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Tripod/head advice (1 Viewer)


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United States
I’ve been becoming more obsessed with birding (as one does) and I’m planning on purchasing a spotting scope soon—currently waffling between the vortex viper/razer x85mm. I would like to have a tripod that easily works with both the spotting scope and my camera (canon 80d, usually with a 100-400mm lens, sometimes with a 1.4x attached, so fairly heavy). It would mostly be used on outings by car but there are a few beach hikes for shorebirds >1mile where I’d plan on taking the scope/camera so I’d like something somewhat lightweight.

I’ve been trying to research and I’m just getting too bogged down and second-guessing everything lol. My current tripod is too flimsy and frustrating to use, and not trustworthy so I'm looking for something more robust. I’m fairly short -5’4”, and my scope will be angled so height isn’t as much of an issue. I’d like to stay around $500 for the tripod kit and was looking at Manfrotto's 290 Xtra Carbon Fiber Tripod with either the MVH500AH Fluid Video Head or the 128RC. Any suggestions for alternatives or comments on why these wouldn’t be a good setup? Thanks!
The Manfrotto carbon fiber 055 will be much sturdier and only a bit heavier. What I don’t like about the latest Manfrotto tripods, including the 055, are their flip levers that will bite you at every opportunity or catch on your clothing, release a leg, and unceremoniously dump your expensive gear on the ground. An all around horrible design that never should have seen production.

Far better are the twist locks found on Gitzo tripods and others. Nothing to bite, nothing to catch and open, simple and elegant.

I do like the 128 fluid heads, but it might be a bit on the light side for your gear.
What I don’t like about the latest Manfrotto tripods, including the 055, are their flip levers...

Couldn't disagree more, Jim... but I hope you take that in the nicest possible way. :giggle:

After 30+ years as a designer/semi-professional photographer, always using flip-lock Manfrotto's, but now retired, I recently switched to a four-legged travel tripod with twist-locks and couldn't wait to get back to flip-locks. Which I've done by buying an 'as new' three-legged 055 carbon Manfrotto.

Maybe I've been lucky, or just naturally blessed with unclumsiness (if that's a word), but I've never been 'bitten' by a flip-lock, or caught one on anything, either in the field or in a studio. That said, the latest Manfrotto flip-locks are an improvement on the age-old versions because they perform more like a small lever and have a more reassuring click upon locking... and you can never leave one partly adjusted, which can't be said for twist-locks.

I guess the modern acronym, YMMV, applies to pretty much everything that anyone has an opinion on, but I think most here would agree that (as long as you achieve the desired height) three legs are better than four, for stability. (I don't buy the argument that twist-locks are more rigid than flip-locks, but I guess it might be coming.)

As for heads, my Kowa 773 is lighter than most 77-85mm scopes and I won't be digi/video- scoping, but I too am considering (aka dithering over):
  • Manfrotto MVH500AH because it's not made in 'the usual place' and it's a good price, but it's overkill for my needs and relatively heavy.
  • Sirui VA-5 because it's 600g and gets such high praise here and other specialist forums (the VH-10X might be more suitable for jem19).
  • Gitzo GHF2W because I can't find a single thing to dislike about it, apart from price.
  • Older Gitzo fluid heads, because there are currently a few on e8ay.
  • Leofoto BV-10 or BV-5... I'm torn between sizes... and they seem over-priced and perhaps over-designed.
Too much choice, jem19; hope you find what you're looking for.... hope I do, for that matter. :geek:

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Couldn't disagree more, Jim... but I hope you take that in the nicest possible way. :giggle:
As no offense was intended, Peregrine, I naturally took none.

But I wonder whether your used but as new Manfrotto 055 really has the latest version fliplocks; the newest Bite-o-Matics, “now with the more powerful extended piranha jaws”. They’re quite different from my earlier Manfrotto fliplocks which had no jaws at all past the flip pivot axis.

As to catching a fliplock and opening it, it happened to me one moonless midnight while I was stargazing through one of my Astro telescopes. A fellow had come by my dark and remote observing site and explained that he had just left his own camp a mile down the road and was heading towards civilization. It seemed to him that having seen two mountain lions walk past his camp within the past hour was a sign he’d be more comfortable elsewhere, like in a nice hotel. We wished each other luck and he departed.

The notion of lions in the neighborhood may have put me on edge a bit, and when I heard a noise in the tall grass fifteen yards from where I was observing I might have jumped up a bit quicker than I would have normally. As I rose and turned to face my visitor my sandal strap caught a bottom fliplock, it opened, the leg retracted, and down crashed the tripod, mount, and telescope. Extenuating circumstances were at play, but my Gitzos never would have let me down that way.
Picture of my 055CXPro3. As you suggest, Jim, the pivot is under that little silver insert (about a third of the way along the lever) and with the levers now being much longer, you can effectively open and close them with the palm of the hand, leaving the digits well clear (I just tried, to make sure I wasn't making this up). I think you'd have to try especially hard to get your fingers trapped in them, or rip off a nail getting them open.

