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Tripods, Heads, and Quick Release

by Tom Davis, 1997


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 loving relationship.

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 quick-release.

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 use.

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 600.

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 Bogen-style clamp.

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.

Readers' Comments

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Duane Galensky , April 18, 1997; 02:47 P.M.

Good summary...I agree with it totally. I just wanted to add two comments:

First, putting the ball head drag on the opposite side of the QR knob is a great idea. Further, put the QR knob on the same side as the shutter button, (and the drag knob on the opposite side, reachable by the left hand)...I've seen so many folks struggle with getting things adjusted quickly in the field and miss shots...this all can be avoided with a simple regimen like this. My tripod gets set up identically every time.

Second, I believe the best thing I ever did to improve the quality of my images was to move up to a Gitzo 410. I was starting to believe the rumours about the Nikkor 500/4 being soft until I got the sucker clamped down properly. A large tripod is pain to carry, but really and truly is the only way to get optimum performance out of those multi thousand dollar optics.

David Stuckel , July 10, 1997; 09:17 P.M.

I've used the Foba superball for several years and really like it for a ballhead. The lever elimnates confusion so I never attempt to loosen the quick release plate by mistake. However, I've found my limit is about 300mm lens without risk that I will let the whole rig drop to the side when I loosen the head to follow subject. For the last 8 months I've used the Wimberly and am totally sold on it when combined with the Bogen leveler. I think it's product 136 or 138. I know it's not rated for heavy loads but after 8 months of almost constant use with 500 f4 it is still as solid as the first day and allows panning with a level horizon.

Ashley Sinclair , June 07, 1998; 04:08 P.M.

Re Gitzo tripod. I have an old Reporter 224 that is great. Replaced pan/tilt with G1276 ball head. I have a Nikon F5 etc. and the weight cannot be supported by the ball head. It creeps when fine tuning. Mr. Greenspun has convinced me to go to Arca Swiss and sleep soundly. All ball head users please check the two allen screws underneath the QR lever. There is also a phillips screw. Fortunately a fellow photog noticed that the F5 wobbled when I tried focusing on a scene. Closer inspection revealed that one allen screw was missing and the other was loose. Despite a "rock solid" tripod, I could have lost (in water, over cliff etc.) or damaged my gear.Fortunately, he is a machinist and carries small tools in his camera bag and we could fix the problem. Also fortunately, I carry the tripod in a zippered tripod bag and shaking the bag upside down on a towel, found the missing allen screw. Gitzo really screwed up on this one. The rubber rings are a pain to release sometimes and I have had to use adjustable pliers in several instances. I have also marked with permanent ink the direction of twisting to release the legs. You will find the direction different for the centre column. The last thing you want to do is overtighten the leg and compound the problem. I also advise centre column owners to check the tightening of the inner (in particular) and the outer centre column tightening rings. It may look cool to carry the beast over your shoulder, with all the sponge, duct tape, pipe wrap etc. but it won't be so cool when you either have the mounted camera and lens slide out of the tripod or get to point B and find your centre column and head are missing. If you mount the centre column upside down, the same applies. I have never tried it, but I would probably drill a hole through the centre column and slide a nail through to prevent it dropping to the ground for the reasons mentioned earlier. Comments from other persons on tripod leg wraps has made me consider using tennis tape on the leg rings to increase their size and reduce the bruised hands from stubborn rings. Other than a few mechanical problems, the Gitzo has worked in all kinds of terrain, water etc.

kurt heintzelman , November 14, 1998; 05:50 P.M.

Does anyone have experience w/ the Bogen 3038 ball head? Is it a good choice for those short on cash? I'm currently using the 3047 pan/tilt head, and I like it just fine, but everyone is raging about how great a good ball head is, so I'm wondering what I'm missing here. I suppose a pan/tilt head can be rather cluncky and cumbersome...Thanks.

Rob Simpson , February 24, 1999; 03:00 P.M.

If you are using a mega telephoto with a ball head, you are not a happy person - use a Wimberly Head (540 665 2744)- the original for big glass 400mm and bigger and the new Wimberly Side Kick(1999) for 600 mm and smaller - the side kick simply slides into your tightly clamped down ball head - therefore it is available quickly if you need to do wideangle photography - the Side Kick can be used with a 600 f4 if you want to travel light - we lead Nature/photo tours to Africa/ South America and only take the Side Kick, it works just fine with a 600 f4 - however the Wimberly head is definitely the big work horse designed to handle huge glass - it is however, an independent entity - for wideangle photography you have to take it off and replace it with a ball head.

