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_Climber's Video Tripod Picks

So you've picked up your first DSLR or decided to go into the realm of videography with your current DSLR to take outdoor videos, specifically of you and your friends sending boulder problems or routes like all those beautiful HD videos you've been watching on Vimeo and Youtube. You have your camera, your lens, your video head, and your trusty compact tripod, all neatly packed in a backpack. The temps are right, and you're ready to give your new rig a try. You pack everything up, and within a few hours you encounter a few unaccounted, unpredictable frustrations:

  • Your tripod's skinny legs can not support the weight of your camera with its 200mm cannon barrel attached.
  • Your tripod legs wobble, shake, and vibrate as badly as a schizophrenic meth addict whenever the wind blows, ruining your shots, even when taking them remotely.
  • Your setup, including your climbing gear, is bulky and heavy as sh*t, making your approach to the crag a sweat-dripping nightmare reminiscent of the mining scene from Indiana Jones' Temple of Doom.

 

You need a new tripod, a good one. But where do you start? A simple search on your favorite camera suppler's website reveals hundreds of tripods ranging from merely a couple of Jacksons to wallet-crippling thousands of dollars.

A quality tripod is often overlooked because it's not your fancy camera with its fancier lens. It's the same thought process with tires on a car. Most people who want better performance with their car will immediately put their head under the hood, neglecting the fact that the tires are what keeps the car on the ground through sharp turns. 

For this post I'm going to save you some time and do the search for you under these mandatory premises:
*Note that this is only a guide - your search can/will vary depending on your budget and needs.

  • Purpose - While you can surely use your tripod for studio/indoors and/or for shooting photos as well, this search will primarily be based on the assumption that your tripod will be used for shooting videos outdoors with your DSLR, specifically climbing videos.
  • Head Mount Thread Size - Once you get into the realm of good quality, semi-professional tripods, you will have the option of mounting not just a video head of your choice, but even your own choice of center column. Since most if not all video heads have a 3/8" mounting thread, the search here will be geared mainly on tripods that come with a central column with a 3/8" mounting option.
  • Weight - If your climbing equipment and the rest of your rig isn't heavy enough, a heavy-duty tripod could be just enough to break your back while trudging through approaches with a 45 degree incline. While it's true that there are other options you can do to shed pounds, any weight you can save is one less pound to carry around all day. For this search we're capping the weight of your tripod system at 4 lbs.
  • Supported Weight - Most of the tripods that is geared to support DSLRs should be sturdy enough to do its job in supporting your camera with even heavy zoom lens. But depending on how much you want to add or upgrade your setup, such as flash, remotes, mic, telephoto/super telephoto lens, slider bars, jibs, etc., the weight resting on your tripod can increase dramatically. You should also know that the max supported weight of a tripod is somewhat proportional to the girth of its legs - the more weight it supports, the sturdier the tripod at the cost of a heavier and/or taller system (when collapsed). For this search we're going for a minimum supported weight cap of 10 lbs. 
  • Max Height - Since you're taking videos, you need to not only have a stable base for your camera setup, but you also need to be able to put yourself in a position that's comfortable, and bending over while slowly and carefully panning and tilting your camera because your camera is way below eye level isn't going to do wonders on your back. For this search the minimum max height will be set at 60".
  • Material - Tripods are mainly made out of two different types of material. Aluminum is very common, and offers the cheaper alternatives to tripods. Unfortunately aluminum has very poor dampening qualities compared to its more expensive brethren, carbon fiber. Carbon fiber has much better shock absorbabilty, most notably when a gust of wind blows or if you mount your tripod on a dolly for pan shots, and is more resilient to scratches, dents, abrasion, and weathering than aluminum. And of course, there's the weight difference. If you take two tripods with the exacts same specs, one being aluminum and the other being carbon fiber, the weight difference is astoundingly noticeable. For this search we're going for carbon fiber.
  • Collapsed Length and Leg Sections - This isn't a huge factor to consider until you try to strap a light tripod system that has a heavy video head attached to it to your backpack. You'll notice immediately that your tripod is as top heavy as a member of "Over-Eaters Anonymous", and strapped to a backpack even with a tripod carry option makes it incredibly awkward to carry around. In a previous backpack I've own, my tripod and video head even leans out, making taking turns as risky as doing a 180 with a ladder over my shoulder. Keeping in mind that we're primarily using this for climbing videos, so the more compact and bulk we have to carry, the better. That's why I recommend tripods with a 4-section leg system, since they tend to collapse into a much more compact package (5 sections or more I think is hilariously excessive). For this search we're aiming for tripods with a max collapsed length of 24", preferably with a 4-section leg system.
  • Brand - There are quite a few brands out there, but for this search we'll be focusing mainly on Manfrotto and Gitzo tripods due to their accessibility (easy to find), known quality, vast product line, and personal experience.
  • Cost - The big deciding factor for some, regardless of features, is probably how much you're willing to let your new tripod dent your wallet. Personally I think that a good quality tripod of which you can trust to carry and support your camera and lens through all of your shots is worth just a good as an investment as a good lens or camera body. Can you imagine doing a series of long exposure or time lapse shots, like those done for night skies, and trust that it'll hold your camera and lens through the wind and weather all night? For this search the maximum spending cap is $1000.

