A tripod for long lenses
With my tests of 500mm lenses with a 2× converter in 2002, I discovered that my tripod, which I had thought was good, was not steady enough to keep the camera and lens absolutely still. The problem is that the more powerful the lens, the more it magnifies the subject, and with it any movement. For 1000mm lenses, a shutter speed of 1/1000 sec is recommended, and the Pentacon Six can provide this (without the infamous banding experienced by users of the Kiev 88!). However, there is often not enough light to allow the use of such a high speed.
Also, my tripod was just not strong enough to provide reliable support for the 14 kilogram 1000mm Carl Zeiss Jena mirror lens.
So the task was to find a tripod for this lens. It would then cope with any other combination that I might wish to use.
Discussion on “The Kiev Report” forum led me to Berlebach wooden tripods. These have been made in Germany for over 100 years, and are much loved by astronomers, land surveyors and photographers. Tests have shown that Berlebach wooden tripods dampen vibrations (for instance, caused by the SLR mirror at the end of its travel) far better than aluminium and carbon fibre tripods.
The tripod head
With high-end tripods like the Berlebach, the tripod head is a separate item that goes between the tripod and the camera. The choice here is mostly between a 3-way pan-&-tilt head and a ball head. Having had an extremely bad ball head many years ago, I have always preferred a 3-way pan-& tilt head, with three separate locks for:
Berlebach’s catalogue includes a range of tripod heads.
However, a user of the Carl Zeiss Jena 1000mm lens recommended a very special ball head: The Arca-Swiss B1-G monoball. This ingeniously-engineered item has an aspherical (non-round) head that increases the grip automatically as one tilts further away from the horizontal. This is designed to maintain control and prevent heavy lenses or cameras flopping over unpredictably when tilted too far.
In choosing a tripod of suitable height, I calculated:
I am taller than that, but my eyes are not on the top of my head :), so that does result in a height that is about right for my eye-level, with only a small amount of hunching forward.
(The Berlebach website says that the maximum height of this tripod is 1 m 29 cm, so they must be calculating this with the legs slightly wider. Their catalogue states that heights are based on an approx 20° leg spread.)
The Berlebach UNI 24 is quoted as having a maximum height of 1m 60 cm, but it also has a larger transportation length (103 cm), weighs more (7.3 kg instead of the 6.2 kg of the UNI 14), and costs a little more. I decided that the UNI 14 had the right combination of factors for me.
You might consider adding a “dolly” to the set-up. This is a Y-shaped base made out of wood or metal, with lockable wheels and a locating slot for each leg. This will also naturally add to the overall height. Berlebach and other suppliers offer tripod dollies.
Having visited the Berlebach website (http://www.berlebach.de/), I decided to phone them, and placed an order for a UNI 14 one Friday afternoon. (I could have ordered via the internet.) They told me that it would go out the following Monday. Four days later (on the Thursday), the tripod was delivered – not bad for an international order from Germany to another European country.
The Berlebach UNI 14 tripod
The UNI 14 is a big, solid tripod. Minimum height is 13 cm, but to achieve this, the legs need to be fully spread out, virtually horizontal. Maximum height (as indicated above) is approximately 1 metre 36 cm. This tripod does not have a centre column, but centre columns generally undermine the stability of the tripods on which they are mounted. (If you must have a centre column, Berlebach have other models with them.) The UNI 14 has a load capacity of 55 kilos – not only much more than the weight of my largest lens (14 kg), but also more than the weight of some of my friends! So anxiety about the trustworthiness of the tripod will be a thing of the past!
The top plate of the tripod measures 160mm (about 6½") across. To give you an idea of scale, here it is with the 80mm Biometar for the Pentacon Six sitting on top of it.
The tripod is supplied as standard with a 3/8" centre bolt – visible in this photo – , though you can request that it be supplied with a ¼" bolt if you prefer. I waited until I was sure of the size required by the ball head I was buying. I was surprised at the difference between the ¼" bolt and the 3/8" – it is greater than I had imagined – but then the 3/8" diameter is 50% greater than the ¼" diameter.
At the top of each leg I have made an index mark in white that I can align with a similar mark that I have made on the metal that holds the leg, to speed up the process of getting each of the legs at the same angle.
I have subsequently added a second mark on each leg, to show the best position when closed and thus speed up the process when storing the tripod. I would recommend that Berlebach consider adding such marks.
After initial set-up of the tripod, it is important to get the top plate as horizontal as possible. To achieve this, it is necessary to slacken off the locking lever of one or more legs in order to adjust the leg angle, or if the floor or ground is exceptionally uneven, to adjust the length of one or two of the legs.
The floor of my studio has shiny tiles, and I was worried that the tripod legs might splay out under the weight of the mirror lens, since the UNI 14 does not have leg spread stops. Then I noticed that the metal bracket that holds the height-adjustment knobs on each leg of the tripod has on its inner surface something that could receive a hook, so I bought a keyring and a fairly lightweight but strong chain that I cut into three equal lengths, feeding the link at one end of each of the three lengths of chain onto the keyring. Onto the last link at the other end of each chain I added an S-shaped hook. This slots into the metal bracket on each leg, providing a Y-shaped configuration of the chains that further steadies the legs. I don’t know if it’s really necessary, but with this really heavy lens I prefer a belt-&-braces approach.
|On a subsequent visit to the Berlebach website, I discovered
that they do in fact offer just such a chain, in a brass colour that is
a better match to the colour that I chose for my tripod (natural wood –
Berlebach’s tripods are also available in other colours).
