I got the chance to upgrade my tripod setup, and I jumped at it. I was able to sell my existing Manfrotto legs and head for good money, and I found a great deal on a Gitzo 2531 with a Really Right Stuff (RRS) BH-40 ball head. They are on the way.
And so now I wait.
I hate waiting.
I really, really, really do.
Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the new setup. Honestly, it is probably what I should have gotten starting out, but lots of factors determined what I bought the first time, and now I’ve gotten a chance to take a big step up. I’ll write up a full review with details, comments, photos and thoughts, but here’s a few things to chew on if you’re an Enthusiast Photographer thinking about tripods (hopefully you’ve already read my post “The least sexy upgrade, and it isn’t in your bag…”).
First – think ahead in your purchase. If there is any chance you’ll wind up with bigger lenses later, take that into account now when you’re buying your tripod.
Second – buy the best tripod and head you can afford. The good news is that these are pretty much like good lenses – they don’t tend to lose much value over time. This isn’t to say you have to buy a $1200 tripod and head setup. If you can’t afford carbon fiber, go with aluminum. Manfrotto’s 055XPROB is a very nice, affordable, solid setup with great height and a nifty optional carry strap. But as usual, I’m ahead of myself. Look at your future potential weight needs and buy the best stuff you can. Much like in the world of laptops, the lighter you go, the faster the price escalates. Unless weight or travel size is absolutely critical, I’d go with a nicer head with heavier, less exotic lenses until you can afford nice everything. A bad head will make you miserable. More on heads and legs in another post – it is another example in the photography world of a subject that has huge dimension, learning curve and spread of opinions.
Third – don’t be intimidated by the brand snobs. Some say if you don’t have Manfrotto, Gitzo or RRS, you’ve got a bad tripod. Here’s the net: most of us aren’t professional photographers out with a bag shooting for paychecks and running our gear hard. We’re Enthusiast Photographers, right? That means we’re out mainly on the weekends (if we’re lucky) and on the occasional set shoot or vacation. We don’t need the stuff built to survive a war zone. Benro, Induro, Sirui and Vangard have pretty decent products and lower prices from what I’ve read and the limited amount I’ve been able to handle them. Yes, the cheap ones are probably built in China. There is nothing wrong with that. You won’t get ultimate features or ultimate quality, but I suspect you’ll get a fine level of both. I’m not saying you shouldn’t consider the nice brands. They are great – I have no doubts I’m going to love my Gitzo. The fact that Really Right Stuff is entirely made and sourced in the USA is terrific, and they are just plain beautiful – the pinnacle of tripods. But I can’t afford or justify them at this point. Net: You can get a very nice tripod for reasonable money.
Fourth – start at the top and work your way down. I’ll cover this more in the head and legs section, but you would do well to think about the plates you’ll be using to attach the camera to the tripod. There are proprietary plates on the least expensive heads that will limit you later. Manfrotto’s heads work only on Manfrotto tripods and have some limitations I’ll cover later, too. Then there is the Arca-style plates used by Arca-Swiss, Acratech Kirk, RRS and others. It is a standard, sort of, and it offers the broadest flexibility. I’d venture to say it is the preferred platform for most of the most serious photographers. Your plate decision is generally going to make your head decision (generally Manfrotto vs. the Arca crowd), and from there you are about budget, load and usability.
Fifth – for tripods, less sections is generally better than more sections. Prefer three sections to four. It isn’t an absolute, but it isn’t far from it. The higher-end CF 4-section legs are fine (RRS, Gitzo, et. al.).
Anyway, this is a lot more than I intended to write. Mainly I’m really hating that I’m waiting. If you have tripod thoughts, suggestions or questions, let’s hear ‘em and I’ll incorporate them into the head and legs post. Which I’ll write after I’m finished waiting for my new toys. In the meantime, Thom Hogan has a good read on tripods and the process most photographers go through when it comes to support.