Choosing A New Tripod

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Last week I posted about my “goals” for 2012. In that post I mentioned that one of the goals was to upgrade the quality of my tripod. Well, I’ve decided to make that happen sooner, rather than later. We will be going to a few unique places to shoot over the next few months and I’d like to get the best images that I can. The fact of the matter is that the Slik Sprint Pro II tripod I bought last Fall is marginal at best, especially with a DSLR and larger lens attached to it. It is a fantastic tripod for small cameras (it will be perfect for our S95).

I’d already been doing some research but once I decided to move forward I got more serious about it and came up with these basic criteria for my next tripod:

  1. High value for the money spent
  2. Stable enough to support our current equipment as well as reasonable upgrades.
  3. Tall enough to allow me to use the tripod without the need to extend the center column.
  4. Must be portable enough to carry-on flights
  5. Light enough to make extended hiking with the tripod comfortable

With those requirements in mind I began my research. I quickly found out that there are an incredible number of tripod manufactures out there selling a HUGE number of models. It was pretty overwhelming, actually.

Price

I caught my breath and tried to narrow down the list. The first choice was to settle on a realistic price range. It is very easy to spend well over $2000 on a tripod/ballhead combination, and a lot of people do that, but I’m definitely not one of them. I do have a budget but I don’t want to shortchange myself. Based on some digging around at various sites like Adorama and Amazon I decided to keep the cost as close to a max of $600 as possible.  That’s definitely a lot of money but I figure that this tripod should last a very long time and the last thing I want to do is find myself wishing I had some thing just a bit more stable 6 months after I buy it. It seems like I should be able to get a decent quality tripod with a like quality ballhead. If I could find something for less that would be a bonus for sure.

Stability

For a photographer who is trying to capture sharp shots, especially with longer exposure times, a stable tripod is an absolute must. I discovered that the hard way on our trip out West last Fall. While I got some decent shots I noticed that a fair amount of them were not quite “tack sharp” and I think that is a result of using the tripod that I used. I don’t want the tripod to be a limiting factor in the quality of my images.

This brings me to a “critical” cross-roads. Do I go for a carbon fiber legged tripod or save a lot of money and get an aluminum legged model? The cost difference in most cases is nearly 2 times so this is a big decision. Carbon is renowned for light weight and superior vibration resistance. Lots of people report very significant differences between carbon and aluminum when it comes to preventing vibration from reaching the camera. They also report much less money in their wallets with carbon :-) Is it worth the extra cost or not? Everyone is different but at the end of the day I decided that I would search for a carbon fiber tripod instead of aluminum. The cost is higher now but I’m hoping that the benefits will be realized for a long time to come.

The other factor to consider is the leg diameter and number of leg sections. Smaller diameter and/or more leg sections often result in less stable tripods. The number of leg sections also figures into the compactness of the tripod. The more leg sections, the more compact. I decided to go for a 4 section leg tripod with the biggest diameter legs I could get within my price range.

Height

Having a tripod that is both compact enough for travel yet tall enough to allow me some measure of comfort while using it could be a problem. Many compact tripods only extend to a height (without the center column extended) of 47 to 50 inches. I’m nearly 6′ 1″ so stooping down to look through the viewfinder could get painful in my old age :-)  Based on some measurements I decided that I want a tripod that extends to somewhere between 53 and 56 inches. By the time I add the ballhead and my camera to it the viewfinder should be around 64 inches or so, which is right about eye-level

Portability

Portability is the next thing I looked at and decided that the tripod should fold up to less than 20 inches, making it able to be packed on a carry-on piece of luggage. The short length will also make the tripod easy to strap to my backpack and take with me on hikes. Weight enters into this equation but fortunately pretty much any tripod that meets the length requirement will be on the lighter end of the scale.

Narrowing The Field

Once I made all the basic decisions as to price, material, height and portability, the potential candidates whittled down quite a bit. After a fair amount of searching, comparing specs and reviews, I settled on these three tripods:

Benro C2691TB1(approx $530)-This tripod/ballhead combo extends to 55+ inches and folds down to just over 17 inches.

Feisol CT-3442(approx $399 without ballhead)- This is a well regarded carbon fiber tripod that extends to 54 inches and folds down to just under 19 inches. A ballhead is additional.

Feisol 3441T(approx $414 without ballhead)- This is a bit of a “Frankenstein” tripod that is sold through Really Big Cameras, a web retailer. They took the leg assembly of the Feisol CT-3442 and matched them with the top assembly of the CT-3441S to give a tripod that extends to 56+ inches and folds down to 19 inches. A ballhead is not included with this one either.

There were a few others that could have been on this list but these 3 seemed to be the best options. The Benro is tempting since it’s an all-in-one solution but the Feisol’s seem to have a slightly better reputation. And, adding a ballhead to them puts them in the same basic price range as the Benro.

In the final analysis I decided on the Feisol 3441T from Really Big Cameras. Given my requirements it seemed like the best fit overall. The price will definitely be at the upper end of my range but I’ll be ordering it in the next few days and will post a review of it once I get it and have had a chance to use it in the field.

Summary

I think the take away from this whole experience of choosing a tripod is to take your time, determine your needs and budget and spend some time researching the options. There are so many options in the market today that the “perfect” tripod exists for just about any combination of individual needs. Remember, just because someone chooses a tripod for them doesn’t mean that that is the correct tripod for you. You need to do your own research and make up your mind based on your unique situation.

Now that I’ve settled on a tripod, I need to decide on a ballhead unit to go on top of the Feisol tripod legs. Stay tuned for a post on that in the next few days or so.

Happy Shooting!

 

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