October 8, 2013


There are two types of tripods. Those that are easy to carry, and good ones.

The above quote (by a fellow named Bill Fortney), neatly sums up the situation with tripods. I found it in book 1 of Scott Kelby's "The Digital Photography Book", page 168.

John Shaw says that he takes all of his photos using a tripod. He also says that one of the reasons many photographers dislike using a tripod is that they never have had a chance to use a good one.

A solid recipe for good photos is to use a tripod all the time along with a remote release - and add a lens shade too for good measure.

You wouldn't think there would be all that much to say about tripods, but you would be mistaken. There is probably nothing you can do (assuming you have high quality lenses) to improve your photographs other than use a tripod. And if you have top of the line lenses and are wondering why you photos aren't as sharp as you expect, you should try using a tripod.

There are lots of cheap tripods out there, and everyone should own and use one for a while so that they can appreciate a good one when they finally get one. I have owned a variety of cheap tripods that were all but useless (for supporting cameras anyway). It was a different world when I got my Gitzo and decent ball head.

Someone said that choosing a camera and lens family is a much easier job than choosing a camera support system. I am beginning to think that they knew what they were talking about. This problem has been particularly exacerbated by the various manufacturers having played games with their model numbers, making it all but impossible to make use of published recommendations.

I have become particularly enamored with RRS tripods, so see this detailed and focused discussion:

Before I launch off, here are some links to some excellent articles:

The claim is made in one of the articles above that if you are not shooting off of a tripod, you wasted your money on high end lenses. Maybe a better way to say it would be that you would be better off taking the money you might spend on a high end lens and buying a good tripod and a more economical lens.

One of Galen Rowell's 5 rules is to use a tripod whenever possible. John Shaw says in a couple of his books that every photo in each book was taken with "his camera firmly mounted on top of his Gitzo tripod".

At the close of my film/SLR era, my rule was to use a tripod, lens hood, and cable release whenever possible. The results were good!

To use a tripod without a cable release or equivalent defeats much of the purpose of using the tripod in the first place, so maybe that goes without saying. Lens Hoods, apart from shading the lens, also serve to protect the front element to some extent.

At this point in time I have two Gitzo tripods (one with a big Arca Swiss ball head), a RRS TFC-14 with a BH-30, and a couple of Manfrotto tripods.

Using a tripod

You would think this would be simple, but there are some fine points. First off get a good ball head. When you set up the tripod aim one leg towards the subject. This will allow you to stand between the two legs at the rear of the tripod. When you extend the legs, start with the fat sections up near the head/camera and work your way to the smaller legs. This avoids the frustration of having one section spinning while you try to extend and tighten another. Practice at home so you don't look like a beginner in the field.

Remote release

The days of using a mechanical cable release are now over -- and this is a good thing. A mechanical plunger type remote release still can couple some motion and vibration to the camera. The modern scheme of things uses either an electrical control, or some kind of wireless controller.

In the Canon world, the cable release of choice is the RS-80N3 "remote switch". It uses a unique and apparently proprietary 3 pin connector to plug into the camera. You can buy (as I have) perfectly serviceable and much cheaper knock-off remotes online. They are cheap enough, that it makes sense to buy several.

Wireless remote releases

Another option (with my Canon 5D Mark II anyway) is one of the remote controllers RC-6, RC-5, or RC-1. The RC-6 is about thumb size and sells for $20. It uses an infrared signal and has a range of 16 feet from in front of the camera. It has a switch to select (or deselect) a 2 second delay. The RC-5 is the same thing, but with a fixed 2 second delay. No telling what the RC-1 is, but it is apparently obsolete. I am not keen on these gadgets because they require you to be in front of the camera with a decent line of sight.

Smart remote release

An even cooler thing to use (if you don't mind spending about $130) is the TC-80N3. This is a smart remote switch that allows delays, long exposure control, multiple exposures at intervals (till your card fills up) and other cool things.

Cheap knock-off smart remote release

There are a plethora of these. For starters, you might consider: There are many more. I ordered the "cowboy studio" model. I rejected several others because they had a multi function ring switch mechanism that I have found to be troublesome on other devices I own. The Aputure and Cowboy Studio models have single function simple buttons, which I think will be much more reliable. People complain that these have no on/off switch, so you must either remove the batteries between uses, or be prepared to find a dead battery when you get the urge to use it.

