RRS TQC-14 Review
When I was thinking about the equipment I need for an upcoming trip to Iceland, I faced a dilemma. Should I save my money for a Nikon D800e, or should I buy a great tripod instead? I already had a tripod, the Berlebach Report 703 (a very sturdy 4.2 pound wooden tripod with a maximum height of three feet), which compounded this issue. The photo at the top of the page shows my decision; I bought the Really Right Stuff TQC-14, a top-of-the-line travel tripod, rather than spending my money on the new camera.
Why? Because this is the Really Right Stuff TQC-14!
Weight with center column: 2.7 pounds
Weight without center column: 2.5 pounds
Maximum height with center column: 59 inches
Maximum height without center column: 48 inches
Lowest height with center column: 14.3 inches
Lowest height without center column: 3.3 inches
Folded length: 17.7 inches
Rated load capacity: RRS claims that it can support 25 pounds, but I bet it could hold 250 pounds without slipping. I hung from it for a few seconds, and it didn't budge.
Recommended lenses: Occasional use with up to a 500mm f/4 is fine, but the TQC-14 is ideal for 70-200 f/2.8 lenses, 300mm f/4 lenses, or smaller.
Leg angles: 25, 55, and 85 degrees.
Top tube diameter: 1.13 inches (28.7mm)
Bottom tube diameter: 0.65 inches (16.5mm)
Why this one?
As you can tell, the TQC-14 is a pretty well-specified tripod. Considering its weight and small folded length, it can hold a ridiculous amount of weight without issue. I don't know about you, but when I use a tripod, it is almost always because I have just hiked to a cool location, so I want the best possible stability at the lowest possible weight.
I realized on a trip to Norway that my Berlebach weighed me down to the point that I refused to carry it on hikes more than a few miles long. Don't get me wrong, though, because it was a very good tripod. At $250, I would be surprised to find a sturdier one for landscapes. But, at 4.2 pounds hanging off the very back of my bag (plus a one-pound tripod head), it was beyond the threshold of comfort for long hikes. Not to mention that it took up a tremendous amount of space for its short maximum length of just 39 inches. All of this is without mentioning its cumbersome locking knobs and thin feet, which made it irritating to use. These issues led me to go without a tripod during what turned out to be one of the best hikes I took all trip.
Not wanting to get caught up in the same mess in Iceland, I knew I needed to replace my tripod. I sold the Berlebach at a loss of $90, and I searched for the right tripod. The RRS TQC-14 kept coming up as the best option for a travelling photographer, but I knew that its high cost of $850 would eat into (read: eliminate) my savings for the Nikon D800e.
So why did I decide to spend the money for this tripod? I told myself that I could go one of two routes to improve the technical quality of my images from Iceland: I could carry a tripod at all times, or I could get a camera with better potential detail. For the types of photos I plan to take, this isn't a contest; a tripod that I actually use will improve the sharpness of my photos more, without question. So then why did I need to buy such an expensive tripod? Couldn't a cheaper one of equal weight provide the same benefits, but still leave me money for the D800e?
Truthfully, a cheaper tripod with the D800e would probably give me sharp shots in many situations. Especially if there were no wind, or if I didn't need to extend the tripod completely, or if I weren't shooting in the ocean, the D800e would probably spit out sharper files. Then I realized that, although I'm still planning to get a D800e once I have the money, my D7000's images can be pretty amazing when I get everything right. I have a few 24x36 inch prints from the D7000, and they satisfy my sharpness requirements relatively well. The hardest part is making sure that I can get the images right in the first place, which means that I need to use a tripod and I can't crop the final frame. I couldn't get just any tripod, either; I need the most stable tripod possible so that I can print a photo 24x36 inches even if the tripod was in a stream during the exposure.
Because a sturdy tripod is a necessity for my prints, and because I cannot carry a four-pound tripod as far as I need to without serious discomfort, my decision for the RRS TQC-14 was well-justified. I will say, without exception, I believe that it has the best weight to stability ratio of any tripod in existence. It's possible to get sturdier tripods if you have to shoot an 800mm f/5.6, and it's possible to get lighter tripods for bare-bones hikes. To some extent, if you don't have to carry your tripod far, there are better options available. But I don't believe that there is any better hiking tripod on the market than the TQC-14.
How can I say all this with such certainty? Granted, I have not tested tripods from other high-end companies such as Gitzo, but I don't think I need to. Reading reports online of people whose Gitzo tripods lost a leg during the cold, or people who spent weeks trying to contact Gitzo without a response, I began to see that Really Right Stuff was really the right company for me (and no, they don't sponsor me). I have the RRS BH-40 ballhead, also, which you can see on top of the TQC-14 in the picture above, and it is beautifully built.
After I decided on Really Right Stuff, I had to choose a tripod in their lineup. At first, I was bent on buying the TVC-24, the model one size up. At 3.2 pounds, it's almost as light at the TQC-14, but it has thicker leg sections than its little brother for added stability. Then I thought that there are two reasons people buy such an expensive tripod: either they want the absolute sturdiest tripod possible, or they want a tripod that is extremely stable considering its weight. Although I need the sharpest photos possible, I realized that, if there was any company that could build a sturdy tripod at just 2.5 pounds, it was RRS. So, I bought the TQC-14.
