LIGHT & STRONG
Velbon MAXi Tripods --
By MIKE PASINI
The Imaging Resource Digital Photography Newsletter
Review Date: November 2003
We got it into our head that what we needed most was a lightweight travel tripod.
Lightweight and tripod don't dance well together, but neither do travel and weight. It's been a long time since we dished out for a tripod, happily using a used Davidson Star D Conquest we picked up years ago for $17. We were hoping someone had, in the interim, developed something space-age: strong but light.
We know about "light." We mounted our flash setup (several pounds of gear) on a slim little Slik a few years ago and watched in horror as it tried to limbo. Even though our current setup doesn't weigh nearly as much, we don't want to give up "strong."
Popular Photography's Herbert Keppler described the requirements for "the perfect SLR travel tripod" rather neatly: "all metal, weight under two pounds, folded size under 20 inches [so it can be stored easily in airline carry-on luggage], eye-level height, quick extending and folding via flip locks, rubber tips and spiked points on independently adjustable legs that can level the tripod on irregular surfaces."
Our Star D has screw legs, which annoy us (greatly). It takes about three full twists to loosen or tighten and we generally have to make it four partials. We'd always envied flip locks to release and tighten the leg extensions.
But the Star D has a nice geared center column. We like winding it up and down, precisely, just a hair. The alternative is quicker, though. Just release, move and tighten. But we do a lot of copy work, so the precision is appreciated.
The Star D doesn't have a quick release plate. We screw everything into it and everything out of it. So we thought a quick release plate might be a terrific life-style change.
Once again our tour of the local photo shops proved (generally) disappointing. One or two shops had something that intrigued us, but looking the models up on the Web for more information didn't close the deal. Mostly we saw limited selection and high prices. We really wanted to do this under $100.
Yes, that would be our hard-earned bucks at play. This isn't our typical review. It isn't an overview of the field or a comparison between similar models. It's just what happens when your erstwhile editor has to go out and buy something to live with for the next 20 years. Just a candid report from the battlefield.
We'd done a little basic research on the Web, but precious little. Not much information about tripods out there.
A while ago we were impressed with Larry Berman's story of his trip Southwest in which he relied on a lightweight but capable tripod from Velbon manufactured by Hakuba. That turns out to be the tripod Keppler fell in love with, too.
Who are we to argue?
Velbon's original MAXi has turned into a series since those guys wrote about it. The original 1.9-pound 343E with ball head and sliding center column has been joined by the slightly less light ("heavier" doesn't apply to this line) 347-GB with a 3-way pan head, geared center column and leg braces.
We could handle the extra half-pound of the 347-GB and wanted the other features, so we opted for the 347-GB.
Features common to the MAXi series include:
- All die-cast metal construction
- Patented trunnion leg design, which accounts for the short fold size since the pins that attach the legs to the center ring are on the sides rather than the end of the legs
- Quick extension and collapse with flip locks
- Fits in carry-on luggage with a folded length under 18 inches
- Weighing 1.9 to 2.7 pounds, depending on model
- Extending as high as 61 inches
- Rubber-tipped legs that screw up to reveal spikes to handle slippery terrain
- Nylon draw-string carrying case with fabric shoulder strap
- Limited lifetime warranty
Our preferences were strong ones, so we didn't agonize over which features we wanted. But the two models have different personalities and are inexpensive enough ($70-$99 on the Web) that buying the pair isn't a foolish extravagance.
If Keppler and Berman weren't sufficiently persuasive, the Velbon's design was. We were impressed with the trunnion leg connection (it's how cannons have been mounted for centuries), the metal construction (right, just like a cannon), the compact size when collapsed (unlike a cannon) and the options for heads and center columns (dynamite, that).
Not everything is metal, of course. The flip locks and the handle are plastic. And the feet are rubber. But the stuff you want to be metal is metal.
Heads are a study in themselves. How, after all, do you decide between the convenience of a ball socket head and the control of a 3-way pan head. Or did we just give that away?
The ball socket of the original model includes a cork pad to firmly grip the camera bottom. We haven't used the ball socket, so we won't wax poetic here. But if you need to quickly chase the action and firm up your angle with a twist of your wrist, you'll want a ball.
You'll also want a ball if you're lazy and shiftless. Or just want the easiest way to position your camera. Loosen the thing, move your camera into position and lock it. Simple.
Because we do a lot of copy work, product shots and other work that enjoys a very small adjustment rather than a quick, large adjustment, we opted for the 4-way pan head.
The camera mount (which screws into your camera's tripod socket) includes a rubber pad to securely grip the camera bottom. How you mount the camera to the plate (perpendicular or parallel to the lens axis) can determine what camera moves are available. Mounting a Nikon swivel design parallel to the lens will let you use the camera in either portrait or landscape orientations.
On the pad is a small metal plate that easily detaches from the head by flicking a plastic lever. A small spring-loaded button pops the plate up for quick removal once the lever has done its job. And you can leave the plate on your camera. Additional plates are available for $9.
That quick release mechanism is handy for resuming candids or portraits at events like weddings and parties. And it's one less reason for not using a tripod. You can't say, "Oh, it's not worth the trouble to mount the camera on the tripod -- I'll just fire away." All you have to do is slip the plate onto the head and flick the lever to lock it down. And the spring-loaded button even releases the lever for you.
A handle tightens the head into position easily. Loosen the handle slightly to pan the head 360 degrees. Loosen it a bit more to angle it in two of the four ways the head itself moves. There are no bubbles to indicate level but if that's an issue, you can always add your own.
