Picking a tripod

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This article continues from a discourse of why a tripod is the most underrated piece of photographic equipment.

There is a lot of obsession online over whether camera and lens A is better than camera and lens B – forgetting entirely that the creative vision and shot discipline of the photographer using the equipment is not just a great equaliser, but can very well turn the tables entirely. Tripods and heads are one of the very few areas in which this is not actually true – i.e. better equipment is better equipment and there are no equalisers – and are almost completely ignored. No amount of creativity or technique can make up for a poor tripod, but poor technique can certainly spoil a good tripod.

Good technique

  • Use the self timer (and mirror lockup, for a DSLR)
  • Shoot at base ISO and optimal apertures
  • Spread the legs fully; use the thickest sections first
  • Avoid using the column
  • Lock everything down tight
  • Make sure the system is level to avoid accidents
  • Look for level, firm ground
  • Use an L bracket and/or lens foot to mount the system at the center of gravity

Bad technique

  • Trigger the shutter by hand
  • Work at maximum extension of the column
  • Don’t spread the legs fully
  • Forget to tighten things
  • Work on an incline or with a severe imbalance
  • Not pay attention to surroundings or ground (working on a beach and ignoring subsiding sand and waves are a number one mistake)
  • Using a tripod and head that is too light for the hardware
  • Not using an L bracket

Ignore whatever load ratings a manufacturer gives; divide them by ten to be conservative. You’re never going to put 30kg of camera and head on your tripod legs, but at the same time there’s a definite difference between how a 3kg camera performs on a 30kg-rated tripod and a 10kg-rated one. (You’ll be extremely frustrated with the latter.) It’s also important to know that there are no free lunches: light weight, low cost, high rigidity/stability, height – pick any three. And in some cases, even if you pay a fortune, you’re not going to be able to get a 1kg tripod and head combo that can reliably support a medium format camera for long exposures at eye level. It simply isn’t physically possible. In general, you should pick the most you’re willing to carry for extended periods; otherwise you’re not going to use it, and that defeats the point. (If it’s light and crap you’re also not going to use it, which similarly…defeats the point). Cost should also be taken into consideration, of course, but at the same time, you don’t want to be continually upgrading. That said, legs and head are available separately, and you can of course buy the best of one, and upgrade the other later. Both are equally important, but I think the legs are somewhat more critical.

A good tripod should hit all of the technical considerations as well as the ergonomic ones. The latter is much easier to describe, actually: there shouldn’t be any pinch points, knobs or levers that are difficult to operate or whose tension is difficult to modulate; it should be able to go to eye height or slightly more so you don’t have to bend over and get a sore back and neck. Bear in mind that there are also situations in which a very tall tripod can be useful – for instance, if you’re standing on the side of a hill, your downhill leg is going to have to be very much longer than your uphill one if you’re going to be stable. And on top of that, the camera still has to be at eye height (ideally). Or you may need the height to clear some foreground obstacles. One final note: there should be absolutely no way you can confuse the camera release with any of the other controls; this can result in expensive accidents!

On the technical front, we must go back to the initial objective of a tripod to understand what to look for. It is a device that is meant to hold a camera at a specific height and orientation without moving or transmitting vibration either from the camera’s shutter/mirror through the structure and back again, or from the ground upwards. It has to therefore attenuate vibrations in both directions. It also has to be easy to set and lock the orientation and height of the camera precisely, and stable once locked. It also shouldn’t move unexpectedly or in an uncontrolled manner, irrespective of the weight of the equipment on top of it. These are actually conflicting requirements, if you think about it.

What it means is that you need a set of legs that is light and rigid (to prevent any change in absolute position) but with some compliance in the longitudinal direction to avoid transmission of vibration. Carbon fiber works best for this, but the direction and pattern of the weave makes an enormous amount of difference to rigidity and damping; I once owned a cheap Chinese tripod that had 45mm diameter carbon legs, but would bend quite easily; my Gitzo 1542’s lower legs are about 10mm thick, but impossible to bend at all. You also want to minimise the number of sections – every join will reduce rigidity. Unless you have absolutely no choice, or your leg sections are that fat or individual sections are that long that it no longer matters (e.g. a Gitzo 5562 6-section). The more joins, the more of a pain it is to erect and collapse, too. In short: measure your usual suitcase, and this will probably be your limitation.

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The head is a little tricker, not just because there are a few different types. Whichever type, a L bracket is important: firstly, because it allows for quick release, but secondly, because it allows for easy change of orientation to vertical without having to adjust the height of the tripod, and without running the risk of overbalancing. Ideally, you want one that has a pin or groove to prevent the camera twisting on the tripod mount.