My unit arrived and seems to work just fine. Packaging says that it is "very useful in time lapse photography of blooming flowers and in photographs of celestial bodies. With the battery removed, it functions just like a plain old RS-80N3. It is a Cowboy Studio TC-1 or TC-1002 depending which label you want to believe. Some people had complained that it had no right angle connector and would not work with an L-bracket in portrait orientation, but mine has a right angle connector and seems fine. I think the 1002 model number indicates that it now has a right angle connector. I always worry a bit when plugging a non-Canon connector into the remote socket on the camera since there are 3 little pins in there that could get damaged.

I had figured that if the right angle connector business was really an issue, I would just chop the cord and install an inline stereo 1/8 inch plug. I have already done this with one of my RS-80N3 clones to allow me to make the camera connector available to my Pocket Wizards (which wisely use and come with 1/8 plug cords to connect to camera and flashes). This project and modification, while simple, should be another page with photographs. If you are readig this and eager for details, email me and I will get busy on that page. Note that modifying this to use the 1/8 plug allows you to easily construct an extension cord using the same connectors. Cowboy Studio sells a ET-100N3 extension cable 10 meters long.

Choosing a tripod

Here are my recommendations:

In the world of quality tripods, you buy a set of legs and then you select and buy a head to go on them, not necessarily from the same manufacturer.

A crucial note is in order here. You want to use a tripod without extending the center column. A tripod with an extended center column becomes a modified monopod. In fact most serious photographers do away with the center column altogether and install a plate that allows the head to be mounted directly on the legs. It is important (I would say vital) to get a long enough set of legs so that you can stand comfortably behind your camera without stooping. Don't settle for anything less.

Really Right Stuff

"No one ever regrets buying the best".

My friend Dave has the TFC-14 Mk2 legs along with the BH-30 ball head, and calls this his "day pack tripod". He warns me that I may wish it was higher, but says he is entirely happy with it.

The TFC-14-II holds 50 pounds, weighs 2.5 pounds, is 47.2 inches tall, costs $895.
RRS calls this their "ultralight tripod".

I would go with the BH-30 Pro, which is 9.9 ounces and $245

These guys are doing everything right as near as I can tell. They are only making carbon fiber tripods. If you want (as I do) a tripod on the order of 64 inches high with all the legs fully extended, you can choose between the TVC-24L or the TVC-34L. Both are 4 section tripods that are 67 or 68 inches high.

The TVC-24L holds 40 pounds, weighs 3.8 pounds, is 66.1 inches tall, costs $1105.
The TVC-34L holds 50 pounds, weighs 4.7 pounds, is 68.8 inches tall, costs $1245. Then you add the ball head of your choice. The BH-40 Pro weighs 16 ounces and costs $356. The head adds 3 inches to the height.


The tripods in the Manfrotto/Bogen line are workhorses, and priced fairly.

For some unknown reason, Bogen with its product line of 30xx numbers is now Manfrotto with different 3-digit numbers. I suppose the change of names (and far more confusing product numbers) makes sense to them, but it leave someone who is reading recommendations in books and online kind of out in the cold. I will make a feeble effort to straighten this out.

Bogen 3001 (Manfrotto 190)

At first glance, the 3001 looks like a good lightweight set of legs that could easily be tied onto a pack. But it isn't that much smaller and lighter than the 3021, so I feel that tripod would be a better choice.

The 3001 extends to 46.8 inch tall with column down, which means that a tall guy like me would have to bend over all the time. It weighs 4.8 pounds, and with the Bogen 3262QR ball head we measured 5 pounds. (you save 0.5 pounds over the 3021 and sacrifice 6.4 inches on the height with the column down.) The 3001 legs cost $120.00 or so, depending on whether you get chrome or black. They don't seem to be available without the center column.

Bogen 3021

The 3021 (now the 055) is often mentioned and is a solid recommendation. Here is the workhorse bang for the buck, tried and proven set of legs. Cost is $160.00 (not that much more than the 3001). They are 53.2 inches high with the column down, and again they do not seem to be available without the column. There are plates available (or there were) from other manufacturers to eliminate the center column. 5.3 pounds, so again not much bigger than the 3001. People use these for lightweight 4x5 cameras with success. John Shaw says this just might be the most tripod for the least money, but is a tad short if you are 5 foot 10 or taller. Also at the same weight, it is not as stable as the Gitzo G1340. This is recommended by Charles Campbell as his favorite tripod, but he mentions that for big telephotos (400mm and up) you will want a sturdy Gitzo (but then we aren't talking about backpacking anymore).

Bogen 3046

I bought a pair of these (with 3063 fluid heads) at an auction for a bargain price. These are intended for video, but are big sturdy tripods (with the Manfrotto quick release plates) that would be fine for studio work or use near a vehicle. They still are not tall enough! They extend to 54 inches without using the center column.

