With the arrival of an X-Pro2, lenses and the perfect messenger-style camera bag, my thoughts turned to plugging the gap left by other essentials I have been doing without for far too long – most of all a sturdy but portable tripod for on-location portraiture, cityscapes and time-lapse photography for use in videos.
The folks at 3 Legged Thing recommended their Equinox Leo as the perfect travel and portrait tripod to go with the perfect messenger-style bag, so it was a pleasant surprise when their Australian distributor, PROtog, kindly offered to send up a review loaner.
One of the first images, above, that I made with the 3LT Leo was a good demonstration of the tripod’s many virtues. Sydney Harbour and many of Sydney’s inner city streets are notorious for their high winds and sudden shotgun blasts of air – and they sometimes occur in this suburb far from the inner city.
Sydney’s winds can kill travel tripods
Umbrellas are not the only objects that easily fall victim to our winds. In his 2011 article, ‘Death of a beautiful camera…‘, cinematographer Philip Bloom described how his Panasonic Lumix GH2 and the lightweight travel tripod it was attached to were suddenly blown over a Sydney harbourside barrier into the drink, never to be seen again.
While I have not experienced that kind of loss, I have had big problems with wind-generated vibration while shooting around Sydney’s CBD and even the exact same spot where Mr Bloom suffered his loss.
I have shot unusable wind-attacked footage on an aluminium video travel tripod and an older carbon fibre tripod, both weighted to no avail. I have resorted to shooting stills handheld at wider apertures than I would like in order to obtain faster shutter speeds and less likelihood of wind-caused camera shake.
Worse, I have avoided making photographs I have been longing to take that demand long lenses, narrow apertures, slow shutter speeds and in locations prone to high winds. I have a wonderful, big Australian-designed and made Miller video tripod that can cope with pretty much anything nature throws at it, but I can no longer cart it by train and over my back all about the city and so it moulds away in a closet.
An Australian foot in tripod history
One of that particular tripod’s key traits is the care with which its makers have woven its carbon fibre legs. I often mount a small slider on it and it handles the slider’s movement-caused vibration with aplomb, absorbing it beautifully, as it should.
Australian Eric Miller created the world’s first fluid head tripod back in 1946, so the company he founded knows movement and vibration. I learned that years ago learning how to shoot movie film using a Universal fluid head tripod with long wooden legs, similar to this one in the collection of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.
But there are tripods and tripods, and there is no such thing as a universal tripod for shooting video and stills with equal facility.
Besides which, one tripod is never enough even on a single operator video shoot. Multicamera shoots endow visual richness to one’s work as do different types of footage often shot simultaneously, like time-lapse stills or bracketed HDR plates for compositing in post-production.
Harking back to the globetrotting Mr Bloom, I note that he has the same big Miller video tripod as I do, but supplements it with a range of smaller, lighter stills and video tripods as shown in his behind-the-scenes photographs for The Wonder List – which can be seen at his blog here (with a bit of searching).
The lightweight stills travel tripods Mr Bloom uses for time-lapse look good for that purpose, but I need something more – easily transportable but sturdy, and vibration and, without question, wind-resistant.
So, when the 3 Legged Thing Equinox Leo arrived and I set it up on the shiny wooden floors of our home studio, I was dead impressed. These floors challenge most tripods of any weight and size. Even the big Miller needs weights and bits of carpet underneath its feet for maximum stability on them.
Fighting off the superlatives
The 3LT Leo does not. I am fighting off the superlatives as I write this, having got it out of its bag to set it up next to me, loaded up with Fujifilm X-Pro 2 and 23mm f/1.4 lens to shoot some environmental portraits and in-situ product shots shortly.
The Leo’s sturdiness and stability even on these slick varnished floors belies its size and five-section narrow carbon fibre legs. Of all the tripods I have here right now, the Leo is the closest in those two traits to the big Miller, despite being smaller than them all.
3 Legged Thing is not exaggerating when the company describes itself as “market leader in tripod innovation”. Their Equinox range is seriously innovative, so much so that it qualifies for an ‘Untitled: Stories of Creativity, Innovation & Success‘ photoessay under all three categories.
Guys, next time I am in the UK, shall we catch up and do one?
Some initial scepticism, but…
I have to admit to some degree of scepticism when I first came across 3 Legged Thing online. The funky naming conventions, some bro-ish imagery in an earlier version of their website, the disappointment when finally seeing a now discontinued 3LT micro-tripod in a local store last year, the shop assistant’s negativity at a Sydney city pro-ish camera store.
But, trying the Leo out for real has changed everything. I would recommend any of 3LT’s Equinox tripods without reservations. During my trip into the city to shoot the Sydney Harbour photograph at the top of this page, I dropped into a camera store for a “what’s new” and was pleased to see three 3LT Equinox tripods – Leo, Albert and Winston – sitting amidst the tripod display in the middle of the store.
A chance to quickly try out all three!
You get what you pay for…
My all-too-brief in-store tryout of Albert and Winston, in order to compare them to Leo and to understand the 3LT brand as a whole, helped lay to rest some of the negative comments I had heard about their tripods in the past.
The three most common were about the length of each leg segment, the action of the Para-Lock locking collars, and the price.
You do get what you pay for, for the most part, but I have paid far more for less state-of-the-art tripods in the past. There will always be cheaper tripods than Leo, Albert or Winston but best to compare them directly against their competitors. Easier said than done though without access to retail wonderlands like the B&H store in New York where every product in every brand under the sun appears to be available for a damned good look-see.
