It is easy to buy a tripod, so easy that did it a several times! Two times too many, to be precise. There are now three tripods in my closet although only one is needed. After an informal survey, I discovered this is often the case, particularly for amateurs perfecting their skills and learning to use new equipment.
Getting to this point is simple. Here is how:
- Underestimate the importance of a tripod, buy the cheapest one you can find.
- Underestimate the value of a tripod, buy a slightly more suitable tripod without going over an arbitray price-limit.
- Analyse every part of every tripod by every major manufacturer and come up with the ideal tripod which you cannot afford.
- Remove from consideration the tripods you cannot afford and redo the previous step.
Well, that is basically what I did. First, I got the cheapest tripod, they seemed all the same at the time. After I noticed that the cheapest tripod was frequently left at home because it was too heavy, I got the cheapest light-weight tripod. In the beginning, I ignored that the head moved while I tightened it. Then, after upgrading to a bigger camera, this occured more often and I got fed up. The lesson: I needed a light-weight tripod with a solid non-slip head.
These are just two needs to consider. Since I often change cameras, I like doing the occasional panorama and I may eventually move to a heavier camera and lens combination, I decided to consider all those needs at once. The result, hopefully, is the last tripod I ever need, at least for a while!
My final choice was Velbon Sherpa Pro CF-645 carbon-fibre tripod legs, a Manfrotto 488RC4 ball-head and an Acratech leveling-base.There may be something better suited for you and even for me, but this combination suits my needs without being overly expensive.
The Velbon Sherpa Pro CF-645 is among the smallest tripods that can reach over 1.5m (5ft) and it is relatively light. Its folded length is 45cm (19″). This is a compromise over the ultra-light-weight carbon-fibre tripods by Gitzo which are much lighter but longer when folded. If weight was the most important feature and price was not a problem, then the Gitzo GT1540 would be preferable. Note that the Sherpa Pro CF-645 uses a lever-lock system rather than Gitzo’s screw-lock system. Personally, I find that lever-locks are easier and faster to operate. If gettng a tripod with screw-locks, beware of brands which do not use a twist-lock mechanism. With such tripods, you are required to unscrew the legs in a specific order.
The Manfrotto 488RC4 ball-head has separate ball and pan locks, can hold up to 8kg (18lbs) and features a wide quick-release plate with two built-in levels. The separate pan-lock allows the ball-head to be rotated without any other movements. This is only truly needed if the chosen legs do not allow center-column rotation. This ball-head is actually heavier and provides more support than I need. If it were not for price, I would have gotten the Manfrotto 468RC4 which is lighter and can support twice the weight. There was also the Manfrotto 486-series which is smaller but did not come with the RC4 quick-release plate which I prefered. Again, a compromise.
The final piece of the puzzle is the Acratech Leveling-Base. This device is optional but greatly aids leveling the ball-head for panoramas. The point to understand is that when a camera is level, as indicated by the spirit-level on the quick-release plate, but the tripod legs are not, then rotating the center-column or ball-head will not keep the camera level. A leveling-base inserts itself between the tripod legs and the ball-head where it can be used to level it. Once the ball-head is level, panoramic rotation keeps it level.
The total cost of this is just under 600 USD. Not bad for a carbon-fiber tripod with quality ball-head and leveling base! This versatile combination weighs about 2.5kg (5.5 lbs). This solution is suitable for panoramas but far from ideal. For improved panoramas, it is better to use an L-bracket so that the camera can be mounted vertically with its center above the rotation point of the ball-head. More sophisticated panoramas can be obtained using a special, but generally bulky, panoramic head.