In terms of practical considerations with the tripod, there are a few things I have found. For me, never having used the twist locks, I think they are absolutely amazing; a quarter-turn, and I can lock or unlock every leg section at once. At first, I kept getting confused as to which direction locked the legs and which unlocked them, but now it's second nature. I can confidently say that, at the same height of 39 inches, this tripod is comparable in stability to the Berlebach Report, despite being much lighter. Once I extend the fourth leg section, the tripod is more prone to vibration than the Berlebach was, but at this point it's also almost a foot taller anyway. I rarely need to extend this section, though.
When all the leg sections are retracted, I don't believe that it's possible to have a sturdier tripod. This is essentially true when I've extended one of the leg sections, as well. In these situations, I am confident that my camera isn't moving whatsoever. With my 105mm lens at 10x magnification in live view, I can flick the leg hard at the bottom and see the image on the camera move and resettle so quickly that I'm not entirely confident that it moved at all. Once all the leg sections are extended, I can flick one and see the magnified image move, but it settles within a second. Nothing to worry about at all.
Another important thing to mention is the center column which ships with this tripod. I am strongly against center columns, but this one made me reconsider: at 0.2 pounds, it's tremendously light, and it is supposedly one of the few center columns that people consider sturdy enough to use without noticeable vibration (assuming low wind and otherwise normal conditions). Still, after thinking about it, I decided to remove the center column. Why?
For me, especially on steep hills, center columns are a tremendous burden because they make it impossible to lower the camera how I want. As the specifications show, the minimum height of the TQC-14 with the column is 14.3 inches, which is actually taller than my miniature tripod's maximum height. Doing macro photography, especially, I'm a low-tripod guy, so I decided that I would give up about a foot of maximum height so that I could go a foot lower when I needed it. Truthfully, I haven't encountered a situation where I've regretted that decision. The small weight savings and a theoretical sharpness boost are nice, too.
Removing the center column was a weird experience for me, because I truly felt like I was following the instructions (which ship with the tripod but are also on the TQC-14's product page online), but the plate wouldn't lock in place. I kept resetting the column, then removing it again, and it just wouldn't work right. After about fifteen minutes trying to complete this thirty-second task, I redid the steps and it happened to work. It locked in place completely, and I was able to remove the center column. I would write a tutorial about how this worked, but truthfully I have no idea, and I don't want to mess with it again.
On that same note, I didn't do any practical testing with the quick column, but I believe that it lives up to its reputation of being completely usable if it's not too windy. It's not worth it for me because of the weight and minimum height gains, but I can see how it would be a useful feature for other people.
Aside from its amazing weight/stability ratio, I think that my favorite feature of the TQC-14 is its twist-lock system. On my Berlebach, I had to spin a knob more than 360 degrees to lock and unlock each leg, and I had to tighten it forcefully to know that the lock would stick. With the TQC-14, I can twist every leg section at once, and each only takes about a quarter turn to go from smooth to completely sturdy. The twist-locks feel extremely well-made, just like the rest of the tripod.
I also like that the leg sections don't twist when the twist-locks are loose. Some older tripods with twist-locks are flawed because the legs can spin loosely when they're unlocked. This doesn't seem like a huge issue, but it makes it hard to re-lock the legs because of the amount of spinning.
There is another, lesser-known feature of the TQC-14 that I like: when the legs are folded together into storage position, they don't hit each other. Instead, they come to a hard stop about a centimeter before they touch the other legs, exactly 90 degrees to the vertical. This is nice because I can close the tripod and not worry about two legs crushing together on my fingers when I do so. As far as I know, RRS is one of few tripod manufacturers to use this design.
One great feature which I have not yet had to use is the ability to take apart and clean the tripod using next to no tools. Supposedly, if this tripod gets into sand or other grime, it is one of the easiest on the market to clean. To take apart a section, you just need to unscrew the rubber lock a few turns, and then the leg slides out completely. Rinse with water and a towel, and re-apply lubricant if you wiped some off. Then put the tripod back together! RRS has a guide online, and I would be completely willing to use this tripod in the sand knowing that I could easily clean it off again.
I also haven't yet replaced the feet of this tripod, but it's a relief to know that I have the option if I ever need to. I know that this is a standard among high-end tripods, but it's something that I hadn't experienced yet and find to be very comforting.
One of the single most amazing parts of this tripod is how easy it is to unlock the legs if I want to position them at a different angle. Instead of pushing down an awkwardly small and painful button as it is on most tripods, I just need to pull out a large piece of metal, like a switch, and the leg is unlocked. It snaps back into place on its own if I just tap it, which is absolutely brilliant.
Lastly, I applaud RRS for including a thread-locking product with the tripod, along with the proper hex keys to tighten the tripod's various joints. It just shows that they care that the customer can easily maintain the tripod's working condition, something that most tripod companies wouldn't even consider. In fact, I've heard stories that RRS works with their customers to the point of sending a replacement part for the tripod at no cost if something goes missing (like a screw or even a rubber foot).