Ballheads are easy to position, and can be stable if they’re large enough in diameter (small ones will tend to droop/creep after locking, visibly affecting framing if you’re using a long focal length or heavy or macro lens). However, they’re not so easy to position precisely, and are poor for stitching because the nodal point of rotation is too high. You also need to be careful about weight and centre of gravity, because it’s very easy to shift something a little too far and overbalance the whole thing. The only ballheads I personally like are the Arca-Swiss P0 and P1; these are large diameter balls (but small overall sized heads) where the ball is mounted to the tripod legs, and the camera portion is a cup that locks around the ball, bringing the centre of rotation much closer to the nodal point (and with the attendant benefits for weight balance, too). Avoid joystick-type heads as they are even more difficult to position precisely, and less stable.

Three way heads (sometimes known as pan heads) allow control of movement in individual axes. I’d go with one that’s geared for precision of positioning, preferably one that moves all of the axes about the same nodal point. I’m a fan of the Arca-Swiss C1 Cube, which isn’t cheap, but honestly, impossible to live without once you’ve used it for any duration. There is no easier or more precise way to control your composition and camera positioning. Manfrotto also makes the 410 and 405 for those on a budget who still need gearing, but it’s important to note that movement in one axis will affect the others, so positioning is going to be an iterative series of movements with these heads.

Finally, we have specialist types like gimbal heads; these are useful for longer lenses to allow quick and easy movement about the centre of gravity of the whole lens-camera combination. They’re generally for situations in which the camera and lens need to be moved fluidly, e.g. for tracking shots of sport or wildlife, though they can of course also be locked into position. I personally prefer a monopod for these kinds of situations though, because it’s just much easier to physically change position quickly and work in tighter confines. It’s also worth mentioning other devices like macro rails, which are useful for setting a magnification then moving the camera in small increments to frame, or for focus stacking or very precise lateral/vertical/longitudinal movements; I use a pair of these plus a geared column on a Gitzo 5562 for product and macro work for six axes of geared/precise positioning.

I wish I could say that there was a way to do stability properly on the cheap; unfortunately, there isn’t. It’s one of the few areas of photography where the hardware really does matter, and the skill of the photographer cannot make up for deficits. But bearing that in mind, here are my list of recommendations for hardware – I use or have used all of these at one time or another. MT

Legs
Really Right Stuff TVC-24L
Really Right Stuff TVC-33
Gitzo 1542T Traveller review B&H Amazon
Gitzo 5562LTS Systematic review B&H Amazon

Heads
Arca-Swiss P0 Monoball review B&H
Arca-Swiss P1 Monoball B&H Amazon
Arca-Swiss C1 Cube review B&H

Accessories
Novoflex Castel-Cross-Q macro rails B&H Amazon

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Comments

  1. Hi Ming, any experience with (or opinion) about the Novoflex TrioPod system?

  2. You use a strap mounted directly to your tripod. What model is that strap?

  3. Hi Ming, thanks for this article. I’ve been using a Manfrotto 190 (fully carbon) tripod for couple of years now. Though it has been a joy to travel with I am about to move to a Hasselblad V series set up and my D700 isn’t exactly light. At full extension it still doesn’t reach eye level and the thinnest legs have more flexibility than an olympic gymnast! I have decided I don’t mind having something heavier that doesn’t fold down quite as small. This page (no doubt due to your excellent product photography) has caused me to fall in love with Gitzo, I went in to my local camera store and they exude quality, really quite beautiful. Hopefully I can part exchange the 190 somewhere for one!

    One question Ming, as the Hasselblad is 6×6 there is no situation where I would position it side on, is an L Bracket still a worthwhile consideration? Does it add stability in some way?

    • I use an L bracket with mine because digital backs all have rectangular image ratios, so you do actually need to turn it…

      Don’t forget that unless you’re using a 90deg prism, you actually want the tripod to be lower than eye level since you have to look down into the finder.

  4. Frederich Schepp says:

    I bought a cheap Mefoto 350 series (about 200 USD), and was on a tight budget due to all my gear being stolen. As a beginner tripod, I would highly recommend it, as it is very sturdy and well built for the price. It holds 26 lbs. and besides being a very basic tripod, it also switches to a monopod (and often a hiking stick, brush swatter, replacement tent pole, etc), that works well. Naturally, you get what you pay for, but I have mine attached to the outside of a Protactic 450 AW backpack, which gets tossed around in cars, airports, and usually dropped in mud, snow or sand. I would never do this with a higher quality one, but for a knockabout one it does a decent job. I generally carry a Nikon D810 with a 28-300 and use a 200mm f4 (for macro) with this tripod. I would NOT use it for high end glass. I do plan to buy a nice tripod relatively soon, and this article is an excellent and insightful guide, which covered aspects I didn’t even think about! – Keep up the great work Ming!!

