Selecting a Tripod – Part #2
As I discussed and elaborated on in the first part of this article, L brackets, working height and weight are the primary considerations in my quest to find a new tripod. Nevertheless, in addition to those factors, there are two other attributes that I value, panning ability and compactness. For the sake of continuity, I will deal with the matters in reverse, the least important of these two items first – compactness.
Now, when it comes to lugging photography gear about, tripods are the most cumbersome and annoying items that one is likely to own. If you put aside weight for a minute and consider only ergonomics, all the other pieces of kit that you have are designed either to be easily handled or, alternatively, to be neatly stowed away in your camera bag. By contrast, the tripod is an apparatus born of the philosophy ‘form follows function’, and there is little that can be done to make what is essentially glorified scaffolding more compliant. In the absence of an alternative, almost all tripods spend their working lives slung over shoulders, strapped to the outside of rucksacks or – in the worst examples of barbarism – lashed to the back of a motorcycle.
The only action that a manufacturer can take to help alleviate some of the pain attached to tripod ownership is to make the collapsed device shorter. There are numerous ingenious examples of how this can be achieved, most of which include legs that comprise multiple sections and the ability to fold said legs up around the neck of the tripod. Perhaps the most elaborate example of this approach is the very popular ‘3 Legged Thing’ which is part tripod, part alien probe and features a set of fold-away legs with as many as five sections each.
Personally, I sometimes get frustrated having tripod legs with three sections, especially when I am in a hurry to catch a fleeting moment of light. I cannot even begin to imagine the irritation that must arise from living with tripod legs that have five sections. Furthermore, common sense suggests that the more moving parts a device has, the greater the probability of failure, and this is a real consideration in my case. I need a robust device that can withstand my sometimes-heavy-handed approach. The fewer parts that can break or fail, the better.
To place the entire matter of compactness into perspective, my comparatively pedestrian Vanguard ALTA+ 263AP with its three leg sections folds down to 560 mm with the ball head adding an extra 105 mm to the total collapsed length. Frankly, I have never once thought that this was too much, having always considered the tripod to be of the compact variety. Going forward, I am willing to forgo some of this compactness in an effort to resolve the working height matter that I spoke of in Part 1. With that said, I will remain mindful of the folded length. I want to avoid introducing further difficulty to the already unwieldily task of carrying a tripod around.
The second matter, which, as I indicated is of greater consequence to me than compactness, is that of panning. Putting aside the most elementary duty of a tripod, that of holding the camera securely and still, panning is arguably the most significant task that any ‘3 Legged Thing’ is required to undertake. Even in landscape photography, where scenes are largely static, panning is crucial as it serves as the basis for creating panoramas.
To pan effectively, it is essential that the ball head’s panning ring is perfectly level, something that is not easily accomplished with most tripods – my ALTA+ included. Typical ball heads have the panning ring below the ball and socket which is an odd design choice if you think about it. The arrangement means that if you level your camera using the ball joint and then choose to pan, the plane on which the camera rotates will never be horizontal – ever! The only way to get a level pan is to adjust the legs so that the centreline of the tripod is precisely perpendicular to the ground, something that is not easily achieved. The geometry of the legs and the less than delicate leg adjustment clasps mean that attempting any sort of precise level correction is a problem, one exacerbated by uneven terrain.
A somewhat obscure tripod manufacturer, Arca-Swiss, who have made a name for themselves in the niche world of medium format photography, developed what is called the ‘upside-down ball head’ as a solution to the panning problem. Instead of having the ball head above the panning ring, the Arca-Swiss P0 has the panning ring on top. This means that when you level the camera using the ball joint, the panning ring is automatically levelled too. With the P0, panning will always occur on the same plane as the camera.
The trouble is that, despite all the benefits of the Arca-Swiss P0, the scheme has not been adopted by other manufacturers. Arca-Swiss is the only company that I know of with the ‘upside-down ball head’ but their products, in addition to being enormously expensive, are very difficult to come by. Consequently, in my search for a new tripod, I am going to choose from those suppliers who provide the next best solution, a levelling base.
The levelling base is yet another addition to the tripod assembly. It fits between the head and the legs and by installing it, the humble tripod – an apparatus once simply carved from trees – gains yet another knob and a degree of freedom. With a levelling base, it is possible to have the legs of the tripod inclined at up to 15° to the horizon and to compensate such that the ball head is perfectly vertical and ready for panning. It represents a legitimate solution to the panning problem and yet, given the simplicity of the upside-down ball head design, I am not a huge fan of the device. The upside-down ball head is, without question, the best – and my preferred – means for achieving effective panning but it cannot contend with the price and availability of its more modest counterpart.
Having covered all the points that will determine my choice of tripod, there is one thing left to consider – sanity. With everything that I have described in these articles, one could be forgiven for thinking that it has all gone too far and, in many respects, I agree. I’m sure that wooden tripods worked very well when they were the only option and, admittedly, my own, somewhat 'wooden', ALTA+ has served me incredibly well. I would question the mental condition of any person who, having read this post, runs out and buys every product listed. Not even I intend doing that. It is worth remembering that the people who view your photos won’t be able to tell what tripod you used anyway.
Instead, what I hope you take away from this is a sense of what is out there, and how important the choice of tripod manufacturer is in terms of landscape photography. Everything that I have mentioned deserves careful consideration during the buying process but rather than simply buying every product listed, I urge you to make sure that your chosen tripod manufacturer can supply it all. That way you can purchase a basic setup to begin with and then add to it as your experience grows and your preferences develop. I did not have this insight when I purchased from Vanguard all those years ago, and it is largely because of this lack of wisdom that I am upgrading today.