Coumeenoole, Slea Head, Dingle. From my Wild Light Photography Tour of Kerry & Dingle in April 2016
A good tripod is a key component of my photographic equipment. I have owned quite a few tripods over the years, invariably Gitzo or Manfrotto and all made either of aluminium or carbon fibre. The Manfrottos have been used mainly for studio work and the Gitzos for landscape and travel and when I was invited by Vanguard to review two of their flagship tripods, I accepted with great interest. As with most photographic equipment, materials and manufacturing processes are continually being improved and the middle ground is now very advanced in terms of quality and innovation. After all, a tripod is just a tripod, isn’t it? Well, that certainly isn’t the case these days! For many photographers, Gitzo and Really Right Stuff are considered the benchmark for the highest quality tripods available, and with good reason, but, as with all things, this level of quality comes at a serious premium in financial outlay and for many people these products are either out of reach or difficult to justify the cost.
The middle range of tripods that fall into the £200-£400 price band is probably of most interest to many photographers and the Alta Pro 283CT, the subject of this first review, is right up there in the thick of it with a rrp of around £299.99, although prices can be found considerably lower than the rrp with a little research.
Vanguard have been steadily improving and building upon their inventory of good value, well thought-out innovative products and now offer an extensive range of tripods to cover most requirements for stills and video photographers. The Alta Pro 283CT is a carbon fibre three section tripod with twist lock leg adjustments, an innovative centre column mechanism and comes without a head as standard. The invitation to review this tripod was timely and came just in time for my Wild Light Photography Workshop Tour of The Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula in April 2016. I attached my Arca Swiss Z1 DP head to it before leaving and it was encouraging to discover that Vanguard have been thoughtful enough to provide an allen key for the grub screws in the head platform and a 1/4-3/8″ adapter bush.
In the box:
The Alta Pro 283CT comes with a reasonably good quality zipped and padded bag which is a welcome addition when a tripod is being carried inside checked-in hold baggage along with clothes etc when traveling. As standard, the Vanguard Alta Pro 283CT comes without a head and is acceptably light in weight as you would expect with extensive use of carbon fibre in the construction.
Another bonus with the padded bag is that Vanguard have made it long enough to accommodate a reasonably large ball head when attached to the tripod such as my Arca Swiss Z1 DP. The tripod and head are completely covered and protected as shown in this image below.
Also supplied is a very useful allen key for the three grub screws which are set in the head platform of the centre column to lock the head of choice in place. This is a thoughtful feature which Vanguard should be applauded for. Anyone who, like myself, usually has to spend time searching the shed or garage for the correct tool for the job will recognise the value in Vanguard’s foresight here. Foam rubber grips on the legs are useful during cold or wet weather and give a secure surface area to grip.
To remove the centre column, undo the collar locking bolt and pull the column upwards. At the top of it’s travel, depress the sprung spigot, open the two stage lever lock and pull the column up and out of the central collar assembly. The image below shows the column removed, the three grubscrews and the thoughtfully supplied hidden 1/4″- 3/8″ screw adapter for heads with a 3/8″ thread. The column and platform are made of alloy and appear to be very robust. There is the more or less standard sprung hook at the bottom of the column for hanging weighted bags etc to help stabilise the tripod in windy conditions.
There is a double locking lever and a bolt set around the tripod collar and sprung levers set in each leg for splaying the tripod legs to three preset positions at 25°, 50° & 80° as well as intermediate positioning.
The centre column can be removed from the usual vertical up and down orientation and locked in any position (pay attention to the weight of the attached equipment!). I rarely, if ever, extend the centre column on any tripod and I prefer tripods to be three-section ‘legs only’, ie without a centre column with only two twist locks to extend the legs. The obvious penalty for this is additional weight and bulk and longer folded height. A tripod without a centre column should be tall enough for normal working heights and this will mean that there will be either additional leg sections or the tripod will be proportionately longer when collapsed. The Vanguard Alta Pro 283CT carbon fibre provides an acceptable compromise of collapsed size, maximum height and optimum weight.
To set any position beyond vertical, the centre column has to be almost, but not quite, removed from the tripod. Open the lever and adjust the angle of the centre column, close the lever and lock off the bolt on the centre column collar. It’s a very quick and secure method of working when the camera has to be outside the centre of gravity. Even with the considerable combined weight of my Arca Swiss Z1 DP head and Hasselblad 503CW attached, overall stability was impressive with no signs of creeping or drooping. This feature would be very useful for macro photography.
