== Love Photography == Delight in Light ==

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Tripod Test / Review

In a slight change from past posts, I thought I'd share the results of some tests that I did on some tripods. The background was that I was looking at getting a new tripod to replace my very old Slik 504QF. I was surprised to find, while doing some searching on the Internet, that although I could find various reviews of different models, I found it really difficult to find any comparisons of shots taken on different tripod models to compare the actual final results. Most reviews were just based on the ease of use, cost, weight, etc. and only general comments on the overall stability.

So in the end I borrowed by sister's Sony A900 along with her Sigma 150-500 zoom lens and found a local camera shop that agreed to allow me to try out taking pictures of a test target using different tripod models. The test target was not any kind of standard one - just something that I threw together and printed out for the occasion.

Obviously this was never going to be a fantastically scientific test given that I carried it out (mainly) in a shop in amongst other customers and the staff (who were trying to do a stock-take at the time!). All I was really aiming for was to get a feeling for whether there was a noticeable difference between different brands as well as between aluminium (aka aluminum) and carbon fibre versions.

Models Tested

I was only interested in models that would be sturdy enough for reasonably significant equipment (i.e. like my sister's set up, which weighed in at just under 3kg) and that allowed the vertical column to be moved away from vertical (e.g. horizontal, etc.), so I tested the following models:

  • Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 (Carbon Fibre)
  • Manfrotto 055XPROB (Aluminium)
  • Giottos MTL 8361B (Carbon Fibre)
  • Giottos MTL 9361B (Aluminium)
  • Gitzo GT2541EX Explorer (Carbon Fibre) - this was the one with 4 leg sections - I would have preferred to have tested the 3 leg section one (GT2531EX), but they didn't have one of those that I could use on the day.

I also, later that same day, tested the following two tripods at home in conditions as close to those of the main test as I could manage:

  • Vanguard ALTA PRO 263AT (Aluminium) - this was my sister's tripod that she lent me along with the camera, and
  • Slik 504QF - this was my existing tripod that I was looking to replace - it was the only one that didn't have the ability to move the centre column away from vertical.

Note, by the way, that none of these tripods claim to be suitable for use with a 500mm lens (most claim to be suitable for up to 300mm), but I wanted to go beyond the recommended maximum to ensure that any differences between the tripods were as evident at possible.

Test Method

For each tripod (other than the old Slik) I carried out sets of tests with the centre column in both vertical and horizontal positions.

  1. For the vertical position tests, I extended the legs to their maximum and then raised the column so that the camera viewfinder was at my eye level, and
  2. For the horizontal position tests, I kept the legs at their maximum height and set the column horizontally and extended it so that the centre of the camera was 30cm (1 foot) to the side of the centre point of the tripod.

Each set consisted of the following actual tests (with all photos taken at 1/8s; f/8.0):

  1. First I gave the lens of the camera a gentle tap/push with my finger to set it wobbling, and measured (using a stopwatch) how long it took for the vibrations to cease to be visible to me looking through the viewfinder (without touching the camera, obviously). I repeated this three times on each occasion to allow for variability in the timing accuracy and force of the tap.
  2. Then I took three shots of the test target with the camera mounted on the tripod whilst actually holding the camera with my hands (one on the lens and one on the shutter) - this was to simulate the sort of use of a tripod at, say, a sporting event where you wouldn't be able to use a timer or remote release.
  3. Next I took three shots of the target with the camera set in 2 second timer mode. In this mode, I pressed the shutter release on the camera a gently as possible by hand and immediately let go; the camera raised the mirror up when the button was pressed, waited for 2 seconds, and then took the shot.
  4. Next I took three shots of the target with the camera set in 10 second timer mode. Again, I pressed the shutter release on the camera as gently as possible by hand and immediately let go, but in this mode, the camera waited for 10 seconds (with the mirror still down) before then lifting the mirror and taking the shop as one action.
  5. Finally, I took three shots using mirror lock up (MLU) and a wireless remote release. For these tests, I pressed the remote release once to raise the mirror, then waited for at least 10 seconds (or longer if the results in test 1. above had been more than 10s), and then pressed the remote release again to take the actual photo.

As well as all these tests, I did two sets of "control" tests:

  1. The first control set was three photos taken with the camera completely hand-held (i.e. not attached to a tripod at all) with my best efforts to keep as still as possible. This set corresponded to the "worst" results that could be expected (and they were bad - as you would expect when hand-holding a 500mm lens at 1/8s!).
  2. The second control set was three photos taken with the camera on a tripod at the tripod's lowest setting (i.e. legs and column not extended), with shutter speed at 1/250s (so ambient light didn't register) and with the target lit by an on-camera flash (so very fast equivalent shutter speed to eliminate any movement effects). I also used a remote release for this set as per 5. above. This set corresponded to the best results that you could expect to get with that camera / lens combination.


Firstly, here's a chart that shows the results of the vibration / wobble timings - the vertical (y) axis is in seconds, and the bars show how long it took for the movement to disappear for each of the tests on each tripod (with the column either horizontal [Hz] or vertical [Vert] as indicated).

Tripod Vibration Chart

This photo is one of the test photos so you can get an idea of what the overall pictures were like. Note that although the Sony A900 has a full size sensor, I had the camera set in "APS-C" mode which means that the photos were cropped in camera to show only the centre section of the images using the central part of the sensor equivalent to the size of an APS size sensor. The main reason for doing this was that I didn't really need the outer edges of the photo (as the test target was placed in the middle of he shot) and using this mode just saved on memory and download time! The distance from the camera to the test target was approx 10m.

