Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
This is the least important decision
you have to make. Don't let anyone tell you that you are a girlie-man if you buy
Bogen instead of Gitzo. The fact of the matter is that if you were really
serious, you'd be using a Ries wooden tripod. "Wood absorbs vibration and metal
transmits/reflects it," is how the view camera perfectionists put it. However,
the user interface and flexibility of wood tripods is so poor that only a few
diehards are able to resist the charms of metal legsets.
Make sure that whatever you get, it is tall enough that you can use it
comfortably without extending the center column. Think about it: if you raise the
center column, your camera is flapping around in the breeze supported by only one
tube. If you push it down, you get your camera supported by three legs as
companies make the vast majority of legsets used by professionals, Gitzo and
Bogen (Manfrotto outside the U.S.). Gitzo is made in France and reflects
Continental Rationalism. If you don't carefully adhere to the correct method of
loosening and tightening the leg locks, it will take you an annoying minute or
two to sort everything back out. Bogen is made in Italy by Manfrotto and reflects
Mediterranean chaos. The leg locks are marvelous little spring-loaded flick
levers (or wing-type screws on some of the smallest ones) and you can lock or
unlock them in any order. Both brands offer adjustable leg angle, which is nice
for uneven ground, slopes, and resting a leg on an overlook barrier. Both also
offer reversible center columns, for hanging the camera inches from the
Gitzo is more
expensive but has the advantage that there are no little parts to lose or wear
out. The legs are made of heavyweight aluminum or carbon fiber. I fell in love
with Gitzo's wonderfully light (weighs 3 lbs, supports 15) carbon fiber
Mountaineer tripod ($500) during five weeks in Italy. It is dead, dead, dead.
Dead. I'm six feet tall and expected that the lack of height (52 inches or
61 with the center column up) would be annoying, but somehow I hardly noticed
bending down a bit. [An Inter-Pro Studex version is coming out in September 1996
that will be about 30% lighter than the aluminum alloy counterpart, but will rise
to the same height (61 inches or 76 inches with center column; should weigh about
4.2 lbs and sell for about $750).]
The standard Bogen legset is the 3021 ($85), which
comes with the spring-loaded flip locks. It weighs about 6 lbs, rises up to a
comfortable working height for tall people (with no center column extension), and
will support everything from heavy 35mm through lightweight 4x5. If you go into
the wilderness, plan to carry the supplied plastic wrench for adjusting the leg
locks should they loosen up. Kirk Enterprises (107
Lange Lane, Angola, IN 46703, (800) 626-5074) will modify the 3021 somehow so
that one can get even closer to the ground, but I haven't tried this. A lot of
folks prefer using a Bogen Superclamp attached to a tripod leg, with a small
ballhead at the end of the clamp.
[If you get a Bogen, make sure you get the nifty strap that screws into the
top and wraps around the legs. You might also consider paying the extra $13 to
get the black anodized finish; the bright silver legs can turn into annoying
reflections if you are doing close-ups of shiny objects.]
I've always liked the idea of the floppy Benbo tripods but have never been
able to lock them down enough to get rigidity at a low camera angle. I think the
Gitzos and Bogens have enough flexibility that Benbo need not be investigated. If
you really want to do something weird, you might be better off with a Bogen Magic
If you are doing architecture, you want a three-way panhead in which each axis
is separately controlled. Otherwise, you'll probably find a ballhead vastly more
With a really good ballhead, you can smoothly follow an animal with a 300/2.8
lens and take your hands off the lens without having it flop towards the
Of the ballheads that I've personally used, my favorite for feel and function
is the ARCA Swiss B1. This is the head that almost every serious photographer
seems to end up with and my only source of sorrow is that I blew about $330 on a
FOBA Superball before I found out about it. The ARCA is half the weight of the
FOBA, able to support more weight, and has a very interesting patented feature:
progressive resistance. That means when you've adjusted the tension for a 300/2.8
that is approximately level, the ARCA automatically increases the tensions as the
lens is pointed down a bit (so that the lens doesn't flop down catastrophically).