There is a bubble level set into the collar which is useful for preliminary tripod leveling before the camera is attached to the head and leveling is fine tuned. The collar assembly is a substantial alloy casting and has obviously been designed to withstand years of use.
When the centre column becomes an extended horizontal or angled arm, the tripod is able to support the combined weight of the Hasselbald and Arca Swiss Z1 DP head very securely. I carefully leveled the camera and locked-off all collars and bolts and left it like that for a few hours. When I checked later, everything had remained level with no sign of movement.
The drawback of most tripods with vertical up/down only centre columns is that the column interferes with ground clearance. This is a reason why many photographers prefer ‘legs only’ tripods that have no centre column, as well as the arguably superior stability those designs offer over centre column models
This is not a problem with the Vanguard Alta Pro 283CT as almost ground level shooting is possible with the centre column set to the horizontal position. This is a great solution for macro and horticultural photography.
Press the leg release buttons and the legs can be adjusted to any of the three preset angles as well as intermediate positions and this makes setting up the tripod on uneven ground very easy.
There are rubber feet for interior and studio work. The rubber feet retract to reveal stainless steel spikes that give improved stability outdoors, especially on slippery rocks and ice. The threads are a wide pitch and open enough that they didn’t become clogged with sand and consequential binding. A quick rinse in a rockpool cleared sand from the threads and the stainless steel of the threaded spikes is not prone to corrosion.
The legs are each three sections and this does have the advantage of slightly faster set-up with less potential for parts to fail. The twist locks work well with a half twist to lock and unlock the legs firmly in position. I experienced no binding when extending and collapsing the legs. Substantial rubber grips and chunky 28mm diameter tubes provide a good hand grip on the legs and twist locks. My personal preference is for this kind of twist lock adjustment, I find that lever locks tend to need regular tightening to keep things secure and they are prone to creep when needing adjustment. The downside is that twist lock threads can be prone to contamination from mud, dust and sand. Sand did find it’s way into the twist lock threads, and did cause some grating every time I needed to extend or collapse the tripod and would clearly need attention, post trip.
One key area that seperates the top end from the middle ground in tripod world is sealing against water ingress. This is an important feature and one which you pay a premium for with tripods from Really Right Stuff and the new Gitzo Ocean Systematic range. These models have sealed twist locks and leg tubes, whereas the Vanguard Alta Pro 283CT and most, if not all, of it’s competitors are not sealed. Water, more importantly, seawater, will find it’s way into the leg tubes and twist lock threads if you set the tripod up in water. I often photograph knee deep in seawater and after I returned from leading my Wild Light Workshop in the West of Ireland I had to take the Alta Pro 283CT apart completely in order to rinse everything before lubricating and reassembly. It’s not a difficult task, but it’s one that needs doing with unsealed tripods. Seawater in the tubes will eventually destroy the tripod, so don’t put off a thorough clean and overhaul when you return from a coast shoot.
The Vanguard Alta Pro 283CT carbon fibre tripod is without doubt a good quality product and Vanguard have included features, materials and quality of construction that make it a serious contender against others with a similar specification within this price range. If the £299.99 rrp seems a little steep, it’s worth shopping around. As an example, Wex are currently advertising it (May 2016) at £209.
This makes it a very attractive option and worthy of serious consideration for anyone in the market for a relatively light, very well designed and constructed carbon fibre tripod with features that exceed most of it’s competition and which will satisfy most requirements.
I’m grateful to Vanguard for the opportunity to use and review this excellent tripod throughout my Wild Light Photography Tour of Kerry & Dingle. I would have no hesitation in taking it with me on more adventures. Moreover, I would highly recommend it to my clients!
- Top quality materials and well thought-out features at the price level
- Reasonably light weight
- Adequate height for most purposes without having to extend the centre column
- Three section legs but acceptably short folded length means it will fit inside most checked-in baggage for traveling
- Innovative alternative positioning of centre column, useful for macro work
- Almost ground level shooting possible with centre column set to horizontal position
- 1/4 turn twist lock leg adjustment is quick and easy to set up
- Bubble level
- Accessory hook on centre column
- Retractable foot spikes
- 1/4″-3/8″ screw adapter is included
- Padded bag and maintenance tools included
- Technical support
- Legs not sealed
- Some use of plastics in key areas
Construction: carbon fibre with alloy, stainless steel, plastic and rubber fittings.
Height: folded 64cm extended: 170cm
Weight: 1.7kg (not including head)
Leg tube diameter: 28mm
Maximum load: 8kg