A few weeks ago I was guiding a client whose tripod was one of those flimsy plastic drugstore kind that you can usually pick up for about $30 bucks. I offered to loan her my extra tripod, an aluminum Manfrotto with an inexpensive but effective ballhead. She graciously accepted. At the end of our two days together she confessed that she was surprised how much easier it was to work with my tripod than her own. Eagle eyed as she was, she noticed that my tripod wasn’t aluminum and that my ballhead differed from hers. She asked about the differences and why mine cost so much more, and her query put my mind in motion. Below you will find a somewhat more detailed version of my response to her.
First let me explain why you need a good tripod for nature photography. Photographing during the “magic hour” usually results in slow shutter speeds and long-ish exposures. Unless you’re built like a statue you probably aren’t going to create razor sharp images while handholding your camera during an exposure lasting several seconds. Image stabilization is great but even this cool technology has limits. Enter the lowly tripod to save the day.
Tripods serve one purpose: they’re a secure platform upon which to mount our cameras. Sure, I’ve used mine to hold a lantern, maintain my balance while crossing a creek and, when I was single, it was abstract art in the living room. But really, we buy tripods because we crave images that are crisp and sharp. We also look really cool carrying them over our shoulder when silhouetted against a setting sun. In theory, any tripod will serve this purpose. In reality, those weak little tripods with plastic heads and one of those awkward cranks for moving the center column up and down just aren’t that stable. Nor are they very durable. I’ve had several clients break these tripods during a guided excursion. A broken tripod serves no purpose but to frustrate the crap out of you. It pays to spend a little extra cash and get a whole lot more stability and durability. Here are some suggested options to start you down the right path in your quest for the perfect tripod.
For around $150 you can get a rock solid aluminum tripod like the Manfrotto 190XPROB. Add a ballhead with quick release plate like the Manfrotto 494 Mini Ballhead for about $70 and you’ve got a stable, very workable tripod solution for under $225 weighing in at around 5 pounds. Not too shabby!
Let’s say you’re of average height and need a taller tripod than the Manfrotto 190XPROB, which maxes out at 57.5″ with the center column fully extended. The Manfrotto 055XPROB offers a maximum height of 70″. Combine that with the more burly Giottos MH-1302 ballhead, which is capable of supporting up to 18 pounds, and you’re ready for almost anything. This system will set you back about $300 and weighs in at nearly 6 pounds.
If you don’t often hike long distances with your gear or regularly operate in wet or dusty environments either of the aforementioned solutions should suit you well. However, if you spend long hours on the trail or you’re like me and are downright abusive to your gear, an upgrade might be in order.
The Induro CT213 carbon fiber tripod weighs in at a scant 3 pounds but extends to almost 64″ in height. Slap on the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead, which weighs just 12 ounces but supports up to 25 pounds, for a go-anywhere in any conditions tripod package. Total cost: about $700. Yikes! That’s a new lens, right?
What do you gain by spending the extra money? Really, it’s not so much a matter of what you gain. It’s about what you lose – weight. Generally speaking, the more money you spend the more weight you shave. For $700 you get a complete package that weighs less than 4 pounds and will withstand some serious torture. A similar set-up for $300 adds 2 pounds. If you’ve a strong back and legs it may not be worth it to you to spend that extra $400 on the Induro/Acratech combo.
Yes, there are additional differences. Carbon fiber doesn’t transfer cold to your hands as much aluminum. The Acratech ballhead will never need to be cleaned and will never fail on you. The Giottos ballhead; not so much. The Manfrotto tripods allow you to place the center column horizontally for strange angle photography while the Induro does not. Manfrotto utilizes leg clamps, which many consider easier to operate than the twist-lock legs on Induro tripods. The downside: they’re bulkier and may not fit as nicely in your backpack.
In the end, any of these tripod/ballhead combinations will work for most nature photographers. Consider too that these are but a tiny sampling of the options available to you. Is one better than the other? I guess that depends on how much cash you’re willing to shell out to lose a little weight.
What tripod/ballhead system do you use and why? What issues have you encountered in the field with certain products? Leave a comment so we can all benefit from your experience!