A Landscapers Secret Weapon: The Levelling Tripod

Despite strong gusting wind that made standing near the edge of the escarpment dangerous, the levelling base made composing and shooting this 12 image panoramic HDR simple and quick to compose.

I recently fell in love all over again with a sweet set of legs. The Leofoto LS-284CEX to be precise. On a last minute whim, I was asked and accepted an invite to chase snow in the Drakensberg with fellow landscape photographer Carl Smorenburg. In the end we didn’t really find any snow, but we still spent plenty of time photographing the mountains. As is usual for me, I did a fair amount of panoramic photography while at it.

As a very quick introduction to panoramic stitching: the idea is to shoot a series of sequential images while panning the image left to right (or vice versa). Then, using software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop (or PTGui) you stitch the images together into a single panoramic image. For a quick tutorial on how to put the images together using Adobe software, you can see this article that I wrote describing the process step by step: https://www.natureslight.co.za/blog/using-the-merge-to-panoramic-feature-from-adobe-camera-raw.

That’s for the software. The capture part is also fairly important. The basics behind this are to have the camera set to manual everything (exposure, white balance and focus), then pan the camera while allowing roughly 30% overlap between frames. That’s it. Really easy. If done correctly, your row of images should look like the 1st image below, BUT, when starting out most people's image sequences normally look like the 2nd image below. 

A correctly panned sequence should produce a perfect row of images, with equal overlap and a level horizon throughout.

What happens when you pan on a tripod that isn't perfectly level - see how the horizon curves from left to right?

The problem with creating stitched panoramic images is that the camera base has to be absolutely level, otherwise the horizon will start to slant. It might be easy on a man-made floor, but on natural terrain, setting a tripod so that the camera is absolutely level is actually quite difficult. It requires a back and forth of adjusting one of the tree legs, while keeping a close eye on the spirit level until everything eventually falls into place. Anyone who has tried to achieve this by lengthening and shortening the legs of the tripod will know this frustration. 

Is it really such a big problem? Unfortunately, yes. The stitching software usually has to pull a rabbit out of a hat to put it all together and by the time it is stitched, you end up with a lopsided bubble of an image. When the time comes to crop a straight panorama out of it, you lose critical elements of the photo and so much resolution that you may just as well have a taken a single wide frame and just cropped you panorama out of it. 

This is where a levelling base makes sense. Rather than trying to level the tripod (which although not impossible is tedious and difficult), you level the tripod head at its base. This is usually done with a small levelling unit that is added between the tripod head and the tripod legs (like the Leofoto LB-60).

A three image horizontal panorama stitch makes up this image looking back across the Drakensberg escarpment. The wind, which was gusting at up to 18 metres/second brought a wind chill well below zero degrees centigrade. Working with the levelling base was easy and quick, even in the strong wind and while wearing thick gloves/mittens.

Then there’s the CEX secret weapon. This is a standard Leofoto Ranger tripod, but with the half bowl levelling base built in from the start. I’m not going to get into a long explanation of the tripod legs themselves. For that you can read this article on the Leofoto tripods, also on this site (https://landscapegear.co.za/blogs/news/introducing-the-ranger). Yes, it is entirely possible to just use a normal tripod and add a levelling base. I’ve been doing that for years with an Acra-Tech Levelling Base.  However this does add some complexity and potential for user error and tolerance issues (when do you add the levelling unit, do you always have it on, it can sometimes loosen, additional levers which get in the way etc. etc.). Having the levelling base as a part of the tripod makes the whole system more stable, easier to use and ultimately lighter than a combination of separate pieces.

Using the Levelling base for panoramic shooting is extremely easy. Set the legs up as you normally would, then using the fluid level on the levelling bowl as a guide, level the base of the tripod head. If you've done everything correctly, the horizon should stay perfectly level as you pan from side to side. Always keep an eye on your horizon simulator while you pan to make sure that it is.

The huge advantage of a levelling base is that you can tilt the camera towards the foreground or the sky and as you pan, the horizon still stays level! The image of the Milky Way is almost impossible without a Levelling base. Even if one can manage without a levelling base, working in the dark and cold is an exercise in hair-pulling frustration. As it was it took me all of a few seconds to level the base. After that I could concentrate on focus and exposure.

 A nine image stitch of the Milky Way covering 180 degrees field of view.

So What Gives?

There is a penalty to the built in levelling head though, and that’s price. A standard Ranger with similar specs with an added LB-60 levelling unit is cheaper than the levelling Ranger. However, the added levelling unit creates awkward length between the apex and the head, placing the center of gravity very high. It's also more moving parts and interconnecting parts, which compromises stiffness and stability. I’ve used a levelling unit for years. This is purely anecdotal and entirely subjective, but the built in level is so much easier to use. If you shoot a lot of panoramic images, you will appreciate the difference and the price differential will seem worth it. If you don’t, then maybe a separate levelling unit makes more sense. 

When it comes to a summit tripod with one of the YB leveling bases, the equivalent CEX option is actually cheaper, but of course you don't get the modularity of the summit tripod. 

LS-284C + LB-60 = R6 898.00 LS-284CEX = R9 499.00
LS-324C + LB-60 = R7 898.00 LS-324CEX = R9 999.00
LM-365C + YB-75LC = R13 198.00 LS-365CEX = R12 999
*July 2020 Pricing

 

Conclusion

The LS-284CEX is fantastic as a travel landscape tripod. I absolutely agree that the larger and heavier tripods are more stable. However, if you have to carry a tripod to the top of a mountain and weight is an issue, then the slightly lighter 28mm top diameter legs of the LS-284CEX make sense (if I were shooting the smaller Fujifilm crop sensors I’d probably be happy with the smaller and lighter LS-255CEX, but as I shoot with a full-frame DSLR, the larger LS-284CEX is a better and more stable fit). An added advantage of the CEX levelling tripods is that they are slightly longer in the leg than the standard Ranger tripods. This means that the LS-284CEX reaches the same working heights as the larger and heavier LS-325C (which doesn’t have the built in levelling base). The standard LS-284C(120cm) and LS-324C(130cm) are too short for people over 1.8m, whereas the LS-284CEX(148cm) and LS-324CEX(153cm) are the perfect height for tall users.

Panoramic photographers will love the versatility, convenience and simplicity of working with the Levelling Ranger tripods. Add an L-bracket for vertical panorama shooting and this is really is the lightest easiest way to create impressively immersive panoramic images. The huge strides that have been made with software means that you can get away without heavy and cumbersome panoramic heads. If you are going to shoot on a tripod though, you cannot get away from the fact that a levelling base of some sort is basically essential. It’s awesome to have multiple options available now for this and the levelling Rangers are the lightweight travel pinnacle of those options.



View Leofoto CEX tripods

A five image vertical stitch of Mweni Pass in the Drakensberg. A Nisi 3 Stop Soft was also used for the image.