The one area where I’ve learned that spending the money really counts is in the tripod department. I tried to go cheap and actually had some decent success with my old, cheap ($45) tripod. However, once I upgraded there is no going back. My budget couldn’t go ‘top of the line’ here which can run you into the thousand dollar range but by all means if you can afford it I really think this is an area of photography where you get what you pay for so get the best that you can afford.
One thing that I didn’t know before searching for a tripod is that most of the higher end ones aren’t sold in complete units but rather in pieces. Generally, you buy the legs and head separately. In comparison to my first one this does make a lot of sense since the different components of each wear out quicker. For example, the legs on my old cheap tripod started becoming rusty from often being planted in water, rain, etc… but the head on the tripod still worked fine even at the end when I decided to toss the thing.
Similar to the camera and lenses I don’t think it is necessary to go nuts here and spend thousands of dollars but if debating between a new camera body/lens or upgrading from a ‘cheap’ tripod to a good tripod I’d head down the route of getting a nicer tripod. After all, one of the most important aspects of photography is light which means you will be shooting often at sunrise, sunset and the ‘blue hours’. During these periods of time you will be hard pressed to hand hold a shot and still keep it sharp. Therefore, you and your three legged friend are going to become fast friends.
The Manfrotto 055XPROB is the first ‘real’ set of tripod legs I’ve owned and I must say I love them. The legs are extremely sturdy and can support over 15 lbs (more than enough for my gear). It collapses down to around 25 inches while extending to over 70 inches (when the center column is fully extended) which comes in very handy when you are trying to take pictures from an observation deck or something like that and want to get your camera in a position that is above the railings/dividers.
Another advantage of this particular model is that the center column can quickly and easily be swung into a horizontal position without using any tools (see image on the right). This may not seem like a necessary thing, and I didn’t fully appreciate it at first, but the legs can also be spread out to 25° angles which will enable you to shoot extremely close to the ground if/when needed.
Of course on the flip side of all the advantages and the sturdiness of this model is the fact that this tripod is rather heavy at 5.3 lbs. Again, this might not seem like a ton of weight but carrying it around all day can get a little tiresome. However, I made the decision that the cost difference between this model (around $140) and a carbon fiber model ($345) which weighs 3.6 lbs wasn’t worth it. Therefore, when I strap this bad boy to my back and I’m hiking through snow or up a mountain I know I made a conscious decision to add the extra 1.7 lbs.
In all honesty this is probably my favorite piece of photo equipment outside of the camera itself because of the versatility that it provides me with all of my other gear (monopods, gorillapods, travel tripods, etc…). Before I started using my Manfrotto 496RC2 head I thought the gorillapod and monopod I had were useless. However, in hindsight it wasn’t that those things were useless. Instead it was that lack of the proper ball head was missing.
So now onto the ball head itself – this thing is very versatile and it is affordable (around $67) – which makes it an ideal option for me. The head comes with a quick release plate which means you won’t need to screw/unscrew your camera from the tripod if you do want to disconnect it and hand hold the camera to take some images. The ‘quick release’ function also has a safety latch on it which makes it hard to inadvertently release the camera so the chance you will mistakenly dislodge the camera is pretty slim.
The head is rated for 13 lbs. but from what I’ve read it seems 8 lbs. or less is ideal – just for comparison sake my max weight with my camera and lens setup is around 4 – 5 lbs – so if you are running with similar stuff you shouldn’t have a problem with this perfect little ball head. It comes with a knob to adjust and tighten the plate while the other (smaller) knob is there to increase and decrease the friction of the plate making it easier or harder to adjust the plate to the area you are trying to get it to.
My budget didn’t allow some of the higher end ball heads (Really Right Stuff BH-55 runs around $400) but I find for my purposes (landscapes, low light) that the Manfrotto head works perfectly and outside of some minor tightening with allen wrenches that I have to do every few months I have absolutely no complaints. BTW I can’t imagine the ‘upper end’ tripod heads never coming loose either as you are tightening/untightening these things alot so the wear and tear here is intense compared with all the other gear you have. The most frequent adjustment I need to make is to just give the plate a quick turn with the allen wrench and then it will be good for another couple months. I keep a multi-tool in my photography bag in case this becomes an issue in my bag but outside of that I haven’t had any problems or complaints with this setup (legs and head) in well over a year.