Hacking my tripod

I don't use tripods all that often, in fact I'm pretty sure most people would tell me I should be using them a lot more, but I don't. Over the years I have had several, but for the most part they spend the majority of their time in my cupboard.

When moving back from India, I sold a lot of my camera gear. I forced myself to decide if it was required, and worth taking up the precious little room in my bags. One of the first things to go was my big tripod. I did however keep an old travel tripod, an 8 year old Manfrotto 7322YSHB. The main reason I kept it was because it was small (42 cm folded)  and light (1.02 kg). The problem with it was the tiny load capacity of 2kg, which just about enough to hold my 5D and a normal lens, so a bear minimum tripod for travel.

I am not comfortable living that close to the edge of safety, especially with that much money sat on it. Because I don't use tripods all that often and don't want to spend a lot of money on a new one, I've decided that with a few modifications to my little travel tripod, I could strengthen it up, and make it more suitable for my needs.

What do I want?

  • I want a tripod that can hold about 3-4kg of camera gear safely.
  • It will need to be stable.
  • It must be as light and portable as the possible (for travel).
  • It must be as economical as possible. There is a point where buying a new specific tripod could cost as much as the hack.
  • I don't want to permanently kill it the tripod, maintaining the ability to restore it to it's original state if desired.

Make it stronger

The first and most important thing I need to do is make the tripod capable of holding nearly twice it's designated load capacity. A tripods strength is linked to many aspects including height, foot-print, individual component strength etc...  all these factors combined will determine the load capacity of the tripod. I'm sure that a mechanical engineer could provide equations and required measurements that would accurately determine these factors and how I could improve them, but I am not an engineer. So I've decided to go down another route. :)

There is a saying... "you are only as strong as your weakest link". So if I want to make this tripod stronger, I need to remove the weakest links. In this case, they are the legs, the center column and the tripod head. You are the weakest link... goodbye! That doesn't really leave much (or anything) left of the tripod, but bear with me...  :)


i. Replaced center column

The original column could be moved up and down to give more height... This was an added weakness and source of instability.

The original column could be moved up and down to give more height... This was an added weakness and source of instability.

Manfrotto 190LAA meant for a Manfrotto 190 tripod.

Manfrotto 190LAA meant for a Manfrotto 190 tripod.

This is probably the weakest part of any tripod, as it has the least support. So i ditched it! replacing it with a smaller center column meant for a different tripod. I was not sure if it would fit, and had anticipated some precision engineering being required (hammer), but to my surprise, it fit perfectly, albeit it tightly (which is a good thing). This shorter center column is designer for a tripod with a significantly higher capacity, so what was once a weak-point of the tripod, is now removed.

 

II. Change the head

The original small weak-ass head.

The original small weak-ass head.

Benro IN0 - 6kg capacity.

Benro IN0 - 6kg capacity.

This small ball-head is very weak. When I removed the center column, I also removed the head. I am replacing it with a light-weight but strong Benro IN0 ball-head, with a 6kg capacity. This is more than enough for my needs.

 

III. Shorten the legs

I measured the max diameter of the new foot, subtracted 1mm, and found rubber table leg feet which went over snugly. :)

I measured the max diameter of the new foot, subtracted 1mm, and found rubber table leg feet which went over snugly. :)

The longer a leg is, the weaker it is. Also the more sections a leg is, the more weak points it has, and since it is telescopic, the leg gets thinner and subsequently weaker. Altogether, this makes this 4 section tripod legs pretty damn flimsy. The solution is obvious...  lets shorten the legs. :)

I removed the two lowest sections of the tripod. This is simple to do as they are designed to be replaced if needed. The result is that the legs are 1/2 as long, and they are the better half as well, being the thicker two sections. Moreover, I have removed two joints...  less joints, less weak points.

I could have removed all the sections and just kept one, but the second section will be very useful on uneven ground to strengthen the tripod, and the minimum added strength was not worth that level of usefulness. :) I do not have to use the bottom sections for anything other than leveling the tripod.

I now had a problem though, as I removed the tripod feet when i removed the lower sections. This was a simple fix... put some rubber table leg ends on the bottom of the section section! :)

 

The result!

With these mods I get the following tripod! :)

The tripod at it's maximum height of 59cm

The tripod at it's maximum height of 59cm

The tripod at it's minimum height of 32 cm

The tripod at it's minimum height of 32 cm

The tripod at it's most stable, with a foot-print greater than it's height...  I have no problem using it at this configuration.

The tripod at it's most stable, with a foot-print greater than it's height...  I have no problem using it at this configuration.

The new capacity...

