A massive (but silent) change

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I’ve long been one of the strongest proponents of tripod use for the simple reason that doing so forces you to slow down. This slowing down has the combined benefits of making you spend more time observing your subject and its surroundings to increase awareness and in turn create a stronger or more interesting implied story; it forces you to spend more than a breath looking at the composition in the viewfinder and being aware of elements that might be imbalanced or distracting or intrusive, or that should be included. In fact, I almost always land up working off the rear LCD rather than the finder as it has the convenience of touch functions, the precision of live view focus, and tends to be larger*. So why is it that I actually haven’t used a tripod outside of macro and product work in the studio for over a year now?

*My preference still remains for an eye level finder when working quickly, though – both for immediacy and stability of having the camera braced against your face; arms’ length with an LCD is not stable and such situations usually don’t yield time for another try if you happened to shake. We have recently seen the jump from ‘good enough’ EVFs to very good EVFs that have improved resolution, color accuracy, black point and dynamic range enough to be quite transparent; once again with the benefit of focusing on the sensor as well as magnification for manual focus. I’d say we’re about on par at this point, at least in FF-land. But I digress.

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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.

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Why the tripod is the most underrated piece of photographic equipment

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Pentax 645Z with L bracket on Gitzo 1542T and Arca-Swiss P0.

Chances are, a tripod is actually one of the first bits of gear you got at the start of your photographic journey: they’re usually given away free with DSLR ‘kits’ as ‘value added’ freebies (you’re actually charged for them, of course). Like most people, you probably even carried it with you on every photographic excursion for a while, and then eventually got lazy or frustrated with it and gave up. At that point, you probably also wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a good tripod and head and a poor one. I’m fully guilty of this, of course. I even bought my tripod – a relatively cheap Velbon thing for all of about $60 that included a head, and was light and relatively small but tall enough to be reasonably ergonomic and not induce too much back pain – jackpot! Of course, I would later learn that the only thing that’s worse than no tripod at all is a bad tripod.

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Ultimate tripod heads, part two: the Arca-Swiss P0 Monoball

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The P0 Monoball; Manfrotto 394 RC4 QR plate is for me to standardize my connectors across heads, and also because the QR version of this head costs nearly 50% more than the standard one – you can buy the adaptor AND a lot of spare plates for the difference. I’ve since replaced it with an Arca-style clamp I found on eBay for about $25 – surprisingly well made, and cost-efficient, too.

Today’s conclusion of the two-part review (part one covering the Arca-Swiss C1 Cube is here) covers the much simpler, cheaper, but no less well built P0 Monoball. They aren’t direct competitors or replacements for each other; to be honest, there’s ample room in a gear bag for both since they fulfil very different photographic needs.

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Ultimate tripod heads, part one: the Arca-Swiss C1 Cube

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Arca-Swiss C1 Cube with D800E mounted via universal L bracket.

Arca-Swiss are known for two things: producing excellent precision photographic gear, and having spotty availability – probably due to very small production runs. This two part review is going to cover what I think are two of the best tripod heads currently available – the P0 and C1 Cube. I picked up the P0 from B&H as a lightweight travel head during my trip to New York earlier in the year; I’ve been using it since – more often than I’d imagined I would. After being very impressed with the little one, I requested a C1 Cube as soon as it finally became available; both out of curiosity, and also to see if the hype was true.

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Stability, tripods, and reviews: The Gitzo GT5562LTS 6x Systematic and GT1542 Traveller

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I admit upfront that I’m not a big fan of tripods: they’re cumbersome, heavy, and slow to use (compared to shooting handheld). But it’s undeniable that the added support helps hugely when it comes to maximizing your image quality, especially when shooting very high pixel density cameras*.

*It’s not so much absolute resolution as pixel density that affects things – the higher the pixel density, the smaller an angular movement is needed to produce a perceived level of blur greater than one pixel.

It’s also entirely possible that up til this point, I’d never had a really good tripod system. I’ve been using a first-generation carbon fiber thing until now – the Manfrotto 444 Carbon One – and whilst it was much better than the aluminum PRO190B I had beforehand, it still left a bit to be desired in terms of vibration damping and rigidity. The thing with a tripod is that you want to it be rigid enough not to move, but compliant enough to damp any vibrations coming from your camera’s shutter/ mirror mechanism, or the ground – if you say happen to be working next to a piling site, or an active volcano (don’t laugh, I’ve done the former on architectural jobs and know of people who do the latter).

Usually, the former is taken care of by the head and spider (top portion holding the legs) and the latter, the leg tubes themselves. Aluminum or steel is not the ideal material for legs because it’s both heavy and directionally uniform; you can’t machine it so that it damps vibrations in one direction but allows some compliance in another. Wood, on the other hand, is an excellent material for this; it’s one of the reason those old-school Berlebach tripods are so popular (that, and the fact that they can be stained to match the particular hue of your view camera). The modern alternative is carbon fiber – the weave direction can be aligned and laid such that the tubes are stiff longitudinally and laterally, but can still absorb minor vibrations without transmitting them to the camera.

