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A Tripod Primer

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Old Wednesday 15th August 2018, 20:17   #1
Tringa45
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A Tripod Primer

Requests for advice on tripod purchase are often posted on birdforum and frequently I am surprised that birders are prepared to spend large sums on a scope but try to scrimp on a tripod and head.

A scope not only magnifies the subject but it also magnifies angular disturbances. With an inadequate tripod it only requires a touch on the focusser or a moderate breeze to make viewing impossible.

A frequent contributor on this forum has often stated that a stable tripod is more important for a scope than a camera. If one considers that a 600 mm lens only has a 12x magnification compared to a 50 mm standard full-format lens and that scopes are often used at 50-70x magnification, I think he has a very valid point. Also, a shutter is only open for a small fraction of a second but a scope is used for extended viewing.

So here are some of my experiences and prejudices :-

Materials:-
There are four common materials used for tripods, wood, aluminium, basalt fibre reinforced plastic and carbon fibre reinforced plastic. Magnesium alloy is sometimes used for castings. It's lighter than aluminium but less stiff, so you have to use more of it.

Wood (usually ash) is relatively light and, being solid has high internal damping so vibrations subside quickly. Wooden tripods are popular with surveyors, sea watchers and amateur astronomers. They are moderately priced but heavier than comparable cabon fibre tripods.

Aluminium is inexpensive but has poor internal damping and will vibrate longer. It is also very cold to the touch in winter With large diameter tubes the amplitude of the vibrations can be kept within acceptable limits but the tripod will be heavy.

Basalt fibre was introduced by Gitzo as a compromise on weight, stiffness and cost between aluminium and carbon fibre. Its mechanical properties are very similar to glass fibre. Pole vault poles are made largely of glass fibre and are intended to store energy and then release most of it - not what we want for tripods. I have a (rather expensive) basalt tripod, which proved inadequate even at 30x on a windy coastline. It has now been relegated to use with binoculars.

Carbon fibre, compared to the other materials is light and extremely stiff. Its vibration damping is not particularly good but if one has to carry the scope and tripod longer distances it is the ideal (and most expensive) material. Due to the low density and strength of CF reinforced plastic, the weight penalty for increased stability is not that high. A 150 cm tripod with 28-36 mm leg sections can be kept under 2,5 kg.

Dimensions:-
Taking eye position, the height of the tripod head and the scope into account, one could say that the minimum tripod height should be one's own height minus 30 cm for a straight scope or minus 50 cm for an angled scope. The number of leg sections should be kept to a minimum compatible with transport requirements, less because of any potential instability in the joints, but because increasing number of sections leads to thinner bottom sections. The rigidity of a tube of a specific material is proportional to the tube thickness and to the cube of the tube diameter. A 32 mm tube is therefore eight times stiffer than a 16 mm tube and even a 20 mm tube is about twice as stiff. I would consider the latter to be an absolute minimum for the bottom leg sections of a carbon fibre tripod. I prefer twist locks to clip locks as the former are self-adjusting. Most modern tripods also have internal rails to enable simultaneous opening or locking in the closed position. It is often suggested that one should not extend the centre column or do without one completely, but it is a convenience and with a dianmeter often the same as the top leg sections is IMO not such a severe detriment to stability if used moderately. If one hangs a back pack on the hook under the centre column it should have ground contact, otherwise the tripod will oscillate with pendulum frequency. Vibrations can also be damped effectively by hanging the strap of a loaded binocular bag over all three legs.

Heads:-
Video (2-way) heads are ideal for scope use, preferably of all metal construction and with a minimum load rating of 5 kg or 6 kg. A preload function for the tilt is useful to prevent the scope crashing into the top of the tripod. The top disc of some tripods has an off-centre grub screw, which will prevent inadvertant loosening of the head. Not the optimum solution, but it is also possible to use a ball head as a 2-way head if one drops the spindle into the slot and rotates the scope in its collar by 90°.

Quick Release Sytems:-
QR plates should preferably not have rubber surfaces as these introduce compliance. An anti-rotation pin or pins to prevent loosening of the plate is also mandatory. The Arca-Swiss system is to be favoured, being universal. However, the safety retention of Arca-Swiss plates often differs from one make to another, so it is advisable to stay with one manufacturer. Long plates are required to balance some scopes or when digiscoping.
Lastly, I favour using 3/8"x16 threads and avoiding the use of 1/4" to 3/8" adapters.

