Jeff and Mark Morris talk about the features/options in tripod legs and ball heads along with the best value options for both.
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How and Why Choose Your Top Ten Annually
Check out the latest Photo Taco Podcast episode where Jeff Harmon talks about how to use Lightroom Classic CC to go through the process of choosing your Top Ten images for a year as well as why any photographer should do that.
Tripods For the Rest of Us!
In this episode we are going to talk about practical recommendations for tripod legs and ball heads. Not the usual thing you get where a professional photographers, who may be sponsored by a manufacturer, tells you that you must spend thousands of dollars on a tripod and ball head.
Not to say that doing so isn’t worth the investment, because I believe it is. It just isn’t something practical for me to even think about spending that kind of money on a tripod and I think that resonates with a lot of listeners of the show.
What Does Mark Morris Know About Tripods?
So what does Mark Morris, the guest on this episode, know about tripods? Why is he qualified to talk about them?
Mark: Several years ago I did a large scale review project for Improve Photography. I worked with a vast array of the different tripod and ball head manufacturers. After spending several months with an absurd number of tripods and ball heads, I actually took the show on the road, and presented “The Tripod Roadshow” at a number of different venues across the eastern United States.
Before we jump into any specifics, I’ll share one general observation that I made back when I was working with so many different products:
- The manufacturers all have a VERY good idea of what quality and features are presented at different price points. It’s very rare that you find an enormous inconsistency between brands. If you are looking at $250 legs from Brand X, and $250 legs from Brand Y, there is a strong likelihood that they are going to be quite similar in build and value.
- Another overarching truth: You are going to place a very large amount of trust in a Tripod and Ball Head. Sometimes I look at my setup and realize that there is nearly $10,000 worth of equipment on top of a ball head and tripod. Just something to seriously consider: don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Get a support system that you really trust, and that is STURDY. Saving $100 because you feel that good tripod equipment is over-priced just doesn’t make sense, in my opinion. Learning the hard way can be VERY expensive.
What Are the Best Value Tripod Legs?
The best value tripod legs for photographers in 2019 are the
Benro TAD27C that run about $230 (does not include ball head). A close second is the Benro TAD18AIB1 that runs about $160 and includes a serviceable ball head.
First Tripod Woes
To photographers out there who are just beginning their journey, it may seem strange that we are talking about tripod legs. You likely already have a tripod and didn’t buy the legs separate from the head. Many photographers get a tripod in a kit when they buy their first camera, a kit that probably included a lens or two, and SD card, a lens cloth, and some other odds and ends that made it seem like the kit is a really good deal.
As a hobbyist photographer who did that very thing only a few years ago, having no clue whatsoever what I was doing, and can assure photographers who are at that point in their journey that all of that extra loot that came in the kit is pretty well worthless. Especially that tripod.
Even if you didn’t get a tripod in a kit with your first camera, when a photographer just starting out realizes they need a tripod for some types of photography, they jump out on Amazon and see quite a few of them for less than $50. They pick one, and it instantly enables some types of photography they couldn’t do before. Well, sort of.
Having tried quite a few of these tripods as I reached that point in my journey as a hobbyist, I can also say that the sub-$50 category of tripods are fine to play around with and experiment in the types of photography that need a tripod but it is totally worth investing a little more.
Slightly Better, Sub-$100 Tripod
After having several of those sub-$50 tripods breaking with what was really normal use, I remember getting to the point where I knew I needed to invest a little more in a tripod. At this point I also wanted a ball head rather than the hinge kind of heads.
For photographers that are at this point in their journey where they want a tripod that will last for more than 2 or 3 shoots and a ball head that lets you move the camera 360 degrees freely, but stay under $100, my current recommendation is the K&F Concept 62”. It runs about $80 on Amazon. There are others that are similar, and I tried a few, but this one is like one quality notch up from that sub-$50 category that is worth that tiny bit more investment. In fact, if you don’t have your first tripod I think you should skip that sub-$50 tripod and go for this one right off.
Mark, any suggestions from you on a tripod that fits in this category?
Mark: I have a very similar story to yours. I started with a tripod kit that I bought for $100. I used it for a while, but to be honest, I didn’t realize it back then, but I actually avoided doing things that used a tripod, because the piece of gear I had purchased was really junky. I fell into the category of not knowing what I didn’t know. The result was I spent a long time barely using a tripod, even in situations where I certainly should have been using one.
Eventually I started getting much more serious about my photography, and I was listening to podcasts, and realized that “real” photographers were getting MUCH better tripods than what I owned. And those tripods cost a MASSIVE amount compared to my $100 kit. That’s exactly when I decided to do my big research project, to see exactly where the value points are in the tripod and ball head market. I really do think there are some giant ‘step-up’ points where you greatly improve your tools.
I have to be entirely honest here, I really wouldn’t enthusiastically endorse any setup that’s really cheap. They just aren’t sturdy, the machining is crummy – the threads strip quickly, your camera will drift and it will ruin your experience. The bare minimum I would look at would be something like a MeFoto RoadTrip or a Vanguard Alta Pro, which are both probably going to end up being around $200 when all is said and done.
Still, if it’s at all feasible, jumping to the next tier up in quality (and unfortunately price) will be very much worth it in the long run.
First Serious Tripod Legs
Mark, we took care of the listeners who need their first tripod. Now let’s get to the place where we can have a lot more fun and talk about listeners who are ready to get their first serious tripod – but still want high value for their dollar.
Characteristics of Good Tripod Legs
When you get out of the sub-$100 category, you find that the tripod legs and head are sold separately. There are a lot of options where they are sold by the same company, but Mark don’t you think this is one of the characteristics of a good tripod where you want to see the legs being sold separate from the head?
Mark: Absolutely. As far as I’m concerned, one of the very most important things to have is a ball head that wont drift, and that can support your camera with all of the hardware attached. When working on a budget, it makes sense to me to skew the investment a bit toward a better ball head. Of course you want everything to be as solid as possible, but a ball head that won’t secure your camera is maddening.
Given that you are going to look for legs and head separately, before we give some recommendations on specific products that bring the biggest bang for as few bucks as possible, take a second Mark and talk about the different options and features photographers should understand with tripod legs.
Mark: Tripod legs come in a few different main styles. Let me just give a quick rundown of the most popular options:
- Carbon Fiber vs. Aluminum
- Twist Legs vs. Flip levers
- Center Column vs. non
- 3-leg, 4-leg and even 5-leg varieties
Does Carbon Fiber Equal Really Good?
Jeff: Let’s drill in just a bit on carbon fiber vs. aluminum. I have heard a lot of photographers jump straight to carbon fiber being synonymous with a tripod being good. It certainly means that the tripod can be lighter, but does carbon fiber always mean a good tripod?
Mark: Nope. Just like nearly everything, there are different levels of quality and carbon fiber quality is not all the same. Some carbon fiber may actually have less strength and therefore be less stable than a good aluminum tripod.
Recommended Best Value Tripod Legs
Now let’s give a recommendations on the best value tripod legs. I wish I could recommend the tripod legs I have been using over the past 4+ years because they have provided me significant value in that time, but the company no longer makes them. I have the Induro AKB1 Tripod that I bought for $160 back in late 2013 and they have done extremely well for me. The tripod came with a ballhead, which was nice to have coming from a hinge head, but we’ll talk about how I replaced that when we talk about ballheads.
As I look at my Amazon order now, Amazon is telling me that the updated version of this same tripod today is the Benro Adventure 1 Series Aluminum Tripod with B1 Ball Head that runs $160. Mark, since the tripod model I am using is no longer available and I don’t have actual experience with this Benro tripod, tell me what tripod legs you would recommend to the photography who is ready to invest a little more money but wants the very best bang for their buck. Let’s say the limit is $200 for just the legs.
Mark: First, just a little tripod trivia for you – the same parent company owns MeFoto, Benro and Induro, as well as a very high-end tripod brand, Novoflex. Back in the day, MeFoto was just a model in the Benro line. They have done a lot of ‘brand positioning’ with those four brands, and now at this point, they have them very neatly positioned with MeFoto as the entry level tier, Benro is second tier up, followed by a big jump up in positioning and price to the Induro line, and their “status” brand is Novoflex. They make some insanely good products, but you will pay well for those.
Several years ago, as a writer at Improve Photography, I did a huge tripod and ball head research project. I had about 40 different tripods in my living room and dining room for about 3 months. I shot with all of them, and spent a LOT of time figuring out which models I would recommend. The legs that I have recommended the most since then, based on the budget that most people seem to be willing to spend, is the Benro TAD-27C. They retail for just a tiny bit over $200, but they are a fantastic set of legs. I know at least a dozen different people that have bought this tripod on my recommendation, and every single one of them has been extremely happy with the quality at this price point.
What Tripod Ball Head is the Best Value?
First Ball Head
Now let’s shift gears over to the ball head to put on top of those legs. For me there were two things that made me realize the ball head that came with my Induro legs wasn’t what I needed.
Dreaded Ball Head Drift
The first issue was not being able to lock the tripod ball head down precisely where I wanted it. No matter how hard I twisted the lever to lock the ball head in place, there was a little bit of drift before it would be held securely. Enough drift I couldn’t get the horizon straight in camera.
You can nearly always fix crooked horizons in post of course, but with everything I want to get things as right in camera as I can. I started trying to play this game where I would lock the ball head just a tiny bit off from what I wanted and let it drift and hope it ended up where I actually wanted it.
Proprietary Quick Plates
The second problem was the proprietary release plate you had to use with the ball head. It wasn’t Arca-Swiss compatible which I really wanted so that I could up my landscape photography game and use an L-bracket.
Specifically with panoramas, where an L-bracket really helps. I needed a ball head that had an Arca-Swiss mount and this convinced me I needed to break down and spend a little more money on a ball head to go on top of my Induro legs.
First Serious Ball Head
Mark, let’s do like we did with the legs here for ball heads. Tell me what options and features photographers should look for or understand in a ball head.
Characteristics of a Good Ball Head
Mark: You have already honed in on the absolute most important essential function of a ball head – it NEEDS to lock down extremely rigidly. When you set it into a position, and tighten down that knob or lever, you don’t want there to be ANY drift. There are a few other things that I would be sure to think about before settling on a ball head:
- I highly recommend Arca Swiss ball heads. Arca Swiss is a very high-end manufacturer that developed a certain size mounting plate for their ball heads. Virtually the entire industry has now adopted those dimensions. This is really helpful because there are a wide assortment of different accessories that take advantage of that size. The Peak Design Capture clip comes to mind. There’s also a Tether Tools item called a TetherBlock Arca that helps manage your cable if you are shooting tethered… it has the arca bracket built right in. There are also the multitude of different L-brackets and other accessory brackets, all of them use the Arca Swiss mount.
- I guess I wont worry about beating around the bush – personally I do not care for the Manfrotto tripods, specifically because they use a proprietary mounting plate. When you are around photography gear a lot, you end up with arca plates coming out of your ears. Nothing is more frustrating than having 5 arca plates, but not having a single manfrotto sized plate.
- A panning option is almost always standard… a knob near the bottom of the ball head lets you loosen up the ball head, and move it horizontally around in a circle. This is mainly for shooting panoramas. Expensive ball heads will go another step, and have a leveling device either built in, or available as an add-on. This isn’t an option on any of the highly affordable ball heads.
- Another control frequently available on ball heads is a drag tension control. This knob basically creates more or less tension for the main ball and socket mechanism, so that it’s easier or harder to move your camera. This is handy for adjusting for handling very heavy camera set-ups.
- One more thing you want to keep in mind is to make sure that the ball head you are buying has the quick release plate (hopefully arca swiss) included! The lower priced models generally all include these, and don’t even make a big deal out of that. But when you start looking at some very high-end brands, they don’t include the QR plate, and you need to buy that separately.
Best Value Ball Head Recommendation
Now for recommendations. The ball head I opted for was the very best bang for the buck I could find at the time that I knew would solve my Arca-Swiss problem but I hoped would also solve my drift problem. In 2017 I bought the Sirui K-40X ball head that runs about $170 today on Amazon.
