Tripod Heads and Legs
For many first-time DSLR buyers, a tripod can be an afterthought of an accessory. I’ve seen many friends spend close to a thousand dollars on the latest DSLR with all of the bells and whistles—HD video recording, an image stabilized lens, multiple focusing points and what have you—only to mate it with the shoddiest tripod you can imagine.
Because of this, the tripod ends up sitting in the closet most of the time, unused. A good tripod-and-head combination, on the other hand, will cost you a bit more money but will invariably get a lot more use in the long run. A good tripod will last you a lifetime, and is a tool that you’ll actually look forward to using.
When choosing a tripod, you have two main components to consider, the legs and the head. The camera with which you shoot generally dictates your choice here. Someone shooting with a professional full-frame camera with a large f/2.8 telezoom is going to require a tripod that can support quite a bit of weight, while someone shooting with a Micro Four/Thirds body and a compact prime lens can get away with a set of legs that supports less weight.
Tripod legs are typically made of either aluminum or carbon fiber. Aluminum legs are less expensive, but heavier than comparable carbon-fiber legs. Aluminum is also much colder to the touch, making carbon fiber a more attractive option for shooting in cold weather.
Once you’ve chosen the legs, the next step is to select a head. This is where it can get a bit overwhelming. There are lots of different types of heads, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Thankfully, most tripods and heads use the a standard 3/8” screw thread, so you can mix and match legs and heads from different manufacturers to best suit your needs.
Ball heads allow you to adjust your camera freely in any direction. You can lock down the position using a single knob. Pan heads allow you to independently adjust each axis of movement, setting each by tightening the control handle. This allows you to selectively lock down the panning, horizontal and vertical movement. This allows you a bit more control than a ball head, but will require you to lock down several different controls rather than one, once you have your framing set.
Gimbal heads, a great choice for big, heavy lenses, use gravity to level your camera and lens. This makes it easy to adjust the vertical tilt of your camera, and allows you to lock it in place. Standard heads balance the weight of your camera on the top, so long telephoto lenses can test their limits and, in worst-case scenarios, cause the tripod to tip over.
All of the heads that we’re highlighting here use a quick-release plate, allowing you to mount and dismount the camera without having to screw it into the tripod. The plate is not included with every head, so please take care in purchasing.
And of course there are even more specialized tripod heads, including those designed to help you capture panoramic images, fluid heads for HDSLR video recording, pistol grip heads, geared heads and more. To misquote Alton Brown, “But that’s another article.”
Gitzo’s GT-1541T Traveler 6X is a set of carbon fiber legs that can support up to 17.6 pounds. Designed with portability in mind, the legs themselves weigh in at only 2.1 pounds, and are extremely compact when folded. Unlike most legs, these let you fold the legs around the head if you desire. You can remove the center column, allowing you to shoot close to the ground, and the tripod can be adjusted from 5.9” to 55” in height. Gitzo recommends that you use a camera with lenses of focal lengths up to 135mm.
The GT3541LS Systematic legs from Gitzo are woven from six layers of carbon fiber and can support up to 39.6 pounds. It’s great for use with heavy-duty cameras and lenses—up to 500mm in focal length. The legs don’t feature a center column, allowing you to get as low to the ground as you desire: you’ll be able to go as low as 3.9” and as high as 57.5”. The best part? The legs weigh only 3.8 pounds.
Induro’s Alloy 8M series of tripod legs are constructed from aluminum alloy and feature a built-in bubble level, making it easy to ensure that your camera is level. You have the option of using rubber feet or stainless-steel spikes, perfect for use indoors and out. In addition to a standard 3/8” connector, the legs also support devices with a standard 1/4” thread, allowing you to directly mount many cameras and accessories. The legs ship with a carrying case, strap and a handy tool kit.
The AT214 can support up to 22 pounds and weighs 5.8 pounds. It has a minimum height of 5.8” and a maximum of 65.8”. The AT314 can support up to 44 pounds, weighs 7.1 pounds, and can be adjusted from 8.3” to 72.5” in height.
The Carbon 8X CT214 legs from Induro are identical in function and design to their Alloy 8M series. Rather than aluminum, they are constructed from carbon fiber. Because of that construction, they can support up to 26.4 pounds while weighing only 3.3 pounds. They can be adjusted from 19.1” to 61.2” in height.
Manfrotto makes a wide variety of tripod legs in both aluminum and carbon fiber. One of their most basic, but solid, supports is the 190XDB. The aluminum legs support up to 11 pounds and weigh 3.5 pounds. They can be adjusted from 13.8” to 57” in height. The legs are a great option for a DSLR with a medium-sized zoom lens.
If you’d like a bit more support—and functionality—from your tripod, consider moving up to the 055XPROB. The 5.3-pound aluminum tripod can support up to 15.4 pounds. It has a built-in bubble level and features a unique center-column design that allows for extremely low shooting. The column can be moved to a horizontal position, making it possible to position your camera a mere 3.9” inches above the ground. Leg warmers protect two of the three legs, making the tripod more comfortable to carry in cold weather. The tripod has an impressive maximum height of about 70”.
