Center Column vs Bottom Leg

The bottom leg of tripods with four or five sections tends to be quite thin, with predictably detrimental affects on the stiffness of the tripod.  So could extending the bottom leg section partway, and making up the height difference with the center column result in better overall stiffness?  Here we are going to take a brief look at that possibility.

I tested four tripods.  For each, I would start with the tripod in the natural position, with the legs fully extended and the center column down.  I then tested the stiffness of the tripod with the center column fully down, halfway up, and fully extended, shortening the bottom legs as necessary to maintain the tripod at the same height.  The results are below:

TripodHeightDownHalfUp
Induro AT11450.6236263274
Gitzo GT1545T51.4483401296
MeFoto GT Carbon51.3331351324
Manfrotto MT190CXPRO353.6507315247

The two higher end tripods, the Gitzo and the Manfrotto, performed much worse with the center column.  The Mefoto was about the same, and the Induro was actually much stiffer using the center column instead of the lower legs.  So it is possible!

I would guess that this effect will only be positive when the tripod has four or five leg sections and the bottom section is particularly narrow.  The legs and center column provide rotational stability in different ways.  When the tripod rotates, the center column twists while the legs bend.  The bending motion is much stiffer but if there is a sufficient mismatch in the size of the center column versus the bottom leg, the center column can actually be stiffer per unit of height.

This is obvious if we visually inspect the tripods in question.  From front to back we have the Induro, Gitzo, MeFoto, and Manfrotto.  The very narrow bottom leg of the induro, and the somewhat larger center column of the MeFoto are apparent.

I am not going to test every tripod I have in this manner.  As a rule of thumb, unless the bottom leg of the tripod is around half the diameter of the center column or less, just use the legs at full extension.  If you think your tripod might with some center column instead of the legs, try it out, and let me know what you find!

3 thoughts on “Center Column vs Bottom Leg

  1. Sorry – maybe there are some better technical terms for what I want to say (english is not my language), but anyway:
    Between several tripod systems there are differences between the folded length and the maximum height. Some companys design the overlap area between leg sections smaller than others – so they reach a better height for the “given” minimal needed folded length. Of course, if the overlap is smaller, the whole leg should be less sturdy. Between the old Gitzo legs (4mm per section difference) and the new Gitzo legs (3,something difference) there might be a difference as well, if an old Gitzo leg has more room for “crippling” between fully extended sections. If you see the cross-section of a completely folded leg, you know there is not much room between the sections. The old Gitzo travelers (GTx542T vs x545T) have nearly the same folded length, but are only 120cm instead of 130cm as maximum with the center column down. So even Gitzo did redesign it… (but was it worth?)
    But what I really want to say is: Maybe there is a huge difference as well, if you don’t need the full height, to shorten _every_ section a little bit to get more stability. If you need 15cm less, you can of course can use the last segment in half size, but maybe the better result is to shorten every other section by 5cm and use the last section more.
    … or back to Gitzo: is the new Gitzo leg really better than the old leg? The technical specification with height and weight says yes – but maybe not?

    Great site – thanks for it a lot!

    1. Thanks for the thoughts. It is certainly possible what you say is correct, though I haven’t tested it. If greater overlap did make a difference I suspect I would have seen it when testing stiffness vs height.

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