Gear Review: The Versatile Vanguard Alta Pro 284CT Tripod & BBH-200 Ballhead
For many photographers, the tripod is the natural extension to the camera and lens. It provides a solid, stable foundation that minimizes camera shakes, which is very important when shooting with slow shutter speeds and when trying to get that critical focus and sharpness. In fact, it is a vital tool for landscape, macro, and product photographers to ensure that no motion blur is introduced by any camera shakes.
Carbon fiber tripods have become more and more popular among both professional and enthusiasts and have the advantages over aluminum and metal tripods with their combination of strength and lightness. Of course, such exotic material does come at a higher price. A quick search at B&H shows over a hundred different models, with over two-thirds of them priced between $250-$499. At $369.99, the flagship Vanguard Alta Pro 284CT tripod is priced in the upper third of that field, but not just because of its quality, but also because it offers the kind of versatility few tripods can match at that price range. The $199.99 Vanguard BBH-200 ballhead that was sent to me along with the tripod is also very solid. Its standout feature is its Rapid Level System (orange slider switch under the ball in the photo below) that allows you to quickly center and level the ballhead to the base. Very cool and useful!
I’m not going to hold anyone in suspense about this tripod. I simply love it! There’s a good reason why it won the 2009 TIPA Awards for Best Accessory and the 2010 Red Dot Design Award – Best of the Best 2010.
The previous tripod that I had was an Induro A014 alumnium tripod with a Benro BH1 Ballhead, so using this Alta Pro is like the equivalent to driving a Porsche after owning a Honda. That Multi-Angle Central Column (MACC) System, as Vanguard calls it, just opens up a lot of creative options in compositing my shots. The swivel locks quickly, too, with one easy motion. As long as you extend it outward over one of the tripod legs and just watch your center of gravity, it can hold a Canon 5D mkIII with a good zoom lens with no problem.
The 284CT has 4-section carbon fiber legs that keeps the tripod at a relatively short 21 inches when folded in, and gives the tripod a maximum height of 62 inches when the legs and center column are extended all the way. Versatile, right? And of course, there is that wonderful carbon fiber material that just keeps the tripod stable but light on the weight.
Critiques, thankfully, are only at a minimum. The button that allows you to change the angle of the legs can sometimes get sticky unless you fold the leg in a little before you hold the button. And if I have to really nitpick, the material quality of the tripod center pouch that attaches to the legs is not at the same level as the tripod and while the tripod carrying bag is pretty good, it is not as as great as the Induro bags. This Vanguard bag is thinly padded and has a drawstring closure up top whereas the Induro bag is better padded, has a zipper running along the length of the bag for easy access, and has a small zip-pocket on the Induro bag for small tripod accessories like a small Allen wrench. It’s just easier to put a tripod in the Induro bag and it’s more weather-protected. Nevertheless, none of these are deal-breakers.
First thing that you will notice about the Vanguard BBH-200 is its design. A 2012 TIPA Award winner for best accessory, this ball head’s open air design looks sleek and actually makes it lighter and easier to clean. The oversized ball means more clamping power because of the larger surface area. As I mentioned before, what makes this ball head stand out amongst its’ $200 competitors is the Rapid Level System, the quick ball leveler that gets the ballhead centered and ready to go in seconds.
The three improvements that I can suggest is to have a bit more range of motion for the ball head, to move the main knob to where the 360 degrees pan knob is and move that panning knob under the Rapid Level switch so you can choose to use adjust the main knob with the left or right hand, and open another Potrait mode cutaway on the other side of the original cutaway so you can choose which direction you want to have your camera oriented in Portrait mode.
As you can see from the video, the center column is where all the action is. But before we go into detail with that Multi-Angle Central Column (MACC) System, let’s take a look at some of the specs of the tripod:
- Carbon fiber legs, aluminum neck collar
- Number of Leg Sections:4
- Quarter-twist leg locks
- Legs adjust to 25, 50 and 80-degree angles
- Extended height (with center column extended): 63″ (160.0cm)
- Folded height: 21.12″ (53.65cm)
- Weight: 3.97 lbs (1.8 kg)
- Maximum loading capacity: 18.0 lbs (8.0 kg)
- Tilted Loading Capacity(kg): 15.43 lbs (7.0 kg)
Around the neck and the center column are two knobs and a switch lever. The knob around the tripod leg collar itself rotates the center column, so when you have the center column up and over, you can swing it left and right like a crane.