Identical in functionality to the 055XPROB, the 190XPROB is a set of aluminum legs that supports up to 11 pounds, weighs four pounds, and has a height adjustment range of 3.3” to 57.5”. They are also available in a carbon-fiber version, the 190CXPRO3, which only weigh 2.8 pounds.
Manfrotto’s 190CX3 carbon fiber legs also support 11 pounds of weight, and weigh about 2.9 pounds. A built-in, low-angle adapter in the aluminum center column allows the tripod to go as low as 3.3”, and the tripod can reach a height of about 57” in the opposite extreme.
Acratech’s GP ball head is a lightweight head—it’s just about a pound—that can support up to 25 pounds of equipment. The head has a built-in bubble level and is constructed of aluminum. It can be mounted upside down on your tripod, allowing you to use it as a panoramic head or leveling base.
The head can also double as a gimbal for larger lenses. By simply moving the top of the head to the side, where it rests in a cradle cutout, you’ll be able to make pivot adjustments for a large lens — it is rated to handle up to a 400mm f/4.0 prime. The head can be mounted on 3/8” and 1/4” threads, and supports many standard quick-release plates. A plate is not included.
If you do require the panoramic and leveling base functions of the GP, consider Arcatech’s GV2, as it is otherwise identical and priced a bit lower.
The Monoball Z1 Single Pan ball head from Arca-Swiss can support quite a bit of gear—up to 130 pounds of it, to be exact. Because of the elliptical nature of its design, there is no need to modulate the tension when shooting. The tension you set will stay constant throughout the range of its motion. The head is available in two versions, one with the Arca style quick-release system and the other with a flip lock quick-release system. Neither version includes the quick-release plate.
Induro’s PHQ pan heads support five axes of movement: vertical and horizontal tilt, base rotation, top plate rotation and top plate tilt. This allows you to move your camera freely in any direction. Five bubble levels make it easy to level your camera without spending a lot of time adjusting each leg of your tripod individually. You can also adjust the top plate forwards and backwards and side to side for even more precise camera placement.
The PHQ series uses an Arca-Swiss-style quick release system, and ships with a quick-release plate. The PHQ1 can support up to 23.5 pounds of equipment, and the larger PHQ3 can handle up to 35.2 pounds. Each features a unique folding control handle design, allowing you to fold down the handles for easier transport.
Jobu’s Black Widow gimbal heads may not be deadly, but they are a great option for use with long lenses. The BWG-HD2 is capable of supporting up 12 pounds of weight. If you need more support, take a look at the BWG-Pro, which can support 18 pounds. Each features a gimbal design, which supports pan and vertical tilt adjustment. Ball bearings make adjustment motion smooth and fluid, and ergonomic knobs allow you to lock down your camera’s position with ease, even when wearing gloves. Each uses the Arca-Swiss quick release system, but plates are not included.
Kirk’s series of ball heads are perfect for use with an SLR and a telezoom lens. They support 360° panning and give you three ways to lock down the head’s motion. A large knob locks the entire head in place, and two additional knobs are present to lock the panning movements of the head and to adjust ball friction. A bubble level is built into the top plate, and each head includes a quick-release plate. The BH-3 can support up to 15 pounds, while the larger BH-1 can handle up to 50 pounds.
Gitzo’s GH3780QR is a magnesium head that can support up to 46.2 pounds. It features adjustable friction control and a quick release plate with a double action release system, which prevents heavy equipment from accidentally dropping out of the head when the quick-release knob is released.
The head supports full 360° pan adjustment and +100/-16° tilt movement, and features two built-in bubble levels. You can independently lock pan and tilt adjustments, and the engraved base makes it possible to use the head to capture multiple images for later stitching into a panoramic photo. A quick-release plate, with screws for 1/4” and 3/8” threads, and a storage bag are included.
Wimberley’s WH-200 Tripod Head II features a gimbal design and support for long telephoto lenses. It can support a 600mm f/4.0 lens with a pro body attached! Soft-touch knobs allow for comfortable adjustment, even when wearing gloves, and the head uses a standard Arca-Swiss quick release system. Because the plate you’ll want to use will vary based on your camera and lens, no plate is included.
Manfrotto’s 468MGRC4 is a ball head that supports up to 35.3 pounds of equipment. It uses a hydraulic system to lock the ball mechanism in place, which allows you to lock the head in place with minimal turning of the oversized adjustment knob. The ball itself is coated in Teflon® for smooth movement. The head supports 360° pan and +90/-90° tilt adjustment. A graduated, engraved base is present to aid in panoramic capture. The head ships with a RC4 quick release plate.
If you don’t see the tripod or head listed here, fear not. B&H carries loads and loads of both. You can browse through legs and heads, or select from matched head and leg sets. A good tripod will outlast most digital cameras and will come in quite handy in a variety of shooting situations.