Ok, well, I'm going to start off by saying this is almost complete guess-work...  I wouldn't even go as far as to say an educated guess, but it is based on my previous tripod experience and feelings....  so here we go.

The initial load capacity was 2kg. This was based on the tripod ability while at it's weakest configuration; fully extended and center column up. I am going to ignore that Manfrotto probably put a 10-20% margin of error on top of this, and assume that 2kg is a fixed maximum. So lets go though it!

  1. By removing the center column, I have removed the most unstable part of the tripod. Increases stability = increased load capacity. So I am estimating a 2x increase to 4kg.
  2. The weak-ass ball-head that is fixed to the center column had an assumed capacity of at least 2kg. I replaced it with a 6kg max capacity ball head. :)
  3. The shortening of the legs removed length, weak joints and lowered the center of mass. All these will increase the load capacity. So I estimate a 2x increase, more if you don't extend the legs, but for safety reasons I am assuming a new load capacity of 4kg.
  4. The unknown! I do not mention one key part of the tripod, which does present an unknown...  and that is the base (where the legs meet). It is a key part of the tripods strength and I have left it untouched. There is actually nothing I can do to it, to make it stronger. It is a simple hinge, with two configurations. It folds in on it-self to rest against the center column, so is only restricted by the sheer-strength of the bolt in the hinge. Sheer-strength being the bread-and-butter of bolts is strong, I am going to assume that it can deal with more than the 2kg capacity of the tripod. It was probably the strongest element of the tripod. For simplicity, I have confidence that the joint will hold 4kg... :)
The joint between the leg and base. The stump stops the hinge from turning any more. It is a basic, but strong mechanism that should (hopefully) be able to bear a lot more than the 2kg limit initially imposed on this tripod.

The joint between the leg and base. The stump stops the hinge from turning any more. It is a basic, but strong mechanism that should (hopefully) be able to bear a lot more than the 2kg limit initially imposed on this tripod.

With these 4 considerations, and the 'weakest link' philosophy, my assumption is that the new load capacity is 4kg. The tripod head weighs 260g, so despite being the strongest aspect of the tripod, it's own weight needs to be subtracted from the capacity...  leading to 3.74kg. I am going to minus 10% as a margin of error, and set a load capacity of ~3.5kg as a realistic figure. :)

.... is 3.5kg

I tested it out using my 5DIV+Grip and the heafty Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art. The total weight of this combo is 2.26kg. It worked great... :) It held it well (thanks to the head) and the tripod did not wobble or flex...  certainly better than the original. I think it is a winner. I did some calculations of what gear I would comfortably load, and my 5DIV + 700-200 + 2xIII travel wildlife gear comes to less than 3kg...  I feel it would do the job. :)

I have adapted it to bear more weight and manage that weight safely and stably.

 

It's even lighter and the same size (ish)!

The original 7322SHYB was 1.02kg, where my low-pod is now 0.89kg, 130g lighter! Which is not a lot, but still a 13% weight reduction! In fact, if you remove the 260g Benro head, I slimmed down a 1.02kg tripod to 0.63kg, by removing the useless and unwanted parts. :) There was a lot of dead-weight on the tripod that I was just not using.

The compacted size of the tripod is 2.5cm larger, which is insignificant. So over-all I have manged to make it even lighter, and keep the same size.

 

The cost!

Alas, nothing in life is free and this modification comes at a cost, both financial and functional. I had to buy 3 things for this modification, here is the breakdown.

  1. The ball-head. This was the most expensive part at 65 euros... It was key! Obviously, if you already have a good tripod head, this is not needed.
  2. The replacement center column cost 9 euros
  3. The rubber feet were 2 euros!

The total cost was 76 euros, to modify a 100 euro tripod. If you do not have a tripod, then I would recommend NOT buying one to mod, but taking that 176 euros and getting the best out-of-the-bag tripod you can! :) But if you do have a tripod that you want to mod...  from as little as 11 euros, you can make a big difference. For me, it was worth paying as I now have a more useful tripod for a fraction of buying a new one. :)

There was also a functional cost too. In this case, it was the reduced maximum height...  where before it could reach the lofty heights of 1.2m, it is now restricted to 59cm, half of the original. This was necessary to make it stronger. However, this is not so bad for me, as I generally want to use a tripod for low angle photography without breaking my back. :) Also, i could not use the tripod so high with my heavy gear anyway, so this was a cost well worth paying. :) The height cost could also be an advantage, as if it were to fail, there is a lot less 'fall' to be had! :P


The bottom line

  • With a few simple and cost-efficient modifications, I made my travel-tripod more suited for my gear.
  • There is always a way to recycle!
  • Now to test it out in the real world! :D

Have you every modified your tripod? If so, please share with the rest of us in the comments! :)

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