  5. I was always wondering if I should use a tripod or not. After reading this post I decided to bite the bullet and ordered the GT1542T with the Arca Swiss P0. This is a great combination that is not to heavy so I don’t have an excuse to leave it at home…

    • Enjoy – it’s fine unless you’re with medium format, or the 36+MP cameras.

      • I’m using it now with my X-T1. So that is a bit of overkill. But you never know what the future will bring.

        • At least a good tripod is one of the very, very few things in photography that you can actually own and use for life. It’s difficult to get GAS over new releases since there aren’t really any fundamental changes in tripod tech 🙂

      • Jeff Allen says:

        I have a number of tripods the curse of owning two properties. The Gitzo GT2540LLVL is my favorite tripod because I can level it through the centre colomn as well as the legs themselves, and it locks very tight. My favourite head is the Arca-Swiss Z1 I dont have any issuies with its centre of gravity I know the right amount of drag for my camera & lenses and its quick to adjust if needed (sun changing quickly in cloud for instance). I too use it with L Plates made for my camera. Im a mechanical engineer and know something about vibrations, deflections etc. and in wind I use aluminium tent pegs, guide strings and figure of nine tentioners to also secure the tripod to terra firma better than hanging a bag & light weight to carry.
        I also have the RRS BH-55 its a large head, very secure but not as good as the Arca-Swiss head but I am splitting hairs. The Manfrotto 055CXPro3 is cheaper than the Gitzo and almost as good operationally the difference is it uses levers rather than twist locks for the leg section (three section, my Gitzo is 4 section but I only use three most of the time). I would agree you cannot skimp on support.

  6. Jorge Balarin says:

    Thank you very much Ming for the detailed and extremely useful post.

  7. Oh dear, I hope I’m not too late with this question… I have a Gitzo Mountaineer GT1542 and am looking for a head to replace the old, heavy Manfrotto that I’m currently using. (I’ll mostly be using Olympus E-M5 and E-M1 cameras on it.) The Arca-Swiss Monoball P0 looks interesting, based on Ming’s review. But, things start to get confusing once I start looking at clamps and plates. It seems like it would be good to get a plate with a lip to prevent twisting, but the ones I’ve seen (specifically for the M5 and M1) only work with (relatively) expensive clamps.

    Anyway, if someone has advice in this area it would be greatly appreciated!

    • Ebay is your friend 🙂

    • David Ralph says:

      I have the GT1542. For it, I bought the Markins Q-Ball Q3 Traveler ballhead which is specifically designed to fit the Gitzo Traveler tripods. It anticipates using Arca-Swiss style lens/camera plates and L-brackets. My model is a little earlier and does not have the a flip lever. (I prefer a traditional screw-knob style quickshoe because it will accommodate my collection of Arac plates from RRS, Kirk and Wimberly.) The Markins’ ballheads as a group are remarkably strong and can carry a very large loads for their size. Though small, the Q-Ball head still has that same “sweet spot” found in larger ball heads where one can adjust the position of the composition, with zero creep, while clamped down. I have had one of their old M-20 models on my heavier tripod for years, and I can only say that it has been facile to work with and securely holds anything I have put on it. The only stability issue with the Traveller has come from the tripod itself which showed image shake when the center post is raised, at least with a high resolution sensor (D800E) and a long lens (400mm). I believe Gitzo rates the pod for up to 200mm.

      I note that as of 1/17/2015, Ming now lists the GT1542 as a equipment he formerly owned.

  8. Thank you for your great article. Very usefull like your entire Blog. You wrote, the only kind of balheads you like are the Arca P0 and P1. If you like the P1, you should give try to the Gitzo GH5381. The handling ist very close to the Arca Ballheads, but even more intuitive. And this head really holds everything.

  9. Nice article, thanks. I have a RRS TVC-33 and BH-55. I love that big ball head, it’s rock solid and very fast to frame. I tried a geared head, but it’s just too slow for my shooting. I’m surprised the BH-55 didn’t make your list, it seems to be one of the better heads out there. Not cheap, but certainly does the job well.
    Note: I shoot with a D800, but no really long lenses (400/2.8, 600/4, etc.). For these loads the head works very well.

  10. I have bought a P0 because of your recommendation. Its, indeed, a great ballhead, the only complain I have is that no matter what I do, I can’t fix the top clamp (from 3rd party brands) in a really tight, stable way. I’ve been thinking in gluing it to the ballhead but that could screw the ressale value.

    • In all fairness, that sounds like the fault of the third party clamp rather than the ballhead though…

    • Use blue Loctite on the screw, and give it 24 hours to cure. The RRS clamp on my P0 is rock solid. Use a clamp that has holes in it so you can put a screw through it into the A-S’s platform, and you can really tighten it down.

  11. Great series on tripods Ming. They’re so unjustly underrated, especially when you consider that a good tripod will last you through many, many camera iterations, so the cost is much more amortized than a camera body. I’m still using the same tripod I got in 1996, and the only reason I’m considering upgrading it is to get more working height, and legs that don’t rotate when you tighten or loosen the leg locks.