Sample Tripod Test Photo

To compare the results, I cropped out a section from the centre of the test target from each of the photos and compiled them into this matrix. Each row represents the photos taken with a particular tripod in either vertical or horizontal mode as indicated. The two sets of three clips at the top row are from the two "control" test sets (i.e. the hand-held one and the flash-lit one) to give a comparison of the "best" and "worst" likely results (click to see larger version).

Tripod Test Overview Sheet

Comments, Thoughts and Conclusions

  • The first, and most important thing to say before I start talking about the results is that (as I said before) these test were not exactly carried out in what you might call ideal scientific conditions. So, be cautions about reading too much into the results - especially where there were only minor differences between them. In particular, the differences in the "touching" results (where I took the shots with my finger on the shutter) are much more likely to be due to random variation that any real difference between the various tripods.
  • Having said that, the first, and most obvious thing that struck me from the results themselves was that technique makes more difference than the tripod model being tested, in fact, there wasn't really that huge a difference between the different models in the scheme of things.
  • There was a significant difference in performance (across all models) between vertical and horizontal modes - when the centre column is horizontal there was significantly more vibration than when the column was vertical - this was evident both in the vibration timing tests as well as in the photo tests. That means that you need to be particularly careful with your technique if you need to use the horizontal position, particularly with a long lens (although, I can't really think of that many real situations where you would be using such a long lens with the column horizontal, unless you are a wheelchair user). Also, try to make sure that you minimise the extent to which you extend the column if possible.
  • Mirror lock up (MLU) really does make a difference - actually, I was surprised at how much of a difference it did make (in spite of the claims that I've heard that the mirror vibration problem has been overcome by clever engineering in the cameras). The motion blur in the 10s timer tests was entirely due to vibrations from the mirror movement (and I could actually see the wobbling continuing after the shots were taken if I looked through the viewfinder).
  • You need to make sure that you have (and use) a remote release because the vibrations from the mirror and from your finger on the shutter button don't usually have time to die off in the 2 seconds that the 2 sec MLU/timer mode gives.
  • Overall, carbon fibre tripods did seem to have better damping than aluminium ones [with the noteable exception of the two Giottos ones in horizontal mode where it almost looks like I got the results the wrong way round (I didn't though) - not quite sure why that was: it's possible, I suppose, that I failed to lock something properly or didn't measure the length of the horizontal column offset correctly on one of other of them]. However, there wasn't generally any particularly noticeable difference in the photos taken on CF vs AL tripods. I can't be sure whether the better damping of the CF ones would be helpful if there was gusty wind - I suspect that it may be as the vibrations from a gust would disappear a little more quickly giving more opportunity to take steady shots between gusts.

Other Notes on the Tripods Tested

A couple of other brief comments on the tripods from my experience of trying them all out:

  • The Gitzo definitely did seem to me to be better built than the others. I also liked:
    • the fact that the legs have locks that allow you to lock them in any position, and
    • the fact that you don't have to raise the column to its maximum height in order to move it away from the vertical position (which you did have to do with all the others)
  • I didn't like the Manfrotto design - as far as I could work out, it only allowed the column to be used in either vertical or horizontal positions - nothing in between. The others could be set at almost any angle.


As well as testing various different different tripods, I did some tests on a few different ball heads (Gitzo GH2780QR, Gitzo GH2750QR, Gitzo GH3750, Giottos MH1301-652 and Manfrotto 322RC2 Joystick). However, I haven't bothered to go to the effort of compiling the results into a nicely labeled matrix as per the tripods because the differences between them were too small to be significant. In other words, you should choose a head based on whether it is actually capable of holding the weight your equipment and on how well you get on with it from a usability point of view. In the end I chose the Gitzo GH2750 (off-centre ball head) because it allows you to get the camera into positions that aren't possible with normal ball heads. The Manfrotto joystick one also allowed more flexibility in positioning, but I didn't like the fact that it's either locked or unlocked - with other ball heads you can partly tighten the lock so that you get some support but can also still move camera without having to release the lock (for example if you are shooting sport or moving wildlife or similar).

That's All Folks

Well, this has been rather longer than my normal posts, so I'll stop there - hope you find it helpful in spite of the less than perfect test conditions!


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this very useful information and test. Which did you buy at the end?

Mark H said...

Glad you found it useful - I got a Gitzo GT2531EX Explorer in the end (the 3 section version of the one tested).

Mark L. said...

Mark H. - this is exactly the test that I was thinking about performing - Bravo. The composite test photo you posted on Flickr is interesting, but the resolution is too low to really study the results. Have you considered making the individual test shots available? I'd really like to compare flash and the Gitzo images in more detail.

Mark H said...

Fair point - I'll see what I can do... (don't have a Pro flicker account, so couldn't upload the full res version, but will look at other options)

Mark H said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark H said...

I've now uploaded the full resolution version of the composite test image. You can get to it here

Hope that helps :)

edward b said...

just wanted to say really well done for doing this test. what is the point of all those fancy magazine/website reviews if they don't actually test the equipment. like a lot of things, esp lens, if you do a side by side test no one can tell the difference - something the manufacturers would never admit! i similar comparison is done comparing a zoom and fixed lens. no one can tell which is which, despite the 'fact' that fixed lens are always better...

Mark H said...

Thanks - glad it was useful :)