Tripods and how to choose one
This workshop is not an advice. It provides you with my vision on my needs and how I came to the selection of my tripods. It can be a guide to help you choose your tripod(s) for maybe the way that led to my selections may shed a light on your own doubts on which one to choose.
Did you buy a camera for more pictures than of some birthday or party? Then somewhere in time there will be a situation that you'll need a tripod of some sort. Be it for a selfie or for night photography, macro, tele or to support the weight of the camera for a longer period of time or simply while you work on a composition.
A tripod or monopod is an essential part of your equipment if you want to get more serious into photography. You can use smaller apertures thus make use of a deeper field in focus. Or you can lower your ISO to get lesser noise. Or... both... In the end it all comes down to low shutter speeds or looooong exposure times. So you definitely need: STABILITY
Tripods come in many sorts and sizes, brands and types. Finding your way in them can be a bit overwhelming.
To make things even more complicated: you probably have no idea of which sorts of photography you'll run into in the future. And it is just that that makes choosing the right tripod so important. The solution: if it is to be your first tripod... choose one that is light enough to take it with you without too much of a burden. That means that it also has to be quite easy to operate and it has to be firm enough so it won't get damaged to easily when you bump it into something.
Basically any tripod between €40 and €100 should be able to fit these parameters. One thing that is worth considering is that it folds small enough so it will fit into your backpack or whatever bag you have with you. Folding a tripod makes it more expensive but it is a blessing not to have to carry a bunch of sticks of 60-90 cm.
In general the tripod has to able to support the weight of what ever you are going to mount on it. Back in the old days there was this rule of thumb that you'd take roughly twice the weight of what you wanted to mount. So a camera and lens combined weighing 1 kg would need a tripod of 2 kg. But since we got modern materials like carbon and structures mostly are tubes that weight formula has virtually no meaning left. My biggest tripod can support 30 kg but it weighs only 2.6 kg without any mounting plate. Carbon legs make the construction very strong and light weight but a big disadvantage is that impacts on the legs from hard more or less edgy things can damage the carbon layers more easy than aluminium legs. On the other hand... when an aluminium tube gets a dent the next inner segment can be blacked from extending or in the lesser serious way it will be difficult to get it out. There are also wooden tripods (Berlebach) but I don't have any experience with them. The only thing I know is that they are known for their dampening of vibrations. How good they are at that and if it makes a difference to carbon or aluminium... I have no idea.
My first tripod
I bought my very first own tripod way back in the 2nd half of the 1970's. The reason why I replaced it was because in 2015 a clamp on one of the legs that had been failing and repaired and failing and... well it gave up after some 40 years of service. It is an incredible versatile tripod which served me very well and has earned its retirement.
There is still a functionality in this tripod that none of my others have: the legs can be fixed in any desired angle. There are no stops at pre-determined points. One of the very good things of Velbon in those days was the quick lock ring on the mounting screw. First screw on the camera for a bit and then tighten with the quick lock ring. Almost as fast as the modern mounting plates except for the RC2 from Manfrotto but I'll get back on that. What is absolutely wonderfull is the center column that could be shortend so the tripod could kneel all the way down to macro level. There were tripods that could reverse the column already but I really prefer the camera upside up.
Selection parametersThis story shows that already young of age I knew what I wanted. From friends to clubs to photography school I had the most versatile tripod of everyone and no positioning of the camera was difficult enough for this Velbon. The fact that it served me so many years says it all. Why then so many tripods now?
The practical sideWell... first of all I started a small business as a photographer so I needed a tripod that would give me the possibility to stand above groups and that was quiick in configuring in my studio for my sudden need during a shoot. It had to be able to resist some abuse and be heavy/sturdy enough in order not to move when I or someone else bumped into it. So that delivered me the Manfrotto 058B.
Years there after the Velbon had to be replaced. I needed a new very versatile workhorse that is easy on the go. That was my first Sirui. The versatility was expanded with the Horizontal Arm.
