The Magic Tripod

I Want The Best, But I Am Broke
Those of you who have been active on any of the online photography forums knows that there is a recurring question that keeps popping up.  The title usually is something on the order of:

    "Best tripod under $$$?"

Where $$$ is usually some number less than $100 USD.  Usually those threads bring a flood of responses that broadly fall into two categories.  The first group insists that the person should spend many hundreds of dollars on a carbon fiber G---o with an equally expensive head and that they will never regret their once in a lifetime investment.  The other extreme sing the praises of extreme off-brand units with names like "Well Good" bought for pennies on eBay or some Internet discount Web site.  So the questions that come to my mind are:  1) what drives these requests? and 2) is there a magic tripod formula?

The Point of Magical Convergence
There are three divergent forces at work:
  • Affordability
  • Weight
  • Stability
Some people might also add durability/quality as a fourth consideration.  The important thing to consider is that any attempt to reduce price will result in a decrease in stability and/or an increase in weight.  Likewise, a decrease in weight will tend to increase price and/or decrease stability and so on.  Is it possible to find a tripod that is portable and stable and moderately priced (say under $150 USD or maybe well under that amount)?

My answer to that question is a definite...MAYBE, meaning YES, but with a few qualifications.  Everything in life involves compromises, particularly when trying to do things on the cheap.  So, let's quickly cut to the chase and look at a few options in the world of high value, low-end tripods.

What I Was Looking For...
What started me down this path was the realization that I was frequently using my fairly heavy, very stable tripod to support fairly light gear.  It really looks silly to see a compact 35mm film SLR perched on the same legs and head that I use to support my 4x5 view camera.  As a result, I started looking for a lighter unit to use with my smaller film cameras.  While I was doing my shopping, it also occurred to me that whatever I found might work pretty well for a compact dSLR with moderate size lens.  So the first maxim of tripod compromise...

      "Cheap and Light Will Work If You Limit The Load."

In fact, that may well be the only maxim of tripod compromise.

My First Attempt Fails
These were my criteria:
  • Under $100 USD
  • Capacity of about 5 lbs
  • Stable
  • Light and compact enough for hiking
  • Suitable for low angle work
  • Comfortable to use with my 6' 2" frame (bending over too much cramps my style)
My first inclination was to look at travel tripods from various makers.  There are some pretty nice choices in that product sector and I would definitely suggest them as great value.  Unfortunately the price point for most models was at least twice my $100 target.  The next thing I did was to go to the Adorama Web site and check the boxes for my general criteria and have the results ordered by price.  Working from the top down, I soon found what I thought would be a good deal at about the $85 USD price point on a unit that appeared to meet all my criteria.  Bingo!  The order was placed and a few days later the box arrived. looks a little small...  Enter the second maxim of tripod compromise:

      "Stated Capacities are Highly Overstated, Particularly On The Low End Price-wise"

Yep, my new 5 lb capacity tripod was basically suitable for bantam-weight cameras.  The QR plate was about the same size of my thumbnail.  Back it went to Adorama and I ended up eating the shipping both ways.  At this point, I was a little discouraged to the point where I did the unthinkable.  I went down to my local camera store to see what they had in stock.  So, the third maxim of tripod compromise:

      "See It In Person Before You Buy"

This is a good idea in general when buying photo stuff, but doubly important with tripods.  I know that this blog is supported by referrals to online retailers, but touch is real.  Even with a good recommendation (like mine to follow), you run a risk of disappointment buying sight unseen.

The Magic Tripod
On display was a nicely sturdy tripod priced at $99.99 with three-way pan/tilt head that weighed just a little more than I originally desired.  And the winner is...(drum roll)

Slik Pro 330 DX with Pentax K10D Mounted

Yes, that is a full-sized APS-C dSLR mounted.  As you can see, this tripod is not particularly spindly.  The stated capacity with head is 6.6 lbs and the legs are titanium alloy for relatively light weight (3.1 lbs with QR 3-way pan/tilt head).  The Slik Pro 330 DX is a real value standout at this price point.  Here is a close up of the head with camera mounted.

Slik Pro 330 DX 3-way Head

Looks pretty nice, eh?  Well, it is a pretty nice head, but it has a couple of weak points.  The first is that the lever that holds the QR plate onto the head is positioned such that it bumps one's chin.  You  can see it jutting out to the rear in the photo.  The other weak point is that the head is not particularly compact nor is it very light for its stated 6.6 lb capacity.

What about the legs?  The flip lever tighteners work well and allow for very fast setup.  In case you are wondering, this type of lightweight lever is a potential point of failure in the long run.  One of those compromises, I guess.  Once extended, the tripod is admirably rigid and resistant to torsion and bowing.  The center column extends quite a bit higher, but things are not quite so stable at full extension (another compromise, though a small one).  The bottom 2/3rd of the center column are easily removable to provide a much shorter column appropriate for low level work.  Yes, you also get three-position angle adjust and the ability to invert the column to get way low to the ground.

Any low points with the legs?  Yes, a few.  The center column is secured using a twist collar below the leg spider AND a second stop knob on the side of the spider.  Both must be tightened to keep the column from moving or rotating.  It gets old fast.  There also is no provision for spiked feet on this model.  This is not a deal killer, but it still would be nice to have as an add-on option.  And lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention that like all rigid, lightweight alloy legs, the 330 DX is prone to vibration.

The Final Target
Now is this the end of the story?  No way!  It was my desire to truly have my cake and eat it too.  I wanted to get the total weight with head down to about 2.5 lbs and have a more compact solution than the 3-way head provides.  I also wanted a capacity closer to 8 lbs.  Did I attain my goal?  As a sneak preview to my next post, here is the 330 DX stripped down for field use!

Slik Pro 330 DX with short center column and compact ball head

More about the above setup in a later post...

BTW...The 330 DX legs are available without head for about $85 USD (hint, hint)


57thStIncident said...

Looks like maybe a Manfrotto 484 non-QR mini ball head with the center post cut down?

Do you have any opinions on 3- vs. 4-telescoping-section legs?

Fotostevia said...

Good eye regarding the 484 head! I am still having to write part two of the tripod story. Perhaps tomorrow night.

4-section legs are more compact, but there is a weight penalty and they tend to be less stable when fully extended. They are usually a bit more money as well. The 330 DX is fairly compact for having 3-section legs, so it works well for me. YMMV, however.


Unknown said...

MAn this is Awesome....u r such a good wirter

robin said...

I wish you all the best with this -- my Slik broke after quite limited light use. A leg simply fell apart -- they are made of cheap plastic inside. Now I am distinctly of the "pay (quite) a lot once" camp. Maybe not two grand, maybe not one grand, but certainly more than a couple hundred clams.

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