Are Gitzo Tripods Unstable?

In Articles On Saturday, November 19, 2011

An occasional consideration for the landscape photographer is the likelihood of their tripod blowing over in the wind. This has so far only happened to me once, but I have heard of this issue many times before.

The likelihood of a tripod tipping over is related to the strength of the wind and the cameras centre of gravity relative to the location of its feet. A tripod with a wide base is hence less likely to tip over in the wind. The size of the tripod base is one of the most significant factors when it comes to resisting tripod vibration in the wind. A wide base is highly desirable in this regard. The trade must be made by the tripod manufacturer as to whether to prioritise maximum height or the size of the base. Setting a wider leg angle increase the size of the base and stability but also reduces its height.

I recently purchased a Gitzo 1541 Mountaineer. The tripod wasn’t for me for a number of reasons but the biggest issue I had was the relatively narrow base at the tripods highest setting. I felt that the ‘default’ leg angle was simply too acute and stability had been sacrificed to squeeze out a tiny bit of additional height. I have since reverted back to my G2228 Explorer tripod, to allow me to set the legs as wide as I like. However I thought I would look into leg angles to see if Gitzo, Manfrotto and other tripod manufacturers were getting it right or not.

The diagram below shows the simple trigonometry and algebra to see the trade-off between height and stability. The diagram considers the worst tripod orientation relative to the wind direction (not that this matters when it comes to the analysis)

Hopefully you can follow the maths. If you can’t just read on!

Analysis

D=WTanA/1.6

Where D is the drag force due to wind W is the combined weight of the camera and tripod (a constant) A is the leg angle At the tipping point drag force D is proportional to TanA.

H = LCosA

Where H is the tripod height with centre column retracted L is the length of the tripod leg (a constant) A is the leg angle The height H is proportional to CosA

Now if we plug in some values for A (in this case 24 degrees, 30 degrees and 35 degrees) then we can see how a wider leg angle might affect tripod height and tripod stability.

  • Tan24 = 0.445
  • Cos24 = 0.913
  • Tan30 = 0.577
  • Cos30 = 0.866
  • Cos35 = 0.819
  •  Tan35 = 0.700

If the standard leg angle was changed from 24 degrees to 30 degrees this would result in a resistance to tipping increase of 30% with a reduction in height of only 5% (without the centre column) this would mean that the Gitzo mountaineer would go from 138cm to 131cm for a 30% increase in tipping resistance. Setting the leg angle to 35 degrees reduces the height by 10% but increases tipping resistance by a massive 57%!

Conclusion

The trade between height and stability/tipping resistance is a hard one to strike. In my opinion the standard leg angle of 24 degrees is too narrow. A leg angle of 30 degrees would produce a marked stability increase at a minimal cost to extended height. The issue is compounded further if you don’t set up the tripod properly. Setting it up at an angle pointing downwind increases the tripods likelihood of tipping over and reduces its stability. This is the regular cause of tripods blowing over in the wind. A wider tripod base would allow a greater margin for error. This all leads me to the conclusion that having variable leg angles is a hugely useful feature. When its really windy you can set your tripod legs to 35 degrees, increasing stability by 57% with only a small reduction in height. Equally when it is calm you might like to set the legs to 20 degrees to gain a higher viewpoint.

13 Comments

  1. Honestly Alex. Have you too much time on your hands….?
    This has never entered my mind. If its too windy then shots wont be sharp anyway. I read about five lines and signed off…..

    • Gosh someone got out of bed on the wrong side this morning!

      I’m an engineer, I like thinking about things like that from time to time. I recently bought and sold on a Gitzo tripod in part because I didn’t feel the leg base was wide enough. Getting sharp shots in the wind is perfectly possible, one of the ways you can help is by giving you tripod a wide base, although there are many many other factors!

  2. That’s a lot of maths for a simple problem. Do Gitzo tripods not have a hook on the bottom of the centre column for hanging your bag off?
    Even if you travel light you can still take a sturdy carrier bag and fill it with something on site.

    Out of habit I always hang my camera bag on the tripod even if it’s not that windy just so filters etc are easier to access.

    • Can’t argue with that Mike! I suppose from my perspective I rarely use the hook so I see the tripod as the problem, but maybe its just me!

  3. Interesting analysis!

    I’ve long since forgotten the maths and physics you’ve used (I have a BEng from Loughborough), but it was enjoyable to hear your conclusions.

    A lot of tripods I see out and about or at shows seem to be very unstable and ‘weedy’

    Personally, I use a Gitzo GT5561SGT, which is bombproof – I successfully photographed the Giant’s Causeway with huge gusts of wind coming off the sea and causing people to almost fall over. Tripod was like a rock 🙂

    • its basic trigonometry 😛 I know what you mean though! I guess a 5 series is the way to go if you dont want to mess about. For me the 2 series explorer is the right compromise when weight is an issue 🙂

  4. I snapped my Manrotto in Dorset recently and am currently using my backup 1kg ultralight Gitzo, it is far too light for my taste (an a little unballanced with the 5D2 plus lens) so I attach a bungee to it and then down to the camera bag. It is now almost impossible to tip over. Just reminded me of the need to order a new set of legs.

    I love shopping for camera gear 🙂

    • yes I think the very lightest models are a little lightweight for most photographers but they could be more useful with a wider base. The bungee idea is of course a good one, but its not really practical in the long run!
      Yes shopping for camera gear is something I like to do too, althouhg I have little reason these days!

  5. Stuart Moverley 17th June 2012

    Forget all the trigonometry. Just hang a sandbag off your tripod. Steady as a rock then.

    • Thanks Stuart. Although I have done that to stabilise my tripod in winds or at really long focal lengths I don’t really think it should be necessary for normal shooting!

  6. I have the variable leg angle version (1250 or something -discontinued) as I agree if there’s ANY wind you ALWAYS need a wider angle if the tripehound’s at eye height.

    Hanging your bag of the middle hook is a last ditch thing AFAIC, – fine if you can set up on rock in one place for one shot and wait wiat wiat – but isf you’re on mud or marsh or sand ( like I usually am) you find the hook is smallsih (fell of somehow and dissappeared on the first version I bought – got replaced though) – you have to adjust the heingt of the bag strap of whatever you’re haning it from as it sways gently about in the wind at the same time as setting up the tripod for height all done of course in rapidly cahnging light – trying to catccth a reflection etc _FAR too mush hassle ,

    I nearly always have the legs splayed in different direction much wider than the angle you describe above

    Eevn then I wish I had got the one with the wobbly (technical term;)) centre piece so leg positioning was less precision needeing but wheight is everything when you’re a whimp:)

  7. I have just came across your calculations and conclusion. Great work (applicable for the rest of your blog as well). In my opinion, it isn’t just robustness of the whole setup in windy conditions but also robustness vs. unwary user. It’s far to easy to shift the tripod by slightly touching one of the legs with a foot.

  8. I have also just bought the 1541 mountaineer and in the process of returning it for exactly this reason.
    Despite being listed on the gitzo website as 24 degrees, I have measured the leg angle (at the highest setting) to be only 17 degrees. The moment I opened it, I knew something wasn’t right. If it really was 24 degrees it would have been just fine but it’s not even close. I understand that there are manufacturing tolerances involved but this is just ridiculous, especially considering how well known Gitzo is and how expensive their tripods are. It’s supposed to be a tripod for mountaineering but I’d never trust this thing to support my camera on soft or uneven ground.

    I’m not happy with my gitzo ball head either BTW but that’s another story.

    I doubt if I’ll ever buy another gitzo product again.

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