The Closet of Disappointing Tripods

By Kevin Ames

Photographer: Kevin Ames Aperture: f/11 ShutterString: 1/125 Lens: 28-70mm/f2.8 FocalLength: 60 DateTime: 2001:11:03 14:38:45 ISOSpeed: 40 ExposureCompensation: 0.5 Blackness: 0 Contrast: 0 Highlight: 0 ColorSpaceStr: Adobe RGB Negative Filename: D:CAMERA 143ROLLS_ON_D1838CPPCFAportraits1838-0016.fov DarkShortFilename: SnapShort Nov 03 2001 13-38.drk DarkLongFilename: SnapLong Nov 03 2001 13-38.drk CamFilename: default.cam CameraSerialNumber: FOV-0000-002N CameraSoftware: FoveonCam version 2.7 ProcessingSoftware: FoveonLab v2.7 build 572

Photographer: Kevin Ames
Aperture: f/11
ShutterString: 1/125
Lens: 28-70mm/f2.8

A tripod is an absolute necessity for any serious photographer. The tripod helps with composition. It steadies the camera during long exposures. It allows super telephotos to be held on a distant subject. It provides a base for focus stacking, high dynamic range brackets not to mention panoramas. Yes the tripod does all of these things and more.

And yet…

Few photographers carry and use one. The whining about them is rife, as are the reasons to actually have one handy.

“It’s too bulky.” (Even a compact tripod is better than none at all.)

“A tripod slows me down.” (Since photography, at least the serious kind, is a deliberate practice, slowing down seems to me like a good thing. Ansel Adams’s Moonrise Over Hernandez N.M. wasn’t made on a hand held with a motor drive.)

“It’s too heavy.” (Back in the day, before carbon fibre, a heavy weight tripod was desirable–weight equaled stability.)

My advice on buying a tripod then was to find the heaviest tripod you would be willing to carry, and then to buy the next bigger model. To a degree, I still adhere to this advice. Now, it’s the thickness of the leg and the weight that a carbon fibre tripod can hold that gets my “camera support heart” racing. A tripod that can hold a lot of weight can be further weighed down to add stability. Use a carabineer to attatch a lightweight, zippered canvas bag under the tripod, within which you can load a case of bottled water to weigh the whole tripod down. This works just as well as lugging a heavy tripod everywhere; you can always drink the water. A tripod born heavy, stays heavy.

Idaho State Capitol Building by Kevin Ames

©Kevin Ames

BTS Idaho State Capitol Photo by Kevin Ames

©Kevin Ames

How can one know which tripod to purchase? This is the golden question for a few reasons. If a tripod is hard to use, the photographer won’t use it. If it is too heavy, the photographer will leave it at the studio. The same logic applies if the tripod is too flimsy.  So…

Where does a photographer go who is looking for solid support? Probably not the camera store. Why? The camera store is there to sell accessories that carry a good profit margin since cameras and lenses don’t. The sales people, for the most part, will sell the tripods that deliver the most to the store’s bottom line. For the most part, this is not a bad thing because the majority of people who buy a tripod don’t really commit to using it all the time. No matter that the benefits a good tripod adds to the photograph being made; people are in such a hurry that “good enough” is, sadly, good enough.

I would rather have a top-notch tripod and a second tier camera than the other way around. A critically sharp, well-composed photograph will most likely not be made hand held. That’s not to say it can’t be done. I am saying it won’t happen consistently.

Eifel Tower by Kevin Ames

©Kevin Ames

 

Talk to a pro about the tripods he has owned. You’ll hear stories about the promises a tripod seemed to make only to then disappoint and be relegated to a closet. Ask to see them. If the pro has been working for a decade or two, you’ll see several. Some tripods will look new. Other tripods will be broken like the promises they made in the store. Still others will show some wear but won’t stand tall anymore due to slipping legs or heads that won’t stay tight.

My tripod story started with the Majestic series of tripods. These were designed for heavy cameras like my then workhorse Sinar P. The Majestic weighed in at over 15 pounds, when including the head. It would safely hold 35 pounds.

Medium format Hasselblads topped off the Leitz TiltAll tripod I used for years and frankly, wore out. I recently came across one of the originals the Marchioni TiltAll. I bought it for sentiment, not to use.

Marchioni Tripod in Blow Up

David Hemmings, with Hasselblad camera on a Marchioni TiltAll tripod. Blow Up poster courtesy: http://www.benitomovieposter.com

I worked with other tripods for years that were mainly made by Gitzo. The one that went most everywhere was the monstrous G-1504 that raised just shy of a hundred inches. It was rated at 33 pounds. With the geared center column and head, it tipped the scales at close to eighteen pounds.

As soon as I learned about Really Right Stuff’s BH-55 ball head, the one that came on the Studex disappeared. I just wish RRS had made their gear earlier in my career.

