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Tripods – Should You Spend More?

May 17, 2010

A few weeks ago I was guiding a client whose tripod was one of those flimsy plastic drugstore kind that you can usually pick up for about $30 bucks.  I offered to loan her my extra tripod, an aluminum Manfrotto with an inexpensive but effective ballhead.  She graciously accepted.  At the end of our two days together she confessed that she was surprised how much easier it was to work with my tripod than her own.  Eagle eyed as she was, she noticed that my tripod wasn’t aluminum and that my ballhead differed from hers.  She asked about the differences and why mine cost so much more, and her query put my mind in motion.  Below you will find a somewhat more detailed version of my response to her.

First let me explain why you need a good tripod for nature photography.  Photographing during the “magic hour” usually results in slow shutter speeds and long-ish exposures.  Unless you’re built like a statue you probably aren’t going to create razor sharp images while handholding your camera during an exposure lasting several seconds.  Image stabilization is great but even this cool technology has limits.  Enter the lowly tripod to save the day. 

Tripods serve one purpose: they’re a secure platform upon which to mount our cameras.  Sure, I’ve used mine to hold a lantern, maintain my balance while crossing a creek and, when I was single, it was abstract art in the living room.  But really, we buy tripods because we crave images that are crisp and sharp.  We also look really cool carrying them over our shoulder when silhouetted against a setting sun.  In theory, any tripod will serve this purpose.  In reality, those weak little tripods with plastic heads and one of those awkward cranks for moving the center column up and down just aren’t that stable.  Nor are they very durable.  I’ve had several clients break these tripods during a guided excursion.  A broken tripod serves no purpose but to frustrate the crap out of you.  It pays to spend a little extra cash and get a whole lot more stability and durability.  Here are some suggested options to start you down the right path in your quest for the perfect tripod.

For around $150 you can get a rock solid aluminum tripod like the Manfrotto 190XPROB.  Add a ballhead with quick release plate like the Manfrotto 494 Mini Ballhead for about $70 and you’ve got a stable, very workable tripod solution for under $225 weighing in at around 5 pounds.  Not too shabby!

Let’s say you’re of average height and need a taller tripod than the Manfrotto 190XPROB, which maxes out at 57.5″ with the center column fully extended.  The Manfrotto 055XPROB offers a maximum height of 70″.  Combine that with the more burly Giottos MH-1302 ballhead, which is capable of supporting up to 18 pounds, and you’re ready for almost anything.  This system will set you back about $300 and weighs in at nearly 6 pounds.

If you don’t often hike long distances with your gear or regularly operate in wet or dusty environments either of the aforementioned solutions should suit you well.  However, if you spend long hours on the trail or you’re like me and are downright abusive to your gear, an upgrade might be in order.

The Gitzo GT2531 Mountaineer carbon fiber tripod weighs in at a scant 3 pounds but extends to almost 64″ in height.  Slap on the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead, which weighs just 12 ounces but supports up to 25 pounds, for a go-anywhere in any conditions tripod package.  Total cost: about $950.  Yikes!  That’s a new lens, right?

What do you gain by spending an additional $650?  Really, it’s not so much a matter of what you gain.  It’s about what you lose – weight.  Generally speaking, the more money you spend the more weight you shave.  For $950 you get a complete package that weighs less than 4 pounds and will withstand some serious torture.  A similar set-up for $300 adds 2 pounds.  If you’ve a strong back and legs it may not be worth it to you to spend that extra $650 on the Gitzo/Acratech combo.

Yes, there are additional differences.  Carbon fiber doesn’t transfer cold to your hands as much aluminum.  The Acratech ballhead will never need to be cleaned and will never fail on you.  The Giottos ballhead; not so much.  The Manfrotto tripods allow you to place the center column horizontally for strange angle photography while the Gitzo does not.  Manfrotto utilizes leg clamps, which many consider easier to operate than the twist-lock legs on Gitzo tripods.  The downside: they’re bulkier and may not fit as nicely in your backpack.

In the end, any of these tripod/ballhead combinations will work for most nature photographers.  Consider too that these are but a tiny sampling of the options available to you.  Is one better than the other?  I guess that depends on how much cash you’re willing to shell out to lose a little weight.

What tripod/ballhead system do you use and why?  What issues have you encountered in the field with certain products?  Leave a comment so we can all benefit from your experience!

