Equipment Rundown – My Tripod Hell

And now we come to tripods. I don’t like posts with a negative feel, but tripods have been the bane of my life. The problem is that there are too many different types, they’re often heavy and unwieldy, and it’s very difficult to find one that does all things you need at a reasonable price. In the studio at work we had a Manfrotto 055ProB with a standard 3-way head, and I liked it and so bought one for myself. It’s a good solid aluminium tripod, well-built, good weight, sturdy, durable, and it does a great job. It is, however, a bit too heavy for me to take out birding (I’m only 5’5″ tall, and not particularly ‘hench’), so when I got the Sigma 300/2.8 a few years back found I needed something that would be sturdy enough to handle that lens, but also light and compact enough for travel. I got a good deal on a Velbon CF-645 with a ball head from Harrison Cameras. This was a decent tripod for me. It was carbon-fibre, so was nice and light but still strong, with a removable centre-column so I could get close to ground level, it had clip leg locks which I’ve always preferred to twist locks, and it did a fairly decent job at keeping things steady. After a year or two with the ball head I realised I needed something a bit smoother for the telephoto and started looking into gimbal heads. I’d have liked a Wimberley or a Kirk King Cobra but they are very expensive, so instead I found out about the Jobu Jr.2 and decided it would be strong enough for my lens and compact enough for travel. And I was right – it was superbly-built and a dream to use – and it didn’t break the bank either. It should also be noted that Jobu Design UK’s customer service is excellent, both for pre-sales advice and also for after-purchase support.

Then in 2012 everything tripod-related went wrong. Firstly, one of the clips on the Manfrotto at work snapped. It had seen seven years of almost daily studio (and occasional location) use, so no complaints there, and we ordered a replacement part and it was fine. Then I had to go to Finland for a shoot for work. My colleagues agreed to bring the tripod back as I had to leave a day earlier and was going to struggle with all the equipment on my own. When they got back to London the tripod was nowhere to be seen. Lots of chasing-up ensued but with no luck, so we bought a new one. I don’t like the newer version as much (the 055XProB). It’s almost the same tripod, but with a new (and better) system for switching the centre column to a horizontal position. All this is fine, but for some reason the legs seem to have a far greater tendency to close up on themselves during use than the previous incarnation did, and the various joints and connections just don’t feel as sturdy to me. Just the slightest knock of the legs causes them to begin to close in, leading to inevitable instability. This led directly to the tripod toppling over in the studio one day whilst the camera on top was tethered to my computer. The result of which was a brand-new £3,000 Canon EOS 5D MkIII with a broken USB port and no chance of tethering it anymore. Then, just to rub salt in the wounds, the old tripod that had found its way into Riga Airport in Latvia on the way back from Finland suddenly turned up on our doorstep.

But that wasn’t all: Jem and I went to Rye Meads RSPB one Sunday and I managed to leave my Velbon-and-Jobu combo in the overhead luggage rack on the train. In a panic I phoned Greater Anglia and reported the loss, but disappointingly it was never recovered. As it’s an unusual-looking piece of kit I would be very surprised if anybody on that almost-empty train service (which only had a couple of stations still to visit) would’ve recognised its value, but despite my pestering I never got it back, and my insurance company wouldn’t cover it either. I didn’t have time to research a new tripod combo as I was off to Norfolk a few days later, so I decided to take the old Manfrotto from the office to Rainham on the Saturday before to see if I could cope with its weight out in the field. I’d only just got there when another leg lock snapped off! I decided I could probably just about deal with the weight, so I picked up my own Manfrotto from home to take to Norfolk and it didn’t do a bad job (it kept my 500mm lens nice and steady), but it was a bit heavy for me. I still needed a better option for birding though, and on my return I did a lot of research. The criteria were as follows: carbon-fibre legs, four-piece leg construction, snap-locks, removable (or non-existent) centre column, low minimum height, weight of around 2kg, foam leg grips (ideally on all three legs), and at an affordable price (i.e. under £300). The Velbon I’d lost was no longer in production, but I wanted a tad more weight anyway for extra sturdiness. It was a tough ask – there weren’t many tripods around that fit all the criteria – but eventually I found a Giottos MTL 8360B which seemed to tick all the boxes, so I ordered it. Straight away there was a problem. This range of tripods has a special hinged unit under the head to allow the centre column to be angled into unusual positions and then tightened by way of two knurled nobs. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be able to hold the centre column tightly, and so the head could rotate freely when it should be held fast. I contacted Giottos and even made a quick video of what was wrong using my iPhone, and to their credit they sent a replacement unit out straight away which was easy to fix and which worked fine. I’d also ordered the replacement Jobu gimbal head – by this time it was the Jr.3 – which had a slightly different twist-knob configuration, but was largely the same as the one I’d lost. And this is the combo I’ve been using ever since.

jr3_2011_web_sizeJobu Jr.3

The plus sides are that the tripod is light and compact (with the gimbal removed the tripod fits in my main luggage rucksack for when I go abroad), and is very quick to set up. The downsides are the general quality of some of the parts (several of the screws in the leg clips have started to rust even though I haven’t used it in challenging conditions, and one of the foam leg grips has begun to split). Stuart White in Norfolk was using a similar model for his spotting scope and he had similar problems with rusting parts, even though he hadn’t had his for long. The control unit on the top is also pretty redundant for me, and it just contributes needless bulk and weight, which makes it even more top-heavy than it should be. With a 500mm lens and gimbal head on top it doesn’t actually do a bad job seeing as it’s not really designed for such a large and heavy payload, and it’s performed very well with the legs splayed out for almost ground-level shooting, but I think I’m going to have to look at something a bit more solid for 2014. I get the feeling that it just doesn’t dissipate enough vibration for such a long focal length, and that’s likely affecting the sharpness of my photos. In favourable conditions it does pretty well, but birding trips aren’t always subject to favourable conditions…

I met Tom Mason on the Serbia trip in December and he was using a Gitzo Series Three tripod with a Wimberly head, and he enthusiastically told me how impressed he is with it. I’m more than happy with the Jobu head so I’m not looking to replace that, but I think a Gitzo could be the way forward. They’re obviously very expensive, but there’s a reason why wildlife photographers choose them. I’m not so keen on the twist-locks, but the downforce provided by the load on top actually causes the grip to increase organically, so I’m open-minded enough to assume I could become a convert. I also realise I’m going to have to compromise a little on the criteria (the Gitzo doesn’t come with foam leg grips as standard, and I think I’ll have to settle for three-piece leg construction this time). I’ve been reading reviews online and watching video reviews on YouTube, and it seems to be a pretty universal fact that almost everybody who takes wildlife photography seriously uses a Gitzo. I’ve read about Really Right Stuff tripods as being a potential rival, but the costs involved with ordering from the USA mean it’s not really viable for me. I think the Gitzo GT3532LS looks like the best option for me. It has sturdy enough legs to support my 500mm lens, extremely good build quality, the legs can flatten out right down to the ground, weighs around 2kg, and it has a maximum height that means the camera should reach my eye level when mounted on the gimbal. It retails at more than £700, but seems to be available for less than £600 from many online stores. Time to start saving…

gitzo_GT3532LSGitzo GT3532LS

About hootbot

Professional design agency photographer and amateur birder.
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1 Response to Equipment Rundown – My Tripod Hell

  1. Pingback: Equipment Rundown – Lenses & Flashes | thedigitalowl

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