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I am 5'9" tall, and shoot primarily wildlife (particularly birds), using
various lenses including the Nikon 600mm f/4 monstrosity (14 pounds) with the F4s
back. And when I'm really trying to make life difficult, I use a 1.4x or 2x
extender. The 600 and I have a love/hate relationship.
When I travel, my longest lens is usually the Nikon 300mm f/4. We have a very
For almost all my work, I use four tripods and two heads. The tripods include
the Bogen 3033, Bogen 3051, the Gitzo 226, and the Gitzo 410. The heads are the
Foba Superball and the small Arca Monoball B1. Both have the Arca-style
General Tripod Comments
The heavier the better. The fewer leg joints, the better. Avoid using the
center column. Extra bracing is good for stability, but can be a pain to use.
Unfortunately, I've discovered that you usually get what you pay for.
If you have more than one leg joint, and you're not extending the legs all the
way, make sure that the smallest diameter leg section uses the least extension.
This gives better stability.
If you're going to carry big tripods, be sure to pad the legs or you'll rip
your shoulders to pieces. I use the pipe insulation attached with duct tape. I
always use a little extra tape so that in emergencies, I can cannibalize some
tape from the tripod for other uses. It's also much nicer to carry a padded leg
than a bare metal leg in the mountains in the winter!
Specific Tripod Comments
Bogen 3033: This is the easiest to use -- the legs are easy to lock and unlock
and it's not too massive. Both this and the 3051 have a set screw to lock the
head in place, and I really miss this feature in the Gitzos. It's not quite
heavy/sturdy enough for the 600, but it works great for everything else. There
are two leg joints. It's tall enough to use without the center column.
Bogen 3051: Very heavy, but quite solid. It has a feature I thought I'd love
-- namely, there's a quick release for all the legs so when you're setting up,
you hold the top of the tripod where you want it, release the legs, each falls to
the ground, and each leg can drop a different amount, so it works fine on uneven
surfaces. Unfortunately, the legs sometimes stick, and you have to help them a
little. It has only one leg joint, and there are braces between the center column
and each leg. It's tall enough to use without the center column.
Gitzo 226: This is a compromise that I bought for expeditions where
weight/size is a problem. I originally used the Gitzo 126, but it was too flimsy.
Also, the 226, when collapsed, is only about an inch longer than the 126 but
since there are 4 leg sections, it is 4 inches taller when extended, and that is
a huge advantage. It's quite compact, and for it's size, it works well. It has
three leg joints, and since they're the Gitzo type, it seems to take forever to
set up and take down. It's not too bad with the 300mm f/4, but I wouldn't use it
for anything larger. It has a 2-segment center column which you'd be crazy to
Gitzo 410: This is the best one. There is no center column, it's tall enough
for me, it has two leg joints, it's not as heavy as the 3051, and it seems
equally stable. It's not particularly compact (but it's better than the 3051).
The upper leg joint is done with wing-nuts which give much better leverage, but
sometimes get in the way. Since the lower joint has the normal Gitzo attachment,
I don't see the point of the upper joint wing-nuts. I guess if I were 6 inches
shorter, I could avoid extending the lower legs altogether.
Tripod Head comments
Foba Superball: Big and heavy. Works well. Aside from the size, the major
difference between this and the Arca is that there's a lever rather than a knob
for clamping the head in place. I find the knob a bit easier to use. It's fine
for the 600.
Arca Monoball: Much smaller than the Foba, but it's just as solid. I like the
knob for tightening the head. There are two things I don't like, but I've
developed habits to eliminate both problems. First, there's a knob to
loosen/tighten the ball-head, and another on the quick-release. Mount the camera
or lens so that they're on opposite sides, and you won't accidentally turn the
wrong knob when you're trying to work fast. Second, the Monoball sometimes locks
up, and it can be infuriating. You can avoid this by always leaving the head
loose when you travel -- it locks when it's tight, and then jiggled while it's
riding in a car/airplane/boat/backpack. The Really Right Stuff catalog (se below)
has much more information on the "lock-up" problem. This head works fine for the
There's a minimum tension adjustment that makes sure there's a certain amount
of friction when the ball is completely released. With a huge 600, you can set
the amount of friction to be high, and if you're using just the body and a small
lens, set the friction to almost nothing. This is a great feature. Kirk
Enterprises (4370 E. US Highway 20, Angola, IN 46703, (800) 626-5074) makes a
"fourth leg" for use with long lenses. It clamps to a tripod leg, and the other
end (on my model, at least) has an Arca-style clamp that I can hook to the camera
body. The support is basically a tripod leg with a single joint that has a
It really stabilizes a 600 + 2x extender + F4s combination, but it makes it
tricky to move everything around if your subject is moving much. You have to
release and tighten both the head and the fourth leg, move the camera, and then
lock both again. If your subject moves too much, the geometry of the fourth leg
makes some movements impossible, which can be really annoying. If you're in a
blind where you can't move the lens much anyway, it's great. And even without
tightening the fourth leg, it provides a bit more stability, so if you're in a
hurry to shoot, you need only tighten the ball.
Arca-Style Quick-Release Plates
I've tried a few different styles -- from Arca and from Kirk, but as soon as I
used the plates from Really Right Stuff (P.O. Box 6531, Los Osos, CA 93412, (805)
528-6321) I was sold. The Arca and Kirk plates are mostly compromises -- they're
built to work on a variety of bodies/lenses. RRS makes EXACTLY the right plate
for each body/lens. There's no rubber/cork -- it's metal-to-metal (or
metal-polycarbonate, depending on your camera body) with a perfect fit, and no
movement. Eveything's locked down with hex nuts. If your lens has multiple mount
holes, the RRS uses all of them. You can get a safety "keeper" nut to prevent the
plates from slipping out of the mount if you screw up and forget to tighten them
(I've got these on all my RRS plates). The machining is beautiful. They're not
cheap, but they're not much more than the Kirk plates.
Get the RRS catalog -- it's loaded with information about photography in
general, and tripods/quick releases in particular. They also make a few other
things and these are of equal quality. It's clear that the RRS engineers have
really thought about their products, and have thoroughly field-tested them.