Let’s rule out the head from this review for the moment – I use the same head on the 444 and both Gitzos. I know it seems odd to assess an entire support system this way, but bear with me – I use a Manfrotto 468MG RC0 Hydrostat head, which uses a vacuum chamber and hydraulic lock to keep the teflon-coated ball in position. It’s the only ball head of any size I’ve used that doesn’t ‘droop’ after you lock it down (especially noticeable at high magnifications when I do macro work). It also has a tension/ friction adjustment, and a separate pan lock. Let’s just say it’s an outstanding ball head that I still think has no competitor.

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The Gitzo GT1542T Carbon 6X Traveller

I’m going to refer to it as the 1542, instead of its mouthful of a name. The 1542 is a series 1 (second smallest tube diameter, first digit), four section (third digit), second version (fourth digit) tripod that has one neat party trick: the legs fold up instead of down, to surround the rapid column and head and make the overall collapsed length much shorter for transport and storage. That’s how a 42cm (closed) tripod can reach 149cm extended. Maximum load capacity is 8kg. The tripod itself is incredibly light – a skeletonized magnesium spider (with a beautiful gray hammertone finish) and carbon legs contribute to its 1kg weight. It’s the only tripod that I haven’t felt pained to carry, and that includes some pretty light horrible aluminum things with sections about the same thickness as a soda can.

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Note skeletonized spider

Unlike earlier versions, the 1542 has G-Lock which is an anti-rotation system applied to the tube ends to allow you to unlock all of the leg collars, extend to the desired height, then lock them back individually. (You used to have to screw and unscrew them in order to prevent infinite rotation).

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Interestingly, the little 1542 is much more rigid than my previous Manfrotto 444; this despite also being about half the weight, and with thinner leg sections. I suppose it’s down to the locking system and the weave of the carbon fiber. I’ve used this while traveling on assignment (actually, I specifically acquired it for this purpose) for watch photography – which demands the utmost stability due to the magnifications involved – and it performed flawlessly, even with a much lighter duty head – I replaced the very heavy Hydrostat with a Gitzo GH1780QR head for travel. In fact, I liked it enough to bother carrying it while doing landscapes, which says a lot as this has never happened before…

If there’s one disadvantage, is that the legs only lock at one angle.

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The Gitzo GT5562LTS 6x Systematic

Playing Obelix to the 1542’s Asterix, the 5562 is a Series 5 (maximum tube diameter and thickness), 6-section, second generation studio tripod with carbon legs, and a massive 40kg load rating. I have no idea what camera system would weigh that much – a telescope, perhaps – but it’s reassuring to know that I have the support should the fancy ever take me. I’ve even removed the head and used its enormous ~15cm diameter platform as the world’s most expensive stool at particularly tedious shoots.

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The supplied platform has a 3/8″ screw for standard ball heads, and a locking screw in the base to keep them in position; it’s also removable to allow attachment of a Systematic ballhead directly into the leg frame itself, or a rapid column, or a geared column. There’s also a rather neat bubble level inset directly into the platform. Ostensibly, it’s serious overkill for my requirements – I put perhaps 4kg on it at most, and that includes the head, positioning rail, camera, lens, and a flash.

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This should give you an idea of just how massive the leg sections are.

All the same, I’ve developed an irrational affection for it; it’s nicknamed ‘the Stubby’ because it also happens to fold down to just 50cm in length, but can shoot at ground height thanks to three locking angles for the legs. It reaches 148cm without a column, though; I’ve got a geared column on order for added precision, but it seems that in summer, the whole of Italy goes on holiday and nothing comes out of the factory.

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked at all about the Stubby’s stability: that’s because there’s no question it is the most rigid, solid tripod I’ve ever used. In fact, it’s more rigid than some tables; a rock would probably be of comparable stability. Needless to say, this is easily my favorite tripod; if I had more weight allowance on my international trips, you can bet this is what’d I’d be carrying.

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Negative points? Well, the feel of the extension/ retraction of the legs could be better. I had a Benro (pretty much a Chinese Gitzo knockoff) monopod that had a washer inside the leg tubes that gave them a damped feel when extending and retracting; not to mention an extremely cool swooshing sound. But then I noticed that despite having about the same maximum tube diameter as the Series 5 Gitzos, it was far less rigid than even the 1542 – let alone Mr. Stubby. And worse still, the damn thing is no longer straight after using it for birding with large lenses for a couple of years…

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Still, I can’t think of a better tripod for people whose studio has to be mobile, or who require absolute solidity for use with long lenses – birders come to mind.

Every photographer needs to have at least one good tripod and head. You’ll be surprised just how much of a difference it makes to both a bad one and not using one at all; the only downside of Gitzo tripods is that they’re not cheap, but I have a strong suspicion that this is the kind of equipment one buys once and owns for life – I certainly can’t see why I’d need to replace the Stubby. MT

The Gitzo Traveller is available here from B&H, as is the 5562.


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