Unfortunate story about the mountain lion, but I blame the footwear... wouldn't running shoes have been more useful? 😂

I guess we'll say anything to justify our choices... I'm just embittered that I can't afford a Gitzo!

Screenshot 2023-02-15 at 09.57.45.png
Thank you all so much! You’ve given me even more to think about-which is a good thing :). The flimsy tripod I’m using now has flip locks that seem to hold well and I never noticed them catching, but I was also too nervous to leave my heavy lens on there without the camera strap being around my neck too, so that’s probably not a good test 😂.

I’d rather go for sturdier overall and think of any extra minor weight as a wonderful addition to an exercise regimen, and hopefully I won't meet up with any mountain lions—although weightier tripods probably make a better defensive weapon. I tend to be a ‘buy once, cry once’ type for this kind of thing where I know I’ll be using it regularly (although Swarovski/Zeiss tears are just too expensive) I looked into the Gitzo’s, and Leofotos but I'll take another look along with Sirui. And then put them all of the narrowed-down choices on a dart board, close my eyes and let it fly.
FWIW, I may backtrack on my choice of tripods and downgrade to a flimsier Gitzo (I'm nothing if not open-minded/fickle... you choose). But seriously, the 055 carbon is a beautiful and sturdy thing, but I might sacrifice a little stability - and my beloved flip-locks - in favour of a Gitzo Series 1 Mountaineer - one that's just over 650g (26 ounces?) lighter than the Manfrotto. It'll cost me, but I thought it might be another one to consider (jem19) under your policy of 'buy once, cry once'... although seeing your comments about weight, I'd look at the series 2 Mountaineer. I just bought a mint used Gitzo GH1720QR head, so it would be rude not to have a matching tripod! This is your fault Jim! :giggle:
A confession. 😇 Having been adamant (#4), that I prefer Manfrotto flip-locks to twist-locks, I've done a complete volte-face and sold the 055 in favour of a Gitzo GT2545T Traveller (bought mint/used).

In my defence, I did this mostly for the weight saving - deciding, as per post #9, to sacrifice some stability for the bigger benefit (to me) of quite a lot less weight. But also, I was 'bitten' for the fist time ever by the flip-locks on a Manfrotto and left cursing the damn thing (maybe it bit me because I was selling it... if you believe such things, but karma, for sure), so I am rapidly learning to love twist-locks.

This is my first Gitzo Tripod and, I have to say, the whole assembly looks more elegant than any of the Manfrotto's I've owned - all Gitzo stuff is pleasing to the eye, IMO. I'll still look out for a Mountaineer Series 2 if anything comes up secondhand, that series strikes me (and is, presumably, it's raison d'etre) as a good balance of stability and relatively low weight.

So there we have it. Probably, the moral of the story is, don't listen to me! :LOL: Or maybe, empathise, if you've been down the same path of: buying and selling, and of confirmation bias, about turns and contradictions, until you find what feels right for you.
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Good that you have seen the light and forsworn flip-locks. Funny enough, Manfrotto owns Gitzo. I think a Systematic like the GT3543LS would be a more significant upgrade from a Series 2 Traveler.
After a few weeks I'm more than happy with the series 2 Traveller. For my needs, it has enough attributes to outweigh (literally, in one sense) the compromises, so I'm no longer thinking about alternatives.

My GT2545T came with the long Gitzo spikes - never used these before, but they are very grippy. Although, like the spikes you get with floor-standing hifi speakers, not advised for home use with hardwood flooring... unless you like the look of woodworm.
What I recommend is buying a good tripod for your camera use and then putting an Arca-Swiss compatible plate (can buy for $10 on Amazon) on the base of the scope. Easy then to switch from the scope to the tripod for both uses.

With you height the tripod's working height can be far less and so less expensive to purchase. The "height" stated for a tripod can include that provided with a center column fully extended and this makes for a shaky platform for the camera. Best to buy the height needed without the center column.

A ball head is best for photography but a tilt type best for a scope. If you put an L bracket on your camera the tilt head can be used for vertical shots of subjects or landscapes. There are video heads like the ones from iFootage that are light and great for both a scope and for shooting video with your camera.

Be aware that the states load capacities of many heads is overstated. Notable exceptions are the heads from Feisol and Leofoto. Many tripod legs available and the best value are the ones from Feisol but there are good ones from Manfrotto, Sirui, Leofoto, and Robus. A 17 lb load capacity will be good enough to provide stable support.

I recommend buying from a place like B&H that makes returns painless if you do not like what you get. With tripods I found that 9 out of 10 were not able to support a load when the legs were fully extended without visible flexing. The reviews on their website are also very helpful as they are posted by actual buyers and users.

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