photokina Special Coverage; Tripods And Camera Supports

It was a heady affair covering camera supports at photokina, with dozens of new tripod tops from a variety of manufacturers. The trend is toward greater precision and quality: increased control, with spring counterweights to balance heavy lenses, calibrated friction control as pioneered by Novoflex, panoramic calibrations, and quick-release plates. Some manufacturers introduced whole new ranges of heads. The following are just a sampling of the many new products and innovations.

Possibly the finest head at the show came from Arca Swiss. It looks like an ordinary enough ball-and-socket, except that it's upside down (the ball goes on the tripod, the ball housing on the camera) and the lock is a ring around the top of the ball housing. It's hard to explain just how easy it is to use. You can use either hand, obviously, but you automatically adjust the drag as you are moving the camera, then just as naturally you lock it down. The secret is a triple planetary-geared lock, which accounts for the price (over $400, though this had not been finalized at the show). Once you try it, though, you can see where the money goes, and it looks like a bargain. It is made in two versions, P1s ("single" with 35Þ maximum tilt) and P1d ("double" with 90Þ tilt and base pan as well as top pan).

Cullmann's Magnesit range includes six heads, and with Teutonic thoroughness, the names of the four new ball-and-socket heads (Magnesit 10 Nm, 20 Nm, 30 Nm, and 35 Nm) indicate their measured camera-carrying ability: see sidebar. The other two are fluid three-way heads. Cullmann's Nm-series ball-and-socket heads have a five-position calibrated dial which controls the drag or resistance of the ball. For example, you might find that your rangefinder camera needs the drag set to 2, while your SLR with the 300mm lens needs 4 or 5. Each head also has panoramic calibrations around the base. The three-way heads and the largest ball head have integral quick-release plates, which are optional on the three smaller ball heads.

The biggest and smallest Magnesit ball heads from Cullmann.

Manfrotto's Hydrostatic ball heads also have calibrated drag control. This is a range of six heads with maximum load-bearing capacities of 10 kg (22 lbs) to 16 kg (35.2 lbs): note that this is not the same as a Newton-meter rating. They are lightweight, magnesium die cast, and all but one incorporates a quick-release system. All have calibrations for panoramic shots. Manfrotto's National Geographic Expedition series heads include calibrated friction controls, too. A portion of the price you pay for their National Geographic-branded items goes toward education and research.

Going back to completely new designs, SLIK's latest introduction rejoices in the name "Goodman," but I think of it as "every which way when it's loose." It looks like a standard pan-and-tilt head, but when you release the top plate you have 360Þ rotation and when you release the pan handle the head will allow the camera to be placed in any position except upside down.

Novoflex VR System Pro: panoramas in two planes, about the nodal point.

The popularity of panoramic shots has led Novoflex to produce a new panoramic platform, the Q Pro. The clever part is that you can choose from 6, 8, 10, 12, 15, 18, 24, and 36 click stops, as well as 360Þ continuous, all set by a simple twist-knob. A built-in spirit level allows leveling in two planes, and the head incorporates the Q=Mount quick-release plate. A more complex version, the VR (Virtual Reality) System Pro, has an L-shaped bracket incorporating a sliding camera plate which holds the camera vertically or horizontally, allowing rotation to be centered about the nodal point of the lens, plus dual panoramic movement. The less complex (and less expensive) Panorama=Q has two 180Þ scales with 10Þ divisions, again with bubble level and Q=Mount quick-release plate.

Even Lenspen diversified into panoramas with their inexpensive (again, no price fixed at the show) Panamatic Plus Imaging Kit. This includes a 360Þ index plate with level, and stitching software from ArcSoft.

Lenspen Panamatic Plus comes with ArcSoft stitching software.

Velbon, Olivon, Manfrotto, and Gitzo all showed counterweighted pan-and-tilt heads, many of which can be adapted for left-handed users. The spring counterweight is adjustable to balance the weight of your lens or spotting scope. Telescope users, especially bird watchers, are increasingly important to tripod manufacturers.

There were plenty of small, well made ball-and-socket heads from Benro, Giottos, Novoflex, and SLIK, often with quick-release plates incorporated. Check out your favorite manufacturers on the web.

Tripod Trends
Going from heads to tripods, continuing trends include lighter weight, more comfort in carrying, improved leg locks, and greater versatility. Lighter weight is achieved through new materials, sometimes in the whole tripod, or more often in the boss (the yoke at the top). Early carbon fiber was sometimes brittle, but newer generations are stronger and more rigid and often even lighter.

But carbon fiber isn't always necessary. Leg tubes for Gitzo Series 2 (Reporter) and Series 3 (Studex) tripods are optionally available in a new ultralight alloy called Soulid 238. Contoured "leg warmers," of another new lightweight material, are designed to rest comfortably on your shoulder and to be easy to grip regardless of the size of your hands. Reversible center columns are of basalt and the tripods come with a ground level set, allowing the tripod to be used without the center column for low-level shooting.

Another very welcome Gitzo innovation is their new G-Lock, fitted to carbon-fiber and basalt tripods. The old collar locks could be almost impossible to undo if they were over-tightened, but the Gitzo designer who demonstrated the G-Lock tightened the collar as far as he could and I could still undo it. He also said that although it was not part of the design criterion, the new leg locks make the tripod easier and faster to strip for cleaning. Gitzo's new catalog, produced for their 90th anniversary, is superb.

Gitzo Soulid 238 is a new light alloy option.

Benro introduced a second-generation carbon fiber, which is said to be 60 percent stronger, and also incorporated new collar locks on the legs to improve dust-proofing and ease of operation. A couple of extremely positive, unsolicited remarks from Benro users whom I met on the stand indicate that these tripods are increasingly making their mark.