Monday, August 24, 2009

Travel Tripod: My quest paid off

In the first article of my Tripod Series, Traveling with a tripod: It's love — Hate, I discussed the benefits of using a tripod when traveling. I’ve been taking a tripod with me for years while traveling. You can’t take night photographs, or other long exposure shots without a tripod.

Gitzo GK2580TQR with RRS BH-40LR headIn the second article in the Series, How to Choose a Tripod, I discussed the various criteria to use in choosing any tripod, including one for travel.

So what makes a Travel Tripod different than any other tripod, and why might choosing a Travel Tripod require us to make compromises, and force us to rank our criteria by their importance to us?

When choosing a Travel Tripod there are two criteria briefly mentioned in the second article in my Tripod Series which makes the choice difficult. A Travel Tripod has to be easy to pack and take on your trip. In addition, presumably on most trips, you’re going to be carrying it around for long periods of time, so it needs to be very light weight.

My main tripod is made of carbon-fiber. Even so, it weighs about 6 lbs with the head. Carrying it around for several hours at a time can be very tiring. Folded it won’t fit in my carry-on, no matter how it’s positioned.

I chose the Gitzo GK2580TQR Travel Tripod (legs), using my criteria from How to Choose a Tripod. This is how I went about it:
  • I’m about 66” tall. When I put my Nikon D200 atop the head, on the legs, it adds about 3” to the tripod’s height. My eyes, like most adults are about 4” or so below the top of my head. To use the tripod without raising the center column, Therefore to be comfortable for me, I prefer the tripod to be at least 50” high with the legs at their smallest angle setting with the center column down.
  • While I can’t attach the head to the legs without the center column, I can purchase a shorter center column to replace the current one, so the camera can be on the tripod even lower to the ground than I can get it now (16”).
  • The tripod legs are unbraced.
  • The tripod legs are made with carbon-fiber, using the pultrusion method of manufacture, which has the best weight to stability ratio.
  • The tripod legs weight 3 lbs and with the head/clamp I chose, just under 4 lbs aggregately, better than I hoped for.
  • Folded Size, is the 2nd critical criterion specific for travel tripods. Considering the size of my allowable roller carry-on, and the size of my camera/computer backpack, I was very pleased that my tripod is just under 17” long folded, and less than 4.5” wide.
  • The tripod must be able to easily carry the weight of my D200, and more. The tripod must support the camera, the heaviest lens I will use with it, my flash with bracket, head/clamp, and the plate on the camera to which the clamp holds on. (More on that in a moment.) The tripod legs support 15.4 lbs, which is sufficient.
  • The diameter of the tripod’s legs are a critical specification for maximizing the tripod’s resistance to torque. I plan to use my Nikon 80mm-400mm lens with this tripod. It’s length at 400mm, and its weight are somewhat less than a typical 300mm prime lens, so I chose to use legs which have the first leg section at a diameter of 28mm. I’ve now tested the tripod. It holds my equipment very steady, enough for long exposure shots.
  • The tripod head, which sits atop the legs is what allows you to move the camera to compose your photographs. For the purposes of this article, it’s enough to say, in my opinion, the ball head is the best choice for Point and Shoot, SLR, and DSLR cameras (mine). In my opinion, the best ball heads are manufactured by Markins and Really Right Stuff (RRS). I’ll have an article on ball heads on the Blog soon. I chose the RRS BH-40 LR ball head.
  • As mentioned in the second article of the Series, the best clamp for SLR/DSLR camera/lenses is an Arca-Swiss style clamp. It allows quick attachment and detachment, and provides a solid, secure base and connection between the head and your camera/lens. I chose an Arca-Swiss lever style clamp by RRS, which allows for instant release of the camera/lens compared to the screw knob style. A point and shoot camera can use a direct screw attachment successfully.
  • Point and Shoot cameras, and lenses need only a flat plate for a clamp to grip. Point and Shoot cameras are light, and flopping them in the ball head to obtain a vertical orientation will not noticeably affect their stability. Long lenses used with an SLR or DSLR camera are usually attached to the head, via a collar, instead of the camera the camera. The camera/lens is rotated in the collar to change orientation. The lens is attached to the head for balance. Otherwise, an SLR/DSLR with lens is attached to the tripod via the camera. I prefer to use an “L” plate with the camera. To vertically orient the camera, you use the short side of the “L” plate keeping the camera/lenses weight directly over the tripod’s central axis, instead of flopping the camera to the side in the head’s slot which substantially diminishes the stability of the tripod. I’m using a RRS flat plate for my long lenses and and “L” plate for my D200.
D200 with 80-400mm lens attached to tripod via lens collar and plate

The compromise one must make, when choosing a Travel Tripod is stability (weight capacity, and resistance to torque) versus folded size, and tripod weight. It’s extremely hard to find a combination which works.
My quest was successful. The Gitzo GK2580TQR tripod meets my varied specifications, and the head and other parts by RRS fit the bill perfectly. By the way, in my opinion Gitzo makes the best tripods. Manfrotto tripods are also excellent, and there are other brands which are highly serviceable.

Please note, however, that if I wanted to use a longer lens, such as a Nikon 500mm telephoto lens for birding, the GK2580TQR legs would not have the necessary stability.


Tom said...

Ned, how you went about the quest really tied everything together. It let us understand what each of the criteria to choose a tripod really means. Thanks.

So now, when will you discuss heads and what you look for in them? I'm sure there are specific reasons you suggest heads by Markins and Really Right Stuff over other heads which get pretty good reviews.

Sarah said...

Tom's right. This 3rd article ties up the series beautifully.

I feel I can now go out and know what I'm doing purchasing tripod legs. I hope you will discuss the details of what to look for in heads, sooner than later.


Allison said...

Great article.

I've been using your articles for research. I just ordered the Gitzo GK2580TQR from a company in Washington, DC. I'm going to try out the ball head which comes with it, as the Gitzo GK2580TQR already exceeds my budget, but I agree with you that it doesn't make a lot of sense to buy legs that won't do the job. I can purchase another ball head later, but at least my legs are the right one for me.

I have a D300 and my longest lens is a 70-300mm. I don't anticipate a longer lens.


Suzie said...

Great article series. I've begun my own tripod quest armed with your articles.


Anonymous said...

Excellent article. With the RRS head, do the legs fold up and tuck in around the head well for a compact package or is the diameter of the BH-40 causing problems?


Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Anonymous,

With the head which comes with the GK2580TQR, it folds up very tight. With the BH-40, it doesn't fold as tight, but it is acceptable to me.

The small photo at the bottom of the second article in the series,

shows the tripod folded with the BH-40 attached. You can see the legs are slightly askew to accommodate the head.

If things are very tight in my bag, I'll pop off the head. I'm used to that, as with my big tripod, to fit it in my checked-in luggage, I have to pop off the ball head in order to get it in, even diagonally.

I only fold the tripod that way (traveler mode) when it's in my carry-on, for travel. When I'm out photographing, I keep it in the more standard tripod position, so it's ready to go.

Anonymous said...

May I ask what parts you needed to add to the center column in order to properly mount a head other than the one which came with this kit? I would like to do the same.


Ned S. Levi said...

Sure. After removing the head which comes with the kit, I only needed purchase a Gitzo 1/4-20" & 3/8"-16 Reversible Tripod Screw to mount my RRS ball head.

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