Galen Rowell once said that the lightest tripod you should use is the heaviest tripod you are willing to carry. Wise words. How heavy a tripod are you willing to carry on adventure trips, carrying the tripod on your back for days on end? I bet the answer is to go as light as possible.
For many years, my lightweight tripod has been a Gitzo G01 with the center column removed and a Slik Compact Ball Head bolted directly onto the legs. This setup weighed about 2 lbs and while it was good enough for my lightweight manual film cameras, the simple platform mounted (screw-on) and the small ballhead proved insufficient for modern DSLR equipment.
My search for the ultimate super lightweight tripod for all sorts of travel and adventure activities such as backpacking, bike touring and other multi-day expeditions begins with finding a good ballhead.
Components of a good ballhead are
i. The Platform; and
ii. The Ball.
1. The platform: Joining the camera to the ballhead.
With lighter cameras, you can screw on a platform mount directly into the tripod socket of the camera body. The problem with this is that with heavy DSLRs, it is difficult to apply sufficient torque to prevent the camera body from twisting itself loose when you put the camera into portrait orientation (flopped on its side). The solution to this is to get rid of the screw-on platform and get a plate and clamp that will not twist loose. The standard is the Arca-Swiss plate and clamp. The clamp has a dovetail profile that grips a matching mounting plate on the camera body. You can buy a custom plate specific to your camera body (best for heavier cameras like the Nikon D300, D700, Canon 50D, 5D Mk II), or get a generic plate (ok for lighter bodies like the Nikon D60, Canon XSi/450D). Unfortunately, the plate and clamp will add about 90g (3ozs) over the weight of a screw-on mounting platform, but until camera systems get lighter, the plate and clamp system is a necessary evil.
2. The Ball: The power to hold your gear
The holding power or load capacity of the ballhead is the main consideration when choosing a ballhead. In general, the bigger the ball, the greater the holding power will be. You will need a ballhead with holding power that is sufficient to hold the weight of the heaviest setup you expect to use. I’ve looked at many, and ended up with the Really Right Stuff BH-25 (185g) USD$145. The RRS BH-25 is by far the smallest, lightest and strongest in its class. It can hold my heaviest setup, a Nikon D300 with an 80-400mm lens, in a pinch. It has exceeded my expectations and is my choice for when I need an ultralight ballhead.
Next: Part II The Legs