Review by David Clapp.
Looking for a lightweight tripod? Are you thinking there are only two companies that can be relied on 100%? Then it's time to think again. Perhaps it's just down to a little education; well I know it was in my case.
An in-depth review of the Vanguard Alta-Pro 283CT, a compact carbon fibre tripod to rival all others in the field. A broken leg and a trip to the USA got me smiling with contentment as I fell in love with this sturdy, lightweight and above all versatile tool that got me photographs I would not have considered attempting to take.
The tripod is the most important photographic accessory that a landscape photographer owns. Scrimp on quality and welcome to some serious head scratching back home on the computer. Is that shot out of focus? Is it my lens? Was I in manual focus? Had I forgotten to focus? Did the AF backfocus? No, it was none of these things, it was the tripod. Since the early days when flimsy aluminium and squeaking plastic three-way heads were responsible for making my blood pressure soar, tripods have become as important as everyone had been telling me all along.
|Vanguard Alta Pro 283CT supports the 5DMkII and 24mm TS-E MkII, a calming Boston city skyline, compositionally inhibited by my travel-nemesis, scaffolding, which I had to omit from the left of the frame.
I have only had three tripods; starting on a Jessops special, then a salt encrusted aluminium Gitzo (which I still dunk in the sea for old times sake) and then I dove straight in at the deep end with a Gitzo 5540 after a good year on the calendars. The 'beast' being too cumbersome for travel, I was overjoyed when a friend sold me a second hand Gitzo 1297 around the same time. This basalt tripod system has been with me all over the world and I love it. With a Markins plate or removable centre column attached I can get super low or five and a half foot high the next. So when the guides in the upper leg broke a few days before a month trip to the USA was about to start, this unknown Vanguard tripod saved my bacon. Why? Underneath its anodised line-towing livery it shines as bright as the engineers who designed it.
|Just like a kung-fu chop, this rotating centre column is a killer move.
Come on, it's a tripod. You put your camera on it and press click. Wrong. A camera with a lens attached is a top-heavy vibration conductor. Grab your tripod, fully extend the legs and give it a twist side to side. Not so impressive now is it. Put some spindly ball head on top, add two and a half kilos of camera/telephoto heft, stand on a cliff in strong westerly winds and every shot will be soft, guaranteed. Just tap one of the legs and it'll wobble.
A tripod system is only as strong as the sum of its parts. Compromise that tripod head and forget about those expensive carbon fibre legs. Even those rubber topped tripod plates that protect your camera from scratches are just as guilty, think about it. Ideally it should be metal on metal all the way; overspec, heavier the better, but it isn't always practical is it?
Lighter tripods always require kit bag compromise. Consumer cameras are lighter, smaller and perfectly complemented by these systems, but as I would be bringing my Canon EOS 1DsMkIII, shiny new 5DMkII and focal lengths up to 600mm, I realised I would have to take the G5540 and the Vanguard, working them with the bodies and lenses respectively.
The tripod top - with centre column installed the tripod shows an array of adjustment knobs.
The Low Down
The Alta Pro 284CT is a carbon fibre tripod designed for lighter/medium weight photography systems. With a maximum load capability of eight kilos, the tripod will extend to a total height of 1.6m. It's lightweight but not so light that it makes you question it's integrity. Three leg sections slide smoothly one into the other and they fastened tight by twist grip leg locks. The upper legs have a foam logo-embossed covering that keeps the hands comfortable whilst carrying. Inside the box there is a tripod carry bag and mini tool kit for adjustments.
The design of this tripod hits the categories of lightweight and versatile. The main party piece is the ability to utilise the MACC (Multi Angle Central Column) centre column in all manner of ways to inspire creative photography. It literally helps you to think your way out of problems, allowing the camera to stay supported in precarious situations.
The materials feel tough, the leg joints have good play while remaining in tension and the tighteners are well positioned and threaded. The clamp that holds the centre column in place feels confident as it clicks shut. A great combination of quality design and ergonomic thinking comes to light as you learn your way around the controls intuitively. I felt very at home.
In Action - OK, it's not a revolutionary design, detachable centre columns are available from other manufacturers too, but what I do like about this tripod in this mode is that it feels solid. I have been using an over-spec Kirk BH-1 for this review and even with my 5DMkII and 24mm TS-EMkII attached (despite the set up feeling top heavy) the tripod is rigid enough. It also retains this rigidity with the column fully extended.
Tripod fully extended vertically and outwards, the 5DMkII and 17-40mm f/4L dangled over the centre of stairs? Far from dangled, it's solid, even when on the limits.
Camera on tripod set up with a cable release, pre-focused, watching the approach on live view and striking at the right moment.
After my beloved travel buddy the G1297 suffered a broken leg, I was in despair. Less than a week to go before my trip and I was scouting for a replacement set without much luck. Using the Vanguard, an unknown and untested tripod for an important commission was a risk I wasn't able to avoid. I get irritable if kit doesn't operate smoothly when I am working fast, but the Vanguard delivered and felt very familiar to use.
Weight - On the first day of the shoot, tripod slung over my shoulder, map in hand, I was almost forgetting it was there. Just like my G1297, it goes unnoticed. It is also easy to carry in the hand, just open one leg slightly and grip the foam. The tripod bag is designed thin enough to stuff into a coat pocket or camera bag without become a hindrance. Balance wise I was far from sensible with my choice of ballhead. My overkill Kirk BH-1 made it unbalanced, yet despite this I never found it irritating. The combo worked very well.
Speed and Versatility - The legs are a joy, super fast and responsive to work with. One twist of the hand and the tripod leg is fully extended, twist back and it's locked. Set up time is less than ten seconds with practice. I wasn't missing the Gitzo at all, in fact I was beginning to relax.
Structure - The Alta Pro is a solid tripod. Doing the twist, the usual 'twist test' with the legs fully extended is not without it flexing, but it is bound to have structural limits. A metal tripod of similar does feel even more solid, but no way can I carry that for 14 hours a day. Think compromise. When set up and locked down it's rigid and very stiff as long as the bottom leg sections are stowed away, but it still performs well with them extended. I confidently shot on my Canon 5DMkII, 70-200mm f/4L and 1.4xII at 280mm, getting consistently sharp shots throughout the city shoot.
Centre Column - What a joy this system is. I was becoming confident with this tool very quickly and after getting to grips with the low level set up back in my hostel I began to realise all manner of possible shots. Too many working parts always gets me concerned about reliability, but this versatile removable column system proved itself. Even fully extended out horizontally to the limits, a 5DMkII and lens caused only limited flex. I was extremely impressed.
If I had to gripe about anything it would be that the leg locks are not rubber coated. It would give a more confident twist as they lock and stop them turning in the hand as they tighten, but the system works well as a whole.
Cost wise, it isn't cheap. It's the flagship model so it isn't going to be. It places itself along with other carbon fibre tripods such as the Manfrotto and Giotto's at around £270, but I feel that if you're considering a mid ranged high performance tripod then it shouldn't be overlooked, in fact, it should be your starting point to base your opinions upon.
For more information visit:
Vanguard GB Website
Vanguard Alta Pro 283CT Profile