    I’ve tweaked it as much as I can, too: Gitzo 1227 mark II CF legs, Markins spider, A-S P0 head (thanks for the recommendation), and RRS clamp. It just works, and I broke it down this weekend to clean it for the first time since I bought it. It barely needed anything.

    • Absolutely. But you will find the 24L (if you land up with that too) is a step over the Gitzos. For one, I just don’t get my fingers pinched in its various joints anywhere near as often…

      • I think the the 24L is the plan. Tripod comfort is a big factor too. Don’t get one that’s annoying to use. That includes factors like height, weight, and general fiddlyness. That last category is for finger-pinching, legs that rotate with the locks, heads unscrewing themselves, and other random annoying factors. The RRS 33 really felt like the business when I got to use that for a while.

  12. Francesco says:

    Hi Ming
    good article!
    From your advice I see two good configutaions, which I already own (except for P0 replaced by RRS BH-30):
    – the first for travelling light: P0 head on Gitzo 1542
    – the second for precise work: the Cube on the RRS33

    However I think a third configuration could be useful, when I can carry a bit more weigth than the lightweight configuration and I prefer to use a ball head. In these cases I would go for a RRS 24L tripod … with which head? the P0 again? or a head with a larger ball like the RRS BH-40?
    Thanks for your advice,
    francesco

    PS: I currently use the Sony A7 and NEX-6 with equivalent focal lenghts up to 135 mm

    • I’m actually using the RRS24L/Cube for almost everything except when I need precise X-Y and height positioning – then the geared column of the Gitzo 5562 comes in handy. The P0 is better for smaller tripods but will serve fine on larger ones; that said, I think the larger P1 is a better balance.

      • Thanks for your quick answer!
        So do you think taht I could replace the RRS33/Cube with the lighter and taller RRS24L/Cube without losing on stability on long exposures with my mirrorless cameras?
        Thank again,
        francesco

  13. Hi Ming, do you plan to review/comment on D800 focusing screen?

    • No, because a) I’ve had several and all have required some DIY modifications to install which are not exactly easy to do without scratching the screen; b) it’s much better to use live view + LCD hood/Zacuto-thingy anyway, so the focusing screen is somewhat moot.

  14. Hi Ming
    I was pondering to buy Gitzo 1542 as a light tripod for hiking. (Normally I use 5 Series) In the end it seemed to me too big compromise for my Nikon D800. Now I see You use it with Pentax 645, which is even bigger and heavier. Could You expand on this?

    Do You know if RRS L-brackets can be used with the Arca-Cube without much additional work?

    Mann thanks in Advanced,
    Robert

    • The 1542 isn’t stable enough for the Pentax, which I discovered the hard way with a number of failed images that were clearly a problem with support. I’m now using a RRS-24L for travel instead.

      If you buy the Cube with the screw clamp (not the lever) they work just fine without modification.

  15. What L bracket (brand and model #) would you use for Ricoh GR?

    • Can’t say, I don’t use the GR on a tripod.

    • I’ve not found one either, which is too bad since the GR actually has great options for long exposures, unlike almost every other large-sensor compact out there. Sony should have put a T or B mode in the RX1s. That sensor size is great for long-exposure night time work.

      I use a generic RRS plate on my GR, and flop the head over for verticals. It’s not the best but it works. Also, FYI, their BPnS-S plate does not fit on a GR.

  16. Reblogged this on Eileen Lyn Wah.

  17. Ron Lawrence says:

    This is the first time that I’ve commented on one of your blogs. I’ve got a good major tripod, a Manfrotto. What I need is recommendation on a reliable travel tripod and a good focusing rail. I looked at your rail suggestion but it’s out of my price range, WAY out. I shoot an Oly EM-5. I don’t think I’ll be using the rail set in a major way, because I’m a hobbyist, but I don’t want trash either. Thanks.

    • You want good…you want cheap…they do not exist, sorry. Quality costs money. Same as for anything…

      • Ron Lawrence says:

        So much for finding a compromise. Would you invest hundreds of $$$ on something you weren’t positive you would keep using?

        • That’s a tough question. I’d say yes if there was a chance the product was good but just perhaps not suitable for me; that means I could resell it without much loss later. Sometimes the knowledge is worth it. But if it was just marginal…no.

  18. Gordon Lewis says:

    In my personal experience, the need for a large, sturdy, vibration-free tripod is most acute when you’re using a large, heavy rig, such as a full-frame or medium format camera with a long telephoto lens, or when you need to do exposures that last longer than a second or two. Photographers who use smaller, lighter equipment (travel photographers, for example) can get away with a smaller, lighter tripod–and because of travel weight restrictions, they often have to. The trick is to minimize leg extensions, never extend the center column (if there is one), and hang a weight at the bottom of the center column to keep the center of gravity as low as possible. Also, never make the mistake of using a cheap head. A quality head will lock the camera down with a vice-like grip, without sag, and with minimal effort.