Around the center column itself is the release switch and lever that lets you tilt the center column, and on the opposite side is the knob that lets you raise and lower the center column. In order to go to tilt mode, you raise the column all the way up and push down the ball bearing stop at the base of the column in order to let the column slide through to the end of its collar. There is a safety stop that prevents you from pulling the center column completely free from the tripod itself. Then you slide the orange switch and pull open the lever to tilt the column. You can angle the column all the way down until it’s pretty much upside down! Once you found your angle, just close down the lever and tighten the column knob. That’s it, you’re locked and secure. It doesn’t drag down from the weight of the camera and lens at all (just stay within the specified max load capacity of course). And should you want your camera extended pretty far out, you can hang a small counter-balance at the bottom of the center column.
The feet at the bottom of each legs also has a built-in spike that you can reveal by rotating the rubber feet. The spike is useful when you’re in dirt in order to add a bit more stability.
The three things I see as room for improvements are the sticky leg angle adjustment buttons, the material quality of the center pouch, and the tripod bag itself. If you want to change the angle of one or more of the legs, the release button can be stiff. You sort of have to wiggle the leg in a bit in order to push the button. It may be a locking mechanism in order to keep the legs still when it is in its locked position, but you have to be aware of it, especially when you already have the camera way out on the side and you’re trying to re-angle the leg.
The center pouch has this kinda plasticky, semi-rigid material that I just feel it’s not that great to touch. It’s in a cone-shape and kinda shallow, too, so you have to be careful that when you’re adjusting the legs, you don’t want to spill out the contents in the pouch. At least it feels pretty durable and should not tear if you place rocks in the pouch in order to weigh down the tripod for stability.
Finally, the tripod bag, as you can see from above, is a top-load variation. It can be a bit difficult to stuff the tripod in the bag sometimes, and it’s only closed up with two draw strings. While I’m sure the drawstring won’t open up inadvertently, you can’t really seal the bag all the way, so any liquid or sand can still make its way in, so be careful when you place it down in areas like the beach. The padding is also very thin and the shoulder strap is also unpadded and narrow. But the tripod is rather lightweight, so you probably won’t strain your shoulder.
Overall, though, the Vanguard Alta Pro 284CT Tripod is a strong, versatile winner for me and definitely a keeper. At $369, it is definitely more of an investment as opposed to just another accessory. Luckily, the 284CT is the most expensive model in the Alta Pro series, so there are less expensive models that are available. If you don’t mind a longer folded length of 25.2″ and a load capacity of 17.6 lbs instead of the 284CT’s 21″ and 18.0 lbs max load, then the $329 Alta Pro 283CT may be for you. There is also the smaller $319 Alta Pro 254CT that folds down to 20.9″ and has a max load of 15.4 lbs.
If you don’t mind a bit more weight and quick-flip leg locks instead of quarter-twist leg locks, there is also the aluminum version of the Alta Pro. The $159 Alta Pro 264AT weighs 4.63 lbs, folds down to 21 1/8″, has 4 section legs like the 284CT, and has a max load of 15.4 lbs, while the $149 Alta Pro 263AT weighs 4.41 lbs, folds down to 24 3/4″, has 3 section legs like the 283CT, and has a max load of 15.4 lbs. All the Alta Pro will have the Multi-Angle Central Column (MACC) System that sets it apart from other tripods.
Best of all, between May 1, 2012, and June 30, 2012, Vanguard has a special mail-in rebate that gives you back $50 for any carbon fiber Alta Pro tripods and $25 for any aluminum Alta Pro tripods!
Whichever version you end up getting, I’m confident that you will enjoy it as much as I do!
