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30 March 2016
The biggest regret anyone ever has about buying a tripod is having bought a cheap one. They're flimsy when you put some weight on them, they're hard to use and they break. In the end, you just threw money away.
But buying a good tripod can be confusing. There are a lot of options and once you check the box, the box is checked for good.
What material, how many legs, what head? You're supposed to have answers to those kinds of questions before you place an order that will cost you hundreds of dollars.
Adorama, which sells the tripod we are reviewing here, can help you answer those questions, though, with its thorough Tripod Buying Guide.
For a few weeks now, we've been working with Adorama's intriguing 3Pod Orbit 3 tripod with matching three-way head, a modestly-price $159.95 aluminum support with all the fancy trimmings.
It changes the way you play the tripod game in two fundamental respects:
- You can build your own, configuring your tripod's material, leg sections and head independently of each other.
- It's a full-featured professional design available inexpensively that will serve you for years.
The 3Pod Orbit of this review is a three-section aluminum tripod but the 3Pod Orbit line has a surprising number of alternative configurations:
- It's also available in a carbon fiber model for $259.95.
- Leg sections can be ordered in three or four sections. Three is convenient, four is compact.
- If you already have a head, the tripod itself can be ordered separately, saving a few bucks.
- There are other heads in the lineup to choose from as well, including a pistol grip, a video head and an HD video head. Buying a head with the tripod, you'll realize significant additional savings over buying separately.
But even more intriguing than those options is the Orbit Overhead Shot System.
ORBIT OVERHEAD SHOT SYSTEM
The Orbit Overhead Shot System is Adorama's way of describing the tripod's hinged collar on the center shaft.
Like any tripod, you can raise and lower the center shaft. And completely remove it to insert it upside down if you're going for a very low shot.
But the hinged collar allows you to raise the center shaft out of the tripod neck but still in the collar to tilt the shaft at an angle to the tripod. It's like yoga for your tripod.
This is similar to the Vanguard Alta Pro but the locking mechanism on the Orbit is a simple (and reliable) twist knob, like the height adjustment.
Among the other highlights of the 3Pod Orbit are:
- Leg Spreaders. There's a clever angle lock at the top of each leg that constricts the leg's angle to 35, 60 or 80 degrees. A bubble level on the top plate helps you level the tripod.
- Foot Spikes_. Rubber feet protect floors indoors but screw them up the leg to reveal spikes to dig into the earth outdoors.
- Leg Grip. One leg has a soft grip covering it to make it comfortable to handle in cold weather.
- Flip Locks. The Orbit uses flip locks on the leg segments to lock and release them. They are a bit stiff at first but work well, with a small indent in the collar so you don't pinch your finger closing them.
- Reversible Screw Mount. The screw on top can be reversed, providing either a 3/8-inch or 1/4-20-inch screw.
- Quick Release. The same quick release we used in An Inexpensive Tripod Makeover, in fact.
- Leg Grip. Aluminum is unpleasant to grab in cold weather so one leg of the Orbit is covered in rubber.
- Center Column Lock. A pin keeps the center column from being pulled out of the tripod collar unless you press the lock button at the base of the column to retract it. You can then completely remove the center column and insert it upside down for low-angle shots.
- Carrying Case. A fabric carrying case with a tool pocket and three Allen wrenches is also provided. There's also a shoulder strap and a weight hook to stabilize the tripod by hanging some weight from the collar.
- Five Year Warranty. Which speaks for itself.
Specifications for all the 3Pod Orbit options include:
3POD ORBIT SPECIFICATIONS Material Aluminum or Carbon Fiber Maximum Height 69.15 inches Collapsed Height 28.45 inches with three-section legs
25 inches with four-section legs
Weight 5.71 lb. in Aluminum
4.21 lb. in Carbon Fiber
Maximum Load 18 lbs. Mounting Reversible 3/8 and 1/4-20 Leg Lock Type Flip lock Leg Sections Three or four
The three-way head uses a 3/8-inch tripod mount and a standard 1/4-20-inch camera mount. Three short, separate handles that screw in to lock provide pan, skew and tilt control. Pan and skew also have dials showing the angle at which they are set.
