Selecting a Tripod – Part #1

There really are only two pieces of equipment that are essential to the discipline of landscape photography, a camera and a tripod and while you can argue that a tripod is an ancillary device, I am going to assume that if you are reading this you wish to do more than limit yourself to those landscapes that one can shoot handheld. Certainly, from my perspective, the tripod is a mission-critical tool, one afforded the rather humble responsibility of holding your camera still. This task may be a pedestrian one, but, for all its triviality, some tripods just do a better job of it than others.

A recent unexpected turn of events forced me into a situation where I had to work with my oldest tripod, and while struggling with all its inadequacies, my mind wandered – not for the first time – to thoughts of a new one. I have only ever owned two tripods, and I have been growing ever more annoyed with the idiosyncrasy of my primary unit.

The difficulty today is that tripods – by which I am referring to the combined head and the legs assembly – are exceedingly expensive pieces of equipment that can rival both camera bodies and lenses for most costly items in your arsenal. I am never one to shy away from parting with good money for the sake of camera gear, but I like to think that my decisions to purchase are grounded in rational thought and not merely in manufacturer propaganda. There can be no doubting that some features of the contemporary tripod are genuinely valuable and worth paying for while others just serve as the fluff used to extract cash from your wallet.

The stock Vanguard ALTA+ 263AP

The stock Vanguard ALTA+ 263AP

To begin separating fact from fiction, it is worthwhile looking at the best and worst traits of my current weapon, the Vanguard ALTA+ 263AP to which I retroactively fitted an oversized ALTA BH-100 Ball Head. Vanguard is far from a premier league tripod manufacturer, but when I bought my unit in 2009, it was an easily available, well-built and cost-effective solution. I consider myself quite demanding of my equipment and my tripod has possibly suffered the most in this respect. I am in the habit of strapping it to my motorbike as well as to the outside of my backpack, and the unit has not flinched in the face of dust, rain, seawater and even blunt force trauma. The only thing to have failed during its time in my 'care' is the little rubber grips on the ball head's knobs which perished and fell off years ago, something that has made no material difference to the tripod’s operating.

My principal problem with the ALTA+ has from day one been with the quick release base plate. No matter how tightly one screws the plate to the camera body, it never seems capable of holding my camera in a portrait orientation without working loose. The weight of even my 16-35 mm lens places enough torque on the fitting that if left unsupported by my hand, the camera will very quickly begin to droop. For a device with the sole mandate of holding your camera still, this truly is a fundamental flaw.

To be fair to Vanguard, their products are well made, the ability of the ALTA+ to stand up to my abuse attesting to this. I am certain that the drooping problem I have encountered is limited to the ALTA BH-100 Ball Head specifically and that it may even have been resolved in more recent versions of the product. However, the existence of the issue at all led me to search for a solution, something I probably would not have done had everything worked correctly to begin with.

What I found was that selected manufacturers supply L-Bracket attachments for their ball heads, pieces of gear that allow you to place your camera in portrait orientation while keeping the ball head platform horizontal. The bracket aligns the camera’s centre of mass with the centre line of the tripod, considerably reducing the possibility of any droop and making the portrait experience a whole lot more user friendly. Vanguard does not produce L-Brackets, though, which is somewhat of a coup for the competition, given my experience. I have decided that in future I will only purchase tripods from manufacturers who do supply this piece of equipment, which currently removes Vanguard as a contender for my business.

SIRUI TYL Series Camera Specific L Brackets

SIRUI TYL Series Camera Specific L Brackets

The second problem I have had with the ALTA+ is its height. Tripods are funny things because one tends to use them at their extremes. You either want the camera at eye height where it is easiest to see, or as close to the ground as possible for compositional reasons. The ALTA+ has never been good at either of these two elevations. It stands 1.35 m high by default but can reach a wobbly 1.65 m with the centre column extended. This is an awkward height for a 1.81 m tall person like me and having a centre column means that its minimum altitude is not as low as I would ideally like it either.

In fairness to the old girl, when I bought her I made a compromise. I was looking for a tripod that was compact when folded away, and I was happy to sacrifice a little bit of functionality to achieve this. What I ended up with was precisely what I ordered, but, having had a taste of this setup, my future tripods will all be taller. I envisage the perfect incarnation to be approximately 1.75 m high and to have no centre column at all. Tripods that match this description are conventionally thought of as studio tripods, but you can find a few portable field versions on the market. It may be too much for me to ask that a tripod matches this description while remaining reasonably priced and – if I am honest about it – when my imagination meets reality, I can still see myself forgoing the no-centre column requirement but not the working height.

However, being taller is not just all benefits, it has a few drawbacks too. Most notably, it increases the significance of one matter that I have never really concerned myself with – weight. Tripods essentially come in two flavours, aluminium and carbon fibre with the latter being about 20% lighter than its metallic counterpart. By the same measure, tripods can be categorised as expensive and hellishly expensive, with a carbon fibre version costing around double that of its aluminium equivalent.

Manfrotto 055 Carbon Fiber Three-Section Tripod

Manfrotto 055 Carbon Fiber Three-Section Tripod

I find it incredibly difficult to digest a 20% saving in weight justifying a 100% increase in price. For the sake of illustration, let us compare Manfrotto MT055XPRO3 and MT055CXPRO3 tripod legs – the “C” denoting the carbon fibre version. These two tripods are identical in every way bar their construction material with the aluminium version weighing in at 2.9 kg and the carbon fibre tipping the scales at 2.5 kg. For the luxury of a 14% weight saving, the list price increases from R5,295.00 for the aluminium version to R10,795.00 for its carbon fibre sibling. Crunch these numbers and you will see one needs to spend a whopping R13,750.00/kg of weight saving.

In the interests of full disclosure, I feel that I must make mention of the fact that despite the maths, the part of my brain which is equipped for rationalising absolutely everything still wants a carbon fibre tripod. I mean, landscape photography, almost by definition, dictates that I will have to walk a long way to get “the shot” and in that case every gram counts you know! For the time being, I am going to have a carbon fibre model in mind as I start narrowing down my options, but the requirement is likely to be superseded by other elements along the way.

To finish, the three characteristics I have mentioned thus far, the L-Bracket, the height and the weight are my leading tripod considerations and these aspects will undoubtedly dictate the direction of my future decisions. In the next instalment of this discussion, I will look at lesser though still significant tripod features like compactness and panning ability. To my mind, these characteristics significantly influence the landscape photography experience too.