A lock screw right under the plate lets you swivel the camera back and forth (up and down, depending on how you mounted it to the plate). That's the other two ways the head moves. A detent indicates where level is.
The center column on the original model simply slides up or down when you release the lock. Very quick, very easy.
We opted for the geared center column. We like gears. We like cranks. We are one ourselves. But mainly we like the precision of being able to slightly change position with the slightest pressure on the crank.
And, of course, you don't have to use the crank. With the lock screw loose, you can pull the head up or down. Mother didn't raise us to be like that, but sometimes we revert to our baser instincts.
The handle folds over so the small, one-inch protrusion of the knob doesn't snag on anything when you slip the tripod into or out of its (free) carrying bag. Nice touch, that.
On the other hand, worriers that we are, that little plastic handle seems like the first thing that will go. Maybe it's ABS plastic, we try to reassure ourselves. And where did we put that warranty?
If you grasp one of the top leg sections when fully extended, you can wobble it slightly back and forth. There's about an eighth inch flex in the legs. A lot less wobble than other lightweights we've used.
But more than the Davidson, which is so solid we once actually held up a broken garage door with it.
In normal use, however, the wobble isn't an issue. The tripod won't move when you press the shutter button. And wind doesn't bother it. If it isn't rock solid, it is steady.
But for extra stability a little trick is all you need. Grasp the center column and pull down. As long as you apply pressure, it won't budge.
The leg braces rigidify the top sections but they also mean that pulling one leg out pulls them all out. The legs, that is, move in and out together.
On the Davidson there are no leg braces and we are constantly kicking one or another leg back out to its wide position as we align the tripod. But on uneven terrain, we can straighten the tripod by moving one leg or another in or out without resetting its length.
With leg braces, your only option is to shorten a leg. Which is where the flip locks come in handy.
Velbon's flip locks are simple to use. Use your thumb to push them away from the lock and they're in the open position. Slide the leg out. Push them back in to lock the leg position. You don't have to use excessive pressure to lock or unlock them, so the whole process is really very quick.
It's also very precise. With screw locks like the Davidson's, you have to give the lock a little extra tug to make sure it's tight. And a little extra push to make sure it's open (or the leg can snag on its way out).
But don't get us started. There are probably wonderful space-age screw locks these days, but we've suffered enough.
Last but not least, we really appreciate the extra touch of having convertible feet. Screw the rubber feet out for a non-skid grip on linoleum and a protective hold on a rug. But screw them in to reveal quarter-inch diameter spikes that will grab hold of soil and less solid support in the field.
We cannot write a review without at least one complaint. And the standard tripod complaint here is color. The Velbon is painted a nice champagne with silver legs. It's pretty, but we prefer non-reflective black.
Legs, which are generally not reflected back into the shot, can be silver but we expect to have to shade the tripod now and then to prevent seeing its reflection in our images.
The warranty is reassuring. The pedigree (Berman and Keppler) is inspiring. But love has a mind of its own. And we did fall in love with this tough little tripod.
We used to admonish ourselves when we were about to take a tripod shot. "You are about to take a tripod shot. Get the tripod." Darkening clouds. Charleton Heston.
But with the Velbon, we're looking for tripod shots like a mountain biker looks for hills. "Yeah, there's one! Let's go!!!" Bright sunshine. Robin Williams.
We can slip it out of the bag, fully extend it and pop on the camera in seconds. That gives us more time to admire the scene and fiddle with our composition. If only we could stop staring at our new Veblon.
July 15. Nothing lasts forever, but fortunately the only thing that's worn out on our MAXi is the rubber handle on the PH-237Q panhead.
Wear may not be the right word, though. It's more a case of deterioration. The rubber has gotten very soft to the touch -- and sticky.
The MAXi has a lifetime warranty so we emailed Hakuba at firstname.lastname@example.org to politely ask for help.
We'll let you know what happens.
Aug. 14. It's been a month without an email reply from Velbon. So we go back online to see what we can learn.
We find a page on the Hakuba site that explains the company's policy. Send your tripod in for major repairs, but replacement parts may just be shipped directly. Email the company with the date of purchase.
We bought the tripod in December 2002, we note.
But the email link is the same address we used a month ago, so we don't put much faith in it.
Instead we use the Comments form to send a second copy of my original email, with the purchase date.
But as we poke around the Hakuba site, we find a news release dated Feb. 3, 2003 announcing that ToCAD America has acquired the company. That might explain things.
So we visit the ToCAD site and send them the same thing on their Contact Us page. We promise ourselves to give them a call if we don't hear from them.
Meanwhile, we tape up the old handle so we can use the tripod.
Oct. 5. September was a busy month, so our Velbon reminder collected dust. But today's mail included a new rubber handle for the Velbon MAXi tripod.
The packing slip is interesting. It notes the request was made Sept. 18 (you'll note that does not refer to our two attempts). Item number: TP-6D handle. Description: PHD-31Q Panhandle-Ultra MAXI L. The new address for ToCAD: 53 Green Pond Road, Suite 5; Rockaway, N.J. 07866; phone: (9733) 627-9600; fax: (973) 664-2438.
We unscrewed the taped handle, moved the washer to the new handle and screwed in the new handle. Perfect.
So there you have it. Velbon through ToCAD honored the lifetime warranty on the Velbon MAXi in about seven weeks.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, we recommend calling the company for help.