Gear Upgrades

One of the great things about photography is its variety and how it can grow with you. And that growth often comes at a price, in new or different gear. A while back I upgraded my tripods, and now it was time to do the same for heads and plates.

When I got started in photography a tripod was one of the first accessories I bought. It was cool to have one and didn’t cost much. And for the little I used it, it served me well. Over the years I bought a number of tripods and didn’t use them much before learning the secret of tripods: If you want really sharp pictures, use one. And you want one that’s light, sturdy and inexpensive. Unfortunately, you can only get two of those three in a tripod. As I learned to value a good tripod, I eventually went for the first two – lightweight and sturdy – and paid a lot of money for a Gitzo carbon-fiber model. And then bought a second, larger model for studio and working out of the car. And I love using them.

When you start looking at good tripods, you quickly find that in addition to spending a lot of money on a tripod, you’re also expected to spend a lot on a head for it. To save money, I bought a simple Bogen Manfrotto ballhead, and then bought a larger, better one later for the larger tripod. Both heads take a simple quick-release plate that can be mounted on almost any camera or lens. In time, like the tripods, I decided to upgrade the ballheads and plates. Which led me to the Arca-Swiss system.

Most of the high-end ballheads utilize a mounting system called Arca-Swiss. It’s a design built around a rail system, where the head can clamp down on the rails. The advantage is two-fold over the previous system I was using. First, the rails allow you to adjust (slide) the camera/lens once on the head. Second, and more important to me, the plates used for cameras and lenses don’t twist. While the Bogen quick-release system worked well for me, a heavy lens or camera, especially mounted vertically, would invariably twist.

Once you start looking at Arca-Swiss mounts, you’ll soon find there are a few companies at the top of the list. In alphabetical order, they are Acratech, Kirk Enterprises, Markins, Really Right Stuff and Wimberley. I won’t go into the hours of research I did, but all rank highly among photographers, and I settled on a Markins head (the M20) that had one of the best strength to weight ratios (can easily hold my 500mm lens and pro body). Buying one of these heads comes down to size, weight, style and features (knobs and such). They’re all expensive, running from about $300 to $400. And they’re all extremely well built, incredibly smooth in operation and a pleasure to use.

After that it was a simple matter of buying various plates for my cameras and long lenses. Oops, did I say simple? You can get plates designed to custom-fit your camera body or choose generic ones. The custom plates have flanges that wrap around either the front, back or both sides of the base of the camera for an incredibly solid fit. Coolest of all are the L-brackets, that attach on the bottom and wrap around one side of the camera. This makes it a snap to change the camera to a vertical orientation while staying directly on top of the ballhead. Otherwise you have to drop the top post to the side when deciding to shoot vertical, which is less stable and harder to adjust. And for any reasonably long telephoto lens you’ll want to put a rail on it, or better yet, replace it’s tripod foot with a custom foot that has rails that can be clamped onto.

Not surprisingly, none of this stuff is cheap. But I’ve bought plenty of cheap stuff in my life, and you get what you pay for. These tripods, heads and plates are great to work with and will last a lifetime. I look at them as an investment in my photography. And that makes them worth the price. Next on my list? A gimbaled head by Wimberley or Kirk, to use with my larger lenses. If anyone’s got one they want to get rid of cheap, give me a call!

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