If you are on the constant search for the highest levels of resolution in your photography you are probably already an aficionado of tripods. Right off the bat I'll tell you that I don't use them when I'm walking around on the streets grabbing slices of life and moments of spontaneous interest. Nobody really does----except for the two or three fine art photographers who still prowl the pavement with 4x5 and 8x10 inch cameras---but, if I'm planning stuff out, taking portraits, shooting still lifes or shooting video,
I love having my tripod along for the ride.
So. What's my favorite tripod?
Well, if you think I'm inconstant with cameras and lenses you'll be appalled to know that I'm even worse with my three legged addiction. And here's the even more pathetic angle; I can rarely ever bear to part with one. I almost never sell off tripod inventory.....
Right now my "inventory cerebral cortex" or "gear list medulla oblongata" is locked in a death match between two diametrically opposed tripod solution philosophies. Every day, when I pack to go out shooting, I find myself with a foot in two centuries. It's the ongoing battle between wood and carbon fiber. And I'll be damned if I can find a way to objectively score them. The hell with aluminum and steel.
But first, a patented, "Kirk Tuck Fiery Declaration".....If you own a Canon 1ds mk3 or a Nikon D3x with all the juiciest lenses and you're not making a good tripod and head part of the system you're wasting your time and your money. Forget built in Image Stabilization. You can use your camera infinity stops slower on a good tripod than you ever could, hand held. An $8,000 camera and no tripod? You'd have to be dead to hold the camera still enough to see the resolution potential!!!
Just as important, a tripod locks in your composition so you can mess with the detail stuff, the exposure, lighting and (please God, don't strike me down!!!) even the wretched trend that is HDR, without compromising composition. Without unintended frame shifting.
An added (but very ancillary) advantage is that clients still equate tripod use with professionalism and the extra time it takes to set up the "sticks" and to zero in the settings on the tripod head will add value in the eyes of your check writer while giving you a few extra moments to figure out what the hell you are doing....
The most cavalier rationalization is the that the tripod can always double as a light stand in an emergency..
Sermon over. Now on to the selection process.
I have a number (I won't confess how many) of tripods but when I pack up the super high performance Honda Element the final choice usually comes down to one of three.
The logical first choice is my heavy duty, modern Gitzo, model G 1439. It's a four section, carbon fiber model, complete with a center column. With the legs extended the business point, without center post extension, is taller than me by a good four to six inches. All the hardware is heavy duty alloy, and the tripod will support all of my 158 pounds if I do a handstand on it. (Very exciting to watch....)
I've topped it with a Manfrotto ballhead, model #468 MG, which I absolutely love. I had the local shop order the version without the quick release because I never want to reach for my tripod system and find that the quick release plate stayed home, on vacation, with a different camera body. In fact, one professional camera repair person once told me that the majority of camera "disasters" brought in to his shop by photographers were from unexpected un-couplings due to quick release mishaps. What a tragic way for a camera to die.
They are called "quick release" because, invariably, the release is quicker than the photographer's "catching reflexes".
The whole Gitzo/Manfrotto system ought to please any digital photographer: It's strong. It's lightweight. There are no nasty surprises. In fact, it's such a perfect system it's downright boring----and that's the crux of the problem for me. It's like the black "jelly bean" cameras we shoot with. Just another boring extention of modernist "wind tunnel" design.
I suppose if something were a "once in a lifetime" shoot it would be the camera support system I'd take with me--- just like a dark gray suit and some black, Cole Hahn dress shoes. but....during the course of every shoot my thoughts would wander to the Gitzo's antithesis----it's romantic opposite, the wooden, Berlebach tripod, in a light ash finish.
It is exactly what the Gitzo isn't.
Hand made from expertly selected wood that's been carefully aged for over two years, each of the Berlebach's is built by hand. They even come with a certificate that names the individual craftsman. A note tells you that the wood grain on each tripod is unique--and, that this is NOT a defect! (And it is sad that it must be stated, in writing....)
The tripods are aesthetic opposites but from an "end result" point of view they are largely the same. Each one is sturdy, vibrationless, and holds your chosen camera is a motionless grip. It's just that the Berleback does it with a grace and elegance that could be right out of the unhurried, late 1800's. Don't get me wrong---the Berlebach's are currently made, but with technology that would have been right at home in the 1890's when Eastman was introducing flexible film. And that is part the charm.
So? Okay-- on to "rationalization-land" and out of the "art nostalgia sandbox". The light colored ash wood of the BB refuses to soak up heat. That makes it the perfect desert, west Texas, Sahara, Mojave (and this week, NYC) photo stability tool (P.S.T.). That, and the fact that it looks really cool, make it a nice, and $700 less expensive photo tool compared to the current Gitzo.
