Magazine Article


He Ain't Heavy, He's My Tripod
The search is on for lighter, yet stronger, supports

HP Marketing Corp

When it comes to tripods, photographers can be very particular. After all, a sports photographer has different needs than a macro photographer. The one thing that most photographers agree on is that they all seem to want tripods that weigh less but can hold more. Studio Photography recently corresponded with experts in the field of tripods, monopods, and heads to get their opinion on what's hot and what we may see coming down the road.

David Fisher, product manager for Bogen Imaging's Gitzo line, says the current trend is not necessarily just lighter weight-it's for more stable support. He says that as DSLRs continue to become more and more affordable, photographers are buying 70-200mm and 300mm lenses at record pace. "When you add the sensor factor (1.4X, 1.5X) to a 300mm lens, you essentially have a 400mm lens," he explains. "That means the photographer requires a more stable and durable tripod than ever before. Since carbon fiber is light and strong, it has become the ‘trendy' material."

As a distributor, Fisher says Bogen Imaging is working with its factory counterparts in Europe (Gitzo and Manfrotto) to continuously improve upon tripod design. Introducing more-affordable lightweight materials like Basalt and new-generation aluminum tubes has addressed part of the issue.

Gitzo has led the market in carbon-fiber tube technology for nearly 15 years, according to Fisher. "Since they introduced the first carbon-fiber photographic tripod in 1994, Gitzo has improved their tube technology by decreasing the weight 30 percent and increasing rigidity and damping by 20 percent," he adds.

The pultrusion process used by Gitzo and Manfrotto in manufacturing tubes increases rigidity and stability by using a woven tube design. "The woven design is seamless," says Fisher. "All Chinese-manufactured tubes are constructed from a roll-table design, which bonds sheets together with glue and then is rolled and seamed; seams conduct shock and act as a stress point."

Fisher says Gitzo continues to lead the way in exploring the right materials for the right job, including machined aluminum and magnesium, as well as developing technical polymers like Soulid 238, introduced in 2006.

More photographers than ever before are purchasing ballheads separately from tripods. Fisher points to versatility as the reason, noting that many photographers will have multiple tripods and heads and use the correct combination based on the type of photography they are shooting and the equipment they are using.

"Let's say you're a nature photographer who uses a 400mm lens, but you also like to shoot macro photography," he explains. "There are specific heads (like the Gitzo systematic head and leveling base) made specifically for long lens shooters, and heads more appealing to macro shooters, like the unique Gitzo off-center ballheads, which provide an additional axis of rotation for exploring various angles. A photographer wouldn't pack the 14mm fisheye lens to shoot birds in flight, so why pack the wrong tripod and head?"

As for what lies ahead, Fisher sees more choices specific to photographic needs. "Specialized products for each segment of shooter," he says. "Whether it's overhead tripods for event shooters, or more travel-sized options, the key will be choice."

Gitzo and Manfrotto will continue to benefit from military, aerospace, and sporting-goods industries, according to Fisher. "As more technologies are employed and made available, Gitzo will capitalize on them and introduce them into the field of photography." he proclaims. "Whether it's nanotube technology, newer technical compounds, or simply design elements from motorbikes, tennis rackets, golf clubs, etc., if it dampens vibration, improves stability, and can be translated to photography, Gitzo is studying it."

As for heads, Fisher thinks there will be revolutionary changes in how they lock, attach to your cameras and lenses, and the loads they will bear. "There are terrific companies like Acratech, Really Right Stuff, Arca-Swiss, Kirk Enterprises, and others that have shed light on the importance of a high-performance head," Fisher notes. "High-precision manufacturing by these and other companies have challenged the industry leaders like Gitzo and Manfrotto to take those philosophies to the next level."

Seeking A Perfect Combination

Scott Dordick, CEO, Acratech, Inc., agrees with the notion that stronger and lighter is the trend and that as materials and designs improve, we will see even stronger and lighter products. But, he says, another trend is that photographers are looking for a tripod/ballhead combination that can work well for a wide variety of shooting situations, everything from travel and nature to studio photography.

"Photographers are looking for a single solution for all of their camera support needs," says Dordick. "Of course, no one tripod/ballhead would be perfect for every situation, but with a lightweight ballhead that also has a load capacity that exceeds your heaviest gear and a lightweight carbon-fiber tripod, you can come pretty close to having the ideal setup for most shooting situations."

Dordick says Acratech is addressing this trend by designing lightweight ballheads that weigh less than one pound, yet can support more that 25 pounds. "It also has the added versatility functioning as a gimbal head, to further reduce the amount of weight a photographer has to carry," he adds.

While Dordick notes that there are some excellent manufacturers of tripods, he claims that the tripod manufacturers haven't been able to design a ballhead that is in the same league (performance-wise) as the top independent manufacturers of quality precision ballheads. "It may just be that the degree of precision required is best done by specialty companies like us," he states, "and the precision tolerances required are not suited to large-scale production."

Taking Action

When it comes to tripods, Jerry Deutsch, director of marketing, Adorama, says heavier doesn't necessarily mean stronger or better. The trend is definitely to go with lighter materials like carbon fiber. The problem, he notes, is that carbon-fiber tripods are expensive. "The idea of a really strong, but lighter, tripod appeals to photographers, but many photographers simply can't afford or will not spend so much money on [them]," says Deutsch.

