In this Part 2 of my How to Choose a Tripod Series, I’m going to show you which tripods I use and tell you why. Plus, I’ll show you what I think is the best tripod ball head ever made! Hopefully you read Part 1 of this set and you are up to speed on all of your tripod terminology.
A Little Background
I need to start with an admission. For much of my career I used the WRONG tripod. Actually, I avoided tripods as much as possible, and when I did buy tripods I usually went cheap because I didn’t feel that they were that important. But boy, was I wrong.
A few months back, I decided that it was time to grow up and not only get a real tripod, but to take a good look at tripod ball heads. I always believed that ball heads sucked, mainly because I’d only ever tried cheap ones. They wouldn’t support the weight of heavy Nikon cameras and every time I loosened the control knob my camera would just flop to the side.
I began with a search for a new tripod. I knew that I wanted something that was reasonably priced, and even though I knew this was not going to be a hundred dollar tripod purchase, I still didn’t want to throw away money. I wanted a tripod that was as light as possible but still very sturdy, so Carbon fiber was the likely choice for the common material. I wanted to use lever locks on the legs and I prefer three sections over four. Both of these features make for quicker set-up and teardown. I wanted the tripod to be able to bring my camera to eye level and I knew that I didn’t need a head on the tripod because I had my eyes on a very special tripod ball head.
Just like cameras, there are a few big players in the tripod space and a bunch of smaller ones. There are some companies like Manfrotto, who have a lot of cool options and many that are overpriced, and then there are companies like Benro, who have a smaller product line with less razzle dazzle and gimmicks at more reasonable prices. I was looking to purchase a tripod, a new monopod, and a smaller travel tripod.
My Choice of Tripod
I went with Benro and their Adventure 2 Series Carbon Fiber Tripod. This is a $250.00 tripod that weighs just three pounds but can handle up to 26.5lbs of gear. That means I can mount my camera and a Tether Tools Rock Solid cross bar with a Tether Table Aero and my laptop all on top of this tripod. The Benro Adventure Series 2 collapses to 24.2 in. and extends to 63.8 in. which with my new tripod ball head is more than enough to bring the total height to just above eye level. This is a three section leg with lever locks, too. The real bonus: Benro provides a three-year warranty that you can extend to five years if you register your warranty online. The tripod does come with a carrying case and shoulder strap as well as replaceable leg tips to switch from rubber pads to spikes for outdoor shooting. Oh, — and I almost forgot — the Adventure Series 2 does allow you to reverse the center column to get your camera as close to the ground as possible. It also has a hook on the base of the center column that will allow you to hang a weight or even your camera bag to give the tripod even more stability.
My Choice of Monopod
I wanted versatility and LOTS of it. For stills, I was looking for a lightweight monopod that would allow me to attach a high-end ball head. For video use, I wanted to be able to attach a fluid head with a pan handle and I also wanted feet that would allow the monopod to be freestanding.
My solution was the Benro Aluminum 3-Series Flip-Lock Video Monopod Kit with a detachable base that has three folding feet. It ships with the Benro S2 Video Head. This monopod collapses to 24.1in. and extends to 64.2in. It is a four section monopod with lever locks that weighs just 2.89lbs and also comes with a carrying case.
This $150.00 monopod gives me the versatility of using a lightweight video camera and microphone and being able to do pans and tilts with a fluid head; and then I can remove the fluid head and attach a high-end ball head to the 3/8in. top and have a full-featured monopod for still shooting.
My Choice of Travel Tripod
I wanted a small and lightweight tripod to travel with that could also double as a monopod. At $119.00, the Benro Slim is a super light carbon fiber 2.2lb (ca. 1 kg) travel tripod that folds to 15.7in., which will fit in your carry on luggage and extends to a full 57.6in. Able to support a camera up to 8.8lbs, the Benro Slim, like the larger Adventure Series 2, also has three leg positions for each of its four twist lock legs. The shoulder includes a bubble level and the tripod ball head has an arca swiss-type quick release. Also, like the bigger Adventure Series tripod, you can reverse the center column to get your camera low to the ground.
Another great feature of this tripod: If you need to travel light and prefer a monopod because you don’t always want to use a tripod, but you sometimes fear that you’ll need a tripod — just use this with the legs extended but closed together. It still has a very small footprint and is super light and portable.