In this age of mass produced everything it's a surprisingly affordable luxury to be able to buy a handcrafted German tripod for under $300.
When I use the Gitzo tripod fellow photographers and hobbyists on locations who know the reputation of the former French company (now part of Manfrotto) are vaguely impressed but when I bring the wooden tripood even people with absolutely no interest in photography comment about it. There is something about hand made items in the age of iPods and Michael Graves designs at Target that appeals that appeals to something in consumers of nearly every stripe. Could it be the lure of differentiation? Or can humans feel a connection to other humans through handcrafts, on some small, subliminal level?
Both tripods allow you to spread the legs at multiple angles. Both allow for any ball or pan head dto be used. And both are superior to the usual run of the mill, steel tripods from various other makers.
I actually have two different, wooden tripods from Berlebach. The blond ash is the more compact of the two. I have one in a black finish with only two long leg sections and no center column. In place of the center column there is a ball assembly that's very heavy duty and can be used to level a view camera or an attached head. This tripod is also goes up higher that my head with very good stability.
The third tripod I mentioned as being "in the running" with the other two is a smaller, thinner Gitzo, model # 2220 that I use with the Manfrotto ballhead. It's niche (for me) is in shooting small objects from straight overhead because the center post is actually side mounted and can be used in a horizontal position. It's priceless for doing copy work out in the field.
In the big scheme of things, the binary equation of either having or not having a tripod is much more important than how nice your tripod is. As long as I've been doing photography there's been a truism that the only good tripod is one that you are comfortable carrying into the field with you. It may have been true in the old days but right now the whole commercial photography industry is so incredibly competitive that I want to make sure I bring every advantage to bear in every job. Keeping the camera still is one of the least sexy but most important skills.
Even my friends who don't shoot for money seem to have gotten tripod religion lately. It's disappointing to buy a Nikon D3x and then NOT see an appreciable difference between its files and those of your old D2x but that's exactly the position one shooter found himself in a few months ago. He was so disappointed he was ready to return the camera for a refund. I suggested we test it one more time. We put it on the bigger Gitzo and used and electronic cable release. This time the difference between the cameras was stark. The level of very fine detail the D3x and the 105 micro were able to reveal was something I had only seen previously when shooting the Phase One 45+ medium format camera.
My friend was chastened and re-doubled his focus on practicing and paying attention to all the little details we usually let slip. After all, why spend money on perfection only to sabotage it with less that perfect technique? I've owned a variety of tripods over the years and I've come to understand that what you prefer will really be a matter of taste and ergonomics more than anything else. (Given a certain level of performance). Nevertheless, here are my tips for getting the best tripod:
So far, my absolute favorite tripod head for 35mm style digital cameras with any lens up to 70-200 f2.8.
1. Spend 1/2 an hour or more unlocking, extending, locking, unlocking and retracting the legs. If you don't like the way the locking controls feel in your hand now, you will hate them in a year.
2. Don't "under buy" the system. When you shop for a tripod system bring along your heaviest camera body and your longest lens. Do they feel stable when mounted up? Can you touch the camera when your 300mm is mounted and not see a lot of vibration? If every little touch jiggles the camera, look for a heavier, stronger system.
3. Will it pass Kirk's "slap test"? Look through your finder with a long lens attached to your camera while the camera is firmly attached to the tripod you are considering. While looking through give the side of the camera a little slap with your hand. All the vibrations should be dampened out in a second. Two at the most. If it's still jiggling after two seconds---you don't want it.
4. The two weak points of every tripod I've used are the connection between the head and its quick release plate, and the second is too much play in the center column. Two quick cures: Don't use heads with quick release plates (and especially not cheap quick releases that lack safety interlocks.....). Try not to use the center column extended. Fully extend the tripod legs first, and remember to buy a systems that's at least as tall as you----without having to raise the center column.
5. Spend 1/2 han hour in the carrying the tripod around over your shoulder as you shop for more and more "essential" stuff. Does the tripod became a pain in the shoulder. Is it hard to hold onto? Uncomfortable? Too heavy? You may need to consider something lighter because over the years all those feelings will be multiplied by 1000. and you'll understand the cumulative effects of lugging something around that you don't like.
Tripods are like the three bears. One is always "just right". It's up to you to find the "middle bear".
Right now? Make mine wooden.
(This is not a blanket endorsement for all time. The author reserves the right to capriciously change his mind at any time and reach for alternative tripods which he may own now or acquire in the future......)