A Tripod Review / Comparison – Ball Head vs Three-Way
A tripod review – a different type of blog from me… The most important pieces of kit that landscape photographers / nature photographers own (after camera body and one lens) are your camera tripods. You must have one – at least one – and use it (or them)! A tripod is the single biggest help you will have for composition.
So, a strange start to this blog. However, my old three legged friend recently needed replacing, and I was flying overseas. So I purchased a nice new shiny travel tripod online. A MeFOTO Globetrotter in bright red!. [A long story short – it did not arrive in time for my trip, and I will not name and shame the major Sydney retailer who could not deliver on promises. However, the moral of the story, if you need gear by a certain date, buy in-store!] Most travel tripods come with a ball head and this was no exception.
As soon as I got my hands on it in ‘real life’ out in the bush, I noticed a couple of things. It was just a little shorter than I was used to, and the ball head mechanism was a little tricky. No biggie, I thought.
However, what I found as the weeks progressed was that it was just a little too short – creaky knees abound. I do landscape photography and I do lots(!) of looking through viewfinders. When I stoop, that’s not good over many hours in some cases. In addition, the I found the ball head had some idiosyncrasies.
I take landscape photographs on a tripod by firstly using the level in the LCD to line up the camera horizontally. I set up the level to ‘true’ with the ball head adjusters not fully tight. When I tightened the adjusters enough to ensure the camera was firm, the final ‘tweak’ would take the camera off level.
The only way I could find to get an absolute level image was to line up the head, tightened the dials a first time until tight then ‘grapple’ or forcibly move the camera inside the head with all the levers locked tight until it was finally level. I do not recommend this!
In addition, to do panoramic photography via multi-image stitching, you need to ensure the camera is level and then pan around in a horizontal plane. I found a ball-head much more difficult as you go off-level easily, as all adjustments get lost with each movement, rather than just one of three being the horizontal swivel.
Enough was enough. I felt I had still not actually replaced my old three-way-head tripod. Something I could use for most of my work. So I needed to purchase (reluctantly) another. I’m far from a gear freak. I 100% love my Australian landscape photography passion as a whole, but not specifically my camera and lenses. Much soul-searching and price evaluating, I got a three-section leg Manfrotto 055CXPRO3, which is a little bit bigger than the Manfrotto 190. Back to a three way head, and taller. It was the same weight overall as the old one I had originally replaced with the MeFOTO, as well. It’s rock solid.
So, I thought I would summarise a few points for those in the market for a new tripod for their landscape photography.
Travel Tripods, usually Ball Head – A Summary
- Light and small – take anywhere, ideal for suitcases and/or bush-walking
- Compact design – no levers sticking out
- Easy to get ‘almost level’
- The dials/levers/tighteners can be a bit fiddly
- Not quite as sturdy
And the Ugly
- Not easy at all for panoramic photography
- Difficult to get dead-level – at least for this landscape photographer
Big Solid Tripods, Three Way Head – A Summary
- Big and solid
- Really precise to set up
- Pan on only one lever to get your landscape panoramic photography happening, once you have set up level
- Tend to weigh more, bigger
- Takes a while to get (albeit precisely) set up, three levers need to be used
And the Ugly
- You are not going to backpack with one of these, now are you?
- The amount of weight to carry will mean you walk unbalanced. As a landscape photographer you will likely be doing many ladders or steps – you will need to be careful.
Let’s re-visit my opening remarks – A tripod is the single biggest help you will have for composition. I bang on about that and a whole of of other things here. To further read how it will help you use the corners of your image – and why that is a good thing, click here.
A finally a Golden Rule – never extend the centre column if you can avoid it. At all costs. All the stability comes from the three legs. Top end tripods are noticeable by their lack of centre column – you pay more, you get less(!)
So in conclusion. I am about to pack a suitcase (it’s on my bed as I type) and lets face it my Manfrotto just wouldn’t fit. The best camera is the one you have with you at the time, and as a serious landscape photographer the same holds true for your tripod. So – it’s all horses for courses, wherever possible it’s the Manfrotto and where that just doesn’t work I am more than happy with the MeFOTO.
An update a few months later. It has taken a while but I am getting more used to the ball head and getting it level. So that’s a positive. However, and it’s a big however, I am still mindful of the fact I can usually get used to new gear in days or weeks…
Thanks for reading this far
The Berowra Photographer