Tripods rarely receive in-depth reviews in print or online publications. One reviewer stated the reason was that tripods, unlike other items of photographic hardware, need to be tested under a wide range of conditions and for much longer than the usual two-week trial period.
Tripods should be put to the test in rain, hail, sunshine, heat and cold with a range of subjects and circumstances for a really comprehensive review. They are the least complicated item in a photographer’s or moviemaker’s kit, and will need to last far longer than almost every other hardware investment.
I am aware of costlier brands of stills tripods that are more popular amongst professional photographers of my acquaintance than 3 Legged Thing. Really Right Stuff is one and its tripods look dead impressive online but I have never seen one in real life. 3LT’s Equinox three have performed better than any other stills tripod I have tested or owned so far, and I have owned more than a few stills tripods in the past.
My trial of Leo and quick tryouts of Albert and Winston show you get what you pay for with all three and you get a lot more than with any of my other stills photography tripods past or present, cheaper or more expensive.
A real pleasure…
Using Leo has been a real pleasure. Objections raised by other photographers and camera store assistants such as Leo’s Para-Locks dual action and its five short leg sections simply weren’t a problem for me. Yes, the way the Para-Locks feel when unlocking them can be disconcerting at first, but familiarity erases any fears.
Likewise I had no problem with five leg sections instead of two or three, say. Leo is a micro-travel tripod and its small size is key to carrying it with ease. It wasn’t a burden transported in its soft grey canvas shoulder bag or slid into the Peak Design Everyday Messenger 13.
After a while I opted to carry it in its own bag as that offered more flexibility when slipping through inner city crowds or standing up on overburdened trains. I could flip Leo right around my back while the EDM13 stood at front to side, ready to offer up a camera, facilitate a quick lens change or battery swap.
At other times I swung both around to my back while shooting, EDM13 and tripod counterbalancing camera and lens at front. I spent long days shooting stills in the inner city that way, and neither bag was a burden. That is something I could never claim of other tripods and their bags.
Another very pleasant surprise courtesy of my time with Leo was its ballhead. With the sole exception of my Joby GorillaPod Focus, I have not been a ballhead aficionado. All my full-length stills tripods have featured three-way heads with handles and my video tripods, and monopods, have had traditional-style fluid heads.
The solid, reassuring action of 3 Legged thing’s AirHed light ballhead that came with Leo as a kit has changed my thinking about ballheads now, especially those featuring Arca-Swiss clamps. Its speed of set-up, ease-of-use and stability whether holding the camera in landscape or portrait orientation is impressive.
The winds of spring return with a vengeance
As winter slid into warmer weather, the customary winds of Sydney’s spring returned with a vengeance and although I continued to be impressed with Leo’s wind-resistance, I found myself wishing for more stability again, especially when shooting on steep, grassy Sydney hillsides.
As I explored the 3 Legged Thing website I discovered the 3LT team is one step ahead with a range of well-conceived accessories to replace their tripods’ default rubber feet aka Bootz. Heels, Stilletoz and Clawz provide firmer footing on dodgy surfaces like rocks, ice, sand and snow and should prove essential to photographers venturing outside inner cities and suburban reaches.
Some of my tripods past and present have come with feet made of rubber or plastic over short spikes so the spikes can be exposed when their synthetic covers are screwed back up the leg. These designs are a compromise though where the soft option is often not soft enough and the hard choice is often not long enough for good grip on every challenging surface.
I much prefer 3LT’s offerings of alternative screw-in feet designed to grip almost every surface you will come across. When I buy my own 3LT tripod, I will definitely be adding two or all three of them.
3 Legged Thing’s Equinox Leo is a thing of beauty that is eminently functional and a real pleasure to carry and to use. Some might consider this to be something of a stretch, but I found Leo and its stablemates Albert and Winston to be in a similar league to products above made by some of the finest designers and manufacturers of the last century, such as Braun and its legendary design director Dieter Rams.
I even found myself comparing Leo to a Fabergé egg more than once or twice due to the colours and finish of its Para-Locks and other functional hardware. While tripods have historically been plain things of black and grey, or black, chrome and wood, 3 Legged Thing has gone beyond other tripod makers like, for example, MeFoto, bestowing its products with almost jewel-like colours and finishes.
3LT’s tripods don’t sacrifice looks for functionality. They are amongst the most functional tripods I have tried or owned and their core functionality can be extended further with the choice of those three different interchangeable feet. I wish there were video tripods as well designed and engineered as these.
While I won’t be adding a Leo to the top of my photo hardware wishlist, I will be getting an Albert as soon as budget permits, with interchangeable feet and all.
As my portraits of Brad the electronics engineer above show, I am now restless to return to two forms of photography I loved so much for so long – environmental and full-face frontal portraiture – especially now that cameras so well-suited like the Fujifilm GFX 50S are about to appear.
While Leo satisfies a number of my on-location and in-studio needs, Albert has the height to look at standing portrait subjects in the eye or to gaze downwards at seated or standing environmental portrait subjects.
Bravo, 3 Legged Thing! You have come up with some real winners.
Article header image made with Fujifilm X100; close-up product photographs made with Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 with Olympus M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens and lit with Rotolight Neo 3 Light Kit with Neo Barn Doors and Neo Chimera Softbox; photographs on footbridge and behind-the-scenes shots made with Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX8 with Olympus M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens; photo of man in street using tripod made with Fujifilm X-Pro2 with Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4 lens; portraits made with X-Pro2 and Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2 or Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4 lenses.