These legs are now discontinued, the closest thing is the Manfrotto 028B legs. The 3063 fluid head (using their quick release plates) is clearly a thing of the past.

To bring these tripods up to an acceptable height (without extending the center column), a person could replace the lower leg sections (which is just an aluminum tube 1 inch in diameter) with longer ones. The stock sections are 27 inches long. I would like the tripod to be 10 inches taller (64 inches), so adding 12 inches to the lower legs would be 39 inches. I should just round this up to 40 inches and go shopping. This would make the tripod less compact when collapsed, but I would far prefer that to having a midget tripod. If the head was then replaced (or modified to have an arca-swiss system), this tripod could be come something useful.

My favorite metal store has convenient 20 foot lengths of 1 inch aluminum tube. They have 6061 and 6063 (I am told 6063 is cheaper and half as strong). It is available in 1/16, 1/8, 3/16, and 1/4 wall thickness. Thicker walls add strength, but also weight. The tube on the tripod right now is .055 wall thickness (a tad under 1/16). So 1/16 should be fine in 6061 alloy.

Extending the legs to 40 inches with 1/16 tube will add about 0.9 pounds. If instead I use 1/8 tube, I will add 2.7 pounds to the total weight.


Gitzos were the best (until Really Right Stuff came along). Either way, you will pay for it!

Most of the Gitzos have legs that twist to lock, which many people dislike.

John Shaw points out that his Gitzos have outlasted many camera bodies and he is still using the tripods he bought in 1977 (in 2000 or so). In other words, the cost per year of use is pretty small.

The Gitzo product line is absolutely bewildering, I don't know how anyone figures out which model is which, and decides what to order. Their website is a disaster, I gave up even trying to use it. As near as I can tell, the only way to approach this is to get a word of mouth recommendation for one of their models from someone you trust and then place an order for it (if it still exists under the same model number).

If you live in (or travel to) New York, you could visit B and H photo and perhaps have a once in a lifetime chance to handle various Gitzos.

Gitzo G2220 Explorer

There are two special things about this tripod. One is how versatile it is for shooting macro; the other is that it is an amazing bargain for a Gitzo.

I heard some glowing reports about this tripod and ordered one (in May of 2006). It has aluminum legs and a price tag of $240.00 It has an extremely versatile center column well suited for macro photography. This makes it somewhat of a specialist tripod.

It weighs 4.9 pounds and extends to 50.0 inches with the column down. This is not as tall as I would like (I am wiser now than back then). It extends to 64 inches using the center column, which is exactly as tall as I would like a tripod without a center column to be. Pretty much the same size as a Bogen 3021 and more versatile. It has 3 segment legs and closes up to 25 inches. I put a Slik Pro 800 Ballhead on it, which brings the weight up to 6.2 pounds total.

Gitzo 2542L "Mountaineer" (carbon fiber)

In September of 2013, I ran into G Dan Mitchell in the Sierra backcountry. He was using and recommended a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod (the 2542L "mountaineer); the "L" denotes long legs, which makes it tall enough that you don't have to stoop to look through the camera -- without extending the column. The also recommends the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead to go with it. The 2542L legs are $730 at B and H, and the ballhead is another $300, so we are not talking about a bargain kit here.

Gitzo 0531 Carbon Fiber

This is a small and light carbon fiber tripod several people have recommended. It has 2 leg sections, weighs 1.6 pounds, folds to 21 inches. It has a maximum height of 52 inches, which is pretty small, but a tripod this light is all about compromises.

Gitzo 5540 LS

This is mentioned in the Luminous Landscape article cited above. The write says that he has found the Gitzo "3" series tripods to be inadquate for medium format and pro size (like the Canon 1D) digital SLR cameras. He also says that he aims for a tripod that sets up "higher than his head" to allow a comfortable setup on uneven ground.

This is another no-longer-available 4 section carbon fiber tripod from Gitzo. It is rated for 55 pounds and labelled "Tele-Studex, extra-sturdy".