 

  • Weight: 3.75 lbs. (1.70 kg)
  • Supported Weight: 17.64 lbs. (8 kg)
  • Max Height: 66.93 in. (170.0 cm)
  • Collapsed Length and Leg Sections: 21.46 in. (54.5 cm), 4-section
  • Cost: $365

Of Manfrotto's 055 product line, the 055CXPRO4 is the best pick in terms of what we're looking for. This is the tripod system I currently have, upgraded from an aluminum tripod system, and it has worked great with what I need to take photos and videos at the crag. It feels pounds lighter than my previous aluminum tripod from the same Manfrotto product line, much sturdier and stronger, and has the max weight capacity to support my slider bar or to-be-added camera jib. 

  • Weight: 3.53 lbs. (1.6 kg)
  • Supported Weight: 11.02 lbs. (5kg)
  • Max Height: 66.54 in. (169.0 cm)
  • Collapsed Length and Leg Sections: 24.02 in. (61.0 cm), 3-section
  • Cost: $250

 

Slightly lighter, slightly taller, and much cheaper than the 055CXPRO4, this is the choice pick for those that are content with just a video head, camera body, and lens setup and do not plan to add or upgrade much aside from a few small accessories. The legs on this tripod system also is thinner than the 055CXPRO4, which aside from the lighter weight, gives it less bulk to handle and carry, especially strapped onto a backpack. The one major disadvantage compared to the 055CXPRO4 is that it doesn't allow as for many options for leg angles, so if you need to take videos and photos on uneven terrain and low to the ground, you'll have to rely a bit more on adjusting the legs' length to get the right shot.

  • Weight: 3.15 lbs. (1.43 kg)
  • Supported Weight: 26.46 lbs. (1.43 kg)
  • Max Height: 68.9 in (175.0 cm)
  • Collapsed Length and Leg Sections: 24.02 in. (61.0 cm), 4 section
  • Cost: $620

With the huge price jump comes a bigger leap in quality, capacity, and capability. Lighter and sturdier than even the Manfrotto lines can muster up, Gitzo remains a top pick for the most enthusiastic photographers and videographers alike. User have told me that any Gitzo tripod they've bought has stayed strong and dependable for many years without any issues. I can also say that the max weight rating is severely under-estimated. For a demo, one of the sales specialists at Hunt's fully extend and tighten just one of its legs, and put his entire 180 lbs. weight on it like he was standing on a pogo stick. The leg's twist locks did not collapse nor did the leg bend and break. You can't really say you can do this even with a multi-shank tripod leg, never mind one with a mono-tubular design. The only disadvantage for those that aren't used to it or need faster setup is the twist lock design of the legs. While it provides a much sturdier locking design, it's also a bit slower to set up and collapse.

Other tripods worth mentioning compared to the Gitzo GT2542L:

  • Gitzo GT2541 ($550) - Incredibly light, shorter collapsed height, shorter max height.
  • Gitzo 2540LLVL ($725) - Has built in head leveler for optimal horizontal leveling. Heavier.

I also want to note that portability depends on more than just weight and collapsed height. If you're planning to carry your tripod on your backpack, especially with your video head attached, I recommend that you get a backpack that has a low tripod holder to bring down the weight of the tripod head closer to the middle of your upper back instead of your head level. This will lower your pack's center of gravity. Also make sure that you can fit at least two tripod legs in the tripod holder/pocket. Otherwise, your tripod will be prone to swinging and shifting left and right on you as you walk. A good brand to look at for backpacks is Kata. The company has a huge line of bags to choose from in many styles and capacities, and they are very light and durable. The website also has a "bag chooser" menu, which allows you to pick your options and narrow down your search results to help you decide on a bag that works for you.

For gear, I usually go to two places. One is B&H Photo, Video, and Pro Audio, which has arguably the best inventory and selections on the net. Its website also has powerful search options and a large customer review base. The other place which I recently found around town is Hunt's Photo and Video, who boasts as the biggest photography and videography retailer in New England. They has several locations around New England, with the flagship located in Melrose, MA. From experience, both B&H and Hunt so far have really good customer service, gear knowledge, and do price matching.

That's it for now. Comment on the post if you have questions, suggestions, want to share your experiences, or have feedback. Cheers!

Steven WongComment