That's why Adorama chose to brand its own tripods. The company's Flashpoint carbon-fiber tripods have all the features of high-priced carbon-fiber tripods without the high price, according to Deutsch. "We chose features of the most popular models on the market, and since we sell direct to the end user and eliminate the middleman, we were able to offer carbon-fiber tripods at an affordable price," he says. "The same concept applies to all of our Flashpoint products."

Dick Felix, account supervisor at RF Advertising, which represents R.T.S. Inc., points out that the heavier equipment, such as super-long lenses, requires heavier and sturdier tripods for best results. He says preventing this expensive equipment from damage caused by tipping over is another important consideration.

"Our new line of smaller, lighter Magnesit heads offer extra load-bearing capacity to solve the need for lighter weight without sacrificing stability." says Felix. The Magnesit 40200 head has a load-bearing capacity up to 65 pounds.

Felix says that future developments will respond to photographers' needs and will include speeding setup times, portability, and solving common problems that crop up in the field during wedding and commercial shoots. "Our new XLL model extends to 7 feet in height, so a photographer can shoot over the heads of those attending the wedding," says Felix, citing a problem-solving solution. "At the same time, the XLL maintains its stability."

Working Together

Bob Salomon, national sales manager, HP Marketing Corp., agrees that the trend is for lighter, yet durable and versatile tripods with increased load capacities. HP Marketing Corp. is the U.S. distributor for several photographic companies, and Salomon says they're all addressing the need for stronger, lighter tripods.

"Giottos introduced tripods and monopods made from lightweight aluminum or carbon fiber," he says. "From Berlebach: lightweight wooden tripods and monopods made from seasoned ash wood; from Linhof: lightweight tripods made from an aluminum/magnesium aircraft alloy," he continues. "Novoflex has a unique tabletop tripod that can be converted into a very lightweight tripod, duopod, or monopod, and Ergorest offers the MultiTripod."

Salomon notes that more photographers are purchasing heads separately because it gives them complete freedom of choice. "Since we have tripods with articulating columns, reversible columns, no column, geared columns, pneumatic columns, and ballheads, 2-way and 3-way pan heads, leveling heads, geared precision-leveling heads, and video heads, it allows the greatest range of use as needs and equipment change over time," he says.

Salomon sees even stronger and lighter tripods in the future. "We'll see new combinations of lightweight metal alloys combined with lightweight materials like carbon fiber," he concludes.

Tips from the Experts: What to look for when buying a Tripod

Scott Dordick, Acratech
It's important to consider many things, including the extended height without the center column extended, the collapsed length (especially for airline travel), the number of leg extensions, and minimum height (important for close-to-the-ground shots). Other things to consider: the diameter of the legs, the tripod's overall stability, its weight capacity, type of feet (rubber, spiked, etc.), build quality, construction material (aluminum is better than carbon fiber in extreme cold), and overall weight.

David Fisher, Gitzo/Bogen Imaging
If you're deciding between multiple tripods, test them side by side using similar-sized tubes.

First, determine vibration damping. Set up the tripod in its full extension and gently place a finger on the top bolt (where the head attaches). Next, mimic wind by tapping the leg with the fingers of your opposite hand. Do this equally on multiple tripods-you'll find the one that's more stable.

Lightly twist the legs of the tripod. Don't twist too hard-violently shaking the tripod won't mimic shooting conditions.

Finally, test the strength of the tubes and leg locks. Take the tripod fully set up and change the leg angle on one leg to 90°. Place the extended leg on a counter or rack so that two legs are resting normally and one leg is extended parallel to the ground. Press down firmly in the middle of the leg and watch for leg angle deflection-does the leg remain straight, or does it bow? Also, listen for "cracking" sounds. That's the carbon sheets delaminating inside the tube, something that shouldn't happen.

Bob Salomon, HP Marketing Corp.

How stable is the tripod? This can be easily tested with a small, half-filled glass of water. Extend the tripod to the desired height, place the glass on top, gently tap a leg, and see how long it takes for the water to settle. The tripod that settles the quickest will be a better performer.

How is it assembled? Do the legs have levers or rotating locks? If you need waterproof or water- and dustproof locks, then lever locks may not be the best choice. With rotating leg locks, check to see how fast they lock and unlock. Will the tripod/monopod fit in a suitcase? The TSA does not allow "clublike" objects to be carried on an aircraft.

Are the feet rubber/convertible/interchangeable? Will you shoot macro? If so, a column that can be inclined to any position will be the most useful. It also allows the tripod to perform as a copystand. Do the legs spread? How easily?

Dick Felix, CullmanN/RTS

The weight of the camera to be used is the most important factor when selecting the right tripod. The most important number when selecting a tripod and tripod head used to be load-bearing capacity. Even today, the leverage resulting from the camera/lens combination hasn't been taken into account. The resulting leverage is, however, the main reason why equipment is unsteady sometimes and tips over.

For this reason, Cullmann has developed dependable values on torque relating to the load-bearing capacity of tripod heads. Applying a formula of Torque = Force x Lever arm, the LGA Nuremberg testing labs subjected Cullmann Magnesit ballheads to numerous load tests. The ballheads achieved torque values of over 35 nanometers, enough for a large safety buffer to prevent tipping. All Cullmann Magnesit ballheads are identified with their torque number in nanometers.

Jerry Deutsch, Adorama
The things to look for are:

1. Load capacity
2. Maximum height
3. Weight of the tripod
4. Price
5. Material construction
6. Collapsed length
7. Type of locking mechanism (flip-lock or screw tightening)

Click here to see Tripods, Monopods, & Heads in the Buyers' Guide