Following the interest generated by the post on tripod heads, I was asked to talk a bit about leg sets.
Ok, here goes, with plenty of upfront warning about bias and personal preference.
Tripod Leg Sets which may or may not include a centre column come in a variety of materials including but not limited to;
- Carbon Fibre
Lets look at the pros and cons of each material.
Wood tripod leg sets have existed for years and still do. On the Pro side, they are relatively easy to service and if they use good hardwoods, tend to last a very long time. Ash, Maple and Hickory are good wood choices. On the Con side, wood tripods are often bulky and often very heavy making transport unpleasant. Because the wood wears, they dont retain perfect orientation but the use of proper ferrules and grommets can make a solid difference. Wood is also reasonably vibration resistant until you hit the resonant frequency at which point its making music. We rarely see wood tripods in the field these days except in the hands of old view camera afficionados who like to be consistent in their approach. Berleback of Germany does some beautiful work.
Steel tripods are rare. They are extremely stable and extremely heavy. They are barely portable and most often found in fixed studio locations. Steel is reasonably vibration resistant and when rubber damped can be wonderful, so long as you personally dont have to lift it. Unless you are Bruce Banner or have a comportment of personal shrives, avoid steel. Plus it corrodes readily.
This is the material we run into most often. Aluminum can be excellent but more often than not the tube walls are too thin, or the U channels improperly formed. This bad design coupled with crappy leg locks has given aluminum a bad rap. Aluminum is reasonably light, but be cautious that the legs do not flex when you put the weight of your camera and lens on them. More photographers have bought and regretted too light aluminum tripods, often at the advice of store staff looking to earn a $5 spiff than any other type. If you go aluminum, check the legs for flex and the locks for slippage. The better aluminum leg sets will last you for decades. I have a set of Manfrotto legs on a V design with centre braces that I have had for 32 years and they are still excellent and hold my Sinar 4x5 with great stability. Not very light though.
The nice folks at Gitzo wanted something stiffer and less vibration prone than aluminum but less expensive than carbon fibre, so they developed the Basalt series. Basalt is volcanic rock and like carbon fibre this is a weave system. Basalt is significantly lighter than aluminum and has great torsional rigidity. The walls can be thinner than aluminum without giving up strength. I had a Gitzo leg set for a while and it was terrific. Its now owned by my buddy Bryan who calls it The Rock because it is so stable. To the best of my knowledge only Gitzo offers a Basalt based leg set at this time but thats no reason not to go take a closer look at them.
Carbon fibre leg sets are often seen as the ultimate in legs. Be careful though, because the quality of the carbon fibre weave has a lot more to do with the stability than the material itself. I have seen a great many low end carbon fibre tripods from name brands and unknowns alike that were worth far less than the purchase price. Unfortunately good carbon fibre legs still cost money. Manfrotto does some decent ones at reasonable price but I personally prefer the Really Right Stuff or Gitzo options. The RRS weave is unsurpassed in my opinion. I even moved from the excellent Gitzo legs to get this capability.
But wait, theres more!
You want to look at a few other things when picking a leg set. Many less expensive tripods include a centre column that goes up and down and provides for more height. You are far better off to buy a longer leg set than depend on the centre column. A longer leg set is just more stable. If you do want a centre column, and its often useful DO NOT buy one of those types that uses a crank to go up and down. They are a pain to position correctly and create instability in the platform unless you are paying through the nose for one. Youll not that none of the leg sets I recommended have geared centre columns. If you do select a tripod with a centre column, make sure it is reversible so you can hang the camera on the bottom for closeup work. The column should also have a hook on it to hold a weight or a sandbag.
You also want to consider how many sections the leg set has. For example a 3 section leg will always be more stable than a 4 or 5 section leg but the tripod will be longer when collapsed and therefore perhaps a bit more onerous to transport. The more sections, the thinner the final tube and the less stable the whole thing becomes.
If you are going to be working on different surfaces you might want a leg set with interchangeable feet. My Gitzos and my Really Right Stuff legs both came with non-marring rubber feet but I could easily swap them out for spikes if I was setting up on a hillside. Some leg sets have retractable rubber feet that screw up to reveal spikes. This is an ok compromise but the spikes arent really long enough to make a big difference.
The locking system for legs is always a point of argument. Some like the lever lock kind of legs because they are very fast. I dont like them because I find that they can break and when they do you are SOL. Some people hate the twist type locks. I prefer them because I have variable control over the locking tension and as they wear, I can also tighten them a bit more. They are a tiny bit slower than levers but not enough to be a problem.
The next thing to think about is variable leg angle. Better tripods allow you to set the leg angle independently for each leg via use of a simple locking system. The Manfrotto 055 gives you four angles. The Gitzo basalt and the Really Right Stuff leg sets give you three. This allows you to splay the legs to get low to the ground or to get more stability on a hillside. Newer tripods offer this but the splay angles are restricted. I dislike Manfrottos 290 series for this reason. Watch the hinge systems on the variable leg angle models. Youll find that Gitzo and Really Right Stuff have thought this through and build the best hinge designs.
Sometimes a leg set that comes with a centre column also includes reinforcing rods that run from the leg to the centre column. This is critical on a light stand or even on a tripod for very heavy gear like an 8x10 view camera or pro video. You DO NOT want this on your still camera tripod. First they negate the ability to vary the leg angle. Second they provide a wonderful way to pinch the ends of your fingers in the field, and third they are most often found on really crappy tripods as a means to make junk less unstable. In general if you see this kind of support, its telling you that the tripod is junk.
A good leg set will last a lifetime, so buy your last leg set first if you can, and yes it is worthwhile saving and waiting to get the right legs and to not settle for something cheap today.