Whatever you get, if you spend $400 for a head, make sure you protect it from
knocks. I wasn't super careful with my FOBA and it became useless. Sinar Bron
does not stand behind the product and I would have been out of luck except that
Jeff Hirsch at Fotocare in NY (see
buy) bailed me out.
really want to save money and yet not get something that is complete junk, try
the Bogen 3038 ($150 at B&H) which comes with an integral hex plate Q/R. In
fact, the quick release has a really nice locking feature that I've not seen on
other Bogen products. If you intend to leave your camera on the tripod and carry
the assemblage around for awhile, this would tend to inspire confidence. In any
case, the 3038 is about the same size and weight as the FOBA and is strong enough
to take a 4x5 or supertele. It is hard to describe why the overall experience
with the 3038 isn't as good as with the FOBA but it clearly isn't. I think it
comes down to smoothness and the use of a lubricant on the 3038, which I've
played with but never used extensively.
An interesting design that I haven't tried is the NPC pseudo-ballhead. This
has an innovative design that locks the center of the ball rather than standard
method of pushing the ball into the socket (this changes your composition
slightly, somewhat irritating with a big lens especially). The head is reasonably
priced ($225) and apparently well made, but allegedly is a pan/tilt head that is
not really a suitable substitute for a traditional ballhead design (this is a
paraphrase of some vitriolic comments by ex-users).
If you aren't planning to use a medium format camera, a super-tele, or a 4x5,
you might want to investigate smaller ballheads. Even if you can afford the
aforementioned heads, you won't enjoy carrying the weight. The FOBA mini super
ball ($200) looks great, but I've never owned one and Sinar Bron's attitude is
discouraging. I've tried the really cheap Bogen 3262QR ($40) and it works OK but
the lack of tension means that you risk "dumping" the camera/lens combination.
Plus, the unit seems to depend on grease for smoothness and your hands get kind
of filthy if you aren't careful about where you touch your gear. I wasn't sorry
when it was stolen.
All I know is that I have to have a quick release. I have to be able to mate
and unmate my camera quickly or the whole tripod is too much of a hassle to use
The gold standard in quick release is the "ARCA Swiss-style". Bryan Geyer, the
owner of Really Right Stuff (
http://www.reallyrightstuff.com; P.O. Box
6531, Los Osos, CA 93412, (805) 528-6321), makes the biggest selection of plates
(137 in June 1995) in this style so I asked him to articulate his devotion to it.
"The problem with the Sachtler, Bogen, and Linhof releases is that they have a
fixed cavity size. You should be able to use a big plate for a big item like a
600/4 lens and a small plate for a small item like a body. Our plates range in
size from 1.4 inches to 7.3 inches long.
Another thing that is wrong with the
Sachtler, Bogen, and Linhof approach is that their plates are all flat-topped and
therefore free to twist or pivot on whatever equipment they are attached to. Even
if your lens lets you rotate the body without tilting the tripod head, you still
might want to shoulder the tripod and not have the plate twist. Each of our
plates has a flange of channel that keeps the lens or body from twisting.
"A final consideration is that it is really ugly to have a
big plate poking out from under your camera. ARCA Swiss-style plates conform to
the size and shape of the equipment."
I used to be a Bogen hex plate user but Bryan Geyer persuaded me with his
reasoning and his superbly machined products. I leave his plates on my cameras
all the time and they never get in the way. I miss the positive "snap-in" that I
got with the Bogen system, but not as much as I thought I would. If you want to
get into the ARCA Swiss-style system you have to either buy a ballhead that comes
with it or get a whole setup from Bryan.
If you want something cheap that works, Bogen sells a range of Q/R systems,
the biggest of which is their old hex plate system. It is big enough to carry a
4x5 view camera with ease ($30 plus $12 for extra plates). There are a bunch of
more expensive ($70-130) systems out there that look potentially better than the
Bogen, but I'm not yet convinced that any are. The Linhof one looks nice. When I
was looking for something lightweight, I've tried cheap systems such as the
Cullman, but they are inadequately rigid.
The Really Right Stuff catalog (available from P.O. Box 6531, Los Osos, CA
93412, (805) 528-6321) contains a fairly comprehensive comparative test of
ballheads. The short story is that the ARCA Swiss B1 crushes the competition.