    • Absolutely.

    • It is a bit of a Holy Grail to find such a tripod. I love my Gitzo/Markins set-up when I can travel by car, but travelling by plane and needing something that I can carry all day that is effective (for m4/3rd’s gear in this case) and not too heavy has been quite a challenge, especially since health issues have reduced my carrying capacity. There are many choices, and many opinions, but I tend to discount a large number of them based on my previous experiences. The Gitzo 1542T is very tempting, but I do wonder if there is anything just a bit smaller and lighter that is still up to the task. For many products I would bite the bullet and take a chance. But with gear mounted on top of a tripod, I am usually in no mood to take any chances with regards to stability.

      –Ken

      • That’s probably about the smallest I’d go. You also have to think about practical working height: if it folds any smaller, you’ve either got to deal with a lot of sections (and a lot of joints/ thin tubes which of course reduce rigidity significantly) or a very sore back.

        • Yes, welcome to pushing the tripod purchase decision making envelope! The unknown variable for me is if the tilting LCD screen on my E-M1 (the camera body most likely to be used with this set-up when travelling) can reasonably buy me a few inches from my ideal working height (which happens to be identical to my GT3541LS with a Markins ballhead).

          Thanks,

          –Ken

          P.S. Your comments in the first part of this article were spot on. Shooting with a good tripod is a whole different type of photography, and many of my best images were taken in this fashion. It is often hard to convince people that a good tripod is truly a pleasure to use, and can help a photographer produce some amazing images. It reminds me a lot of what an old teacher used to always say, “Slow down, I want to get there as fast as I can!”

          • Well, there’s the other challenge of convincing people to try a good one in the first place because they’re often just as expensive as the camera body…

  19. Reblogged this on Scribbles and Snaps.

  20. Hi Ming, have you tried the Monoball Z1? What do you think about it?

    • Not a huge fan of ballheads because of the change of position and centre of gravity with heavy loads or for precision work…I’m using a Cube.

    • The Monoball Z1 is a high quality “traditional” ball head in which the camera platform is attached to the ball stem. It is a pleasure to use, for a ball head. It is also sturdy enough to take a “half gimbal” attachment that works by being clamped to the ball head clamp when ball is in the 90 degree slot. Ball head bottom pan takes care of the pan part of the gimbal, the tilt is given by the clamp at the top of the half gimbal attachment.
      I have to admit that I, NancyP, am a tri-holic: 3 leg-sets and three matching heads for various uses: 1. Manfrotto aluminum 055 plus 410 geared head – good for precision framing, for an astronomical wedge (base for tiny portable equatorial mount) for astrophotography, heavy though 2. stoutest (37mm diameter leg, platform intended for 90 mm diameter head assembly) Feisol carbon fiber legs without center column,with Arca-Swiss Z1 head – the lightweight Big-A** tripod used for all telephoto work and some field macro (with 180mm macro lens) 3. ultralight and compact-folding 28mm leg diameter Feisol tripod 4-segment legs, Arca-Swiss p0 head – total is 3.0 pounds/ 1.4 kg. This one gets taken everywhere “on spec”, on long hikes, is used primarily for landscapes and some field macro, and carries mirrorless (DP Merrill) and non-gripped SLR with short lenses. The two Feisols don’t have center columns yet. I hang a full water bottle, at 1.2 kg, off the hook underneath the platform. I have decided that I don’t regret spending money on the tripods because I really do like the results.

      The Cube must be the ultimate in architectural and product photographers’ heads. I have heard many people praise the Arca D4 as well.

      • The D4 operates much like the Cube in principal, but doesn’t rotate about the same central point, so you still have to make secondary adjustments and be careful with the centre of gravity. It is a lot smaller and lighter though…

  21. Good considerations, but I won’t use a tripod that doesn’t have large controls and doesn’t perform or locks up in the cold. It’s also best to have one whose leg sections can be taken apart and cleaned/re-greased from trips to the beach. Otherwise you’ll get sand inside and any screw-type tripod will quickly be wrecked by sand in the screws.

  22. Eric Bowles says:

    Most of the newer Nikon cameras have exposure delay mode. It raises the mirror and waits the specified period of time to release the shutter. I typically use Exposure Delay mode instead of a remote release, mirror lock up, or Live View.

  23. Gregorio Donikian says:

    i still remember a good article about the tripod by them Hogan, it was something like go and buy the most expensive one or you will spent 2 times more money !