It’s probably not fair to review the Vanguard BBH-200 Ballhead right after reviewing the Alta Pro because the Alta Pro is such a stand out amongst other tripods. But that doesn’t mean that BBH-200 can’t hold its own. Since it’s built from solid magnesium construction (like your top of the line Full Frame Canons and Nikons), this definitely has a solid built quality. Plus, it’s Arca-Swiss compatible, which is a HUGE plus for me!
Here are some quick specs on it
- Height: 4 3/8″ (110 mm)
- Weight: 1.17 lbs (0.53 kg)
- Maximum loading capacity: 44 lbs (20 kg)
- Solid Magnesium Ball and Housing
- Two spirit bubble levels
- Open body design
- Arca-Swiss compatible quick plate
That open body design means that it can keep the weight down a bit while still carrying its heavy load. For example, whereas the $199 Vanguard BBH-200 weighs 1.17 lbs and has a max load capacity of 44 lbs, the $180 Induro BHD2 weighs 1.3 lbs and has a max load of 39.6 lbs. Similarly, the $214 Manfrotto 468MG Magnesium Hydrostatic Ballhead weighs 1.4 lbs, but can only carry up to 35.3 lbs. Lighter and stronger are Vanguard’s calling here.
Oh, and smooth, too. This big magnesium ball is not only strong, but it’s also smooth. At first, I was let down with the lack of a tension knob and how the main knob is more of a rotating lever instead of a traditional cylindrical knob. But in reality, the longer turning radius means you can be more sensitive in how much tension you want on the ballhead, which means the main knob effectively acts like a tension knob, and also have more leverage. Takes a bit to get used to, but it’s not a bad approach at all, especially if you’re wearing gloves when shooting outside. Also, if you want to readjust the lever knob, you can pull it out and rotate it freely. I have it so when it’s the absolute tightest, the lever points up. That is also helpful in giving you a quick visual confirmation that the ballhead is tight!
Aside from the main knob, there is also a panning knob to its left that does exactly like it does on any other ballhead that has such knobs. The orange horizontal switch to the right of the main knob, however, is what sets the BBH-200 apart from other ballheads. This Rapid Level System slider, when clicked unto the filled-in circle, sets something inside so that when you wiggle the ballhead around the center, it locks the ball when it’s centered and leveled to the base of the ballhead. There is a slight wiggle room, but you an also glance down at the spirit bubble level to double check. This just makes leveling quick and easy. Just make sure you tighten the main lever before you release the Rapid Level switch.
The Arca-Compatible quick release shoe also has a safety pin that prevents the quick plate from sliding out in the event that the quick plate is not fully secured unto the shoe. That can definitely be a life-saver, especially when it’s on an Alta Pro tripod and hanging out sideways!
So what’s not to like? Well, the lip at the top of the housing is a bit constricting, which means that the range of motion may or may not be as much as other ballheads. It’s not that noticeable, but it may just be me. Also, ergonomics-wise, because the main knob is directly the opposite of the Portrait mode slot, if you shoot Portrait like me, which is with the camera grip on the topside, that means, you have to operate the knob with your right hand and rotate your camera with the left hand, which is not entirely comfortable if you have a larger lens. What would probably be better is if the main knob is moved to where the panning knob is and the panning knob, which is pretty small, sits under the Rapid Level System slider. This way, you can have the main knob facing you and be accessible to your left hand as you rotate the camera to portrait mode via the grip.
On top of that, the space where the main knob used to be can now be used to put a second cutaway for Portrait mode for those photographers who prefers to have their camera with the grip facing down while shooting portraits. That would add even more flexibility to what is already an excellent ballhead.
By the way, the BBH-200 also has a little brother, the $169 Vanguard BBH-100, which weighs just 1 lb and has a max load of 22 lbs, as well as a big brother, the $249.95 Vanguard BBH-300, which weighs 1.45 lbs and has a max load of 66 lbs!
So all in all, as a photographer, a really good investment in a solid tripod and ballhead is worthwhile. It sure gives you that stability when taking photos like this quick 5-shot HDR photo I took near my house.
Both the Vanguard Alta Pro 284CT tripod and the Vanguard BBH-200 ballhead are strong, versatile products that I would not hesitate to recommend to other photographers and to you, our readers! Kudos Vanguard!