Me (to wife): “My head is unstable and I have ordered a new, $300 one.”
(wife): “I knew about the instability, but I didn’t realize you could buy a new one.”
If you search around the internet you will find plenty of product reviews. One of the best reviews I ever read said something like this: “Save one thousand dollars by buying the right gear now instead of later”. He proceeded to describe how cheap tripod legs and cheap heads ended up costing more than had he bought the good gear from the beginning.
Wait, “heads?”, “legs?”
There are four parts to a tripod that are important to get right: legs, head, release, mounting plate.
But First… A Short Commercial
- Legs – The part that touches the ground, and yes the bottom of the legs is called the feet.
- Head – The part that is attached to the top of the legs and provides the ability to rotate and tilt the camera at various angles.
- (Quick) Release system – The method by which the Head can attach to the camera via…
- Quick Release plate – the part that you attach to the camera and mate to the release system. You can directly screw your camera on to many different heads, but you do not want to do that because it is really, really inconvenient.
If any bit of those is wrong, you have an unstable or even equipment-hazardous situation. Trust me, I started with “K-Mart” tripods (had 3 – each of which didn’t last long), 2 Manfrotto aluminum tripods (one is broken), and ONE Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. I have also owned at least 9 different heads including a pan-tilt head, SunFoto, Manfroto, Acratech, and a gaggle of off brands. The ball heads were bought for various purposes. I have also dealt with 3 different kinds of attachment systems: direct screw-in to the camera (really inconvenient), Manfroto style plate clamp (better), and Arca Swiss clamp (best of the bunch). I have also used a gaggle of different “quick release” plates from cheap off-the shelf, to custom made for my camera(s), including L-Brackets.
Trial By Fire
Trust me when I tell you I have discovered a lot of what not to buy, and can say confidently that if you want a stable, good quality camera support system you need to get all four components right. And doubly so for night photography where long exposures REQUIRE a tripod or other solid support system. My tripods have been to the top of Half Dome, Mount Whitney and Clouds Rest. I have used the “legs” as a walking stick to keep me from falling into rivers and ravines, to test stability of the ground before taking a step.
Many Paths to Failure – Plate and Clamps
Let me provide some examples of the myriad of ways things can go wrong: all of them have happened to me, by the way.
If the quick release plate is attached with a low quality screw or bolt… the bolt could snap and your camera and lens will tumble to the ground.
If the quick release plate is difficult to get a snug fit (or requires a special tool that you do not have with you), your camera will wobble or twist in the breeze no matter how stable everything else is.
If the plate is difficult to get into the latch (release clamp), you may think you have it ready to go, only to see your camera fall off the tripod onto the ground or down a granite staircase.
If the plate you have on the camera does not mate with the clamp on your tripod… oops. You’ve lugged your equipment for nothing.
If everything is solid except the clamp does not snug down well, you have wobble and ruined photos.
… and we have not even gotten to the head or the legs yet!
More Failure: Head and Legs
If your head requires superhuman strength to keep it from creeping under the weight of your camera and lens (or super human strength to undo it)… you get either painful fingers or a “sinking” camera angle.
If the tensioning on the head is either locked-like-super-glue or floppy-as-a-wet-rag, you may either have to give up aiming the shot as you want, miss the shot, or have the rig flop over when the camera does. And the flopping camera may pinch your hand, or mash your fingers or smack you in the face (Reminder: All these have happened to me!)
Even if the leg locks seem to be working well, unusually cold (or hot) weather may render the locks ineffective and your tripod may slowly – or suddenly – fall over.
If the legs cannot be adjusted wide-enough or accurately-enough or low-enough, a breeze or strong gust of wind may blow your rig over.
If the fully extended legs are so short that you fully extend the center column to keep from hunching over and hurting your back – you have turned your tripod into a wide-stance monopod that may not be able to bear the load.
If your center column has a tightening collar or wing nut directly below the weight of your camera, you may accidentally over loosen the column causing the camera to slide down and pinch the living daylights out of your hand.
If your legs are spindly, they may induce vibration, or just snap when you accidentally bump them.
… I could go on … but I am hoping you understand how hard knocks, broken lenses, and broken tripod components all add up to a severe lack of enthusiasm for all but the best built of components.
So here is where you might expect me to make recommendations, right? I usually avoid making recommendations because gear changes, and people have different reasons for choosing what they do. My criteria are pretty simple: I want stability, versatility, durability, and light-weight – in about that order. While the first three seem to be pretty obvious criteria, the light-weight aspect was something I learned over time, too. It was a chore to lug my > 8 pound aluminum leg Manfrotto with a Manfrotto head to the top of Half Dome. By comparison my < 4.5 pound Gitzo plus Acratech head seemed like a feather. Manfrotto made a smart move when they bought Gitzo.
You might have noticed that I did not list price as important. It used to be, but too many failed choices made me realize that choices that are less than great become costlier in the long run. In a similar vein I bought half a dozen sleeping bags hoping to get something lightweight and WARM until I finally spent almost $300 on a bag (Big Agnes Lost Ranger) and pad that provided the most comfortable, warm sleep – and was also lightweight. I’ve spent more for a single night in a hotel than for the sleeping bag, but that bag has kept me snoozing on many chilly nights in the wilderness. Indeed one night I had TWO cheap sleeping bags nested inside one another while in a tent in Grandview Campground at 8,600 feet on White Mountain and I was still shivering. The next time I went with my Big Agnes. The night was even colder, but I was snug as a bug in a rug.
I had similar experiences with camera backpacks. I liked the design of a Tamron bag. It lasted about a year until the zipper broke. The second bag lasted less than a year. By contrast, my F-stop Tilopa bag has been all over the world over 4 years now – sometimes as my primary and only luggage. To say I’m happy with its durability would be an understatement – and that it cost me 4 times as much as one Tamron bag ($320 vs $95), means I’ve broken even so far – without the inconvenience of dealing with broken gear.
What About A Ball Head And Tripod Legs?
- Acratech Head (pretty much any one), but the GP-s is a nicely designed lightweight capable head unless you have a huge camera.
- Gitzo carbon fiber legs, but NOT the Traveler series which is too flimsy and too short.
I specifically recommend the Mountaineer Series 2. It is the best trade-off between weight, stability and usable height. If you’re willing to pay a penalty in extra pounds, the Systematic series (3, 4, or 5) are good except for two things: The Systematic doesn’t have a center column and sometimes that column is useful – like when trying to shoot straight up since the camera may end up hanging partially below the level of the head. The other thing about a series 5 Systemic that bothered me was that I was shocked to discover that the leg locks must be untightened in a specific order to fold it all up because if an upper leg is not tight, the lock on the lower leg will just spin. The mountaineer doesn’t require that silliness.
- Really Right Stuff with carbon fiber legs. Pretty much all of them are well done, light and sturdy. The RRS ball heads are good too, it’s just that they are all heavy, heavy, heavy.
But, but those are expensive choices! Yes. I suppose paying $430 USD for a good head and $950 USD for good legs sounds like an excessive amount of money. But: how much did your camera and lens cost? How much will your back thank you for carrying a smaller load? And finally, how much are you willing to risk watching your camera and lens flop over in a gust of wind?
I write what I know – not what people or manufacturers or merchants ASK me to write. I paid retail price to purchase all the gear I’ve discussed. In other words, these are honest, unbiased, hard won evaluations of various gear. If you can purchase this gear at a local store, I recommend that you do so. You may spend a little more, but there is serious value to talking to real people, testing out gear in person, and in keeping a local business viable.