That, in combination with its weight and size, led to a really lightweight and small travel tripod with a removable column and that was a very much needed thing for macro.
In the mean time I had bought a monopod to support my camera with a 500mm lens in a dense crowd on a trip. This monopod is excellent for fast running and/or quick repositioning during airshows etcetera.
The last tripod I got just recently. The Manfrotto had travelled with me to England and Finland by air. That was not without risk and it got damaged once already. The 058B is big, doesn't fold compact and it is really heavy at 6.7 kg. And that is without a head... It has to be carried in a special bag because of its size and that bag can't hold my full 23kg allowance. So... I had to find one that would fit in a normal suitcase, weighs less but is still as big and sturdy or even better. That brought me to the third Sirui in my collection, the enormous R-5214X.
Those are only the tripods itself. On a tripod you need a head to mount the camera on. There are many sorts of heads and choosing the one that is right for you is a challenge on its own. My old first tripod has a head on it, back then they were just part of the tripod. I have 4 heads and one compound that exists of multiple parts i put together for a special purpose. But I'll get back to the heads on a later point.
The reason why I have several tripods is because they oviously have different specialities and sometimes I want to use two cameras doing different things at the same time. For instance: in Lapland I have one tripod setup for the aurora and one is standby and aligned for astrophotography. Winter in Lapland means a cold atmosphere with way less turbulance than in a 30 degree celcius summernight and the atmosphere is thinner. So that is one reason but there are more situations.
The practical reasons are one side. The technical possibilities are different for each tripod an for that a different matter. Many tripods can do the same thing as they can do different things. The point is to find that one tripod and head that both fit your needs. I will describe my tripods and heads and what they can do and what peculiarities they have and if they have flaws.
The technical aspects of the tripods and monopodThe technical aspects depend on your photographic ambitions. For macro you need a different tripod than for astrophotography. Also the specifications of the head will be different.
Steel and aluminium, 6.7kg, max load 12 kg, min height 44cm, max height 224cm, folded length 94cm. All without head.
Working temperature +60 to -30 degrees celcius.
I haven't had the "pleasure" of working in +60 degrees but I actually used the 085B in -35. At first that went well but after a few trips comprising about 6 weeks one of the three feet fell out of the tube shaped leg. It had shrunk so much at temperatures below -15 that it fell free. I took it with me in my jackets pocket in order not to loose it and put it in back home. Well that was kind of stupid of course. The next morning it had expanded again as I could have thought of and there was no way to get it back in the tube. So the next night I put up the tripod and layed the foot next to it in the snow. It shrunk again and it fitted back in without any problem. The 058B has telescopic cross connecting bars from the center column to the end of the first section of the leg. This ensures a rigid setup for each leg in any desired angle.
To extend the legs separately all three have their own lever at the collar, just press it and let the leg slide out. Release the lever and the leg stops at any desired length. To make this even easier the collar has a ringlever that when pressed releases all three legs at the same time thus giving the opportunity to raise or lower the tripod as a whole in one motion. During transport this ringlever once got damaged. It is possible to order this part and replace it yourself.
On the collar there are 3 3/8" threads for accessories. This all makes the 058B an excellent tripod for the studio and its sheer height lets it look over any crowd or let it be placed in any mountainous terrain with deep and steep slopes.
Carbon and Aluminium, 2.7kg, max load 30 kg, min 9 height cm, max height 160cm with locked legs, no center column and 237cm with unlocked legs and with center column, folded length 58cm. All without head.
I got this Sirui Reporter (hence the "R" in the type name) as an alternative for the Manfrotto 058B. I have two reasons for that:
1. its weight is less than half the 058B
2. Its folded size is less than 2/3 of the 058B
That means that airtransport is way easier. It fits in a normal suitcase which instead of the narrow tripod bag for the 058B allows me to take way more stuff with me.
