After you get home, your peers are stoked about the images you made out at the Grand Canyon and even buy a couple small canvas prints. You decide the head has to go, so you upgrade to a $150 ball head and it is a dream to use. It breaks a year later and the company didn't have a decent repair service, so you were forced to buy another. You decide you're over the cheap gear and you really want to take photography seriously, so you upgrade to a professional level tripod and head and you still own it, years later.
Sound familiar? Well that was my story (more or less), as I'm sure it's similar to a lot of those who will read this. All in all, I spent nearly $2000 over the course of about 2 years on tripods and heads that continuously could not be trusted. The tripod and ball head I now use retails for about $1,100.
Now, I'm not saying everyone should go out and spend a thousand dollars on a tripod setup for their first camera they own. Everyone will have that floor lamp of a tripod at some point in their long history of their passion for photography. What I caution to you is to upgrade intelligently. There is a reason your $100 tripod broke. There is a reason it freezes up in sub-zero temperatures. My general rule of thumb is that your support system should cost no less than 20% of the gear sitting on top of it. For example, a modern "inexpensive" pro-level DSLR and 24-70 lens will run you about $3,000, so spend $600 on your tripod and head, if not more.
You wouldn't put discount tires on a Lamborghini, so why have $100 sitting below your medium format digital camera?
Below, I have compiled a list of my favorite gear, spanning the full price range for those of you interested to know what I would (and do) use.
- Manfrotto MT055XPRO3 Aluminum Tripod - $250.00
- Best bang for your buck for the leap from that floor lamp of a tripod.
- Manfrotto MT055CXPRO4 Carbon Fiber Tripod - $500.00
- For when you first realize that aluminum gets really cold, really quickly.
- Gitzo GT3542L Mountaineer Series 3 Carbon Fiber Tripod - $995.00
- "The one tripod that rules them all." - If I had to own one single tripod, this would be it. Although I have a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with any center column, it is removable in a super-cool way.
- Gitzo GT1545T Series 1 Traveler Carbon Fiber Tripod - $740.00
- I own this and I love it - I use it for backpacking and when I travel anywhere on a plane.
- Gitzo Series 3 Systematic Carbon Fiber Tripod - $925.00
- "The other tripod that rules them all if you don't like center columns - like me."
- Gitzo Series 5 Systematic Carbon Fiber Tripod (Giant) - $1,600.00
- Great for getting shots from a ladder (it happens, trust me) and great for supporting a super heavy load like my 8x10
- Manfrotto MHXPRO-BHQ6 XPRO Ball Head with Top Lock Quick-Release System - $200.00
- Don't buy anything less expensive than this. This should be your first head.
- Gitzo GH3382QD Series 3 Center Ball Head - $450.00
- If you want to stick with the same manufacturer of your tripod, you can buy this in a package with it
- Arca-Swiss Monoball P1 S Ball Head with Classic Quick Release - $460.00
- I really enjoy this "inverted" ball head. It allows for more control due to the head rotating around the ball.
- Arca-Swiss Monoball P0 Ball Head with Classic Quick Release - $391.00
- My backpacking / travel ball head of choice. You can't beat it.
- Arca-Swiss C1 Cube - $1,650.00
- If you shoot a heavy large format (or any camera) I can't stress to you enough how incredible this head is. I own it, and I'd buy it three more times if I had to. Read my review, here.
- Arca-Swiss D4 - $1,250.00
- I use this for my smaller cameras like my 4x5 and Linhof 6x17. Still packs a punch and the microadjustments are crucial to precision compositions and camera control.
For information on purchasing Arca-Swiss equipment, I highly suggest contacting the USA representative, Rod Klukas by visiting his website or shooting him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can assist you with purchasing any piece of Arca-Swiss equipment you could desire and lead you in the right direction, offering you years of insight and help you find the perfect setup for you.