Firstly, find a tripod that DOESN'T weigh the same as a small elephant. I may be exaggerating slightly, but honestly there are tripods out there that weigh more than they need to. If you need a heavy duty tripod, you probably know exactly what you're supposed to be doing with it and don't need to read this article! Every few years a new popular tripod or element to a tripod is discovered and its rolled out at a ridiculously high price. If you don't leap on it and wait a while, you can get it for the price it's supposed to be a little further down the line. Carbon Fibre Tripods are now quite ridiculously cheap compared to what they were two or three years ago. You can pick them up from about £60. Trust me that's cheap for a decent tripod. The one that I've linked is fairly substantial, it doesn't fall over when the wind blows and it withstands me banging into it when I'm stumbling around my photography area. Carbon Fibre means that its light and easy to transport, but it's not pathetic in a bit of bad weather. The one thing I don't understand about these tripods is the leg warmers. I do notice though that it means when you're carrying the tripod, it's nicer to the hands than cold steel or hard plastic!
When and When not to use a tripod
Firstly if you can - carry a tripod with you everywhere. It's quite easy if you drive as you can chuck it in the boot (trunk) of your car. However if you don't, then here are a few situations when you may or may not need a tripod.
When shooting fireworks (standby as in November we will bring you an article purely on troubleshooting fireworks photography!
Family Portraits - for those stuffy, forced posed shots it's great to have a tripod. For the candid and casual, try and leave it behind. People will be more natural if less equipment is around.
Weddings - this one is debatable in my book. All the weddings I have shot, I have done so without a tripod and nothing has suffered. However you might need it to look a bit more professional That's mostly what I use my tripod for!!
Low light conditions - Sunsets, Sunrises, evening shoots, first dances at Weddings, fashion parades - the list of low light events is endless. Use a tripod, reduce noise and blur.
Long Exposures - these require the use of a tripod, so for moody weather shots, deep and emotional landscapes and so on, you will need a tripod!
Sunny day, blue skies, beautiful beach - don't worry about using a tripod you should be fine. However do be careful when exchanging your lens on the beach - sand gets everywhere. In fact don't go to the beach with your SLR. Take your iphone!
Baby Photography - I found this lately, crawling around on the floor, shooting fast to capture moments before the baby cries or moves and moving at all angles leaves barely any room to have a tripod involved!
Squashing spiders on the ceiling that you can't reach. Yes, this is about all I use my tripod for - woe is me.
Alternatives for the times in which you can't use a tripod, you haven't got one with you or you just want a smaller cheaper alternative include Monopods, Beanbags, Gorillapods and walls and tables! Gorillapods are awesome and if you haven't discovered them yet, you truly need to. There are ones that are heavy enough to support D-SLR's and also mini ones that will comfortably hold your compact camera. They will sit on walls and ledges, wrap around trees and support your camera low in the rocks on a beach (see below!).
A good tripod is one you can carry yourself without hiring an assistant or an over-eager porter to help you. It will fit in your car and will easily strap against your camera bag. It will fit nicely in its carry bag and won't poke you at awkward moments. It will be easy to assemble, move, and control. It will befriend all the animals in Farthing Wood so that you can get fantastic nature shots and finally, it won't talk back and it will regularly make you cups of tea.
Jessops guide to Tripods and Monopods
Top five Monopods
Image Stabilizers (Video)
Tripod Buying Guide