Originally published February 19, 2009 … revised … yet again … October 19, 2014
Photo used with permission © 2011 Martha Wells. All Rights Reserved.
OK, let get down to brass tacks, or in this case, tripods and ball heads.
Teaching photo workshops as we do, we run into tons of questions about equipment.
“What camera should I buy?”
“What lens(es) should I bring?”
I was looking at a review on …”
Rarely, however, do people consult with us on tripods and ball heads ahead of time. In spite of our previous blog on this subject, updated several times since it was originally posted in February of 2009 and an article to which we have directed all our participants since it was published, people rarely ask us for any input on tripods and ball heads.
Are we the do-all-end-all in advice? Of course not, but Arnie and I made our living for decades as successful, full-time, working, professional photographers, and as such, we know what works. And as long-time teachers, we have seen the frustrations of those who try to “save” money.
“I just spent $X on my camera, and those things are expensive.”
Yes, they are, no question. It goes back to the old expression, “You gets what you pays for.” It’s rather akin to filters. Why would you put a $20-30 filter on an expensive lens? After all, your lens is only as good as the weakest piece of glass on it. Yup, you’ve got it. That expensive lens is now only as good as the glass in that cheap $20-30 filter.
Is there any difference when you contemplate buying a tripod and ball head? You spend, let’s say, $3,000 on a camera body and some lenses. That’s conservative in many cases. And you buy a flimsy, $129.99 combo deal on sale? Your $3,000 investment isn’t very safe on that I’ve-saved-money piece of … er … well, you know what I might have said. That is not to say that getting something on sale or second hand isn’t a good way to go, BUT …
We are always amazed that people will spend thousands of dollars on a high-end camera and lenses but skimp on their tripod and head. Having a substandard system for your camera and lenses is worse than having no tripod at all. We have seen cameras fall on rocks, head for the drink or briny deep, teeter off porches, and a host of other mishaps. Fortunately for our students, the cameras were caught or rescued in the nick of time, but — and this is a BIG BUT — they were really lucky!
And then, there have been those who were not so lucky. Fortunately, they were in the minority.
Photo used with permission © 2011 Laura Adler Palka. All Rights Reserved.
“OK,” you ask, “what should I buy?”
The first answer is, “Get the best you can afford.” That is obviously a simplistic answer, so we’ll delve further.
First, weigh your camera and your heaviest lens. Add a few pounds in case you want to buy an even heavier lens later on. Both your tripod and head should be rated to handle that weight with a margin of safety of at least another couple of pounds!
We generally recommend looking for something with a load capacity of an absolute minimum of 14 pounds — 18 is much better — for a dSLR camera, and considerably more if you have a medium-format or larger camera.
In the long run, it is cheaper to buy a good system than an entry-level one. So many of our participants have skimped and ended up more than frustrated with their equipment. They ultimately buy something better, and guess what? They wasted their money on that first system. Sometimes, they have indulged in second and third systems before they finally realize that they should have gone for an appropriate system the first time. Realistically, however, budgets are budgets, and each person has to weigh those decisions.
Carbon-fiber tripods are lighter, but they are more expensive than the standard metal ones. That said, the prices are coming down every time you turn around. Wait for a sale.
There are features we like to see in a tripod, to wit:
- Sturdiness/stability; if you rap one leg, and the other two move or vibrate, the tripod is too flimsy;
- Three-or four-segment legs for greater height adjustment and more compact length when collapsed;
- Adjustable and reversible center column, preferably one that can also be taken out of its vertical position and put in horizontally;
- A bubble level – not critical, but very useful for stitches (panoramas); and
- Ease of use — if it doesn’t work for you, you won’t use it, and it is a total waste of money.
Arnie has switched to a Really Right Stuff tripod that he really likes. There are a number of different models and price points at the link.
Before that, he was a decades-long Gitzo fan, and those are still excellent. The newest iteration of his old one is the GT2531EX. When we were still in the commercial world, we used it on assignments, as it is lighter. After all, nothing taken on an airplane gets any cheaper these days! There is also the four-section GT2541EX.
I, on the other hand, love my Bogen-Manfrotto 458B Neotec Pro Photo Tripod. I am one of those people who invariably tries to turn the leg adjustments the wrong way. Tightens them instead of loosening them. Guaranteed! On top of that, Arnie calls me “Goddesszilla.” It is often challenging for anyone to collapse the legs after my iron grip has been applied. It used to drive me nuts, Arnie, too, at least before I got this tripod!
So, when I saw one of our participants with this one, I had to have it. I want to lengthen the legs? I just pull them out! No levers, no twists, not a thing! I want to collapse them? I just push a button and apply a little pressure on that leg. I’ve finished my shot in that location, and I want to completely collapse the tripod? It is so slick; I just press the three buttons simultaneously, and push the tripod to the ground, step, rock, whatever, and ta-daaa, it is done!