This Sirui has a life long warranty. When it is not at its maximum height (then the legs are not secured in their position) the maximum height is determined by the position which the do have a lock. They then stand at about 60 degrees thus almost forming a equilateral triangle. This is the shape with the most stability and in that position this tripod with its thick legs is more like a foundation or a gantry. Like the 058B its sheer height lets it look over any crowd or let it be placed in any mountainous terrain with deep and steep slopes. There is one downside though with regards to the Manfrotto: the legs only lock in 3 positions. That doesn't mean they can't be used in positions in between but you'll just have to be alert on the fact that the ge isn't locked and is able to move.
The center column is a separate story as it is optional. I took this option with the tripod because it just makes it more versatile. The column replaces the mount plate and can also be mounted in reverse which comes in handy with macro photography but if for reason needed it also drastically lowers the center of gravity.
The feet can be replaced with giant spikes. Replaced because the rubber feet cannot be screwed up and down to reveal the spikes, they are not in the feet. The spikes come with the tripod. To remove the mount plate or column you simply take the hook for a sandbag of the mounting plate as the opposite side of the hook is the needed hex key. The mount plate can also be replaced with a 75mm bowl for a video leveler. While this bowl is also in the tripod package the leveler is not.
For macro you can also lower the tripod to 9 cm above the ground by fully spreading its legs.The lowest leg segments are provided with a scale that steps in 5 cm.This last segment can be drawn out at any length it is just the scale that is divided into 5cm steps. It beats me why its there but who knows when and why it may be useful...
Aluminium, 1.6kg, max load 15 kg, min 45 height cm, max height 141cm, folded length 41.5cm. All without head.
This tripods name starts with a"T" from Traveler. It is really lightweight and that, plus the reversibility of the center column, were the reason for it to replace my old Velbon. When I bought it the period of warranty was 6 years. It was a new brand and I had never heard of it but 6 years warranty is not given if the manufacturer has no faith in his product.
This tripod is my main one. It is relatively small and lightweight tripod that does most of the jobs. There isn't much more to this type.
Aluminium, 1kg, max load 5 kg, min 39 height cm, max height 123cm, folded length 33.5cm. This all includes the ArcaSwiss compatible head (see section "Mounting Systems" for explanation) which is part of this small tripod but it can be replaced with any other head. If that is a sensible thing to do is part two...
The T-005KX is also a tripod from the Travelers series of Sirui. It is very lightweight and compact and therefore a perfect companion when you are on a citytrip and don't want to drag a full size tripod with you. Its an easy setup for a selfie or vlog and it is very good for macro. It it so small and light that I even take it with me when I go to work and take a camera with me.
Carbon and aluminium, 0,6kg, max load 5 kg, min 57,5 height cm, max height 169,5cm, folded length 57.5cm. All without the head.
This is a monopod. It comes in very handy in dense crowds as I said before. The weight of 600 grams is misleading because there has to be added a head. But even with a head added to the weight there is a hidden use namely being a walking stick. The real length of this monopod may be slightly off as I replaced the foot with a type that has steel spike in its rubber foot which can be screwed up the spike to reveal it. That's about it for the monopod. Basically it is more the head you choose to go with it to make it any different from someone elses monopod.
The technical aspects of the headsSo far for the tripods and monopod. To really make use of them you need a head which you mount on the mounting plate and screw.
The heads are just as important as the tripod they're mounted on. But the aspects are totally different except for the part of stabilization. Stability is what this whole subject is all about. There are quite a few types of heads on the market. Ball heads are the most common, they consist of a holder and a ball on which a pin holds the mounting base for the payload. A clamp holds the ball in place. by applying force on the clamp yoy control friction of the ball until it holds. There are also geared heads that work with hinges or wormwheels. And then there are gimball heads that enable you to follow moving objects easier.
I use two widely used systems for mounting plates. First the Swiss Army Knife amongst the mounting plates: the Arca Swiss (compatible).