All of these tripods and some mistakes are now in my closet of disappointing tripods. The Studex is Ok. It’s just too darn heavy and won’t hold enough weight. It hasn’t really seen the light of day since RRS released it series 3 carbon fiber tripod legs. The Versa TVC-34L is robust. It’s lightweight. It holds a whopping 50 pounds. Why is this important to me with DSLRs and lenses being fairly light compared to a 4X5 view camera? Remember the bag filled with water bottles for stability? Now I don’t have to carry a brute of a tripod. The TVC-34L comes along instead. I bought the optional center column for extra height. It isn’t quite as tall as the Studex, but holds more twenty-five percent more weight. That means much steadier camera support on a windy day. Here’s the 34-L on location in Paris making the photograph of the Eifel Tower that leads off this post.

Eiffel Tower BTS by Kevin Ames

©Kevin Ames

Were you to drop by my studio you’d see all of the other tripods in the “closet.” The TVC-34L, however, is on the job along with its big brother, the newly arrived TVC-45 that boasts a load limit of a hundred pounds. This not quite seven pound baby seems like it would stand up to practically any wind short of a hurricane.  Not that I plan on finding out…

All Photos ©Kevin Ames (except where noted.)

3 Comments

  1. Bruce Colman says:

    Excellent article Kevin. My advice until now has been to buy a tripod rated for double the load you intend to use, now I’ll point people to this post. Living in Canada and shooting wildlife all year added another dimension to the challenge, temperature extremes. My expensive european made carbon fibre tripod started to fall apart, no warranty support. The joinery techniques between the carbon fibre legs and aluminum fittings did not withstand the -35c to +40c temperature range. After a year of outings, every joint became loose and two legs fell out. My replacement RRS tripod has endured a couple of years of temperature ranges, looks and operates as it did the day I bought it. My only wish is they were making this kit 30 years ago. Avoid aluminum tripods at -35c, hard on the hands.

  2. As someone who has a bizarre obsession with tripods, my closet is literally overflowing with old ones too. No, seriously, if these tripods hadn’t mostly come to me for free as review units, I would be the ultimate poster child for Thom Hogan’s classic “either spend $1700, or spend $1000” article.

    However, the more I give advice to others who are shopping for a tripod, the more I realize that the notion of owning just one tripod is becoming more and more silly these days. (Especially for timelapse and astro-landscape photographers, since they’re almost always going into the field with 2-3 cameras) It is actually far more practical to own 2-3 tripods, or 3-4 if you count a small tabletop device for P&S cameras, phones, and even ground-level professional camera work, when balanced correctly.

    Thus, I’ve broken my tripod categories into 3-4 different categories, and I usually recommend that photographers own tripods in at least two of these categories:

    1.) The boat-anchor tripod. This tripod never goes more than a few hundred yards from your vehicle, so weight is actually a very good thing here. Bring on the ~5-7 lb beasts! The purpose of this tripod is to be indestructible overall, rock-solid in wind, and as tall as you might ever need.

    2.) The daily use tripod. Somewhere in the 2.5-3.5 lb range, it’s nice to have a tripod that doesn’t weigh a freaking ton, can fit into a suitcase for travel when needed, yet still holds even your professional DSLR and a 70-200 when you need it to.

    3.) The backpacking / travel tripod. Only ~2 lbs, and it might get “leg vibrato” in wind, but it weighs so little that you don’t mind taking it with you on the John Muir trail, …or packing 2-3 of these tripods into the wilderness for timelapse / astro-landscape work.

    4.) The table-top tripod. Just a few ounces, but with certain models you’d be shocked at just how much weight they can support, they’re perfect for travel, around-town use, or for 2nd / 3rd camera work.

    Trying to compromise between any of these categories usually leads to compromised shooting abilities in the field, or flat-out leaving your tripod at home because it just isn’t right for what you’re currently doing. That is why I’ve begun advising folks to give up on the notion that there is just one ultimate tripod out there for them, and maybe they ought to own at least 1-2 different tripods. Of course there are still plenty of folks that don’t shoot a diverse enough array of subjects, and only own one camera, and they might get away with a middle-weight tripod that is small and light enough to not be a burden while traveling, yet strong and durable enough to hold their gear steady and last many years. But more and more, I’m finding that what folks are really shopping for is a two-tripod kit or something.

  3. Oh, I forgot the bonus category of tripods, which obviously none of the RRS lineup could ever fall into, LOL:

    5.) The junk tripod that you don’t mind losing or destroying, whether you’re into urbex or similar photography where law-bending is a possibility and therefore so is gear confiscation, …or you’re into astro-landscape timelapse photography where you frequently leave your camera and tripod out in the middle the wilderness overnight, where a moose or bear might knock it over, or other elements might otherwise destroy your gear.

    😉

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