    Greg

  24. John Harvey says:

    Hi Ming

    Why are the Arc Swiss-style systems so popular with professionals? I’m not an expert, but I recently purchased a “Brian” 3-legged-thing tripod with airhed 1. I’m a little disappointed with system for two reasons. 1. As you mentioned, too many joints on the tripod don’t offer the best stability. 2. Securing the Airhed plate to the ballhead requires having to screw it in all the way to tighten/lock it in and then unscrewing all the way to take it off. It is not a ‘quick release’. Are all the Arc Swiss systems like this?

    BTW – I purchased “Brian” since because I thought it would be a great travel system. I lost my GT-2531 and 468MGRC2 Magnesium Hydrostatic Ballhead in Morocco about a year ago, which I think was the best combination. I purchased the Hydrostatic Ballhead because I read your 2012 article a while back about the hydrostat not ‘drooping’ once you have it set. My only issue with this head is that it’s too heavy for travel. The GT-2531 was a little big to travel too, but still relatively lite.

    Question:
    What’s wrong with the RC2/200PL quick release system for professionals, especially with a head like the Hydrostatic? It’s easy to lock, locks tight and easy to get off. It seems like the RC2 mechanism just doesn’t get enough respect and considered amateurish. It cheap enough to put a plate on every camera you have and makes it easy to swap cameras around. Any thoughts?

    thanks
    John Harvey

    • Not familiar with that product. Simple answer: there are no RC2 anti-twist systems. If you have a heavy load at the wrong angle, the connection between camera and QR plate will be the weakest point and possible sag slowly (or worse, torque off entirely). There are lever-lock and screw-lock Arca clamps – your preference. It seems some of the third party Arca clamps may be of slightly different width or dovetail angle, so the screw type is the most accommodating as the levers close to a precise width.

    • You can also tighten down on an Arca plate with a lot more torque than the Manfrotto style systems. The A-S plate can be practically any length, so you can make it a better and more secure fit for lots of cameras and lenses. Many A-S plates have a lip that runs along the length of the camera body or lens foot for really secure anti-twist.

      You can put Arca clamps on the Manfrotto heads, too. RRS has a list of heads, their screw sizes and which RRS clamps are recommended: http://www.reallyrightstuff.com/Be-a-Gear-Expert/Our-Quick-Release-System/Clamp-Selector-Table-for-non-RRS-Heads.html The only really problematic one sounds like the Cube, but there are solutions for that.

      • Nope, just get the naked cube with no QR clamp, or the knob clamp instead of the lever – no issues. That’s been my solution.

      • Dovetail plates and clamps (Arca-Swiss system) are mechanically simple, provide a large surface area for contact, and yes, you can apply plenty of torque. The dovetail system allows you to move the mounting plate forward or back to make fine adjustments for balance or for no-parallax-point positioning. Telescope equatorial mount and optical tube assembly manufacturers use larger dovetails to hold the optical tube assembly securely, and there are further fine-tuning adjustments with the mount counterweights.

  25. Oddly I got a £35 tripod from Jessops, own branded, about 20 years ago. Its a few kilos in weight, but I have never had anything else, fancy or otherwise, that has lasted my rough handling. ^^

  26. Can anybody else remember the flexibility of the UNILOC? back in the days of film (low shutter speeds and Kodachrome 25) I used it for landscapes and weird setups. Whatever happened to that style of tripod?

  27. Great article Ming!

    I use a light-weight Sirui T-025X carbon fiber tripod with my E-M1. The main reason for picking this tripod was the extreme light weight and portability. The center column is removable so it’s possible to get the weight down to a mere 520g. With the column it’s still only 670g. I carry it while hiking, so every extra 100 grams counts!

    The rated load is only 6kg, and I’m guessing the camera and lens go up to 2kg on many occasions when using the older 4/3 telephotos. There’s no way I would use this tripod fully extended at eye level with these heavy lenses, but with the legs short and spread out it works fine. With smaller m4/3 lenses I’m confident using it fully extended. In windy conditions, I try to find a sheltered location, since longer exposures are easily blurred by an ill-timed gust of wind. In a pinch I use a tarp to build a makeshift shelter.

  28. b1llab0ng says:

    Great Article as are all your writings. It should be noted that its now possible to get Arca plate conversions the Manfrotto 405 & 410 and more impotently for the 410 and extend plate can be purchased that brings the camera into the centre position for pano use etc.
    plates can be purchased from Henjar Photo. for the 410 look up; Manfrotto 410 Extended adapter plate for Arca Swiss, i didn’t leave a link as I’m not sure if thats ok or not.
    PS the Arca Swiss Cube,object of desire! if only i had the funds i would have two one on the tripod and one on the mantle piece.

