Buying a Tripod

One Man’s Quest for a Decent Tripod

There are a lot of tripods out there! I had a difficult time choosing one, and I didn’t find as much help on-line as I thought I would. I’m fairly new to photography, so take my advice with a healthy helping of salt. This is the process I went through in choosing my tripod.

The first question to ask yourself is "what do you plan to do with it?"

I wanted something that wasn’t too expensive, was light weight enough that I would bring it with me places so I could use it, and was going to be stable enough to use in windy conditions and support a long lens. With this criteria I started looking at a bunch of different tripods.

After I’d already done a bit of research, I spoke with Eric who has been into photography much longer than I have and he quite generously offered to loan me his tripods over the weekend so I could try them out. Eric has both a lightweight tripod and a heavier model. This is really the right approach if you are serious about photography, but at this point I only wanted to have one.

After using both tripods several times, I had learned that I don’t like the twist locks that the Gitzo uses to lock the legs into place – but other than that, the experience was pretty much as expected: there are tradeoffs in stability and portability.

So back to where I was already. I know myself well enough to know that if the tripod is too big or heavy I’ll leave the tripod at home more often than I would if it were more carry-friendly. With this in mind, I started looking closely at the tripods in the lighter weight spectrum.

At Kenmore Camera I was able to look at several Bogen/Manfrotto models including 3 or 4 carbon fiber models. I liked these carbon fiber models quite a lot, but just the legs run $300-$450 which is more than I wanted to spend. However, I did like the leg locks and the sturdy feel of the Bogen tripods.

My dad told me that he’d seen a tripod that might be a good fit for me at the UW Bookstore so I went there and took a look at the SunPak 3300 model. This did have a lot of the features I was looking for: it is light, uses lever locks on the legs and was pretty compact. However it had a pan and tilt head (with 2 quick release plates no less) and I was pretty set on a ball head and I hadn’t researched this model at all, so I gave it a pass. I did some searching for information on the SunPak and at that time there was virtually no information on the SunPak/ToCAD web site – in the last few weeks they have given the site a nice overhaul and there is some actual information about the products up there now (Feb. 27, 2003).

I found web site I decided to go check out the 719 model as it seemed pretty lightweight for a metal tripod. I found one at San Jose Camera. I noticed right away that this tripod didn’t have the ability to spread the legs wide to set up the camera low to the ground and having recently taken some ground level shots I thought this was something I’d probably use. So I moved my attention to the 3001N model which seems like the "standard" model. It does what you need but isn’t particularly spectacular or special in any regard. After some hemming and hawing I decided it was just too heavy.

I looked at the nice little carbon fiber Gitzo tripods again, but the twist locks and the $400+ price tags pretty much eliminated them.

I left San Jose Camera feeling pretty frustrated – I had looked at all of the options I could find, I was ready to buy, but I couldn’t find something that I felt was the right thing to buy.

A month or so later, I went to the B&H Photo web site to look at a timer release and see if the batter grip for the D-30 was in stock yet and I ended up looking at tripods again. I had been thinking about the SunPak 3300 – it was the closest thing I’d found to what I wanted even though it wasn’t a top brand and I’d have to replace the pan and tilt head with a ball head. When I searched for the SunPak 3300 on the B&H site, I found the 3300 and a model I hadn’t seen called the 3300-B. Low and behold, the 3300-B is black and has a ball head!

I was pretty excited, but also a little cautious – where did this model come from? It wasn’t listed on the SunPak site anywhere and I couldn’t find it anywhere else. The item description on the B&H site said it came with 2 quick-release plates, but from the look of the photo, there was no quick-release mechanism at all. So I still had some concerns, but this was the closest I’d found to what I was looking for. It is the same weight as the Bogen Carbon Fiber model, but about $250 cheaper and it comes with a ball head. After calling B&H to verify that it did indeed come with a ball head, I went ahead and ordered it.

From the photos, it appeared to me that there was no quick-release mechanism even though the item description listed quick release plates as an included item. I guessed (correctly it turns out) that this model did not have a quick-release and ordered a well received Q-Top quick release from Ideesign.

A few days later, I unpacked my goodies and was pleased to find everything just as I’d hoped. The SunPak 3300 Pro-B is lightweight and feels sturdy. The ball head is not the best in the world but it is certainly usable and the Q-Top fits on nicely. I was very pleased – the only thing this combination didn’t have was an accessory hook at the bottom of the center column to hang my bag from to stabilize the tripod. I figured I could rig something to do this with a strap and a carabiner or something.

Update (2003-05-25): The ball head is removeable if you want to use a beefier ball head. Thanks Don Leonard for the info.

Then I read briefly through the included instructions and saw that the diagram in the instructions showed an accessory hook at the bottom of the center column. Mine certainly didn’t have this, I was a little confused.

I called B&H and basically got the run around as I was transferred from customer service to a sales guy in the tripod section, back to customer service, etc… No one knew anything about this model except what the description in their computer system said and I couldn’t get anyone to actually go get one out of a box and look at it. I tried in vain to explain that this model did not have a quick-release (their description said it did) and that the included instructions referenced an accessory hook but that I had not received one. After wasting a fair amount of time over a couple of days with the B&H customer service – I called SunPak directly.

When you call SunPak and go through the options to get to customer service, you get a recording that tells you to leave a message and your call will be returned within 24 hours. I left a message that was NOT returned with customer service, so a day later I called again and I was able to get an operator to transfer me to a product manager who was very polite and helpful. He said that the 3300 tripod now came with the accessory hook and he could send me an new center column that has the accessory hook I saw in the manual.

After 2 weeks went by, I called back and asked to speak with him. He remembered the conversation and was surprised to hear that I hadn’t gotten it. He took my information and the next day, I got the replacement center column by overnight mail. I really appreciated the choice he made to use overnight mail as someone over there had dropped the ball previously. Overall, not a super customer service experience but they did send me the new part on their dime and I really appreciate that. There are good people there if you can get through to one. Press "0" to get an operator.

I’ve had my tripod/quick release combo for a little while now and I’ve been very pleased with it. If your requirements are similar to what mine were, you may want to consider it.

Tripods I considered:

Other things to consider:

  • Do you plan to shoot video as well as still photos? Of so, you will probably want to get tripod legs that allow you to change the head to a fluid/dampened video head. Shooting video with a non-dampened head is just frustrating.
  • How fast to you want to be able to set up and break down your tripod? Lever locks are much faster than twist locks.
  • Will you be traveling with this in really dirty areas? Gitzo tripods can be easily disassembled and cleaned with no tools.