I went with Sirui because at the time I couldn’t find another ball head that I thought would solve my two problems at a better price. This was about the best bang for the buck I could find so I pulled the trigger and have been very happy with it.
Mark, I think the Sirui is still a pretty good option as having really good value for the price, but what would you say is the ball head for this photographer who wants their first serious ball head at as reasonable a price as they can get?
Mark: Through all of my testing to me the best value option available today is the Benro B2 that runs about $130. You mentioned the Benro Adventure Series 1 tripod that came with the Benro B1 ball head back when we were talking about tripod legs, and it may be that the Benro B1 could be a pretty serviceable option, but I know for sure that the Benro B2 is a seriously good ball head at a super reasonable price.
Now I’m going to jump out on a goofy limb here. The ball head that I’m going to name, isn’t actually available on the market yet. Colorado Tripod Company just finished an incredibly profitable Kickstarter campaign, to bring a series of new tripods and ball heads to market. I have been really fortunate to have not one, or two… but actually THREE different iterations of this ball head, as they have been refining the design over the past couple of years.
I’m currently using the most recent prototype of the Colorado Tripod Highline aluminum ball head. It has an astounding gripping power, and will be on the market for only $99. I have spent the past several years shooting with three different $500 ball heads, and I can honestly say the $99 Highline absolutely hangs right in there with the ‘big boys.’
Best No Buget Limit, Really Serious Tripod?
Before we close up the show I wanted to get your current recommendation on the best tripod out there based on your experience with all kinds of manufacturers. No budget restrictions, just the very best tripod you came across in your massive search.
Mark: To be honest, I had a hard time telling the difference between a $500 ball head and a $1,000+ ball head. For a no budget limit ball head any from the top manufacturers like Gitzo, Really Right Stuff, and the like are going to be fantastic.
I can say that a set of tripod legs left me seriously impressed over everything else I tested. It is the CP26 FLM travel tripod that goes for about $500. FLM is a pretty small manufacturer out of Canada. Not going to find them on Amazon. B&H sells them, though their manufacturing runs are small and so these legs I am recommending will frequently be out of stock.
If you are interested in getting the CP26 legs from FLM, watch B&H or you can contact Ari directly through his email address email@example.com.
I also want to mention that the CP30 L3 Pro is a fantastic option that includes a ball head at about $1,000. The ball head has a couple of patented feature with a tilt button and a way to turn on a click every 15 degree you pan the head. Makes all the difference in the world with panoramas to go 15 degrees, feel the click, and take the next shot.
Jeff: Lightroom Classic CC 8.2 that was just released here in early February 2019. There is a new feature in the release Adobe calls “Enhance Details” that uses their Sensei machine learning technology to improve the detail in supported raw files. I have been testing this out for the past few weeks in pre-release builds as a Lightroom beta tester and I will talking more about the feature in an upcoming episode. Let me say here though that I am really excited at the direction here with this feature that is something Adobe is very uniquely positioned in the industry to provide. Still want to give my usual warning, if you rely on Lightroom from your business don’t update just yet. I will let everyone know when it looks like it is safe to update.
Mark: This isn’t the cheapest Doo-Dad ever mentioned on the show, but about 3 months ago, I received a review copy of a leather dual camera harness. It’s made by a fantastic LA photographer, Shaun Anders. His leatherworks company is called Anders and Lee, and the ProSlinger harness is outrageously comfortable when you are shooting for 7 or 8 hours at a time. The more I have used it, the more I have fallen in love with it. Beyond just being very comfortable, it’s also incredibly beautiful. You definitely go up several rungs on the style ladder, when sporting your cameras on a harness like this! Their dual harnesses start around $299.00 I believe. https://www.andersandlee.com/shop-online/
- Facebook group is Master Photography Podcast
- Find Jeff’s work at jsharmonphotos.com, phototacopodcast.com on Facebook (harmonjeff), Twitter (@harmon_jeff), and Instagram(@harmonjeff)
- Find Mark’s work: markcmorris.net (or com… they both work), photographerscooperative.com and MarkCMorrisPhotography on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube