When I first started photography I bought what can only be described as a tripod nasty from a high street retailer who shall, for reasons of being questioned by blokes in white wigs, remain nameless. The said monstrosity was an all in one tripod and head, with awful hollow silver legs and a really wobbly head. Lord alone knows how I managed to get any sharp pictures with it, and I learnt then that a good tripod and head combination is every bit as vital as a camera. So here is my three part buying guide to tripod heads, tripod legs and ingenious supports, all of which are available through Wex Photographic.
A head for all seasons
Ok, lets start off from the top down. Lesson one is that unlike the mother in law whom you are stuck with, you can mix and match heads and legs from different manufacturers. In addition, different heads are best at performing different tasks, therefore it is common practise these days to own two heads. My second head looks like Robert Redford but is getting a bit old now to wear all the time. I have chosen three heads to review here, all of which I own and use, and all of which have a different purpose and load capabilities. So that you can see that I practise what I preach, I have also included some snaps of me using each one. I will cover video heads in a later article.
Arca Swiss Monoball
I always swore that West Ham would win something before I used a ball head. Well now that the West Ham trophy cabinet is used to store mops, my views have also changed completely about ball heads. A ball head is basically just a heavy metal ball in a case, with several knobs, levers and twiddly bits to help control it. Ball heads come in all shapes and sizes, from miniature golf balls to heavy ones that a shot putter would be proud to use. All the major manufacturers make ball heads, but my favourites have to be from Arca Swiss.
There are several Arca Swiss models available, I use the B1 QR model as it is light, sturdy and simple to use. I love the ability to tension the controls to restrict the movement and I have used the head to support everything from a 17mm to a 500mm lens. I particularly like it for landscape photography as it is much lighter than the more cumbersome pan and tilt heads which are traditionally used for this.
In the picture you can see me using it in February this year at 10,500 ft and at -45C in the Rockies. On top is a Pentax 645 NII with a 45-85mm lens with a Wimberley quick release plate (see end). Boy was it cold but the Arca Swiss never froze or let me down, the same cannot be said for my hands.
As most of you know I recently converted my normal wildlife shooting to medium format. The biggest lens that I use with the 645 is a Pentax 400mm f5.6 and have been searching for a head to use specifically for this. On one of my Raptor courses I saw two people using the Manfrotto 222 head, I knew after 5 minutes of testing that this was the head that would solve all my telephoto needs.
The 222 comes in two versions, a black one that I have and a new green "wildlife" version called the 222NAT. It works by having a simple ball joint at the bottom whose movement is controlled by a joystick on top of which is mounted the camera. The flexibility of movement is excellent and when the trigger is released the head locks up as tight as a ducks proverbial.
For medium range lens work, say for a 70-200, 300 / 400 f4, Canon 100-400 IS, Nikon 80-400 VR, Sigma 70-500 this head will be a major help.
The snapshot this time shows me back in the UK, on a magazine job at Flamingo Land in the UK. They have erected mirrors in the main flamingo enclosure to give the illusion that there are big flocks of the birds, which will hopefully encourage them to breed. Anyway I used my 222 head for the job, with the Pentax 645NII and a 400mm f5.6 lens mounted on top. The instant control of this head made this job a lot easier as flamingos are more active than you would believe!
For years I have used the unique gimbal Wimberley Head, in fact I was one of the photographers who helped with the prototype testing. I first saw it being used by George Moberley, a National Geographic snapper I worked with when filming bears in Alaska. After that I was a total fan and the freedom of movement that the Wimberley offers has been responsible for me nailing some of my best images.
The key to the Wimberley head is the free floating lens collar which supports even the heaviest lenses in an almost weightless fashion. I find that the head is great for action shots of mammals, birds in flight or even just straight portraits. The horizontal and vertical motion is controlled via two large locking knobs that are easy to grip in the cold and big enough not to miss in times of extreme panic.
Although the Wimberley at first glance seems excessively large, it should be remembered that it is only designed to work with large telephoto lenses like a 300/400 f2.8 or a 500/600 f4.
In the picture you can see me using it for Polar Bears in the high Arctic with my old 600mm lens. The blue piece of material is wind proof neoprene that is stopping the wind freezing the lens motor. In fact that day was the coldest I have ever experienced, -55 degrees with the wind chill, so it is vital to have a tripod that can be used with thick gloves. Proof that the Wimberley will never let you down.
Here are a few tips which might help you when you are choosing and using your new head:
- Buy the head that best suits your needs, if you are going for landscapes then it would be pointless buying a Wimberley.
- ALWAYS buy a head with a quick release attached, all of mine have Wimberley manufactured plates. ALWAYS ALWAYS make sure that you have enough quick release plates to fit all your cameras and lenses that you will use on the head. Nothing will annoy you more than having to screw on a plate in times of panic!
- When attaching the camera / lens to the quick release always double check that it is tightly on as it is very easy to make a mistake. I have had several cameras fall off the head as soon as I tried to use them so it pays to be sure.
- When moving around with the camera still attached to the head, make sure that the head is completely locked up before moving. The Wimberley is particularly susceptible to this and have been whacked by my 500mm lens countless times!