When I got into photography more than 20 years ago, I remember spending all my hard earned money on a brand new camera. It was a shiny beautiful brand new Pentax K1000 with a great 50mm f/1.8 lens. I was almost flat broke and all I could afford to buy after that was a roll of B&W Ilford HP5 film to try the camera out. Some time went by until I could afford to buy anything else photography related, but I remember that the next item on my list was a tripod.
I bought one of those cheap aluminum tripods that lacked a lot on the steadiness side. It served me well for a few years until one day it totally fell apart with my precious camera mounted on it. Of course, nothing serious happened because those cameras were built like a tank. It’s amazing the kind of abuse they could take and just keep on working flawlessly like a Swiss clock, but that day I promised myself I would never buy another cheap tripod again in my life.
What is the perfect tripod?
As I started growing up in the photography business, I tried out a lot of different things, from really light carbon-fiber tripods to huge studio columns for large format cameras. The fact is that there is no perfect tripod out there.
Different cameras and different situations require different tripods.
You have to accept that it is a compromise between lightness, steadiness, and versatility, and make your choice.
Honestly, I own more tripods than I would like to admit. The fact is that I always have a really hard time picking the right tripod every time I have to go out on an assignment. So recently I put myself on a quest to search for a nice tripod that would fit most of my needs and would not break my piggy bank.
Building the ideal tripod
The shopping list I am about to describe was made after some serious research. I kept in mind the best price, quality products, and the kind of work I do, which ranges from portraiture to architecture, with a lot of landscaping in between, mostly done on the go. So these choices may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they work great for me.
If you take a look around, you’ll see that there are hundreds of tripod manufacturers on the market. If you eliminate the top brands and focus on the regular consumer brands, you’ll see that many times the same product is sold under different brand names, many times with very different prices.
The thing is that most of these products are made in China, and then exported around the world and sold under the name of local brands. To buy this kind of product is a game of chance because they range from fairly well-made to really bad knock-offs of famous brands made with cheap materials.
Starting with the Fotopro CT-5i tripod
The Fotopro CT-5i I decided to buy is a really good compromise of a good product with a really nice price tag. This particular tripod configuration is used by different manufacturers. You can find this product being sold under different brand names with slight differences.
It is a four-section aluminum tripod that weighs 1.38kg (3.04 pounds) and is as small as 43cm (16.9 inches) when folded. It is able to support up to 8kg (17.6 pounds) and extend up to 1.57 meters (5.15 feet).
These specifications are perfect if you want a transportable tripod that is sturdy enough to hold a DSLR with a heavy lens, with the ability to remove one of the legs and convert it into a monopod, which is a major plus in my opinion. It also comes with a transport bag and a few handy accessories such as:
- A belt holder for transport or for a monopod steady stand
- A couple of hex wrenches for tripod maintenance
- Hand strap
- A sturdy hook to hang some weight and make the tripod steadier
It has a moveable central column and a really clever latch design that opens the legs in three different angles.
Customizing my ideal tripod
Even though the design of the product is really good, after using it for a couple of months, I realized I could improve it with a few simple modifications that would make my job easier.
The first task was to remove the original rubber feet and replace them with a set of spigots with a 3/8″ thread.
With a little bit of grinding they get a tight fit inside the tube, and now they just give me new attachment possibilities, like these spikes or rubber feet that I can use in different types of ground.
Or I can add a 3-legged locking base to the monopod.
It’s a simple modification that adds a lot of versatility, enabling features that are only seen in really high-end brands.
The monopod can also be used as a boom arm or, if I’m in a rush, I even use it as a light stand attached to something like my hard case with a heavy duty clamp.
You can also improve the steadiness of the tripod by just hanging something on the hook of the central column like for instance your photo bag.
The ball head is a medium size one, with an Arca Swiss style plate able to perform smooth panning movements, even though I have to admit that the knobs don’t offer the best grip, but they do the job.
The bubble levels on the plate base are a good help when you need to check your horizontal or vertical indicators. It seems very well balanced and steady with a DSLR with a heavy 70-200mm f/2.8 lens using the collar attachment.
It doesn’t perform that well when you use the camera base screw attachment and turn it to the vertical position, making it totally out of balance. This is the reason why I use an L-Bracket most of the time.
The bracket keeps the camera in line with the tripod column, making it balanced and not tilted off-side when you use it in the vertical position.
Sometimes you have to adapt the tools you use to your needs. These customs modifications and add-on accessories just made this tripod a lot more useful to me, making my job much simpler when I have to use one.
What about you, have you done any custom adaptations to your tripod? Please share your ideas in the comments below.