Tripod Collar Blues
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
by Bjørn Rørslett 

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Some lenses have it, some should have but haven't - I'm thinking of tripod collars on long lenses, the quality of which ranges from appalling to excellent. Recently, poor tripod collar designs are, for strange and obscure reasons, rapidly becoming the norm.

Back to the Future

Unsafe at Any Speed

© Bjørn Rørslett/NN

This AFS 400 mm f/2.8 Nikkor exemplifies the current design trend for poor tripod collars. Though they may look trendy and slick, such tripod arrangements are next to useless for shooting with long lenses on quality tripods. There is no way such a leveraged device can keep a heavy lens into a truly stable position (as shown in this picture, I've tried, but to no avail). Maybe you can get the occasional sharp shot at slow shutter speeds, but the less than 1/60 sec domain is strictly off limits if sharp images are to be guaranteed every time.

I was truly shocked when I mounted this expensive lens on my big Sachtler ENG 2 CF tripod. Seems the foot has been pared down to an unacceptable minimum and thus giving a pliable and wobbling tripod mount. Tightening the locking screw will not improve the situation at all. Even when the camera itself was supported by my hand, the viewfinder image was slowly meandering to give me a feeling of seasickness. Good grief.

The foot of the AFS 400 is two-sectioned to allow the lens to be mounted directly on a monopod without the cantilevered foot section. Obviously leverage is reduced when the lower foot is removed, but the cross-sectioned area of the stub of the foot sticking out from the rotating collar on the lens is insufficiently large to give trouble-free support on its own. Probably a second supporting point, or a strengthened leg, would help, but I cannot at the time of writing envision a good solution to this issue either. We'll have to see to that if I try more shooting with the AFS 400 in the future. However, commercial products exist which might help mediate the issue.

In common with many of my fellow nature photographers, I spend considerable time with my lenses mounted on tripods to capture those magical moments in Nature. Soon enough you realise some lenses always are wobbling no matter what kind of tripod or head they are attached to. In the worst cases the viewfinder image has that "swimming" impression I positively loathe. Needless to say you cannot get truly sharp images using such setups, unless you are downright lucky. Now this is not the way I want things to work, getting sharp images at any shutter speed should be the rule, not the exception, and many of my bigger lenses play by these rules. For much of my low-light work, 1/15 or even 1/8 sec is a fast shutter speed! People tend to think these shutter speeds are detrimental to image quality, which they are not. However, the performance of the lens and its tripod mount becomes critical within this shutter speed range, or even outside it. If the lens tripod collar is strong and supportive, and the lens barrel is not vibrating too much on its own, getting sharp images at any shutter speed is a breeze with quality tripods and heads.

This is It

This Is It: The Real Thing

© Bjørn Rørslett/N

The Micro-Nikkor 200 mm f/4 (AIS version) is endowed with probably the best tripod collar ever produced by Nikon. A clam-shell design, it is generously sized, commendable broad, has no additional leverage and even can be tightened down with a big well-designed locking screw (at opposite side, not shown in this picture). Mated to a 15 mm thick quick-release plate on a Burzynski head, the lens is literally held in a vise. Just trying to move the lens on a tripod will teach you a lesson what "rock solid" is all about.

These highly different mounts depicted above may point to the reason why recent tripod collars are so bad. An excellent tripod collar has to be of sufficient size, mass, and solidity, just in order to fulfill its intended mission. These criteria will, for any big lens, translate into heavy weight and high production costs, both of which are bad from a manufacturer's point of view. So, when the current aim is for producing smaller, lighter (and cheaper) lenses, a decent tripod collar is the first item to be whittled off.

Another important aspect to influence tripod collar design is the contemporary shape of the camera bodies, the outlines of which are bulging in nearly every conceivable direction. Thus, clearance between the rear barrel of the lens and the camera can be precariously small and this may be a reason for the designers to add some length to the tripod collar foot to give more ample spacing.

In this article, I'll show a variety of good or bad designs, plus some of the modifications possible to bring improvement to otherwise ugly collars, so read on to learn more. By the way, a compilation of lens tripod collars with ranking is published in the Lens Survey section.

Tripod Collar Blues

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Last Update 12 October, 2002