Manfrotto 209 tabletop tripod legs ($25)
By Adam McAnaney
In the comments to Mike's post "Tripod Technology," I made my aversion to tripods pretty clear. But like others I decided to try and find the smallest, sturdiest option available that would hold, at a minimum, a small SLR, yet which would be fairly cheap given the limited use it was likely to see. After trying several options, I have come up with what may just be the ideal solution.
Legs: The trick is to get legs that won't flex, have some mass to them and which sit very low. If the mini/tabletop tripod is going to fit into your camera bag, the legs simply won't be very long. Buying a mini tripod with telescoping legs is just a bad idea all-around, piling instability on instability. So you want something with solid legs. If the head of the legs is more than 3 or 4 inches off the ground, then the legs won't be spread out more than 4 or 5 inches, which means that by the time you mount a camera and lens, the setup will be very unstable. Solid legs that spread very wide will maximize your stability. My recommendation? The Giottos QU 500B Mini Tabletop Tripod* ($25) or the Manfrotto 209 Tabletop Tripod ($25) which supposedly support up to 11 lbs. That seems ridiculous for a mini tripod, until you realize just how basic and stable its design is. The legs are made of metal and very stable, and they sit very low to the ground. Only drawback: the legs really work best when they are fully spread out on a flat surface. In practice, I haven't found this to be a problem, but your mileage may vary.
Head: Again, I was looking for something cheap, yet stable, that wouldn't start to drop with an SLR attached. My solution: the Manfrotto 234 Swivel Tilt Monopod Head ($24). It, too, is made of metal and is very, very stable. It is designed for use on monopods with much heavier lenses than what I use it for. The locking mechanism simply does not loosen. Given that the unit is made of metal and is very robust, the large tightening screw just won't budge once you set it. Only drawback: it is a swivel, so you can only adjust your camera/lens along one axis. Again, I haven't found this to be a problem for my work, but then again I'm obviously not all people.*
Quick release (optional): This setup really doesn't need a quick release. I say this for two reasons: 1) The attachment screw on the Manfrotto 234 is very easy to access and operate, so attaching and removing it manually is much less annoying than with most tripods. 2) Since the Giottos/Manfrotto legs and the Manfrotto tilt head are so small, I tend to just leave this combination attached to my camera in situations where I'm using it. With the legs folded up, they provide a sort of grip for my SLR and do not interfere with my hand-held shooting. When I want to use the mini tripod, I just spread the legs and set the camera down. That said, there are people who are die-hard quick-release fans and who already have QR plates on all of their cameras/lenses. For those people I recommend the Markins QR-48 ($70), which includes a built-in bubble-level. My chief objection to this is that the quick release costs more than the legs and the head combined, yet doesn't add much in terms of functionality.
For anyone looking for a slightly more flexible setup (with more adjustable legs and a ballhead) and for whom money is no object, I would recommend the following:
The Leica Tabletop Tripod with Folding Legs ($109) with one of the small ballheads from one of the better ballhead manufacturers, such as a BH-25 LR ($175) from Really Right Stuff or a Q-Ball Q3 Emille ($300) from Markins. Both of these heads have built-in quick releases.*
But frankly, I wouldn't dismiss the Giottos/Manfrotto Mini Tripod / Manfrotto 234 combo. It is a much more flexible and stable combo than you think. On the other hand, for someone who will use such a setup a lot, even the more expensive Leica / mini-ballhead combo can seem like a bargain. To be honest with you, I would get far more use out of such a setup than I do out of my carbon fiber tripod and massive ballhead which, as I have already made clear, sits unused at home.
Adam McAnaney comments on TOP as amcananey.
*Legs identical to the Giottos/Manfrotto legs are available in a combo with a mini-ballhead in the form of the Manfrotto 709 Digi Tabletop Tripod with Ballhead ($40). The ballhead looks okay and has gotten good reviews, even from people using it with cameras as large as a Nikon D700, but I am skeptical that a mini-ballhead at this price point won't start to droop with use. For those using EVIL cameras or compacts, this might be a good option, however.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.