Comments welcome.

John

Last edited by Tringa45 : Thursday 16th August 2018 at 12:05. Reason: Additions
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Old Wednesday 15th August 2018, 20:46   #2
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You make some very good points there. One thing I would add is to suggest that tripods without center columns are the best choice, but if one's tripod has a column then it should be at it's lowest setting/height for best rigidity.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2018, 11:02   #3
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Hi,

nice write up - I don't have anything significant to add - thank you John!

Could we get this thread stuck to the front of this subforum maybe as guidance for new arrivals?

Joachim
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Old Thursday 16th August 2018, 12:08   #4
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Thanks, John and Joachim.

John
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Old Tuesday 18th September 2018, 09:18   #5
Hans Weigum
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tripod stability

[quote=Tringa45;3751936].....................................................................................................A frequent contributor on this forum has often stated that a stable tripod is more important for a scope than a camera. If one considers that a 600 mm lens only has a 12x magnification compared to a 50 mm standard full-format lens and that scopes are often used at 50-70x magnification, I think he has a very valid point. Also, a shutter is only open for a small fraction of a second but a scope is used for extended viewing……..

My point:


For real quantitative comparison purposes the consideration above should transform mm of focal length and factor of magnification into angular movement (or even better: speed).

I fully agree, that requirements to supports (as tripods) for observation optics versus still photography are different in many respects.

But I completely disagree, that observation optics generally need more stable supports. With a still camera, if there is unstability at the very moment of shutter release, the exposure is a 100% failure. Whereas visual observation being a cumulative process taking time, temporary instrument instability is only reducing, but not completely cancelling the result.


HW
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Old Tuesday 18th September 2018, 17:03   #6
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Great idea to have a sticky on this. I think for someone looking for advice in a sticky, it would help to have a bit more detail on heads. There are so many!

Coming from photography, I use gimbals, but most spotting scope users are pan/tilt with a single arm? There are pan/tilt with two arms (for video usually). What about fluid vs non-fluid? Gitzo has a specially-designed birding pan/tilt 1-arm with slow-speed fluid movement and less-restrained fast movement. One can easily spend a lot of money on tripods and heads and get way over-geared.

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Old Tuesday 18th September 2018, 17:40   #7
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Good info thanks but what about having some information about what are the best buys, with so much choice around.

I for one am looking for a good tripod for my Meopta S2 Scope.
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Old Tuesday 18th September 2018, 18:30   #8
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John, a very decent summary. I agree also in the details like 3/8 versus adapter or Arca-Swiss.

Well done
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Old Tuesday 18th September 2018, 19:07   #9
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Originally Posted by coppo View Post
Good info thanks but what about having some information about what are the best buys, with so much choice around.

I for one am looking for a good tripod for my Meopta S2 Scope.
Hiya Coppo,
Maybe déjà vu but haven't I and others posted a load of helpful info on your earlier post about options for tripods, given your unhappiness with the one supplied free of charge?
https://www.birdforum.net/showpost.p...96&postcount=1

Last edited by PYRTLE : Tuesday 18th September 2018 at 19:10.
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Old Wednesday 19th September 2018, 18:48   #10
Tringa45
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Originally Posted by Hans Weigum View Post
But I completely disagree, that observation optics generally need more stable supports. With a still camera, if there is unstability at the very moment of shutter release, the exposure is a 100% failure.
Hans,

In the field I frequently see photographers with SLRs and long lenses without any support at all, and I suspect that the use of monopods by many journalistic photographers at sporting events is for comfort rather than picture quality. A very stable tripod was necessary for the Group f/64 photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who used large-format cameras with slow film, small apertures and long exposures but today image stabilization and high ISO numbers don't place very high demands on supports.

Marc, Coppo,

I don't think that fluid damping is of much importance for scope users, unless one is trying to follow raptors in flight. I didn't want to get into specific product discussions on this thread but for what it's worth, I use a Berlebach 552 head (now 553). The very best scopes weigh around 2 kg so I doubt that a heavy and expensive Sachtler video head would provide any significant performance advantages. I believe Kimmo Absetz is happy with his Sirui VH-10 and for smaller scopes I'm sure the Sirui VA-5 or Berlebach 510 would be good choices.