OK, it does weigh more than Arnie’s, probably a pound, but I can handle it, especially since it comes with its own, built-in carrying strap. And another thing I love about it is that because of the way the legs are structured — the “fattest” section is at the bottom, and the other two sections pull out from or collapse back into this bottom section — I don’t have to worry about sand, gravel, dirt, etc. working its way up into the legs. In traditionally-designed tripods, the thinnest section is at the bottom, and if one has photographed at, say, the beach, one has to be really careful not to collapse that bottom leg all the way into the section above lest it take sand with it that will likely jam the tripod.
While the links here show a good description of the equipment, you would do well to shop the Internet for the best price, keeping shipping costs in mind. Also weigh the integrity/reputation of the supplier into your decision of where to buy a piece of equipment.
Some of the best-made tripods on the market are only available directly from Really Right Stuff. They aren’t inexpensive, but in reality, they aren’t that much more than their Gitzo or Manfrotto counterparts, and people often spend much more, because they to not start with the right “stuff” at the onset.
If you don’t buy a tripod with a built-in, carrying strap, you may want to either buy or fashion one yourself.
We used to recommend some lower-budget, private-label tripods put out by the various big camera stores, but it seems they only last a couple of years under regular use. Some come with ball heads. The critical element again is load capacity. Remember those stories above of cameras and lenses meeting with near disasters?
Photo used with permission © 2011 Wendy Cohen. All Rights Reserved.
When shooting with a lens with image stabilization (IS) or vibration reduction (VR) — two different names for the same thing — we recommend turning it off while working on a tripod. These lenses look for shake, then compensate for it. If they don’t find shake, they can shake in an effort to seek out the now-non-existing movement! Don’t forget to turn that feature back on if you are hand holding the camera.
Arnie and I carry our tripods over our shoulders with the cameras still mounted. For more comfort, we put some pipe-insulating foam around the legs, secured with gaffer’s tape — NOT duct tape. This is much cheaper than buying fancy custom tripod “tea cozies” from $30-60. We prefer our local hardware store’s prices. And make sure the lens on the camera is facing DOWN. Birds have been known to fly overhead! Do NOT do this unless you have a really good tripod/ball-head system. Our Really Right Stuff ball heads are totally secure (see next section).
Even more important than the tripod is the ball head. If your head does not securely hold your body and lens, it is useless. In today’s world, the vast majority of experienced photographers use a ball head for good reason. It is just plain easier to use and more accurate for fine adjustments. And it is really a ball head. If you don’t see the ball, you are probably looking at one of those Machiavellian, two-handled, multi-knobbed models from the Dark Ages that frustrate so many of our participants. One so much, in fact, that she threatened to throw it over a cliff.
I quickly reminded her that there might be people w-a-a-a-y down below, and involuntary manslaughter was probably not high on her list of achievements, so she begrudgingly kept it. As soon as we got back to the classroom, she ordered a decent system right away, and through some cajoling, got it delivered in time for the last two days of the workshop.
Arnie and I have been using ball heads since the 70s. Today, there are some great ball-head-and-mount systems on the market. Things you may want to consider are:
- Smoothness of movement;
- Adjustable drag;
- Secure clamping;
- Quick release plates rather than having to screw the camera onto the head; and
- Built-in level.
When you are shooting with a longer lens with its own mount/tripod collar, always use that instead of the camera body, and you can just rotate the lens for horizontal or vertical views without unmounting it. This means that you will have to get a second, two-screw plate for the long lens And if you don’t have a collar, we strongly recommend your getting one. I keeps the weight distribution on the tripod balanced.
First, it is easy to switch from horizontal to vertical mode. Secondly, your camera will not sag.
Again, some of the best-made ball heads on the market are only available directly from Really Right Stuff.
And no, we do not get any “sponsorship” from them, nor from any other manufacturers whose products we recommend. There are always different opinions, and you have to decide for yourselves. We are just offering what has worked for us for many years. Kirk has been successful for some of our alumni, too.
We highly recommend the systems that have L brackets that are made for your specific camera model. There are two advantages of owning an L-bracket system.
A regular, rectangular bracket mounted on the bottom of your camera really has nothing to hold it in place except for brute strength in tightening it, and even then, it will come loose, sometimes sooner, occasionally later, but it will come loose. Some of our readers have already experienced that. Frustrating? You bet!
If price is no object, we recommend that you look at The Really Right Stuff ball heads and quick-release L brackets. Their brand name is apt! If these are more than your budget allows, study how they are made along with their features, and then find something within your budget that comes close, again, never losing sight of the weight capacity. That weight capacity is every bit as important as the one for your tripod. Remember, your system will only be as good as the weakest element in it.
So shop carefully, and plan for the future. As noted above, you’ll end up spending less in the long run if you get the right combination at the onset.
We have had many participants who have gone from hating the idea of using a tripod to repeating our mantra with enthusiasm, “My tripod is my friend!” (said, of course, in a sing-songy sort of way)
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