Tripods and Heads

  • Tripods

When I got my first professional grade tripod, carbon fiber was not even available except in aerospace applications. Now carbon fiber tripods dominate the market. I still have and use my metal tripods. Their only real drawback is their weight and to some extent their tendency to ring (vibrate) when excited by camera mirror slap. Carbon fiber weighs half of what their metal counterparts weigh and for hiking that's significant. If you don't go far from the car, then a good used metal tripod can be a great value. I know there are many decent manufacturers of tripods, but I'm sticking to a philosophy of discussing what I know and use (or have used). I have tried several brands of tripods, and found most lacking in some respect. There are definite differences in functionality, sturdiness, and reliability. I have not found one size fits all. If your photographic interest are more narrow than mine, then you may find one tripod that fulfills all your needs.

First, I use an older metal tripod when I don't need to go far from the car or boat. Why do I still use them; because, the ones I have are more sturdy than my carbon fiber tripods. At least, that's my estimation. I know there are some large and sturdy CF tripods available but they are really expensive and I’ve not used any of them. My tripod has three leg sections. The only reason to have more than three leg sections is for lightweight traveling, like on a small airline where there are bag size restrictions. The more leg sections there are, the less sturdy the tripod. You are being inconvenienced by a tripod only because you want a sturdy support for your camera and lens. My tripod of choice is a Gitzo. I have used a 400 series metal pod for supporting super telephotos, and a 300 series ( obsolete G341) metal gitzo for smaller lenses. These pods are very sturdy and have a leg locking mechanism that has never failed me. I put foam pipe insulation on the top section of the 300 series metal tripod when I took it to Antartica to avoid the dreaded photographer stuck to tripod syndrome. These metal pods take whatever abuse you throw at them and keep on going.

After heaping praise on metal Gitzos, you are probably saying that this guy is firmly rooted in the dark ages. Perhaps some truth to that, but I do now also use a Gitzo carbon fiber pod when hiking. There is no denying the weight savings. I'm currently using a Gitzo GT2531 and like it a lot. It is sturdy enough for most of my current lenses and is a reasonable weight. The leg locks are of the same type used in the older metal design and still never loosen while I'm using it. Carbon fiber is said to dampen vibrations better than metal. I've recently seen some test data supporting this thesis. The vibration advantage is shutter speed dependent and tends to be critical in the 1/20 sec to 1 sec exposure range. The mirror slap of SLRs can cause a vibration that rings through the camera body, tripod head and tripod legs. Material that dampens or dissipates the energy in this vibration helps the situation. Carbon Fiber and wood are said to be good dampening materials. Using the mirror lock-up function and avoiding the critical shutter speed range can also help. Added mass in the camera/head/tripod combination makes the frequency of vibration lower, reducing the range of offending shutter speeds. Telephoto shots are also more sensitive to vibration because of the larger relative movement of an image focused on the camera sensor with telephoto magnification.

I use metal spike feet on the Gitzo GT2531.  This helps the tripod keep a firm grip on the earth and is even better on rock in my opinion. Don't use metal spikes indoors as your floors will suffer.

  • Heads

When I got my first super telephoto lens (now dead), I quickly found that the tripod head was a very important part of the system. I first though that a ball head would be ideal because of its unlimited degrees of motion. I tried a ball head rated to take the weight of the camera and lens. I quickly found that the ball head could be used, but I had to keep a firm grip on the lens at all times when the ball was free, or camera and lens would flop to the side.  This had the possibility of unbalancing the entire tripod with an unpleasant outcome. Along comes Wimberly with a solution. The Wimberly Gimbaled tripod head. This is a clever idea to balance the camera and lens on a sturdy (looks like welded pipe) swing arm. When balanced, the photographer can take his hands off the rig at any time without fear of a camera flop. When the gimbaled head joints (bearings) are loose, the rig can be moved with one finger to any position.  Think of a WW II aircraft gunner swinging his guns toward enemy fighters and you begin to get the picture. The rig can also be locked down with the twist of a couple of knobs.  I used the original version when it first came out. It's been updated, but the same principles are used. There's also other companies that now make a similar "big lens" rig, but I have not tried any of them. The Wimberly head is heavy, so if you are using it, think about staying close to the car. I believe that the extra weight of a gimbaled head is only justified with one of the super telephoto lenses.

For any lens other than the super telephotos, I like the Really Right Stuff (RRS) ball head. These are available in different sizes to match your camera and lens weight. A general purpose landscape photo rig has the RRS medium size ball head with quick release firmly mounted on a Gitzo carbon tripod. What more could anyone want? This combination just works.

  • Panorama Head

Now I am going off the beaten track. You may have noticed that some of the images in my Galleries are panoramas.  This means one dimension of the image is much larger than the other (like a ratio of 2:1 or more). These images are not just cropped down from the familiar 3:2 ratio that comes out of the camera.  Simply cropping an image to get a panorama throws away a lot of the captured image and requires really wide angle lenses. For large prints it is desirable to keep the smaller dimension (in pixel count) as high as possible.  The way to accomplish this is by using software to stitch together multiple images shot at about the same time with the same camera settings. The panorama is made up of the combined stitched images and can be in either a verticle or horizontal format. So what has this got to do with tripod heads? To take the image sequence for a stitched panorama, some control is needed to swing the camera in a plane. For rectangular images, this can be either a horizontal or verticle plane. To accomplish this swing in a plane, having a panorama tripod head helps a lot. Without going into copious detail, the RRS panorama head is recommended. Details of how to use this special head is on the RRS web site and will not be repeated here. I will mention that the axis of swing needs to be located on the optical center of the lens you are using. The RRS pano head facilitates this. Can you take pano photos without a pano head? Yes you can! But its easier and results more consistent with the pano head.

  • Tracking Head

Now I'm going even further off the reservation. If you have ever tried it, you know that taking photos of the night sky is a challenge. You need to find a place that is very dark (miles away from city lights). You need fast lenses, high ISOs, and long exposures to get decent photos. If exposures are too long, then stars appear as lines instead of dots. When taking long exposures, the stars appear to move because the earth is rotating on its axis. One can still take long exposures of the night sky if you use a tracking head on your tripod that moves (rotates) opposite to the earth's rotation. Tracking heads have long been used on better telescopes to observe the nigh sky at an apparently stationary attitude. With one of the heads, photographic exposures can be several minutes long and still capture stars as dots.

Recently, several companies have started marketing affordable tracking heads for photographers. These heads are not as robust as those used on telescopes, but for limited weight (about 7 1/2 pounds) of camera and lens, they do a pretty good job. The tracking head can go right onto a sturdy photography tripod, be aligned with Polaris (the north star), and accurately track against the earths rotation. Obviously, if foreground objects are in the photograph, they get blurred somewhat by the camera's rotational movement. There are some work arounds for this that I may get into in a later section on night photography. If you are interested in a tracking head, check out the "Ioptron skytracker". Can you take night sky photos without a tracking head? Yes you can! Many times, with fast lenses, the photos may be better without a tracking head. This is just another tool to consider at special times.

© Ronald Brunsvold 2014, All rights reserved