing down on you. Many years ago I went for the Kirk BH-3 ball head as I think this is one of the best within reasonable price. It can hold 15 pounds, which is about 7 kg and is more than twice as heavy as my biggest lens and camera combination. Kirk also has a slightly more expensive ball head in the BH-1 that can take 50 pounds or over 20 kg that should be enough for most usage, although in this range I think maybe a gimbal head could be a better alternative. Almost every heads has 3/8″ treads on the bottom.
Worth mentioning is that you may also unscrew the clamp and replace it with a different clamp if needed. The “clamp” is the thing you slide your quick release plate into on top of your head and tighten with a screw.
Next up is the tripod (legs) and there is even a larger jungle there than with the heads. Note one thing first though, the universal tripod that can do it all, doesn’t exist! The main job for å tripod is to hold the camera and lens steady and for that you would need at heavy tripod with thick legs and little adjustments, while most people like to have a lightweight, portable and easy to carry around. This means you either need to make some compromises or buy more than one tripod. I will opt for more than one, as it possibly is just as expensive. For portability and travels, you would like one that is light and small when folded together, as with birds and wildlife you would like a sturdy and possibly not too heavy and for home and studio you only need the sturdiest. The 3/8″ screw on top fits right into the head with same screw treads.
One thing I’ve noticed though is that many tripods are very low even when the head and the camera are mounted on the top. If you are outdoor and using your tripod in uneven terrain, you need to shorten those legs that are too long as you can’t extend more than to the max. This makes the potential low tripod even lower, so I recommend that you get a tripod that is taller than you need on a flat surface, and then just don’t extend the legs all the way if you don’t need. I own three tripods although the oldest one is hardly ever used anymore as it’s too lightweight and flimsy to be used with a camera. I sometimes use it for other purposes though. My main tripod is a Manfrotto 475B, which has a maximum height of 188cm (162cm column down) and then add about 20 cm with head and camera on top you understand that this is high enough for most purposes. I also have a smaller and lighter Manfrotto 718B with video head that I bring sometimes on travels.
One last thing about tripod legs is that I’ve seen some purists that say you should avoid the adjustable center column, or dismantle it or even glue it in lowest position because it may be a source of vibration. I say it’s better to have it and not use it, than to not have it and need it!
Instead of the usual head on top of the tripod legs, you may even mount something else there. Quite often I use a Manfrotto Cross Arm (131DDB) with double end and double head support, where I mount the ball head on one of the head supports and a Gitzo laptop platform (G065) on the other. There is even a 3/8″ screw on each end of the Cross Arm for more options. There are still a lot of other adapters, studs and other stuff your imagination can mount on the 3/8″ screws.
Final thing I want to mention here is “built in spirit level”. I’ve seen many tripod legs and heads have them built-in, but where is it most useful? I would say it has good meaning on the tripod legs if you are of those who do a lot of paning or shoot at a lot of different angles around (there are heads where you may only rotate the clamp too). On the clamp on the head it makes more sense when you are shooting in mostly one direction. There is also a hot-shoe bubble level that can be handy although I normally use the cameras built-in “virtual horizon” to level the camera when needed.
Bottom line is to analyze your need thoroughly before you make up your mind, spend some time and do some research first. As mentioned, you might be better off getting two tripods instead of one. Also, don’t go for the cheapest ones, as there is a reason that they are cheap. And, don’t forget that it could be smart to buy into a system that you can grow with.
All the way in the end some words about monopods. Monopods are very handy with a long and/or heavy lens, to rest your arms. It does in a way the same as a tripod, but naturally less stable. As briefly mentioned, there is special heads for monopods as they have the smaller ¼” screw on top (have to mention that more advanced and expensive monopods also comes with 3/8″ threads too). When buying a monopod, make sure it’s rated to the weight you would like to put on it. I got a couple, and the last one I got was because I wanted a monopod that was as short as possible when folded so it would fit in camera shoulder bag. It doesn’t support enough weight, but if I tighten the joints very well, it actually supports my 200-500 lens. It’s a Velbon Ultra Stick Super 8, that fold to a comfortable 26cm.
This is not meant to be a thorough guide, but to give beginners a glimpse into the jungle of possibilities and options.