The head itself weighs 1.83 lbs. and can support up to 11 lbs. It includes a bubble head of its own as well.
On the review unit the bubble head fell out of its socket when we opened the box. Whatever glue was used, it didn't adhere. But the box itself had the same problem. The glued seam came right apart.
We fixed the bubble head, which marries plastic to metal, with a piece of double-sided tape. And we slipped the colored accent rings onto their correct positions on the handles.
The fit and finish of the three-way head is elegant but assembly at the factory could use a little more attention to detail. Still it wasn't a big problem to finish the job. Certainly not worth returning for a replacement.
After screwing in the three handles on the head, the only assembly you have to do is attach the head to the tripod. We managed to find this frighteningly confusing but you'll have a much easier time of it.
You screw the head on (no surprise there) but if you pan the head in the opposite direction, you can loosen the head's connection to the tripod. To prevent that there are three Allen screws on the tripod platform that you screw into the scarlet bottom of the head, which is not flat but uneven so the three screws prevent the head from rotating.
We had a hard time figuring out how to get those Allen screws tightened until we, uh, remembered you can raise the center post. That provided all the access we needed, but you can also angle the post to a horizontal position to make it even easier if you like. The main screw holds the head on for you so there's no danger of it falling off the center post.
USING THE TRIPOD
Frankly, the aluminum model is light enough that we can't imagine what advantage the carbon fiber one could offer. We might prefer a four-segment leg for travel but otherwise we just had to drop one leg to get the camera to a eye-level height height. Pulling all three sections out raised the camera above our head but kept it just as steady as with just two sections in use.
In fact, we were impressed with how sturdy it remained however we configured it. Whenever we moved it around, it held its composure well despite the weight of our dSLR and long lens.
A few things concerned us immediately, though.
The leg locks were quite stiff at first. They took a good deal more than the usual force to open them. When we closed them, they snapped shut so strongly that we were sure we had broken them. We heard a sharp snapping sound like plastic breaking. But they were fine. And after a few days either we got stronger or they settled in nicely.
The other thing that concerned us is the handle locks on the three-way head. We had to do a little math to appreciate the problem. We have two hands and three handles. Something is going to have to be locked down tight. And we found that difficult to do. With a heavy lens, we more than once felt the locked handle give. And loosening the handle didn't always release the lock completely, so we were constantly bumping the camera into our face as we composed the image in the viewfinder. So be careful.
That goes for the center post, as well. It should have been obvious to us that it would be top heavy with any camera attached because there is no counter-weight. You want to support the heavy end as you tighten the post angle down. Again, we were a hand short.
On the other hand, we were impressed with how well the tripod handled, even if we did have issues with the three-way head.
The head's handles are on the short side, which means small shifts make large changes. Longer handles would have allowed more precise adjustments. But then a ballhead or pistol grip would also avoid this issue.
We found the leg spreaders came in very handy and are easy to set. We appreciated them when we had to get down close to the ground for some macro shots. And all we had to do was pull the lock out, pull the leg further out and snug the lock against the right stop. The further out you pull the lock, the wider you can pull the leg out. Works like a charm.
We've found the Orbit too handy to put away in its case, which includes a shoulder strap and a pocket for the Allen wrenches. There's also a weight hook and strap to stabilize the tripod in heavy wind by hanging a weight (like a camera bag or a sack of rocks) from the center collar.
We even enjoyed reading the documentation. Among the warnings it includes are two you don't always see: "Don't use selective color," and "No means no."
We can't remember when we saw a tripod this sturdy and yet so affordable. Add to those virtues that you can custom build one to your own specs and the 3Pod Orbit is hard to resist. And they also just happened to make it one of the most attractive tripods we've ever seen.
In what's only been a couple of weeks use, we've found nothing to complain about and a lot to like. So the 3Pod Orbit earns all four photo corners, our highest recommendation.