In Praise of the Center Column

There is a general viewpoint in landscape and architectural photography that a center column on a tripod is not a good thing. And there is plenty of evidence to support this conventional wisdom. There is even a website titled The Center Column that is “dedicated to providing quantitative data on tripod stability” and specifically to the proposition that center columns reduce tripod stability. It’s a fantastic website with tons of data about tripods and tripod heads. And it’s very informative. 

And of course they are correct: a center column inevitably reduces tripod stability. Of course it does. My guess is that every inch of raised height on a center column also reduces the effective payload capacity of a tripod. If your camera has any significant “wind profile,” let alone a filter holder contraption on the front, it acts as wind sail. Raising it higher makes it an increasingly effective wind sail. I know. Even without a center column, the winds on the beach at Vik, Iceland blew my Hasselblad and filter rig over when securely mounted on an RRS 3-series tripod without a center column. I hadn’t turned my back for 5 second before it happened. Fortunately, the shattered filters on the front saved my 45mm lens (not even a large lens; this was actually a reasonably compact rig. Still.)

For years, I had studiously avoided tripods with center columns, except with some of earlier Gitzo aluminum Safari tripods, and even then, I refused to use the center column in order to avoid increased instability. After all, the whole point of buying and lugging a tripod was to stabilize the camera for sharper images, slower shutter speeds, etc. Why do all that, just to start subtracting stability?

But then, in pursuit of lighter weight, I found myself trying out the Peak Design Travel Tripod, the Really Right Stuff Ascend, and the Shiftcam Travel Tripod. All three have center columns. Most surprising of those is the RRS Ascend. RRS is famously known for the made-in-the-USA-over-the-top-ruggedly-built and expensive tripods. Although RRS offers a Quick Column accessory for their Versa 2 and 3 series tripods, it's not something you see getting a lot of play. But it’s an integral part of the Ascend. Why?

Because it’s useful. One of the compromises that gets made to reduce compacted tripod length is shortening the length of the collapsible sections while increasing the number of them. There’s a limit to how much of that you can do while maintaining reasonable stability. So, it’s common to see four or five collapsible sections in these compact tripods. And because they’re shorter, it usually means that maximum height of the tripod is somewhere between 48 and 60 inches. That’s not tall enough for many applications. The solution is a center column that can raise your. Camera platform even higher.

But a center column has another utility: it can be inverted, allowing the camera to be placed very close to the ground. Big deal. If you simply splay the legs of any decent tripod out to the max, you can get pretty low. But you can’t get next to the ground or pointing at the full circle of ground over which the tripod is positioned. That might not matter to you, but I was surprised how many times I found that useful (because I expected it to be zero).

So, I was on a path to sell my two RRS Versa tripods (Series 2 & 3), thinking they were fully supplanted by the RRS Ultra series tripods, which are more slender when compacted. But that’s changed. Instead of selling them, I secured for each of them the RRS accessory quick center column. And especially for car travel photography, I expect they will get a lot more use.

Going forward, I will still place my Phase on the sturdiest tripod I can, preferably without a center column. And when I mount the big Hasselblad 350 Superachromat onto the Leica (yeah, I do that), I will probably do the same. Even if the tripod does have a center column, I’ll just it locked down without extension. But for anything less, I will be reaching for one of my tripods with a center column. And when I travel, especially to places that are new to me, I will not be without a center column. 

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