March 26th, 2011

Tripods and Tripod Heads

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This image was created with the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV and the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM with a Canon 1.4x EF Extender II: 1/2500 @ f/8 and ISO400. This entire rig was mounted on a Gitzo 3541XLS Tripod and a Wimberley WH-200 II, providing sufficient and flexible support for this type of flight photography

My Tripod Considerations

Working with tele-photo lenses or photographing landscapes, a stable camera platform is required. Using a tripod with a good tripod head is essential.

The choice of your tripod is largely dependent on the weight of your lens: heavy or long focal range tele-photo lenses require a more than average tripod. My personal rule of thumb in choosing a tripod would take the weight of the lens and then try to find a tripod that can carry 3 times that weight. From a dynamics point of view, a tripod must not just be able to carry a tripod, but must be sturdy enough to dampen vibrations caused by the operator or by wind.

The second most important consideration is the size and dimension of your tripod. My choice of tripod must fit in my favorite travel bag or suitcase. I travel a lot to foreign places by aircraft and never leave home without my tripod. Despite the small fold of the tripod for travel purposes, it must be extend-able to a height so that the tripod platform can reach my eye level: with a tripod head the complete rig will tower over my head, but in sloping terrains you will be happy to have a bit of margin to extend a tripod a bit further. A small note on tripod with a center column: I personally don’t see this as a huge advantage. A tripod without the center leg allows you to pull the third tripod leg down when walking through the fields: it provides additional stability and grip on the entire rig, since your hand holding the third leg is down at chest level.

Finally, a tripod must not weigh a ton. Travel restrictions these days are tough (usually 20-23KG) and a tripod and head can easily take 4 kilos of its own. Of course budget is the main driver of what you can or want to spend, but I see a light tripod as a true photographic investment. Carbon or Basalt based tripods are the lightest in current product portfolios and will be my first line of choice. My preferred tripod I currently use is the Gitzo 3541XLS: it satisfies all of the considerations above for me. Find a good store for this tripod at the BAA Store here: Gitzo 3541XLS.

Although there are a number of other choices and consideration to make, for me the 3 above cover 95% of the most important questions related to tripod choices.

My Tripod Head Considerations

Once the tripod question has been solved, a more tricky question need to be answered for the tripod head. There is a wide variety of heads on the market and preferences are also very divers. I will limit my considerations and tripod head choices to the ones I purchased in the last couple of years and will tell you what I like and don’t like about them.

Wimberley

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The Wimberley Tripod head here is configured with a flash arm.

The Wimberley WH-200 II is a solidly build and very user friendly tripod head. It comes with a base platform to mount a lens on and this platform can be raised and lowered for any weight lens: lowering or elevating the lens platform is meant to stabilize your rig so that when you let go of the lens and camera, the rig will always swing back to a horizontal position in a slow motion and the rig doesn’t provide any resistance while keeping it in an angle. It usually means that the centerline of the mounted lens is as high as the pivot point of the bealhead’s arm. You can of course let the rig rest at the lowest point, but this means that when letting go of the rig the camera swings back with quite a momentum and the rig will resist your angled camera position.

The Wimberley can be configured with an extra flash arm (see example image above).

Minor disadvantage of the Wimberley is the large adjustment screw for the horizontal swing (bottom screw): this screw will ‘nicely’ push itself in your shoulder muscles when carrying the rig on your shoulder. This becomes so uncomfortable that I have to adjust and reposition the carrying weight quite often. Despite that, the Wimberley lens head is my favorite.

The WH-200 II is the most heavy and biggest ballhead of my collection: at 3.15lbs or 1.4kg it comes at quite a high weight. A Wimberley is available for prices around US$595. You can order the Wimberley WH-200-II here. The flasharm can also be found at the BAA Store: The Wimberley F-1 Telephoto Flash Bracket.

Mongoose

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The Mongoose Tripod head here is configured with a flash arm.

The 4th Generation Design Mongoose 3.6 is a lightweight, small and very efficiently designed tripod head. It is therefor the best air travel head. Mounting of the lens is direct on the pivot point so your rig is always in the best weight distribution position. Mounting the lens is a little more tricky then with the Wimberley, as you will have to mount your rig sideways: having a good grip on your rig is very important as you might have to hold it for a number of seconds, while locking the mount mechanism with your other hand.

A minor disadvantage of the Mongoose are the locking screws and the locking mechanism. The locking screws are quite small, making it more difficult to properly fix a rig. The locking mechanism is apparently not designed to handle the momentum of a big lens. A heavy rig can easily break through the lock with a chilling squeak.

Update: the latest 4GD Mongoose 3.6 does come with bigger tightening screws.

A separate flash arm can be ordered, which slides behind the pivot mount point (see image above). The Mongoose weighs just 1.5lbs or 779grams and costs approximately US$598. You can order the Mongoose 3.6 (latest version) here. Also the Mongoose flasharm can be found in the BAA Store: Mongoose Integrated Flash Arm.

RRS BH-55

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The Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead is an amazingly designed piece of equipment. Being a mechanical engineer myself, I am very impressed by the sturdy yet compact design of this ballhead. The dials are very sensitive in the sense that adjusting the resistance of your rig’s movements is very precise. You can set the resistance of the ballhead in such a way that the rig is balanced, but allows for pushing the rig through the break to adjust the position. Contrary to the Mongoose, when these dials are really locked, there is no way the BH-55 will let the rig break through the locked position. The load capacity is specified and this ballhead will support an amazing 23kgs or 50lbs.

The major disadvantage of this ballhead is that the center of gravity is below the camera rig. This means that when the rig is not properly tightened, the rig will tilt uncontrollably to one side. The dials however, as mentioned above, allow for a secure locking of any sized camera/lens combination.

Another minor point is the relatively high weight: at 2.4lbs or 1.08kg is falls between the Mongoose and the Wimberley. It is however, very small and when I travel, I usually pack it in my on board camera bag. This ballhead is the cheapest of all of my tripodheads and is available for US$455.

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