Gitzo G1410

John Shaw mentions this model. A solid aluminum tripod, no centerpost. The literature says it is suitable for an 8x10 view camera (center post could be added). $389 for these legs. With a 500mm lens, Shaw says he gets pictures that are definitely sharper than when he uses his 1340. Old model number 410. 8.4 pounds, 3 section legs. 64.6 inch tall

Gitzo G1340

John Shaw says this is his standard tripod for all around work. "If I could only own one tripod this would be it." Again solid aluminum and no centerpost. $357 for these legs. 6.4 pounds and 60.0 inches high. Flat plate for mounting head, or a column can be purchased and added. This and the above model use "wing lock offs" instead of the usual Gitzo twist to tighten and this is a plus when wearing gloves. (old model number 340)

Gitzo G1320

Also on Shaws list. Same legs as the 1340, but with a center column and the usual twist leg locks (which he suggests replacing). $360 7.3 pounds and 62.2 inches.

Gitzo G1224

Also on Shaws list. A 5 pound tripod, and the lightest aluminum Gitzo he recommends. Has a column.

Gitzo G1348 (carbon fiber)

Current price here is $700 for a set of legs, but they are Carbon fiber legs and this thing weighs only 4.8 pounds. This might be the tripod to get if I win the lottery. Height is 65.7 inches and there is no center column! Shaw says this is absolutely the lightest tripod he can recommend. Note that the "4" in the model number indicates a 4 segment leg.

Gitzo G1324

I don't know anything about it, but it looks good to me. This has carbon fiber legs in 3 sections and weighs 4.5 pounds. Gitzo MK2 Mountaineer Inter Pro Studex G1325 $558. It has no center column, just a flat plate.

Gitzo G1228 Mountaineer

Another carbon fiber tripod, this time with a center column. John Shaw does NOT recommend this, he says it is so light that it blows around in the slightest breeze, and the bottom leg section is quite small in diameter, "about the only Gitzo I do not recommend" says Shaw. Price is $460 with the "rapid column". 3.4 pounds. Jim Doty says it is the size and sturdiness of the Bogen 3021, but with half the weight. 52.0 inches with column down. You decide if saving 3 pounds is worth $300.00 Galen Rowell used this and the G1348.

Basalt tripods

Gitzo has a "basalt" line of tripod that is, amazingly enough, made of basalt! They actually are making fibers out of volcanic rock and then making tripod legs much as is done with carbon fiber!! I don't know exactly what the point is, but it is certainly unique.


The Giottos seem to be trying to make a mark in the market held by the above two outfits, they make what seem to be nice products at a price that seems wonderful after you have been looking at Gitzos.
Giottos also has some economical ball heads.

Giottos MT8180

The MT8180 is a nice big set of carbon fiber legs for $310. 5.7 pounds and tall enough I don't have to bend over using it with the column down. (I measured 60.0 inches at the top of a Manfrotto 3262QR ball head mounted on the one I played with). With the ball head, the one I played with weighed 7.5 pounds. 4 sections, but sturdy.

Giottos MT9180

The MT-9180 is an aluminum equivalent to the MT8180 for $155 that might be great. The legs are 6.6 pounds, which isn't all that much more than the carbon fiber MT8180.

Tripod Heads

The better heads use a beefy 3/8-16 thread stud. Some use a good old 1/4-20 stud. Some legsets have a stud you can flip around to accomodate any kind of head, but it might be wise to investigate head-leg compatibility issues.

Arca Swiss used to be the top of the pack here, but as with tripods, Really Right Stuff has now risen to the top.

Really Right Stuff BH-55

This is the top of the line these days. $415 or so, 1.8 pounds. It is their no compromise ball head with a 2.2 inch ball. Rated for 50 pounds.

Really Right Stuff BH-40

The little brother to the BH-40 with a 1.6 inch ball. $375 and 1.1 pounds. They say it is adequate for lenses as big as the 70-200 f/2.8. Rated for 18 pounds.

Arca Swiss B1

This was for many years the legendary ballhead by which all others were judged. Now that Really Right Stuff has come along, nobody in their right mind buys these. If you find a used one dirt cheap, by all means don't pass it by.

When I last looked, this head sold for $450, so forget it and get a RRS BH-55. Also note that if you have one of these and get the idea of replacing the quick release clamp, you may as well forget it. Apparently, out of spite, Arca Swiss is using some kind of glue that cannot be defeated. I tried, using force, heat, and solvents to no avail. So I thumb my nose at them and recommend Really Right Stuff.

Kirk BH-1

A very good ballhead modelled after the infamous B1. Weighs 30 ounces (has a 2.125 inch ball) $355 direct from Kirk enterprises.

Kirk BH-3

Lighter than the BH-1 with a 1.65 inch ball. Weighs 19 ounces and costs $255.00, made to order by Kirk enterprises.

other Kirk Products

Kirk enterprisesmakes Arca style release plates for the Canon 20D ($55.00) as well as for the EF 70-200/f2.8 ... for $52.00, and lots of other interesting stuff. See however, Really right stuff below, who also make plates and such and may be a tad better.

