I often come across other photographers while shooting and regularly see them using inadequate tripods and, more particularly, bad tripod heads.
The tripod often has tiny thin lens with 5 or more sections. Great for folding the tripod down to a small size for carrying but rendering the tripod completely unstable when the bottom sections are opened up. They are just too thin to provide stable support for any sort of telephoto lens, especially if there is a it of a breeze blowing.
Similarly, poorly built tripod heads, actually hinder rather than help photographers. Often the head was bought as an integral part of the tripod and suffers from poor design, does not lock in one place when tightened up. (i.e. the camera and lens move from the desired position as you tighten the controls). Frustrating to say the least.
With tripods costing from $100 to well over $1000 and heads ranging from those included with a cheap tripod to also well over $1000 how do you choose what is best for you?
Choose a tripod that suits both your shooting style and budget. Carbon fibre should be your material of choice for the legs both for it’s low weight and inherent stiffness. Pay particular attention to the lowest (i.e. smallest diameter) section. This is the most prone to weakness. If too small it will transmit the smallest vibrations, even from a gust of wind, up through the legs. Make sure it extends to a suitable height, I like at least my eye level so that when a head is attached you are still OK if the ground in front of you is slightly lower than where you are standing.
I don’t like tripods with a built-in extending column. Why have a nice sturdy three legs and then top it with a single legged support, making a monopod on a tripod? I also prefer no more than three extensions on the legs.
Since the beginning of my career I have used Gitzo tripods. Currently my choice is the GT5540LS (now superceded by the GT5543LS). A bit heavy if you are planning a trek up a mountain but the steadiest support I have ever owned.
My choice is probably overkill for most but there are great carbon fibre tripods available from Gitzo, Really Right Stuff, Induro, Benro and Oben to name a few.
Lastly when choosing a tripod, check the leg locking mechanism. There is nothing worse than getting all set up and about to take that award winning shot when one leg starts to slowly collapse, unbalancing the whole rig with great potential for disaster.
A lot depends on your shooting style and the subjects you are aiming for.
If you are primarily a landscape photographer a good ball head will do nicely. Make sure that when you tighten the locking screw that the head remains exactly where you want it with no ‘creep’ especially if there is a front heavy telephoto attached. My recommendations for ball heads are the original Arca Swiss Monoball ($US387) or the Really Right Stuff BH-55 ($US489). I know some photographers who use these heads with supertelephoto lenses but they are really only sutable for static subjects – I find it’s almost impossible to shoot anything that is moving. There are other makes that give equally good results but I base the above on my personal experience of using these.
I now use my Arca Swiss head only for mounting on a plate when shooting remote images. Unfortunately the Overxposed ground plates and risers are no longer in production.
If you are shooting sports or wildlife from a tripod then many consider a gimbal head an absolute necessity. Properly set up a gimbal head supports your large telephotos in a weightless fashion and allows a smooth range of movement for following your subject.
The original gimbal head, the Wimberley, ($595) continues to be popular and is still a great choice. I used a Wimberley head for many years with my Nikon 600mm f4, 500mm f4 and 200-400 f4 lenses. I had less success using Wimberley’s Sidekick head that turns an Arca Swiss head into a Gimbal – well sort of!
I also used the Really Right Stuff PG02 ($US 891) for a while, great head but heavy 5.43lbs
But, beware, not all gimbals are made equal. There are a number of less expensive gimbal heads around that are made with poor materials, less precise tolerances, and are anything but smooth in their operation. Make sure you try before you buy.
The downside of gimbal heads is that they are difficult to impossible to use with a shorter lens. There’s no easy way to mount a camera body onto the head. This meant when travelling it was necessary to have two heads, one for telephotos and one for shorter lenses.
So what is my recommendation? Actually none of the above!
In May 2020 I took delivery of a head that is the answer to everything.
The Flexshooter Pro
I had read all the hype about the Flexshooter Pro ($US599) and frankly was a little concerned that I was going to be disappointed. How could one head perform both functions without compromise? The Flexshooter Pro is a ballhead that acts like a gimbal head.
The answer is a unique ball in ball design. A large outer silver ball allows you to level your rig using the built-in bubble level. A smaller inner black ball that uses a system of springs (I don’t know how, nor want to it just works) to apply tension to the lens and camera.
Topping the head is a unique two-way Arca Swiss clamp. This allows you to insert your telephoto lenses in one orientation and your directly mounted camera body in the other. Voila, only one head needed! Of course you need an Arca Swiss type foot or camera plate attached but that’s true of every head mentioned. The Arca Swiss clamping system has become the de-facto method for most tripod head manufacturers. Replacement feet and plates are available from a number of manufacturers including Really Right Stuff, Kirk, Wimberley and others.
Above all the greatest asset of this head is that when you tighten the knobs the head stays exactly where it was put. No creep or sag at all. I only really tighten the head any amount for landscape or other short lens work. For my big telephotos I work with the black ball set quite loose. As I swing my lens around with the rig properly balanced, I can let go and the lens will stay exactly where it was pointing.
I have used this head exclusively since taking delivery and sold my gimbal heads. I consider it to be second best purchase of 2019, only ranking behind my Nikon D850 body.
Incidentally, Flexshooter also make a larger Extreme Ballhead with a carrying capacity of 132lbs as opposed to the 100lbs of the Pro version. Personally I have never found the Pro version wanting in any regard.
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