Why You Need A Strong Tripod

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!

  • http://gravatar.com/cathwp2007 Catherine Martin

    Thanks for this article. I have been using the Traveler and love it. But I have experienced exactly what you described in windy conditions. To me, the tripod is one of the essentials. So I’ve put the TVC-33 on my wishlist. Watched the video and it looks good to me. Thanks again Matt.

  • http://TwentyFourAtHeart.com Suzanne

    RRS sells versa foot spikes which are ideal for shooting in sand. They make a world of difference on an already great tripod!

  • http://gravatar.com/scottking Scott King

    How would you prioritize for someone looking to upgrade their gear if they were trying to choose between a Full Frame camera, an L glass lens, or tripod? What’s the most important?

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      I’d start with the L glass. It’s something you’ll buy once and keep for many years. After that, I’d go for the Full Frame camera (as long as you at least have a tripod right now). Then I’d go with the tripod from there. Hope that helps :)

      • http://gravatar.com/scottking Scott King

        I’m about 1/3rd of the way saved up for a 70mm-200mm 2.8 II. So now that I have some cash I kept getting tempted to get off plan to buy other lenses or fancy tripods. So your advice is helpful in keeping me on target!

        • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

          Good move Scott. While I love my tripod, I’d gladly shoot on top of a piece of wood, before giving up my 70-200 lens :)

  • KenM

    Matt,

    Horrible timing :) I just got my Traveler tripod delivered yesterday and not I am beating myself up on whether it is the right choice or not!

    Thanks – nice article though :)

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      Hey Ken – it really depends what you shoot. My Traveler is the tripod that’s in my car all the time. It definitely still gets it’s use. If you’re not shooting out in the wind and the elements a lot, it’s a great tripod to have. So don’t beat yourself up too bad ;)

  • Bob Moulton

    Thanks for the discussion. I followed a similar path from a gigantic old Ries through a few smaller gitzos. I finally got a RRS T C-34L with a Bh40 head. My lenses Re reasonably light17-35,24-70 & 70-200 F/4. Tripod is great

  • KenM

    Thanks Matt. I’ll probably stick with the Traveler until I know it ends up being a problem. It’s pricey enough with the RSS BH-30 as it was….especially after just ordering the D800 :) Thanks!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/sundseth/ Doug Sundseth

    Like most of photography, tripods are a tradeoff. If it’s a three-hour (or eight-hour) hike through mountainous desert to get to where you want to shoot, the equation is different than if you’re shooting from the back of your SUV. Sure, if you have a $20,000 budget, you can hire bearers and put your entire studio on top of a mountain. If your budget is $50,000, you can use a helicopter to bring the MUA, the talent, and the caterer along too. If photography isn’t the entire (or perhaps even the primary) reason you’re there, trading lower weight for more work to get the shot you want may be exactly the right choice.

    For many (perhaps most, depending on your subject) shots, tripods really aren’t necessary. For some shots, they make life much easier but can be skipped if you know what to use as field expedients. And for some shots they’re absolutely necessary.

    FWIW, I use a heavy tripod for my studio work and some location work. I use a lighter tripod when I know I will want the stability and the shooting spot is reasonably close to transportation or for those shots where the extra work to carry that tripod is really worth it. And I use a gorillapod when I’m carrying a gallon and a half of water (plus food) per day and enough layers of clothes to be able to handle a 70 degree (F) temperature swing from day to night, and rain gear, just in case.

    That gorillapod isn’t inherently very stable, but it’s both light and small, and with care and decent technique (and overshooting for safety, it must be said), I can get the shots I want in places I will never carry a big tripod.

    If you need a $1000 tripod and head and can justify the expense, you should definitely buy it. They do make life easier in many ways. (If you need a $10,000 fast telephoto lens and can justify that expense, you should buy that, too.) But they’re no more necessary for everyone than that fast telephoto lens. Don’t spend money (especially if you’re using photography to put food on the table) unless you know exactly why you’re doing it and how they investment will be recouped. Even if the thing you want to buy is really, really shiny. 8-)

    • Carl

      Hi Doug, i like your reply comments. Being a photo enthusiast, bush walker and family man, it’s hard to justify those shiny goods. But father Xmas did bring me a non shiny lastolight Softbox this week :-)

      Carl
      Melbourne

  • mariano

    Hi Matt, what’s a bullhead? A stronger and hot-tempered ballhead? :-) :-) :-)

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      Exactly!!! :)

  • Les Howard

    I, too, have gone through a lot of different tripods over the years. I bought a carbon fiber Gitzo GT3531 Mountaineer several years ago and I love it. I have an old Manfrotto 268 ball head on it (no longer available) and the combination is very stable, even in strong winds. I want to replace the head with a smaller, lighter RRS BH-55. A frend of mine has one and I love it.