So why did I decide on Benro?
Simplicity: I love the simple and easy-to-use design of all three of these pieces.
Quality: The Benro gear is really well-built and honestly looks as elegant as a tripod or monopod can possibly look.
Price: The Benro gear is very reasonably priced. They’re not the cheapest on the market, but they’re definitely not the most expensive. You get quality gear with useable features for a fair price.
Benro has been in the tripod business for over 20 years, and they are a major player in the tripod market internationally.
Acratech Tripod Ball Head
I chose two tripod ball heads made by Acratech. Who is Acratech? Acratech is a California-based, family-run maker of tripod ball heads and other tripod accessories.
Now these are not your run-of-the-mill tripod ball heads. In 1999, Acratech was a machining company that did work for customers in the aerospace, automotive, and medical industries. Acratech’s founder and CEO, Scott Dordick, is also an avid photographer. He created the prototype for his own use because no one else was making a tripod ball head specifically for outdoor use. His ideal tripod ball head needed to be light enough for backpacking, strong enough to hold a large format camera, and rugged enough to work smoothly regardless of the elements in the mountains, deserts, or ocean. Scott’s mechanical abilities, fueled by his passion for photography, led to the Acratech products that, in my opinion, are top-of-the-line in quality, form and functionality.
Acratech GP Ball head
My first choice was the Acratech GP Ball Head. This is one sexy ball head, mainly because of the unconventional design that combines functions like a tripod ball head, panoramic head, and a gimbal head. The Acratech GP Ball Head has a super smooth ball motion at all load levels and it’s equally capable as an upside-down head for shooting level panoramas.
The machining on this is impeccable. It weighs just .95lbs yet it supports a camera up to 25lbs and it’s available with an Arca Swiss style knob or a locking lever quick release clamp.
This ball head comes in at about 4.1in. tall and has an adjustable pan control, tension control, and a built-in spirit level.
To top it all, it is ideal for inclement weather and rough travel, because the open structure lets moisture, dirt and debris fall through instead of getting trapped inside a socket like most tripod ball heads.
I find this to be a truly innovative and incredibly well-designed precision product that is awesome for professional and advanced-amateur photographers. It has a very real price tag of $399.95, but in my opinion when you factor in the quality build and all the features I have mentioned, plus the fact that it is backed by a 10-year warranty, it is worth every penny.
Acratech Nomad Ball Head
For my monopod head I went with Acratech’s Nomad ball head. Machined from aircraft-quality aluminum and stainless steel, the Nomad ball head, can also function as a gimbal head just like the GP tripod ball head. But unlike the GP, the Nomad ball head requires a separate leveling base if you want to do stitched panoramic images. So if panoramas are not in your future, this is the ball head for you.
The Nomad weighs just .9lbs and sits 3.74in. tall while being able to support 25lbs of gear. The Nomad sells for $299.95 and also comes with a full ten-year warranty.
I wanted to point out one of my favorite features of these Acratech tripod ball heads. Most tripod ball heads have one knob. If you loosen the knob, your camera flops. The Acratech heads have a tension control that prevents this from happening. To set it up, you simply loosen your main knob all the way. Then adjust the tension knob to your desired amount and leave it. Now your camera and lens aren’t going to flop if you’re not holding them carefully when you loosen the main knob, which gives you more control and a smoother ball head experience.
I bet some of you are thinking: “I could buy a new lens for the cost of the tripod and ball head that Joe just described.” You’re right. You could. But let me tell you, from experience that was learned the hard way, and from wasting money on cheap gear, a quality tripod and tripod ball head should be part of every photographer’s gear. And if you go with high-quality gear it will last MUCH longer than the camera and lens you are putting on it.
It doesn’t matter if you are a street shooter, a portrait shooter, a wedding shooter, a travel photographer or if you photograph children — tripods make your work better when used properly. They slow you down in all the right ways, they provide support that frees your hands and allow you to do things from a technique standpoint that you couldn’t do hand held. If you listen to the teenage version of me that I talked about in Part 1, they make you look cool.
So there you have it– my choices of tripod and tripod heads and a lot of info about tripod features to help you make better buying decisions, and hopefully to convince you that you should be using tripods more often than you probably are.
I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – “Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman