My good friend Bill Fortney once told me (nearly 8 years ago) that if your tripod doesn’t hurt when you carry it, it’s not a strong enough tripod. I know, it sounds kinda weird. But I’ll tell you what… 8 years (and several tripods) later, I’ve learned he’s right.

The Tripod Dilemma We Face As Photographers
One of the dilemmas we face with tripods is the whole size/weight/price battle. We want small and light but we also want inexpensive. But we don’t want “cheap”. We want something built well. Now, if you’re just looking for small you can get away with a lot. But there’s limitations when you have a small tripod. Sometimes it’s not tall enough or strong enough. So what happens then? Well, you go for a larger tripod of course. But larger tripod means harder to fit into luggage and carry around. With size comes weight right? Then what? You move to carbon fiber. Lighter maybe, but more expensive. You can see how this becomes an endless cycle of trying to figure out which tripod is best for you.

I Started With A Heavy Tripod
I first started out with a hand-me-down heavy tripod. This thing was a beast! It was big and heavy, but it did the job. With my career though, I find myself taking many small trips during the year. Trips where I don’t want to check bags because I need to get in and out of wherever I’m going and coming from. Big heavy tripods don’t work for that.

My Move To A Smaller Tripod
About 4 years ago I saw some one with a Gitzo Traveler tripod. I was amazed. Amazed at just how small this tripod would fold into. I’m still amazed to this day. It literally fits into my 15 inch Macbook Pro laptop bag. It’s crazy. And I still use it constantly. In my book, the best tripod is the one that you have with you. If carrying a big tripod with you isn’t an option, having something is better than nothing.

What I’ve Learned Over The Years
All of that said, what I’ve learned over the years is that Bill was 100% right. If you want total tack sharp photos then you need total stability. You need a solid tripod that’s not going to move in the wind and on mildly unstable surfaces. If you’ve never really been out taking pictures in high winds (10-15+ mph), then you may not realize how important this is. My first realization came when I was on a trip to the Palouse region of Washington State. I was up on Steptoe Butte shooting sunrise with the wind just ripping through. I, of course, decided to travel lightly and had my smaller tripod. At first glance, on the back of my camera, you’d never see that the photos weren’t sharp. But after looking at them on the computer I immediately knew it. It’s happened to me several times since. The most recent was my trip to Toronto while trying to take this photo on a tiny tripod.

(click to see it larger)

Tononto Skyline

I eventually got the shot. But not without a ton of blurry photos because it was so windy. It was at that moment that I decided to write this blog post. Here’s a few photos so you can see what I’m talking about. Luckily, I kinda knew it was happening at the time so I zoomed in on the LCD to double check sharpness. After that, I just waited for the wind to die down and grabbed any photo I could during that time.

The Tripod I Now Swear By
I’ve always used a Really Right Stuff ballhead (the BH-40 and BH-55). I still remember when I got my first one. My only regret was that I waited so long to get it (they’re not cheap which is why I waited). But I never used their tripods until I got to try out the TVC-33 Versa Series 3 Tripod at a workshop. I was specifically looking for something big and sturdy (since I already have a small travel size tripod). After spending a day using it, I instantly knew that this was the tripod I was looking for. It’s the perfect height for me (I’m 6′ 1″ tall). Raised to it’s highest with a ballhead on it, I can barely see the top of the camera. Here’s what I really like about it:
• It’s a 3-leg section tripod. That means less knobs to twist to extend the legs. In fact, I can put my hand over both of them and loosen both with one twist.
• The knobs lock the tripod legs – so that the legs don’t rotate around – just the knobs that extend the tripod.
• The Angle Stops that let you move the legs outward at an angle are the easiest and smoothest I’ve ever seen.
• The teardrop-shaped rubber feet keep the sidewalls of the tripod from hitting the ground and getting dirty at lower angles. And they’re fairly wide so they don’t sink into sand as quickly as some smaller ones do.
• It’s got a built-in weight hook in the middle with a big sized hook (not a retractable one that’s hard to get to).
• And it looks great. I know many of you don’t think aesthetics make a different but to me they do. This tripod just looks slick.

What’s really weird is that this tripod in incredibly sturdy, but light. Not as light as a small travel tripod, but it’s light considering it’s size. But when you’re camera is on it, trust me, it’s solid. I know there’s WAY more science to this then I’m explaining because of the way that RRS makes their carbon fiber legs and the size and vibration damping technology they use. I wish I could explain it but I can’t – it’s just solid.

Watch This Video
If you’re thinking of buying this tripod (or any of them), then watch the video at this link. You’ll see the thought and technology that went behind creating a tripod like this.

It Ain’t Cheap
I know it’s not a cheap tripod. List price is over $900. But I can tell you this. It’ll last. I equate this purchase to my 70-200 lens. Way back when, I ended up buying 2 lenses to avoid the hefty price tag of the 70-200. I eventually bought the 70-200 so I was out the cost of it, and the two lenses I bought before. After all that, I’ve never looked back though. Same thing here. It’s all built right here in the US. It’s built by a company that’s known for standing behind their products. Give the folks at RRS a call and ask them anything about something you own (or are thinking of buying), and I bet you’ll see that too. On top of all that, they have a 5-year guarantee.

What’s My Kickback?
I know I probablby sound like I work for RRS but I don’t :) I don’t get kickbacks from them for every tripod you buy, and there’s nobody there that asks me to write about their stuff. I just feel that when I get passionate about a product, I want to share it with you. I feel like I’ve been through a lot of tripods and spent a lot of money on stuff I don’t use anymore. So I figure I can help save some people that frustration.

What About My Gitzo Traveler?
I’ll still use it. And I’ll still take it with me on trips where I simply can’t bring the larger tripod. But I do so knowing the potential downside. That if I find myself in a windy, sandy or otherwise unstable place I’m going to sacrifice sharpness in my photos. There is a tradeoff. Depending on where I’m going and how fast I need to get in and out, I’m sometimes willing to take the gamble.

At The End Of The Day
At the end of the day, whether you buy the tripod I recommend or another one, if you’re into outdoor photographer you should really consider a larger, sturdy tripod. That usually means heavier and bulkier then you’d hope as well. It goes against a lot of things that you may “think” you want out of a tripod. But if you take anything from this article, it’s that my buddy Bill knows his stuff. Had I listened to him 8 years ago, I probably would have saved myself a bunch of money and blurry photos :)

Thanks for stopping by. If you have any questions just post ‘em here and I’ll try to stop in and answer during the day. Have a good one!