    I’ve wrapped my tripod legs (the upper part) in pipe insulation secured by black electrical tape. This makes it much softer on the shoulder and much warmer on the hands when out in our frigid Canadian winter.

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      I did the same thing with the insulation Les. Works great!

  • David

    When traveling with your TVC-33, how do you travel with it? Carryon or checked? I have a 3542L w/BH55 head and find it is not too much heavier than the explorer I was using. Needed something taller….

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      I usually check it in my checked luggage. I have carried it on though.

      • Aron c

        How often can you carry-on a tripod on a flight? With TSA safety concerns a large tripod could be looked at as a weapon. Granted with a tripod base that is nearly $1k, I’d be concerned with checking in it… I’ve also had an experience in Asia where I had to check a small Silk travel tripod.

        I’m curious to know if you have an opinion, advise, suggestions, etc, on tripods/airplane carry-on vs checking bags. I’m also not even really debating the additional bag check fees

        • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

          Hmmmm. I’ve never had a problem carrying it on. As for checking it, I ALWAYS take a photo of my checked bag before I zip it up, showing anything of value. It’s not a camera or lens, so I’m not worried about it being thrown around. If it’s lost, the airline will have to jump in. I’ve had issues before and the airline has always paid me back for any loss (having a receipt and a photo helps a lot, but it’s not required).

  • http://photoopolis.com susan

    Im an RRS lover, their tripods are awesome. I needed sth that was light, strong and short – it needs to fit in my backpack (I shoot on the road a lot). Just like everyone else I’d had big heavy tripods before as well as light flimsy tripods. I’d had enough, so I went the whole hog and got the TV-24 carbon fibre with the BH-40 head and the QR plate too. Superb gear, havent looked back.

  • Les Howard

    When you use a tripod, don’t forget to turn off image stabilization.

    • Michael Seager

      Good advice. I file this under “basic things that I should remember but usually forget” :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/doug.churchill.39 Doug Churchill

    Great blog post!

    I’ve had the old Gitzo Weekender for decades, it’s been to 19,000′ on Cotopaxi in Equador and several other <19,000' mountains/volcanoes, for added stability I would pack snow around the legs. I used the Gitzo most recently on our Southern Caribbean cruise (warmer and more tame than Cotopaxi). It's a great tripod but like you say Matt, when I need sturdy I use the Manfrotto that used to be used for my 4×5" film camera.

  • http://www.briancareyphotography.com/ Brian Carey

    The best advice I ever read was to get the most expensive you can afford and the heaviest one you can carry!

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      I like the “heaviest you can carry” part, but I’ve never been a fan of the most expensive you can afford advice. I’ve never been thankful to anyone who’s said it to me, and never heard anyone thankful for that advice. Basically, most people can’t “afford” much. But with a credit card, and some creative financial planning, we’ll swing just about whatever we “think” we have to. So, that’s why I always like some one to just tell me which one to buy. If they can give a budget option and a ideal option, even better :)

      • Stephen Kapp

        Matt (& Brian),

        My sentiments (almost) exactly…just not the most expensive. For a great value with awesome features, I (just) got the Induro Alloy AT313 with Induro BHL2 head. Love the design and sturdiness…a small child could hang a swing off the ballast hook and the thing would barely bend. Really looking forward to using it and suggest others take a closer look at Induro (and no kickbacks for me either). As for travel, may continue to use my SV Kenlock 2000 that’s much smaller, but is it really worth saving 3 lbs and shorter old length to give up sturdiness? At this point, thinking of lugging this big guy everywhere can put up with it…

  • Marcel Bauer

    Matt have you heard anything about these? Jusino AX-255C (Carbon Fibre) Professional Traveller Series 5-Sections Tripod (Max Load 12kg) with BT-02 Professional Ballhead with Arca Swiss Quick Release System (QR Plate Included) (Max Load 15kg)
    http://shashinki.com/shop/jusino-ax255c-carbon-fibre-professional-traveller-series-5sections-tripod-load-12kg-with-bt02-professional-ballhead-with-arca-swiss-quick-release-system-plate-included-load-15kg-p-6517.html?manufacturers_id=163

  • http://gravatar.com/aboutbilla aboutbilla

    RRS has some great info that helps when selecting a tripod. Go to their website, reallyrightstuff.com and hover your cursor over the heading “Be A Gear Expert” from the drop down menu click on “Choosing a Tripod”. The info helped me select the right tripod. While RRS is expensive, I wish I had purchased from them first rather than buying cheap then upgrading later. I would have saved $$$ in the long run. They are very easy to work with and will take the time to answer your questions. No, I’m not an employee nor do I get kickback. I’m just a very satisfied customer and use several of their products.