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    May 17, 2010 8:27 am

    I am using an Acratech Ball head which is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I use it with a 3221 aluminum Bogen tripod which I purchased from some guy in Utah for $50. It has worked well but my tripod / ballhead combo weigh in at 8+lbs and you can feel it if you are hiking over a couple miles. The flip leg locks also loosen over time so sometimes I go out and my tripod won’t hold itself up. I imagine that my next tripod will be a CT-113 by Induro. It only weighs 3 pounds and is only about $300.

    • May 17, 2010 12:19 pm

      Hey Jim – I freakin’ love my Acratech. I rave about it to anyone who will listen, and even a few who won’t. Really good point about quality with the Manfrotto tripods. The only issue I ever ran into was loosening of the clamps, which was easily fixed. I wonder who the dude in Utah is who sold you that tripod? I’ve heard good things about the Induro tripods but don’t have any personal experience. Anyone care to chime in?

  2. May 17, 2010 8:48 am

    Would also add to the list the Benro family of tripods, they are Gitzo copies but they are really worth their money and they also are way cheaper than the French equivalent.
    I’ve been using a Benro C169 which is really light but sterdy and well build, had also a small review of it over my blog:

    • May 17, 2010 12:20 pm

      Thanks for the tip on Benro tripods and the link to your blog, Kostas. Good info! I’ll check out one of those Benro’s as soon as I can find one in a store. Sounds like a good tripod.

  3. May 17, 2010 10:23 am

    Hi Bret,
    I just purchased the Gitzo 2531 mountaineer. I have 2 Manfrotto tripods, the 055MF4 and the 190CX4Pro. I’ve had to send them both back for warranty repair, and will never buy another Manfrotto. Both were sent back due to breakage of the plastic bushings on the tripod legs. I just sent the 055MF4 back because one of the leg locks cracked. I’ve found the leg locks get more difficult to operate over time. Admittedly, I am very hard on tripods, but I don’t feel the craftmanship of the Manfrottos is up to pro standards. I’ve never had a Gitzo, but I love the weight and stability (haven’t even taken it out yet) of the 2531 and it should work great with my RRS BH-40 ballhead for general use and for backpacking because it’s so light.

    • May 17, 2010 12:22 pm

      Hey Doug – I’ve been using a Gitzo CF tripod now for about 5 years. Absolutely zero issues with it. The twist locks are a little crunchy these days as they’re grinding sand but that happens when you live in the desert. Be interested to hear your opinion of it after you’ve had a chance to use it for a few weeks. (hint, hint)

  4. May 17, 2010 11:42 am

    Hey Bret, good topic. Recently my wife asked me “Why do you keep buying and selling tripods?” The answer…”Why do you keep buying different shoes and purses?” Not the hoped for response but a good point/counterpoint. I currently have 2 tripod/head combinations and use both of them equally. My “big” tripod is a Manfrotto 441 Carbon 1 with a Graf Mini-Studioball head and my “travel” tripod is an Induro C014 with a Markins Q3 head. I’ve always been a lever lock kind of guy but when I was looking for a smallish travel tripod I was able to find a screaming deal on the Induro and thought what the heck, I won’t use it except when I’m traveling light. Well, the little guy is so sturdy for it’s size and weight, and the twist lock legs are so smooth and quick to adjust that I’m considering dumping the Manfrotto for a bigger Induro. I actually find myself using it for everything unless I’m using the 100-400 zoom. The Markins head is one of the best ballheads I’ve ever used though a bit on the smallish size. If anything I wish I’d bought the M10 for a little more heft when using the 100-400 zoom but the Q3 is adequate for that lens and great for smaller ones.

    Bottom line, the only thing I “need” to upgrade is the Graf head. It’s a good solid head but pretty primitive in that it has no horizontal pan feature. Not so good when shooting a series of images to stitch together. I’ve been looking at 3 heads: Markins M20, RRS B55, and lately the Acratech head. I’ve got no experience with Acratech but have heard nothing but raves about it and would like to try one out sometime. So…if anyone out there has one to lend….

  5. May 17, 2010 12:23 pm

    I started with a solid but a big and heavy Manfrotto which spent more time in the car than in the field. So I had to come up with a lighter option and got a Gitzo Mountaineer G1228 with Acratech Ultimate Ballhead, a great combo! It’s a lot of leg sections to work with which can be a bit of a nuisance sometimes, however I’m so happy with the size and weight that I don’t really mind. I also replaced the centre column with a short version, not so much to save weight but I do a lot of flower photography so the long column gets in the way (luckily I’m not so tall that I would often miss the long column). However… it’s possible to reverse the centre column to get an even lower angle. I’ve never used a Manfrotto with the horizontal centre column option so I don’t know how it compares with a reversible column though.