A large number of manufacturers produce heads and accessories that are compatible with this mount system. Almost all these heads have a security pin to prevent your camera against slipping of the mount and dropping, but please do check for that provision to be there! On the head shown here it is the red pin that drops the brass security pin.
The second mount system that I use is the Manfrotto RC2 and that is my favourite when it comes to ease of use and speed. The RC2 is a mounting system with a spring lever.
Every time you open the lever, pull it back to its outer position and a spring locks the lever by a solid brass pin. When you put the mounting plate back on the head it pushes the pin down, releasing the spring and the lever jumps into place locking the plate to the head, get the hang of it and you can trust this system knowing that your equipment won't fall off the head. The only thing left to do is to tighten the lever for good stability.
Please mind the small brass lever at the corner. It locks the lever so you can't open it just like that.
Which ever system you choose... check if the head is locked in its position. If it is not and you let go of your camera trusting the plate lock... your camera is likely to drag the tripod with it in its fall. So never forget: head locked and plate locked!
Two images of most of the types of plates I use to conclude this part.
Manfrotto 222 Joystickhead
752 grams, 21cm, RC2 mount
Does not hold very good below -20 degrees Celcius in sideways position. Used all the way down to -35C.
I have this head since 2000 and it still is my favourite. Just grab and squeeze and put it where you want it. When you get the hang of it you'll need just one action to find, turn and position the vertical slot in the head making it so easy to use. The friction wheel lets you adjust how smooth the ballhead will move and lock and a vertical sliding pin tells you optical how much friction is set.
However there are some downsides as well. First and obvious the size and weight. This is not a travelers head unless mounted on a monopod. Second, when in a horizontal position, thus making use of the vertical slot on the side, your camera has to be held or be well balanced. The weight of a bigger lens will rotate the camera with the lens facing downward. There is a ballhead but above the ballhead is a 360 degree turning joint and the friction of that joint is not enough to hold an unbalanced or unsupported camera sideways. Maybe a newer type will but this one certainly will not.
390 grams, 10(wide) x 8 x 7 cm (high folded) 10 (extended), RC2 mount.
Holds and adjusts very well in extreme low temperatures. Not yet used below -20 Celcius.
A midsized ballhead with two sideway slots. These two sideway slots make it fast and very reliable under fast changing circumstances. This head is by far my favourite when shooting the aurorae. It releases and re-locks smooth and quick and the friction can be adjusted very smooth and accurately.
216 grams, 9.5(wide) x 6.5 x 5 cm (high folded) 5.5 (extended), RC2 mount.
No temperature data.
This is a very compact and small head that only tilts in one direction. It is therefore a head that would be very useful on a monopod which is why I bought it. You obviously don't need a rotatable head with a tripod and so it saves you weight and size. I chose this head for shooting the launch of a Spaceshuttle which basically goes one way... up. With that in mind it is very useful for tracking birds and planes and it is a cheap alternative for the expensive gimball head which does about the same thing only from a tripod. Advantage of a tripod with gimball versus a monopod with tilthead is that you can let the tripod stand on its own complete with your gear mounted. Try that with a monopod...
Another interesting use for this head is to quickly switch from landscape to portrait mode. But this does require that your subject is horizontal fixed because this head has no rotation capability.
398 grams, 9(wide) x 6.5 x 7.7 cm (high folded) 9.3 (extended), ArcaSwiss mount.
Holds very well in low temperatures but unusable below -10 Celcius because the ball won't release anymore or at least very hard making adjustments frustrating.
I don't use this head very often by choice. If the tripod of choice has this head mounted it is usually ok but that is about it. The friction is controlled by the small silver thumbwheel, it does the job good but I don't like it. I don't want it on the same knob that releases and locks the ballhead. Sometimes, with gloves i.e you move the thumbwheel while operating the main knob. The head works fine and smooth but still it is not my favourite and is is of the ArcaSwiss type which, as I said before, is not my first choice. That last thing though makes this head quite versatile and selected when i want to do specific things with ArcaSwiss compatible hardware and there is quite a lot of that.