  • Russell Norris

    Matt, I am 6’1″ also and am confused by the RRS Series 3 choice. It appears to be only 58″ tall. I realize the ballhead and camera add to the height, but we would need another 15″ to reach eye level. As I’ve been in the market for an additional tripod (I too have the Traveler) your article caught my attention. Could you please clear up my confusion?

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      Not sure Russell. I guess with the height of the ballhead and camera it takes up the extra. But at full height I can barely see the top of the camera.

    • http://gravatar.com/glbarlow Glenn

      I’m also 6″1″ and have the same experience as Matt. I basically look directly into viewfinder without bending

  • http://gravatar.com/glbarlow glbarlowGlenn

    I’m right there with you. Started with a heavy Manfrotto, moved to Gitzo Traveller with RSS BH30. I still love it but after recent trip with Bill, talking with you, and close look at my images from the trip came back and bought the RSSTVC-33 and BH55 (combo kit including RSS bag). Haven’t really had a chance to use it yet but side by side I can sure tell the difference. I’ll use both and glad I have both for about the cost of a quality lens. It’s a worthy investment, thanks for such a clear description.

    Not to mention its nice to have quality service and product from a US company.

  • Jeff Carson

    Thank you. Very helpful. I too own the Gitzo Traveler and it fits in my carry-on bag which is tremendous advantage. It works great in most situations except windy days.

    Question. I purchased Gitzo ball head which does not work very well. Would you buy RSS 40 or 55 ballhead? I use D600 and largest lens is 70-300 although may buy the 70-200 soon.

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  • Marshall Machado

    Hi Matt, I am not sure if these replies are still showing up at your end, but here goes. What is your opinion about the RRS TVC-34L compared to the TVC-33? I am sure it is made well, but I still have a lot of concern about 4 section tripods. Any thoughts, the guys at RRS are waiting for me to make up my mind! Thanks for any advice from your experiences!

    • David Yeiter

      There is some sort of weird math going on here…the 33 tripod with the bh55 ballhead is 61.5 inches high…If someone is 73″ tall (that is 6’1″, right?) then that means a diff or almost a foot.
      - – you subtract maybe 5″ from the top of your head to your eye…so now we are down to 68″ , which makes for a 6.5″ difference…you put the camera on the tripod and for mine, a fuji xpro, it is about 3″ from bottom of camera to the viewfinder…and so the camera viewfinder will sit at 64.5 or 65 inches and your eye is roughly around 68 inches high. And so there is 3″ to account for and maybe that is not a problem.

      I too am trying to decide between the 34L and the 33…RRS convinced me to go with the 34L but I would really like it if I only had the two sections…be a tad easier to set the tripod up. I have been over and over this issue with the RRS people and I am just going to trust their wisdom on this. Did you already decide and if so, I am curious what you ended up doing…it is not too late for me to change my mind as they are backordered and i am still waiting…

      • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

        Hi David – I bought the TVC-33 mainly because it has two sections and it’s a quick easy setup. I’m 6’1″ tall and extended fully, with the BH-55 and my 5D Mark III or D800 on it, it stands at eye level if not a little higher. Not sure of the math, but that’s what I can tell you about the 33. That said, I almost NEVER have the tripod up that high. I’m always down lower for landscapes.

      • Marshall Machado

        Hi David,
        The indecision was killing me so I sat quietly and tried to turn down my brain and listened to my gut. That’s when I heard get the TVC-33! I am only slightly joking, I found the mental exercise exhausting, so I stopped comparing stats and went with what I really wanted which was a two extension, sturdy as hell tripod for time exposures and panos.

        Ultimately, I didn’t like the idea of always needing to extend the thinnest extension first when working low and like Matt Kloskowski, that is what I see myself doing more. If I was a sports photographer or peeping Tom, I would have probably chosen the tallest tripod they make! I also don’t see myself hiking long distances for my shots (at least not yet), so a slightly longer tripod that might be a bit beefier is not so much of an issue.

        I hope that helps. They are terrific tripods (or so I have read from everyone) so I do not think you can go wrong with any choice.

        • dave

          HAH! “the indecision was killing me”….apparently, the difficulty of researching and making the DECISION re tripods is a rite of passage…much more fun to spend time and money on a cool camera or lens, but a tripod? My RRS tvc 24 with the bh40 ballhead just shipped…and so it is over, I can no longer change my mind. Peace at last.

          • Marshall Machado

            You will love it as it is a great tripod and they are a great company! Happy shooting!