    • May 18, 2010 12:13 am

      Thanks for commenting, Minna. Good to hear the Gitzo and Acratech are working out for you. I think it’s a great combination but then, I’m a little biased. I have used the Manfrotto tripods with a center column that you can mount horizontally. They’re actually really, really sweet. I wish my Gitzo had that option.

  6. May 17, 2010 12:24 pm

    I finally went the Feisol/PhotoClam route and have been very happy with it so far. One major perk of the upgrade for me was gaining independent leg angles: makes many awkward shots much, much easier. A tripod that’s easy to manipulate is a tripod you’ll actually use.

    But I shot for quite a while on a couple cheap, used tripods I scrounged. One was a Sunpak, can’t recall the other. And I got some great shots with them. Photography is a very pricey hobby to break into, and a lot of the “No compromise! Just spend the money” advice I see out there, while it definitely has a solid logic, just isn’t realistic for many folks. More money buys more convenience and longevity, but beginners should be encouraged to buy what they can afford and work with it. It’s a lot better than no tripod at all. Plus, a couple years with a crummy set-up will teach you why the upgrade is worth the money.

    • May 18, 2010 12:11 am

      Hey Jackson – Thanks for the thoughtful comment. For the most part, I agree with you. The caveat I’ll throw out is that some of the really cheap, plastic tripods may instill a false sense that the tripod is secure when in fact, it isn’t. I’ve seen many of them that just don’t lock down tight and the tripod head creeps during the exposure, resulting in unsharp photos. I’m not at all suggesting that you need to spend $1,000 on a tripod. The smaller aluminum tripods from Bogen, Manfrotto and some other manufacturers offer a truly stable platform for $150 to $200. Yes, that’s quite a bit more expensive than a $30 tripod. But if the extra investment means that you’re able to nail that once in a lifetime photo instead of finding out later that it’s blurry because the head moved – it’s well worth it.

      I do agree wholeheartedly that working with a bad tripod for a few months definitely makes you appreciate a quality one!

  7. May 17, 2010 12:26 pm

    Bill – One of the best things about Acratech is the exceptional customer service they deliver. If I had an extra Acratech to loan you; I would. I bought mine after Tony Litschewski showed me the one he’d been using for years and raved about its performance. I’ve not used the RRS equipment but everyone I know who uses it swears by it. Super pricey, though. Acratechs are just as good and roughly half the price.

    BTW – Love your response to your wife! 🙂

  8. May 18, 2010 8:21 pm

    I’ve been using a Manfrotto combo since I got serious with my photography 2 years ago: the 190CF tripod (without the pivoting center post) and a 488 ballhead. I’ve been real happy with the setup as it has held up fairly nice. I keep a hex wrench that matches the bolts on the tripod in my pack to quickly tighen up the resistance on the legs should they get a little too loose. I’ll also suggest that people learn how to disassemble and reassemble their tripods. I had a leg section stick because the plastic tension pieces inside got out of sync somehow.

    One thing I lost in the last few months was one of the rubber end caps on one of the legs. Of course, you can’t BUY those through a dealer but I did discover (thanks to my girlfriend’s suggestion!) that regular chair leg caps from the hardware store are the same diameter and fit just fine. Got three for a dollar so I’m set for a while! 😀

    This past Christmas, I borrow a tripod that my dad had lying around so that I could go out on a hike & shoot some photos while I was visiting. The tripod was a Slik aluminium tripod that had a “joystick” or pistolgrip type head unit. I have to say that I *MUCH* rather prefer a ballhead to these other type of heads. It’s much easier to shoot panoramas with a ballhead that rotates around its base. I also discovered that I could only rotate the camera to portrait position on one side only because of the dominant eye I use to look through the viewfinder and the rest of my face would hit the pistolgrip of the head. That’s not something you would think of until you have one and try to use it!

  9. May 18, 2010 9:57 pm

    Nice writeup.

    Well, I have a 1.5lb small Slik tripod and a 1.5lb Manfrotto pistol grip head that supports 11lbs and is rock solid. Total cost for both is US $200! Holds up to strong coastal winds and lots of salt water!! 30×45 prints are super sharp with no motion blur at 0.5-sec and longer exposures.




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