Saturday, 7 March 2009


One of the things that many people forget when buying a large telephoto lens is that they normally need to upgrade their tripod/ head combo to get the best out of it. No point spending several grand on state of the art glass & then skimping on support. I have been asked several times about tripods, so decided to write this piece to help you decide what you need.
A decent leg set & head can add another thousand or so to your budget, but once purchased, you will reap the benefits & you will not regret it.

So what to get?

The main consideration should be the maximum load you are going to plonk on top of it. When you know that, double it & bear this figure in mind. This is a general rule of thumb which has served me well.
The next should be the height at maximum leg extension. If the model you are considering has a centre column, leave it down! An extended column will flex & introduce vibration. Some tripods have a flat top plate which the head fixes straight onto. This is my preferred method. Remember that a head will add around 4-6 inches to the max height quoted in the manufacturer’s specifications. Also, does it allow the legs to splay out for low level shooting? How low will it go?

What are the legs made of?

Aluminium was for years the only option (apart from in the Stone Age when wood was a widely used material). Relatively light though strong. Now we also have carbon fibre which has the advantage of better vibration dampening than aluminium. You would also think that it would be a lot lighter as well. This is not necessarily the case. To gain the rigidity required, the wall thickness of the tubes is greater than aluminium legs of the same diameter, so the weight difference of the two materials is minimal, though carbon fibre is generally a bit lighter. If you can afford carbon, my advice would be to plump for that, if only for the superior dampening.

Which head?
Below : Sigma 500 f4.5/ D2x on Wimberley sidekick & Kirk BH-1 Ballhead.

For long lens work, you basically have three choices- Fluid video head, ball head or a gimbal. The ball head is great for static shots, but not so good for moving targets. You also run the risk of your pride & joy flopping over with disastrous consequences if the tension on the ball is not tight enough & you are not holding on all the time. Fluid video heads, such as the Manfrotto 501, were popular a few years back because of the smooth panning & tilting actions, which made them ideal for moving targets. They could also be locked off if need be. Again it pays to keep hold of the rig to stop the lens succumbing to gravity when unlocked. Some heads have an adjustable counterbalance to counteract this, or at least to slow the impact with earth. The third option has become very popular in the UK in the past few years. The gimbal type head. These work by allowing the lens to tilt around its centre of gravity. When set up correctly, you should be able to point the lens in any direction, let go & it will stay put. Pan & tilt are smooth & effortless & adjustable for drag. The lens effectively feels weightless. It takes a little while to get the balance right the first time, but gets simpler every time thereafter. I use a Wimberley gimbal head & I am very pleased with it. I have in the past used a Wimberley side kick which turns a ball head into a gimbal. It was fine with my old Sigma 500mm f4.5 & could handle a Nikon or Canon 500mm f4,but I would be a little worried about mounting a 600 f4 or 800 f5.6 on it. The advantage the ballhead/sidekick combo has is its flexibility. Remove the sidekick & you are ready to use the tripod for landscape or macro work.
A decent ball head, such as the Kirk BH-1 & sidekick, costs around the same as a full Wimberley.

Quick release clamps & plates.
Below : Jobu long quick release clamp fitted to Manfrotto MN393 head.

It obviously pays to have the same type of plate on each of your lenses. A long lens plate allows you to slide the lens in the clamp to balance it perfectly. Remember, if you add or take away teleconveters, your centre of gravity will be affected & the lens will need to be moved to compensate. A long plate allows plenty of movement as well as room to mount accessories such as flash brackets. You will also get more than one fixing to clamp the plate firmly to the tripod foot & prevent twisting. Wimberley, Kirk, Really right stuff, Jobu, Acratech all produce clamps & plates in the Arca-swiss style. All are interchangeable with each other & any combination of plates & clamps from any of these manufacturers is compatible. I have Arca-swiss compatible clamps on all my tripod heads & I have recently fitted a jobu clamp onto my Manfotto MN393 head. This is mounted on my monopod. Two new holes were drilled & tapped to achieve this & now I do not need a separate Manfrotto plate to fit the 600 onto the monopod.

Minor considerations.
Below : 600 f4 on Wimberley mk2 with Jobu flash bracket.
A fluid or gimbal head will need to be level to allow panning which stays in the same plane. You can adjust each leg until the spirit level is in the centre, or you can save yourself loads of faffing & fit a levelling base between tripod & head. Usually around 15 degrees of movement each way is enough. I now have fitted a Gitzo 5121lvl levelling base on my 1548 tripod & can have it all ready to go in seconds with little effort. Although a great asset to have, this is a luxury & not strictly necessary, but am I going to send it way!
Weight. This is very important to some people. Ideally what we all would like is a tripod & head that weighs less than 1kg, is tall enough for Martin Johnson to use without stooping & can carry a max load of 25kg. Forget it, it ain’t gonna happen! Go to the gym or get someone to carry it for you if you can’t handle it. But I suppose that if you are prepared to lug a 600 f4 around, a couple of extra kilos is not going to bother you.
Left : 600 f4 on Wimberley mk2 with Jobu flash bracket.
Below : Wimberley Mk2 on Gitzo 5121lvl levelling base (Gitzo 1548 tripod).
Bottom : Manfrotto MN393 head with Jobu quck release clamp, on 681B monopod.

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