John

Last edited by Tringa45 : Thursday 20th September 2018 at 10:53.
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Old Wednesday 19th September 2018, 18:58   #11
coppo
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PYRTLE View Post
Hiya Coppo,
Maybe déjà vu but haven't I and others posted a load of helpful info on your earlier post about options for tripods, given your unhappiness with the one supplied free of charge?
https://www.birdforum.net/showpost.p...96&postcount=1

Yes you have thankyou, I was thinking about others as well that may need the information.
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Old Saturday 22nd September 2018, 06:58   #12
Hans Weigum
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[quote=Tringa45;3765520]Hans,

In the field I frequently see photographers with SLRs and long lenses without any support at all, and I suspect that the use of monopods by many journalistic photographers at sporting events is for comfort rather than picture quality. A very stable tripod was necessary for the Group f/64 photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who used large-format cameras with slow film, small apertures and long exposures but today image stabilization and high ISO numbers don't place very high demands on supports.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Hallo John

What you write here, I fully agree to. It may put my earlier statement into perspective, but does not contradict it. Higher sensitivity of digital sensors today compared to old films does reduce, but not eliminate influence of camera instability.

On the other hand its is evident to me, that the only real improvement left to hand held observation optics is internal stabilisation. Most industries concerned, however, must be happy that the average customer not yet recognised this fact, not having to deal with this risky, completelely different technology and still being able to sell marginal optical improvements as innovation.

HW
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Old Sunday 23rd September 2018, 21:44   #13
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Originally Posted by Tringa45 View Post
I don't think that fluid damping is of much importance for scope users, unless one is trying to follow raptors in flight.
For flying raptors or, indeed, any other flying or fast moving birds fluid heads just work a lot better in my experience than all other heads. They also work clearly better if you're slowly scanning an area.

I wouldn't use anything else than a fluid head nowadays, usually on a good carbon fibre tripod but sometimes also on an old, heavy-duty aluminium Gitzo.

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Old Sunday 23rd June 2019, 20:21   #14
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I have just discovered this very interesting site: https://thecentercolumn.com/. It is photography-biased so there's not much on video heads, but the tests, rankings and tripod testing methodology are very informative.

John
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Old Monday 24th June 2019, 01:28   #15
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Thank you for your comments, I am sure the Berlebach is an excellent head but it is a bit pricey.
Ben
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Old Friday 28th June 2019, 04:51   #16
Kevin Conville
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I'd like to add a few things to consider about tripods.

Collet type leg and center column clamps are stiffer than cam (lever) clamps.
Collet type clamps also don't catch on things, potentially opening up, and are less bulky.

A very common mistake for beginners is to buy too small a tripod, both in height and mass. Buy more tripod than you think you'll need, cause you'll need it.

Carbon and wood are warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, and always quieter.

Ball heads work great for small scopes and save weight. Two way (usually fluid heads), and gimbal heads are preferred for large scopes.

A tripod with a hook at the bottom of the center column allows a bag (with weight) to be hung from it greatly increasing stability in windy conditions.
Also, splaying (pre-loading the legs) in an outward fashion also increases stability.

There, I feel better.
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Old Friday 28th June 2019, 13:26   #17
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Hi Kevin,

I agree with almost all you say. I too have a preference for collet type clamps and had always assummed that they were more stable than lever clamps, but see here https://thecentercolumn.com/ under "Twist Locks vs. Flip Locks". There really is no significant difference!

The above site also shows that for a similar weight, ball heads have a much higher load capacity than two-way video heads. At least two manufacturers, Acratech and FLM, allow their ball heads to be resricted to pan and tilt.

A heavy bag hanging from the centre column hook is going to make it less likely that the scope and tripod gets blown over and it will also reduce the amplitude of high-frequency vibrations. However, there should be some ground contact; otherwise there will be induced pendulum motion of the scope.

"The Center Column" also criticized the splay angles of some tripods as being little over 20°. I too think 25°-30° is preferable.

John
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Old Friday 28th June 2019, 18:39   #18
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Originally Posted by Tringa45 View Post
Hi Kevin,

I agree with almost all you say. I too have a preference for collet type clamps and had always assummed that they were more stable than lever clamps, but see here https://thecentercolumn.com/ under "Twist Locks vs. Flip Locks". There really is no significant difference!