  29. ANDREW HILLS says:

    Enjoyed this article as i do all your writings. It should be noted that The Manfrotto 410 and 405 can now be adapted to have Arca plates and even better is the fact that the 410 van have an extended version that centres the camera so it now much more useful for Panos etc. The plates are manufactured by Henjar Photo and its the Manfrotto 410 Extended adapter plate for Arca Swiss that one would need. Wasn’t sure if links are allowed so didn’t include one.

  30. Some quick notes. For most modern DSLRs mirror lockup is redundant with the usage of live view, and is even preferable if it uses electronic first curtain shutter (I believe most Canons use EFCS in live view).

    On bad technique, securing a ball head while holding the lens or body (as opposed to gripping the base plate itself) can also result in drooping even with the best heads, if the weak link is the plate, bracket or tripod collar.

  31. Thanks Ming for this article .. There is no other alternative for me to expand my recording envelope. IBIS for the casual walk, but tripod when it counts!

  32. Ming,
    can you please advise me what Arca Swiss L Bracket you have attached to the Nikon in the 2nd picture of your article. It seems to be attached directly to the camera and not to need the small Arca plate needed for the Arca L Bracket I use.
    Many thanks.
    Bob

  33. Paul Jeyaraj says:

    did you try out BH-55 Bullhead from RRS as well?

  34. There are a lot of tripods on the market and everyone wants to be the best! To my experienes, up to 2,000 mm telephoto, remain the are wooden tripods of the firm BERLEBACH! Even the land surveyors are still prefering the wooden tripods!

    • I’ve got one of those too, and use it with my 4×5 because it’s fast to set up and well damped. But for airline travel, either you don’t have the necessary height or you have trouble with the size/weight…

  35. David Ralph says:

    Footnote to my comment a few minutes ago, unfortunately, the Gitzo rebate at B&H is restricted to residents of the is valid only on items purchased through Authorized Dealers and not on imports or grey market items. The rebate is on any Gitzo product costing $450 US or more.

  36. Thanks for the article. Just a curious question. Is there a reason you picked the TVC-33 over say the TVC-34? The TVC-34 seems to have a shorter collapsed length.

    • RRS only had a TVC-33 available for loan when I asked. I bought the 24L in the end – shorter collapsed, longer extended, not much rigidity sacrificed, and most importantly, fits in my luggage.

      • Thanks for this really useful article. As it happens, I am currently looking at tripods including the TVC-24L. I understand that the 3-section ones will be more stable, but not having used tripods in this class I find it hard to make the judgement whether they are so much more stable to make up for being heavier and longer (I do not have a car). So my choice is between TVC-24L (1.7kg, 59cm folded, £880), GT2542LS (1.8kg, 60cm, £480) or GT3532LS (2kg, 69cm, £540 – the TVC-33 cost over £1000!!). The GT2542LS looks like the best compromise, but I see this as a long term investment and don’t want to be disappointed. I currently use a D610 (with a view to go to D810 or successor) and the lenses I’d use are around 1kg, in the future up to 2kg perhaps.
        As you have gone for the TVC-24L I take it you think the compromise in stability is acceptable – would you also say the same for the 4-section Gitzo? Any help much appreciated!

        • The 24L is closer to the Gitzo 3 than the 2 series. I have used it with medium format without issue; the only time I’ve wished for something heavier is in heavy wind with a long lens.

          • Thank you, that’s good to know. Considering how much more expensive the RRS is that was not the answer I was hoping for ;-). Seems both the series 3 and the TVC-24L would be stable enough for my needs, so it is more weight/bulk vs higher price then…

            • Having owned tripods from both brands, I can safely say you get what you pay for.

              • That seems to be the case with (most) tripods. Although it is odd that over there the TVC-24L is still 30% more expensive than the GT5562LTS – I find it hard to imagine that the much lighter RRS could really be more rigid than the massive Gitzo…

                • That’s strange pricing indeed – in the US the 24L is nowhere near the 5562; that’s about 50% more, I believe. It isn’t as rigid but it isn’t far off, either – so long as the load is below the tripod’s rating and you’re not using it in heavy wind. (For what it’s worth, I have both the 24L and 5562, and I’m almost always using the 24L unless I need the geared column of the 5562 now that I’m not shooting large format.)

                  • RRS have no distributor in Europe and I have only found a couple of online merchants who have some stock. So the TVC-24L and others come at a premium whereas one of the camera shops I buy from has good discounts on Gitzo. So as far as price is concerned a series 3 Systematic is about 5/9 of the TVC-24L and the big series 5 still only 6/9. Thanks again!