(There is a variant of the UNI 14, the UNI 14C, that does have leg spread stops. They are located at 20°, 35°, 55° and 80°.)
|The Arca-Swiss ball head
The top knob on the ball head is the clamp locking bolt, which locks the quick release plate in place. The big knob at the bottom is the locking control for the ball head (called the “multi-function knob” by Arca-Swiss). Note that this head has a separate panoramic function (see the degrees engraved beneath the yellow line). This is locked by another knob which is not visible in this picture. The small button-like screw within the large knob is the “friction thumb screw”, with which you can limit the minimum tension setting of the main knob. (This is described in more detail in “Moon Shots”.)
The name of the B1-G was no doubt not arrived at by accident; it is BIG. But that is what the 1000mm Carl Zeiss Jena Mirror lens requires, as do other large outfits and long lenses. It is the right size for the Berlebach UNI 14 tripod and this enormous lens. It will also prove excellent for other long and heavy lenses, such as the 500mm Pentacon.
I believe that the B1-G is a discontinued item, but at the time of writing it is still available from a number of vendors in Germany (and no doubt elsewhere). Second-hand purchase is also worth considering, as it is a very expensive item – it cost a lot more than the tripod! Instead of the clamp locking bolt, some newer versions have a flip-lock release, and I would avoid this, being worried that it could easily get caught by a sleeve, resulting in a disastrous accident with such a heavy lens. Arca-Swiss do of course make other ball heads, and the products of other manufacturers can also be researched.
The lens plate or “Quick Release” (QR) plate
I bought the ball head with a ¼" and a 3/8" plate. These are metal plates that screw onto the lens or camera and have a dovetail-shaped base that in use is locked to the clamp at the top of the ball head. These two plates work fine with a camera and a shorter lens, but – as the following picture makes clear – are a bit on the small side for the 1000mm mirror lens.
A friend lent me the 8" plate that is seen mounted on the 1000mm mirror lens. It is made out of aircraft grade aluminium (“aluminum” for my American readers), and as you can see, it is perhaps a little on the short side for this lens. The idea is to be able to slide the lens to and fro on the ball head to find the centre of gravity, which will vary depending on the angle at which the lens is used. For astro-photography, this angle can at times be quite steep, and the bolts at each end of the lens plate are to prevent it from sliding out of the ball head clamp when the clamp locking knob is loosened to move the lens backwards or forwards. The same friend arranged for the manufacture of a couple of longer lens plates for me – one 15" long, and one 9".
The longer plates have more than one fixing hole, to increase mounting flexibility further. The holes are three inches apart, so on the 9 inch plate there are two, with each one being three inches from the end. The 15 inch bar has four, evenly spaced out. The bolt on this custom-made lens plate has a diameter of 3/8", but I have also bought from Berlebach a sturdy adapter that reduces the size to ¼", should I wish to use lenses or cameras that require the smaller size. (Picture below.)
Here is the outfit, ready for use:
|How does it perform?
The day that I set everything up was the first time I have felt really at ease using this massive lens. In the past, with other tripods, I always had to keep a watchful eye on the tripod. But with the Berlebach UNI 14 and the Arca-Swiss B1-G head, using even the 1000mm Carl Zeiss Jena mirror lens was easy, and I even had the confidence to leave the set-up unattended when necessary. Adjusting lens angle and swivel was easy, with no danger of the lens flopping over out of control. Once set up, it didn’t even feel heavy!
It all works a dream. There is still a use in one’s outfit for a smaller tripod, for travel or for use with smaller lenses in the studio, but in the UNI 14 with the A-S B1-G I have finally found the right set-up for my longer and larger lenses.
To see more comments on the use of this combination in practice, see Moon Shots.
Storing and carrying the tripod and head
The transportation length of the tripod is 87cm.
As indicated above, the height of the ball head is approximately 14.6 cm
– making a theoretical combined length of 1m 1.6 cm. However, I advise
transporting the B1-G off the tripod and in a suitable protective
case. I found that an East German lens case as supplied for the 300
lenses was just right. This case is 225mm high × 140mm diameter.
Berlebach offer a range of tripod-carrying bags. The largest bag for the UNI range of tripods has a diameter of 24 cm and is 112 cm (1120 mm) long. Putting the lens case containing the ball head end-on to the tripod leaves 25mm (1") spare space at the end when using this bag.
As indicated above, I chose a tripod with a 3/8" bolt,
and the custom-made lens plates also have 3/8" bolts. However, it
occurred to me that on some occasion I might wish to use a lens or camera
with a ¼" socket. Berlebach offer an adapter that converts
from the larger to the smaller size, so I added one to the order for the
To go on to the moon shots test of the 1000mm lens on this tripod, click here.
A review of the Pentacon tripod can be seen here.
To go back to the beginning of the lens tests, click below and then
choose the focal length that you want to read about.
© TRA May 2008, November 2010