Brian Kenney , March 31, 1999; 01:24 A.M.

The whimberly is definitely the single best tripod head for use with really big glass if you plan to photograph active subjects with an autofocus lens. Most of the pros that I have run into in the field use this head with 400 f2.8, 500 f4, and 600 f4 autofocus lenses, regardless of the make. I love the large whimberly with my Nikon 500mm f4. It is bulky to pack when travelling, but well worth it.

If you are using a large manual lens or shooting subjects that aren't running, flying, or swimming all over the place, you may be better off with a large ball head. I tend to use a Foba superball when dealing with static situations like nest photography and/or using my Nikon 800mm f5.6. The whimberly can be awkward to use with manual lenses where the focusing ring is on the other side of the pivot bar.

As far as the legs are concerned, I have a love/hate relationship with gitzo. They make a very sturdy set of legs in a variety of sizes, but the adjustment knobs are uniformly too small to get much leverage on, and the rubber grips tend to slip over time. The new carbon fiber tripods are great for travel when weight is critical, but they tend to be a bit tippy, especially if you are used to leaning into the tripod for increased stability. They make up for this tendency to a degree by being better at absorbing vibration than the heavier pods made of more traditional metal. The Gitzo 1348 is only 4.6 lbs, and seems to be fine for use with a 500mm f4 lens if you do not extend the lowest leg segments (this tripod has four segments instead of the more typical three).

Sal Trutta , June 21, 1999; 02:01 P.M.

In a word - GYRO ! For most 35mm long lens applications, it's the only way to the fly. You have unlimited range of movement and perspective. You can use it almost anywhere- planes, trains, automobiles, building tops, boardrooms. None of the downside of cumbersome mono or tripods, and much greater range of movements than any head.

Ransom Blakeley , February 02, 2000; 03:36 P.M.

Re Bogen 3051, I feel compelled to respond to Tom Davis' criticism that "the legs sometimes stick." I bought a 3051 in July of 1990. In more than 10 years of frequent use, in conditions ranging from sand, snow, and ice, to streams, bogs, meadows, and forest duff, the only time I've experienced a leg sticking was when a blade of grass was drawn into a leg joint. The cure was obvious; when the blade of grass was removed, no more sticking.

I'm inclined to think Tom's problem is not the inherent fault of the tripod, but more likely due to the technique employed in deploying the legs. The lower leg sections of the 3051 are made, not of aluminum, but of steeel. Each weighs about 20 ounces. For comparison, the head of an ordinary carpenter's claw hammer weighs 16 ounces. I stand only 2 inches taller than Tom, and if I held my 3051 at arm's length and allowed the legs to drop, they would free-fall their full 19 inches, striking not the ground, but the internal stops within the tripod, and with considerable force. I suspect repeated pounding from this technique could cause the stops to become battered and swolen, inhibiting free movement of the legs through these closelly fitted openings.

Instead of letting the legs drop (which also creates a loud noise which can attract undesired attention, or scare off animate subjects) I suggest a kinder and gentler proceedure for deploying the Bogen 3051 tripod:

1. Spread the legs, placing each foot on a firm surface, and far enough apart to provide good stability when the legs are extended.

2. Rotate the leg unlocking ring and hold it while raising the tripod head to the desired height; then release the unlocking ring. By keeping an eye on the bubble level as the tripod is raised, the tripod can be kept nearly level, even on quite uneven terrain. If precise leveling is important, as for waterfalls, only minor adjustment of one or two legs will be needed.

3. Clamp camera plate into quick release clamp, and you are ready to compose yor first image.

The Bogen 3051 is my favorite tripod for roadside photography, where quick setup is often required to catch transient subjects, or rapidly changing light. I can have the 3051 out of the car, set up on the shoulder of the road, and camera mounted in less than one minute. If the footing is firm, the setup will be rock-solid, no matter the wind, or gusts from passing trucks.

At 16 pounds, the 3051 is not my tripod of choice for an extended hike to an isolated waterfall, but for roadside photography, I've found nothing better. Given reasonable care, I expect it to be providing solid support for my cameras for another ten years.

Ransom Blakeley, President, Cayuga Nature Photographers

Charles Barcellona , May 13, 2002; 10:58 P.M.

Tripods: The heavier the better, if you want steady. I agree. I wish some mention was given to the excellent line of Modern Builders Majestic Tripods. These things are HEAVY. Very steady with those double section legs. These are not double extension legs, but two legs that make up one support. So, in a sense, the tripod has six legs, making up three supports. Rock steady. Heavy enough to break your shoulder tho at 38 lbs. Despite its weight, I regularly trudge mine thru the Everglades in search of bird photos. It does the job.

