My very first tripod, many years ago now, was a lightweight, aluminum set of legs with a mostly plastic pan and tilt head. It was better than nothing, but it didn’t take long to realize that it was not sturdy enough to let me get really sharp photos, especially when I used a telephoto lens. As budget allowed I upgraded, each time getting a bigger, heavier tripod, and trading the pan and tilt type head for a ballhead. At some point, I discovered that size was not all that mattered. Design and construction with quality materials have a very large part to play in tripod functionality.
For several years I used a large Bogen tripod and an Arca-Swiss ballhead. This combo did a good job of giving me sharp photos, and was great for shooting in the studio or at drive-up locations. Hike-friendly it was not, and forget about backpacking it or dragging it around all day when traveling.
I saw that a great many pro travel and nature photographers were using Gitzo carbon fiber tripods. These are pricey items, and it took me a while to justify the cost, but I finally bought one and have found it to be one of the very best investments I’ve ever made in camera gear. I soon added a Really Right Stuff ballhead, which has also proven to be an excellent investment. They have both now outlasted several models of the cameras they support.
The new Gitzo + RRS combo was quite bit smaller than what I had been using. I bought it because it was small and light enough that I could put it in a suitcase, bungee it onto a bike rack or strap it onto a day pack for hiking. I was surprised, and delighted, to find that despite the smaller size and lighter weight, my new set of legs was just as sturdy as my Big Bertha (Bogen-Arca) combo. Even with a 300mm telephoto lens at slow shutter speeds.
The ballhead that I opted for is the medium-sized BH-40 LR. Really Right Stuff makes bigger and smaller heads with a similar design, but I like this one because it’s small enough and light enough that I’ll carry it, but also plenty strong enough to support a full size DSLR with a moderate telephoto lens. The “LR” model has a quick release lever which makes putting the camera on the tripod and taking it off a snap. Like the other features of the ballhead, the lever is extremely well designed and I have never had it accidentally open. It wasn’t available at the time I bought mine, but if it was I would have gone for the LR II model, which has a built-in spirit level on the clamp.
Operating the controls on this ballhead is easy, and the precision machining makes all the movements very smooth. A separate pan-locking knob means that you can level out the tripod and head for a panoramic shot and just swivel the head without having to loosen the ball mechanism. A really great feature: the main locking knob is spring-loaded and can be set for different positions, so the operation is quick, easy and solid no matter how you orient the head.
The Really Right Stuff ballhead and Gitzo legs have been with me on a lot of trips now, and have definitely proven their worth. I try not to abuse my equipment, but I don’t baby it either, and, well, accidents happen. A slip on wet rocks or a stumble over a root on the trail and down goes the tripod, head crashing into a rock, falling into snow or coming up with dirt in the works. My gear has also seen its share of saltwater ocean spray and blowing desert sand.
And it has never let me down. Even when, somehow, I lost the knob that sets the drag on the ballhead. Soon as I discovered the loss, I contacted Really Right Stuff about getting a replacement knob. Turns out it’s not a user-replaceable item, and I needed to ship the head to them for repair. The head still worked fine even without the knob, and with a loaded schedule of assignments and trips, I waited for months before finally sending the ballhead to RRS. Which is when I found that not only does Really Right Stuff make excellent equipment, they back it up with great customer service. Even though by that time it was beyond the warranty period for my BH-40, when I explained the delay in getting it to them, RRS took care of the repair and had the head back to me in a week. Now that is a company that stands behind its products and takes care of its customers. Really Right Stuff now also makes tripods (as well as a bunch of other really cool stuff), and if my tripod ever needs replacing you know where I’m going to start my search for a new one.