Monday, 7 April 2014

Story of my gear: Velbon UT43D tripod

Welcome to the first in a series of posts where I tell you what I think about gear that I either already own, or which I've recently rented. Hopefully, the confirmation bias shouldn't kick in, but just in case, don't expect impartial shopping advice nor a thorough review. The reviews are based almost exclusively on the way I use the gear, even though I'll try my best to extrapolate.

At the end of the review, rather than giving the item a score, I'll answer some questions: if it's a rental item, I'll tell you how badly I want to buy the item (if at all). If it's a piece of gear I already own, I'll tell you if a) I'd buy an extra copy of the item and b) I'd replace it with the same model should I lose/break it. Now onto the review.

My first "accessory" purchase (i.e. not a camera body or lens) after I started photography was a tripod. Why? Mostly for the long-ish exposures I wanted to take at night, and the ability to place my camera at pretty much any height I wanted without having to squat for an extended period of time.

As for many things in photography equipment, there was an overwhelming breadth of choice, and an annoyingly wide range of prices. How much to spend? What to get (Carbon fibre, aluminium) ? I didn't really know where to start. After watching a video from DigitalRevTV, I knew I couldn't go for the cheapest tripod I could find, but I couldn't afford to spend £300+ in a tripod either. So I decided to think about my needs and chose accordingly.

My main criteria was size. I intended to take that tripod with me on photo walks, so it had to be relatively light, but more importantly small enough to fit in a messenger bag. To that end, I was willing to compromise on the maximum height of the tripod.

The other important criteria was that it needed a ball head with a quick release plate. I wanted to be able to take the camera on and off the tripod very easily, and the ball head would give me the freedom to orientate the camera however I want.

The third and last criterion was that I wanted to be able to change the tripod head. When I buy gear, especially when it's fairly expensive, I try to make sure it's future-proof. If it turned out I needed to do precise panning shots, I didn't want to have to ditch my old tripod and get a new one.

So, after a bit of research, I ended up walking into my local camera shop and buying a Velbon UT43D.

Under the "travel tripod" category, the main feature of this tripod is that its legs can fold onto the main body, making it basically twice as short once packed than it would have been otherwise.

It comes with a ball head that has a quick release plate and spirit levels, and can be removed to be replaced by another head, or to attach something else to the tripod (like a slider for video or time-lapses).

The legs collapse in 6 sections, and the shaft on which the ball head is mounted has two sections. You extend the legs with a simple twist and pull motion

What I like about it

Once folded and ready to go, it's less than 30cm long. And it doesn't compromise on maximum height either as it can extend to about 155cm, so pretty much eye level.

The other neat thing is that the legs can be set at 3 different angles (25, 45 and 75 degrees), so you can place your camera very low (specs say a minimum height of 34.2cm).

You can extend it to full size very quickly, so it's easy to deploy or pack up.

It's really light (just over a kilo) so I don't mind having it in the bag even if I end up not using it on a shoot.

With the rubber feet, it grips most surfaces quite easily.

What I like less about it

It's light. Weight is a double edged sword when it comes to tripods. A light tripod is easy to carry, but more prone to tipping over than a heavier one, and usually less sturdy. If there was a fairly strong wind outside, I'd want to stay close to the tripod if the camera's mounted on it.

Since the legs have 6 sections, they are actually quite frail. Its thinnest section is about 1cm in diameter. Not much. I wouldn't put that tripod any place where it's at risk of getting hit by something or someone fast and/or heavy.

While the twist action makes it really easy to fully extend the legs, I find it fiddly to get to a specific height. With a clip lock tripod, I would just undo the clip and let gravity find the correct extension length for me, before locking the leg into place. Here, it's a bit more tricky to do anything precise.


So, it's not the perfect tripod, but it does what I ask of it more often than not. It holds my heaviest setup (7D + 70-200mm F/2.8 + 600EX-RT) without flinching, and since it's light and packs small, I never regret taking it with me. I wouldn't set it up on the side of a football pitch or leave it unattended in windy conditions, but apart from that it is serving me well.

Would I buy it again?

Unless I find something better and sturdier that's as easy to carry as this, then yes, I'd buy it again.

Would I buy a second one?

I don't think so. If I ever go on a shoot that requires me to have two tripods, chances are I'll need more gear than I can carry on my back, in which case most of the upsides of this tripod become irrelevant. If I get a second tripod, I'll mostly likely look for something quite solid, regardless of its packed size.

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