How Will my Tripod Break?

Believe it or not, I've broken or watched others break a number of tripods over the years, so I'm slowly becoming an expert on this ;~). 

  • Aluminum leg tripods: you'll bend the legs and they'll no longer collapse properly. Solution: buy a better tripod with truly rigid legs (e.g. carbon fiber).
  • Carbon fiber tripods: you'll find that the glue that holds the legs into the top plate gives way. Solution: have the manufacturer repair it.
  • All tripods: joints will either break or you'll lose or break a critical part cleaning it. Solution: buy/carry extra parts.
  • All tripods: you'll lose the feet if they're replaceable. Solution: buy/carry extra feet.
  • All tripods: brute force trauma. They get run over, dropped off of cliffs, banged or dragged against rocks while hiking, or too much force/weight during use. Solution: be more careful.

The reason why so many nature (wildlife and landscape) photographers prefer the Gitzo style carbon-fiber type tripods isn't just because of weight/performance. The Gitzo style screw-lock joints can be field disassembled and cleaned without a tool. However, this leads to people breaking or losing a part (see above). Most carbon fiber tripod makers have copied this style.

A Short Story
Normally I'm a pretty sedate driver, and especially cautious at workshops with others in my vehicle. There's one exception to that: when I see an interesting or natural phenomena occurring someplace I'm not and think I can get there before it disappears. At that point, I turn into Mario Andretti. And it doesn't matter if I'm on rough dirt roads or worse. 

Case in point: at a workshop in Anza Borrego we were on one of the main highways when I noticed that we were about to get a really nice sunset. Only problem? Much of Anza Borrego is just high arid desert and pretty boring, so just stopping would mean mostly "just a sunset sky shot". But just ahead there was a turnoff to a crude dirt road I knew would lead over to a place we call the Cactus Garden (it is very much what the name suggests). I turned off the highway onto the dirt path and hit the accelerator. 

My stunned students hung on to anything they could. Unfortunately, the camera gear doesn't have hands. The rental Ford Escape I was driving was handling the dirt and rocks we were now bouncing on just fine, but there was one point where we went completely airborne via a steeply sloped rock. Airborne at 50mph, as in suddenly no tires on the dirt. 

In the rear view mirror I saw all five camera bags and everything in the back end of the SUV fly up to the ceiling when we hit ground again, and of course, as gravity took hold, everything came slamming back down to the floor with a bang. A really big bang. I also heard a very loud snap.

When we got to the cactus garden, with just enough time to run to get some great sunset blooming cactus photos, everyone hurried to unload their cameras and get shooting. Except for one student. He was staring at his new duopod: the top plate of the tripod had snapped at one of the legs and now he had a two-legged support system. I quickly lent him one of my tripods and then examined the back of the vehicle.

Hmm. It wasn't the tripod I heard snap. It was the interior of the Escape: that model had a plastic shell lining the entire rear interior. I was able to now slide it in and out of the back at will, revealing the metal sidewalls and ceiling. All the fasteners holding the plastic inner wall had snapped. 

The good news is the maker of the tripod just decided to replace it outright: "The top plate should never crack like that, no matter what the force you put on it." The rental car company never noticed that they now had a sliding interior.

Is there a moral to this story? Yes, fasten your seat belts.

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