The above site also shows that for a similar weight, ball heads have a much higher load capacity than two-way video heads. At least two manufacturers, Acratech and FLM, allow their ball heads to be resricted to pan and tilt.

A heavy bag hanging from the centre column hook is going to make it less likely that the scope and tripod gets blown over and it will also reduce the amplitude of high-frequency vibrations. However, there should be some ground contact; otherwise there will be induced pendulum motion of the scope.

"The Center Column" also criticized the splay angles of some tripods as being little over 20°. I too think 25°-30° is preferable.

John
I just looked at your link and saw their conclusion about the locks. That, and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee
I have a few more thoughts to add.

Cam locks need to be kept in adjustment. Most of the time that isn't much of a deal but I've had Manfrotto tripod leg clamps (several occasions) get somewhat loose while in the field for whatever inexplicable reason. Manfrotto supplies a plastic multi tool that resides on the center column to address this issue.

A collet is adjusted every time you use it, by design.

I mentioned both leg locks and center column locks initially. There is a difference between these with the Manfrotto design.

Manfrotto uses a crescent shaped wedge that is driven by a screw that jambs the column to the opposite side, for the center column. 90 degrees from both the wedge and the area where the column makes contact with it's receptacle, there is no contact to speak of. In other words this design doesn't hold the column in all directions.
A collet does.

Hanging weight
I usually have used my rucksack to weight the center column in windy conditions and have found that with it's 5-10 lbs or so it does not swing much and what little it does swing doesn't seem to have a proportionate effect on the scope. Making contact with the ground will no doubt be a more perfect solution but I think the pendulum effect might be a little overstated.

Splay
There are several issues here.
What I was writing about was working with whatever leg angles your tripod happens to have, use your foot to push the legs outward creating a slightly sprung loading. This tightens the joints and makes the feet dig into the ground a little better. It helps.

The leg's angles are a different matter and a shallow included angle that attempts to make a tripod more efficient (for height) does have an affect on stability. Don't be bashful about taking one of the legs and opening it to the next stop to greatly increase it's angle. Placing this leg either into the wind or away from the wind will help a lot. Compensate for loss of height by extending the center column. It will be a net gain in spite of the extended column. This is also another reason to get a larger tripod than you might initially think you need. Very irregular ground is another reason to have a larger tripod.

The other joints.
Where the legs join the spider (hub) is another potential point of flex/vibation.
Good designs like Gitzo, and the good clones of Gitzo, use bronze bushings with clamping screws on either side of where the legs are retained. I set these tight. Tight enough that the joint will support the weight of the leg from folding when held horizontal. This makes for a more solid tripod. Manfrotto designs generally have too loose of joints in these areas, IMO.

Your primer is a good post for people new to tripods, John. Good work.

I'm convinced one of the most overlooked and under appreciated pieces of equipment for many birders, and even photographers, is their tripod and head.
Maybe they're just not as interesting to many as the optics they're intended to support are.
So many times we read how someone will buy a top of the line scope and then address the tripod and head as an afterthought. A sort of evil necessity. Often going the cheap route in spite of seasoned user's warnings.
It kind of like putting cheap tires on a Ferrari.
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Last edited by Kevin Conville : Friday 28th June 2019 at 19:27.
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Old Saturday 6th July 2019, 20:29   #19
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On collet locks: I found some designs of the past to be quite annoying, especially those that had to be tightened/loosened in sequence, and those that required many turns to be secure or to allow adjustmnent. Current designs generally prevent leg rotation so adjustments can be made in any order, but some still require a lot of turning. A limitation of collets is that they should be tightened slightly when a tripod is being transported; if left loose, they can vibrate even more loose, and bad things can then happen when they are tightened if everyhthing isn't perfectly aligned.

--AP

P.S. The _very latest_ production of the Really Right Stuff regular tripods have a new collet design that is unbelievably efficient and smooth, even in comparison to their already excellent previous design.
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Old Sunday 7th July 2019, 14:36   #20
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On collet locks: Current designs generally prevent leg rotation so adjustments can be made in any order, but some still require a lot of turning.
The main advantage of modern designs is that they allow simultaneous opening and closing in the collapsed position, where very little torque is required.

However, it's still advisable in the extended position to tighten from top to bottom, and to loosen from bottom to top to avoid unnecessary torque on the internal guide rails.

John
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