Burghardt Special Compound
1271 grams, 12(wide), 16cm high, specific mount.
This is a non-existing head specifically put together for astro photography. The main idea behind this tower is extreme precise leveling and turning the whole tower independent of the tripods ability to find a firm grip on the ground. For more information go to the workshop "Astro Photography".
Well... Is it really a whishlist? I'm not sure if it is really a whishlist It is not about "nice to have" I mean: I won't buy anything unless I have a certain purpose for it. There are two heads that draw my attention anyway.
First on the left there is the Manfrotto MHXPRO-3WG 3-way Geared Head. It allows for adjustments over 3 axis. This head is the only geared head from Manfrotto with the RC2 plate. Second on the right there is a gimball head which I already described at the section about the Manfrotto 234RC head. I have no particular preferred brand or type yet.
AccessoriesAccessories are numerous. They depend totally on what you want. Just go to a big reseller of photographic equipment and spend an hour in front of their display and think of that as being your toy store.
I have a few things that make life easier or even possible at all.
Manfrotto 230 Tripod Snowshoes
Let's start with the funniest of them: snowshoes.
They speak for them selves but their use is also on a wet muddy surface where the legs don't get a good stand.. Just watch out not to damage their underside too much, the ridges are made of thin plastic. They were very useful to me when I used the tripod 058B in temperatures below -15 Celcius. One of the feet kept coming out of the legs tube and I lost it quite a few times as the feet sank into the fresh snow layer and became invisible. So when I now lift the tripod and one snowshoe stays behind on de snow its clear that it came out again.
Sirui Horizontal Arm HA 77
This horizontal arm brings your camera at difficult places. The part at the side of the camera can extend by its own length but carries a risc. When a weight is mounted on an extended arm its momentum (relative weight) can become high enough to tip the whole thing over. So always swing the arm over one of the legs if you can or place a counterweight on the hook at the opposite side of the arm.
Tripad laptop table
This is an incredible help. Place a laptop on it and extend both sides, right for a mousepad and left for a drink or a lens or whatever fits. The two parts can be taken apart and that way it stows as a flat package.
Peak Design Adapter RC2/ArcaSwiss
Simple two way plate for both ArcaSwiss and RC2. Well that is to say... it is not so much as an adapter as it is a two way plate. It serves both systems. The adapter is the next item. The two systems are perpendicular to each other so that is something to give a thought before applying it. Some other thing to keep an eye on is that the RC2 part of the plate has two different sides. The side that sticks out sideways a little bit is the part that activates the spring lever of the RC2 mount. At the bottom image this is better visible. There is an opening at the bottom where there is a thicker part at the top. That thicker part activates the spring lever of the RC2.
Caruba Adapter RC2/ArcaSwiss
Simple adapter from RC2 to Arca Swiss. I use this adapter for the long Arca Swiss plate that I use for fine adjusting with macro photography. There is no such plate for the RC2.
Manfrotto 338 Levelling Base
There are several ways to level a mounting platform. Manfrotto has two types: the 338 and the 438. The 438 is quicker and easier but the 338 has unrivalled precision because of the three independent screw jacks. Why a leveling plate? If the setup on the mount is large and heavy you don't want to mess around with tripod legs to release and adjust. That is difficult and very risky. With a leveler you place the tripod level within the margins of the leveler and finish the leveling with the leveler.
Long rail with 323 RC2 baseplates
A long rail with an RC2 base plate on each end. They are aligned for a 1/3 overlap on a 24mm fullframe. This way I can make high resolution panoramas in RAW with two synchronized cameras. The rail has its own mounting plate to mount it on a head.
Some remarks to think about
My last tips about tripods are on one of my t-shirts, learn them and use them 😉