There are two issues for me with this tripod, and they're both pretty insignificant. They're more like wishes for the TQC-14 Mark II than real issues, actually. The first is that I wish that the butterfly knob (the one-inch silver piece of metal between the head and the legs) could be removable with the quick column for those of us trying to save every bit of packing space. This is very minor because the tripod is pretty short as it is, but it definitely would be nice to lose another inch or so.
Second, I wish that the leg angles were slightly different. There are three angle settings on the TQC-14: the main angle at 25 degrees, the second angle at 55 degrees, and the third at 85 degrees. I like the first and the third angle settings, but I'd prefer that the second angle setting of 55 degrees were 45 degrees instead. The 55 degree setting is wide enough that, with all the legs extended, it has some bounce if a strong force is applied to the top. Also, as all you physics majors know, 45 degrees is theoretically the most stable angle for a brace, so it seems like RRS missed their opportunity by locking the legs at 55 degrees. Is this a big deal? Absolutely not. In fact, the 55 degree setting still seems a hair sturdier than the 25 degree setting in strong wind. Still, in a TQC-14 Mark II, it seems like 45 degrees is the way to go, unless I'm missing something that RRS has already figured out (a strong possibility, since I have no idea what background considerations went into the TQC-14's angles).
Despite the tripod's stability, it isn't a perfect platform in every condition. When all the leg sections are extended, you should try not to shoot in heavy wind. If the tripod is in a stream, it is possible that your photos will be blurry upon close inspection (although this improves if you have fewer leg sections extended). This is how I use the tripod:
I have not tested the stability of RRS's heavier tripods, so it is possible that they would be an improvement in these situations. If I didn't hike with my tripod so much, I would probably consider the RRS TVC-23 or TVC-24 for this very reason. However, as it is, I am glad that I got the lighter TQC-14. If it's super windy, I just know that I have to lower the tripod.
Honestly, I think that the vibration from wind is less dependent upon the weight of the tripod but rather on the proportion between height and weight. At three feet, that proportion is roughly 36 inches / 2.5 pounds, or about 15 inches to a pound. At four feet, that proportion becomes about 19 inches per pound. With the 3.2 pound TVC-24, that ratio is 11 inches to a pound at three feet, and about 15 inches to a pound at four feet. So, basically, the TVC-24 would be about as stable at four feet as the TQC-14 is at three feet. Is that worth about 3/4 of a pound to you? If you don't hike a lot, the answer is probably yes. However, I hike a lot, and I want a tripod that I will carry with me every place I go. In my case, the answer is a lot more iffy, but I certainly am not disappointed with my decision. I hike with my camera far more than I shoot in windy conditions, and even in windy conditions I can get perfectly sharp photos by lowering the camera.
If you travel by airplane and hike a lot, the TQC-14 is probably the best tripod you can find. If you travel a lot by airplane but you don't hike much, I'd suggest the TVC-24. If you travel more by car, then I recommend the TQC-23 or one of RRS's 3-series tripods (probably the TVC-33).
The TQC-14 is truly a traveler's dream tripod. I believe that it is impossible to find a more stable tripod at this weight, and I know that it's impossible to find a travel tripod which is built better than this.
RRS is one of the few companies which I believe is worth the value of buying a product new versus used from a third party. Not only is their customer service amazing, but I have heard that they silently tinker and improve the design of their tripods as time passes. If you want to know you have the most updated version, you have to buy direct. Also, no one even sells these tripods used in the first place because they are so low-volume and everyone loves them. When they do go for sale used, it's usually at about a $100 discount, which isn't worth it to me (not in the same way that an expensive lens or camera can sell for $500+ less used compared to a new one).
Whether or not I save enough money for a D800e before my Iceland trip, I'm going to be comfortable knowing that I can get the best quality possible from whatever camera I use. This tripod is light enough that I don't mind carrying it all day, and it's so well-made and nice-looking that I honestly enjoy carrying it. This means that I'll always have it with me. That could be the difference between a 1/60 second handheld shot at ISO 400 and f/5.6 (meaning it has very slight shutter blur, a small bit of grain, and less depth of focus than desirable), compared to a sturdy 1/4 second shot on the tripod at ISO 100 and f/11, which would be strong enough to print 24x36 inches without any optical issues. Having a good tripod at all times means that I can use my polarizing filter without worrying about lost light, and it means that I can focus stack photos to gain impossible depth of field when I need it.
As you can see with the photos in this article, I have been able to take the TQC-14 places where I would never take anything larger. I carried this around in a small backpack when I went to New York City, and as a result I got photos that would have been impossible without a tripod. If your tripod is too heavy to carry around all day in a big city, you're missing photo opportunities.
I haven't used the TQC-14 for long, and I'm breaking one of my own rules by publishing a review so early. Why, then, am I publishing it? Because the TQC-14 is that good. If you hike a lot with your tripod and you don't use a 300mm f/2.8 lens, there's arguably no better tripod in the world.