                    • That’s the distributor premium, and a consequence of the market not the ‘proper’ pricing. There’s a big tradeoff in weight between the 24L and 5 though…

                  • [Can’t seem to reply to your last comment – no reply button, it seems we have reach the end of a reasonable thread length 😉 – so response to the previous one.] I am not considering the series 5, it was just for comparison. If I were to go Gitzo it would be the GT3532LS, assuming it fits into my new luggage, or alternatively the GT2542LS (which fits and one would hope is stable enough for a DSLR with a not-too heavy lens). Or I import the TVC-24L directly, but with VAT and duty the price is not too far of the shop price, and having a “local” warranty might be useful… If I lived in the US this would be easier – also in other ways as the constant rebates and reduced price refurbished gear (Coolpix A for example) never really seem to make it across the Atlantic. I guess it is even worse for you.

                    • Much worse. Between unhelpful local principals, crazy shipping and import taxes, I basically have to buy most things I review locally.

  37. Nice, really concise article, Ming. After a fairly careful look at tripods I ended up with a SIRUI N-2204X carbon fibre, four-section tripod. The kit came with a G-20KX ball-head, which was fine for my E-M1 but was a little fiddly in use. It didn’t creep, and was plenty rigid for this class of camera system. With a better head I think the model could support a full-frame system using most standard lenses. It’s light enough for travel work and folds down quite compactly.

    I found that the only brand to better it was Gitzo. Before finding the SIRUI, I had looked at the Manfrotto range and was quite disappointed. SIRUI was better by all accounts except against some funky features, such as their angled column for macro use.

    A very useful feature that the N-2204X has is that one of its legs detaches and converts, with a very simple kit, to a monopod.

    This tripod holds the camera at my eye level without extending the central column.

    I love high quality, well designed products (who doesn’t?) and this one from SIRUI definitely satisfies this. At less than one third the price of the equivalent Gitzo I was quite amazed.

  38. David Ralph says:

    B&H, in the USA, is showing a US $150 rebate on both of the Gitzo pods you recommend; the rebate good until until 1/31/2015.

    To echo Ming, get a very, very good tripod then decent head, and be down with it. Who was it said to get a tripod for life, once, and save all the money of the increasingly expensive cheap pods that many of progress through? A great tripod is a joy to use, and it will become your best friend. The cheap ones will only be wasted money. Yeah, I too have a Velbon, still in its purchase box from several years ago. Wasted time and effort. I only use it for a speed light stand once in a while.

    I have two carbon fiber Gitzos, the same GT1542T travel tripod as Ming and an older model three series Systematic (no center column similar to the RR). I love that three series. Rock solid, not too heavy, and easy to erect. The Gitzo travel pod seemed like a good idea at the time. But, its its folding legs are fussier to set up than a Systematic. And, if its center segment is extended at all, it starts to put wobble movement into some pictures. Mine was not entirely happy with a D800E plus a 80-400mm zoom unless the center tube was at rock bottom. The center column down also means that the camera is not eye level for most men. Other folks seem to love it.

    • The 80-400 (all versions) is notorious for having a poor tripod collar – I replaced mine with the Kirk version and there’s an instant (and enormous) improvement. Everybody has different points of sufficiency for ‘good enough’ image quality. If you’re using a very high resolution system + long lens, you’re going to need ever increasing stability…

      • David Ralph says:

        Agreed. Only the Kirk collar has been on the lens since it came out of the box. The task which challenged the combination was taking telephone landscape in the mountains, near Denver. Using delay and mirror lockup, telephoto images were only sharp with no movement, at least for me, when the column was down on the Traveler. The 36 Mpix camera plus telephoto seems to challenge the Traveler. Macro has seemed to work the few times I have used the Traveler, but the truth is the three series is my go to tool, and it has yet to fail me.

  39. Ming, in my use of tripods and testing, the center column is very stable, it isn’t a deficit, I use it without concern however technique has to be superb. A variable not often addressed is the cable release, it can not hang loosely from the camera, it transmits vibration if it does . It’s best to wind it around the tripod and gently squeeze it or alternatively use the self timer and carefully press the shutter release.

    • Agreed on the cable release, but not all columns are created equal. If you column is a thick 2.5″ diameter one like on a Gitzo Series 5 with a long collar, yes. If it’s a thin 1cm light aluminium one, no. Best of all is still no column.

      • Ming, that is so true of aluminum, it vibrates whereas carbon fiber is much greater at dampening. After testing my aluminum tripods, all were sold in favor of large and small carbon fiber legs. There is nothing like testing one’s own equipment and techniques to find compatibility or non-compatibility. What I found quite helpful is to put the camera in live view with magnification and view what happens when the tripod is barely touched or the cable release is held in one’s hand with a dangling length of cable.

        • That’s interesting, cyclists say the exact opposite – alloy bikes damp vibrations much better than CF ones.

          • It might depends considerably on the direction of the weave in the tubes.

          • Not true, alloy bikes are stiff and damp nothing, carbon bikes are dampening, often there is just rear triangle from carbon fibre, allowing for some damping while sticking to hard-tail frame (instead of fully damped with front + rear shock absorbers). My 2 cents.

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