William Crocker , June 24, 2002; 12:22 A.M.

Actually I have found that the tripod foot on my Tamron 200-400 is the biggest barrier to stability. It balances well when the lens is in the 200 position, but then when I zoom out to 400, it's wobly. Any one know of a some type of bracket or brace to alleviate this problem?

Gregory Nicholson , August 03, 2002; 06:26 P.M.

Hey William if you look at <www.bogen.com> under tripod accessories they have a bracket that fits from the camera bottom plate to one of the tripod legs when using a lens with a tripod mount. ($60) I wish I'd known this before I made one from a camcorder monopod that you wear around your neck. it took all day to cut, file and modify. I'd of much rather bought a factory perfect unit that matched my tripod than have a homemade looking whatever. Having a mounting point on the lens and on the camera makes everything real stable even in the wind. I use this with my FD400 f4.5 lens.

Adam S , November 15, 2002; 09:00 A.M.

I have been a tripod and bag nut. Trying to find the perfect lightweight portable , easy to use setup for years. Think I just found it and wanted to share. Wanted something I could put in a backpack, was light, had a quick release, excellent quality, etc. Here it is. Gitzo's new Gitzo G1027 Carbon Fiber Tripod Legs (only 3 leg extensions), Gitzo G1077M magnesium ball head (small), Kirk plate for ball head QR-2LW, and Kirks small bottle of lock-tite. The whole rig should be able to hold a camera of about 6 lbs in weight. The head/quick release worked out amazing. The Gitzo's G1077M HeadÂ’s cork plate will screw off leaving a longer 1/4 bolt. You put some lock-tite on that bolt and screw on Kirk's QR-2LW which will permanently seal the quick release platform to the tripod head. Worked perfect. You don't need Kirk's 3/8 to 1/4 stud. Also, Gitzo G1027 Tripod's plastic plate that the tripod head screw down on will come off, you just then screw on the G1077M head to the legs. Nothing to it. I have a Patagonia backpack that is meant to hold a laptop computer but I use to hold a camera bag. Doesn't scream "steal me". It has compartments that are 18" long. The entire tripod (legs and head) is a little longer then that though. The G1028 would probably have worked perfectly but wouldn't be as sturdy and would take longer to setup (4 leg extensions vs. 3). But I figured it out. I just take the center post with tripod head off the legs when I put it into my pack (also balances out the pack). Doesn't take that long to slip it on. I just leave the little plastic bottom piece off the bottom of the post so I can take it on and off easily. Oh, of course you will also need the proper Kirk QR Camera plate that fits your camera. Taking this whole setup with a Mamiya 7 to Asia. Hope it works out well. Adam

Jon Woodsworth , November 14, 2004; 10:46 P.M.

"the fewer the leg joints, the better"

You didn't really MEAN that did you???? I would amend this to say "the fewer the leg joints FOR A GIVEN HEIGHT the better.

For example, I have a Gitzo Giant Rapid Luxe Studex or something like that (forgot the exact name). It has three leg sections. Compare that to the Tele-Studex version of the same tripod (with FIVE leg sections). The PRIMARY leg section (that which is bolted to the base plate of the tripod) is the same length in both models. If I set up both tripods for full extension up to the second leg section (this gives around 60" height) they are both equally stable. In fact, the one with more leg sections (the tele-studex) is actually MORE stable due to the significantly increased weight. The only real difference between the two is the weight and the fact that the one with MORE leg sections goes WAY higher (108" or so). Just my 2 cents. Jonathan

Landrum Kelly , November 05, 2006; 08:51 A.M.

I also have the Nikon 600 f/4 (the manual focus version, in my case), and I finally broke down and got the Wimberley gimbal mount. After wrestling with a big Bogen monoball/hexplate arrangement, I got tired of almost dumping the lens everytime I wanted to adjust it. (I understand that the Arca-Swiss ball is not nearly as likely to be so unstable.) In any case, I do like the very smooth operation of the Wimberley. When one moves the big lens, it moves to that point and stops with no adjustment necessary (at least when perfectly balanced, which is not difficult to achieve). I have yet to dump the big lens with this arrangement, although the mount is heavy and not ideal for all situations. The quick-release mounting plate is based on Swiss-Arca specs, but there is an extra screw or bolt on the Wimberley QR plate that serves as a last-resort catch if the lens slips while being mounted using the quick-release plate. It has saved me twice from dropping the lens. --Lannie

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