Really Right Stuff BH-55

This is a well regarded, very nicely made ballhead from Really Right Stuff (who make a lot of camera mounting plates and high quality special products. Here is a review of the BH-55 from the Luminous Landscape. The price is $415 in the "Pro" configuration.

Other stuff from Really Right Stuff

They have a BH-40 head for $345 (and a BH-25 is $145) Their plate for the Canon 20D costs $55.00 (as does the plate for the EF 70-200/f2.8) Same price as the Kirk plates and rumors indicate that some people think their plates, especially for cameras, are superior.

Acratech Ultimate Ballhead

Sells for about $280 in a multitude of versions. Has a calibrated azimuth motion and weighs less than a pound. Anodized aluminum and compatible with arca-swiss style QR clamps.

Slik Pro Ball 800 w/ quick release 618708

It has two knobs, so you can't really say it is no frills. Weight is 1.68 pounds which is a bit alarming. Rated to hold 6.6 pounds. The QR plate is round, which is said to be a good thing. $80.00 Extra plates cost $15.00 Said to be just fine for 35mm to lightweight 4x5. I just ordered one (my first ballhead!) and it arrived today. What a monster! I can well believe it weighs nearly 2 pounds. So far I am impressed based on playing with it sans camera. If this is what you get for $80, I can't wait to hold a B1 or BH-3 in my hot little hands.

Slik Standard Ballhead II

Back to one knob, no quick release and 11.2 ounces. $50.00

Canon Professional Ball Head

I don't know if this thing still exists, but one report says it is cheap ($60 at Adorama) and "just super".

Bogen 3-way heads

The Bogen 3025 and 3028 are nice 3-way heads (without the big shift lever thing every tripod I have ever owned came with). The 3047 is a large 3-way pan head with big knobs that you might want for a large view camera. Many of the Bogen heads have new Manfrotto numbers to confuse you and make it difficult to use recommendations you may find online reading reviews.

Bogen Ball Heads

The Bogen 484RC2 is a quick release model that seems just fine and sells for $55.00. The 486RC2 is a bit beefier and sells for $65.00. I have handled the Bogen/Manfrotto 3262QR and it is a simple no frills ball with a nice decisive quick release. However, it is now discontinued (replaced by the 484RC2) Philip Greenspun makes some disparaging comments about this head, including the rather final "I wasn't sorry when it was stolen". weight is 10.6 ounces and can handle 8.8 pounds. Expects the tripod to have a 3/8 inch stud. The next step up is the 486RC2, which handles 13.2 pounds and itself weighs an even 1 pound, for $65.00 One change in the newer models is that the ball is now made of plastic (or as they like to say: polymer). Whether a polymer ball is better or worse I cannot say, it could well be better. The bigger Bogen heads are the 3038 Super Ball (particularly sturdy) and the 3055 Heavy Duty Ball Head.(using their old numbers).

Wimberley Head

The Wimberley Head with Acro/Swiss type controls, is not a ball head, but a big unique head designed to move really big telephoto lenses around their center of gravity. (see Wimberley) Just the thing if you are photographing wildlife with a 600mm lens.

Foba ball heads

Charles Campbell loved his Foba Super Ball. Philip Greenspun hates his and has turned to the Arca Swiss B1, saying that the B1 is half the weight and better. I have heard some horrible things about these, as well as great things.

Gitzo ball heads

Gitzo has its own line of ball heads (in a confusing variety as always), but I don't hear much about them on the photo forums. It would seem that people buy Gitzo legs and if they are spending that kind of money, get the Arca Swiss B1 ball. The Gitzo G1178M looks like a nice ballhead with a quick release, and a Gitzo price of $158.00.

What follows are some lists of recommendations and gear that some friends have: sorting out.

HL recommends the following:

DH has:

Galen Rowell (in 1993) recommends:
Apparently these Gitzo models are items of history.

In the online list of his gear, he is said to be using the Gitzo 1228, as well as the 1348 with Arca-Swiss and Kirk ballheads, along with Arca-style release plates made by Kirk and Really Right Stuff. He used the ultralight Gitzo 001 on trail runs.

This fellow has some good information on bogen tripods and several heads.

The photo.net forums have had extensive discussions of ball heads in the Nature Photography forums.

Take a look at the LowePro off trail 2 Holster style belt pack for 35mm SLR ($60.95 at amazon).

Feedback? Questions? Drop me a line!

Tom's Photography Info / tom@mmto.org