Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Perhaps all tripods are vaguely annoying.
The Long Version: It's hard to miss: Berlebach tripods are made out of wood. Well-seasoned ash hardwood, to be precise, stylishly accessorized with black hardware. They have a look to them that speaks of tradition and perhaps a little willful stubbornness. When I went shopping for a tripod to put under a monster medium-format film camera, it seemed like a good fit.
Choosing wood came easily. I swore I'd never buy another metal tripod after I used one in the winter, but the price of a carbon tripod that's sturdy enough for a ten-pound SLR - my beloved Fujifilm GX680III - would have me living in a tent. Wood is strong and resists vibrations very well, so after a lot of thought, the Berlebach Report 3032 came home with me from New York. And yes, I declared it, and it just happened that the customs agent was a photographer as well. Air travel really has made the world a smaller place.
Many Berlebach tripods have a built-in levelling ball with thirty degrees of travel; for a camera with a rotating back or a lens with a tripod collar, that's likely to be plenty of movement. The 3032 has a spring-loaded camera mounting screw instead of a centre column, and has only two leg sections, making it very long even when collapsed. I've given up a lot of convenience in exchange for strength by picking this particular model; there are other models that are less extreme and/or more practical. But where's the fun in that?
The 3032 is rated for twelve kilograms and weighs about seven pounds, which is almost twice the weight of the Gitzo carbon legs and ballhead that can handle the same load for four times the price. The aluminum Manfrotto 028 'triman' leg set, which is about the same bulk as the 3032 but with a geared centre column, weighs a kilo more and has the same carrying capacity. Every tripod offers its own set of compromises, making direct comparisons difficult, but as a material wood needs no excuses.
The levelling ball and easy-attach base were two of the features that most appealed to me about the 3032. But alas, not everything has worked out the way I hoped it would. While the levelling ball is strong and works very well, I have never particularly liked ball heads. I was hoping this one would win me over, but I constantly miss my Manfrotto 410 head with its ultra-fine gear-driven adjustments. Attaching the camera directly to the tripod without a quick release is very secure, and the spring-loaded tripod screw does make it very easy to attach a lightweight camera and lens - like a D700 and 105VR - but it just runs and hides when I try to finesse my ten-pound rollfilm SLR onto it. There are clearly some compromises in my future: either I'll need to relearn how I use a tripod or change how this tripod works. Most people, especially those without my love of complicated solutions to simple problems, will probably be quite happy with the tripod right out of the box.
My favourite tripod leg-lock design is Gitzo's excellent twist mechanism, which is fast and easy to secure. The best thing about them is that, unlike the cams of flip-locks, they're self-correcting: when they're tightened, they're tight. The screw-lock legs on the Berlebach are slower to use, but also give a positive lock and are perfectly suited to the material. If the wood expands or contracts, it just needs a few turns more or less to compensate. And the speed that I lose to the knobs is easily regained by having ruler-like indices on the legs to help set them all to the same length. I don't know why this isn't mandatory for all tripods.
The feet for the Berlebach are a hard plastic that screw down over spikes; the platforms on the metal end caps are to help drive the spikes into the ground. The hard plastic feet are excellent on concrete, but are too slippery to use on smooth surfaces. There's also no detent or locking screw that will hold the plastic feet down over the spikes, so hardwood flooring is a bad surface for a couple of good reasons. My little basalt Gitzo 1930 was clobbered by the Berlebach when I trialled them outdoors in strong winds, but the stability situation is reversed indoors in the classic camera-store press-and-wiggle test. Having to add industrial carpet to my studio isn't exactly what I had planned when I wanted to get the sturdiest tripod that not a lot of money could buy.
Another interesting quirk with my 3032 is that the leg pivots have very little friction. I usually carry my tripods by only one leg, but doing that with the Berlebach results in it unfolding itself. I've solved that problem by wrapping a strap around its ankles; it's a reflective one that I have for my bike, and is clearly visible in the lead photo. Ultimately it's not that big of a deal: it's just one more little thing to keep track of, which is part of the fun of photography. Because of the length, weight, and bulk of the wooden tripod, I'll use a tripod bag with handles and a shoulder strap when I need to transport the Berlebach any significant distance.
The leg locks on the Berlebach have three positions: roughly 20 degrees, 45 degrees, and 'off'. Theoretically the spikes or feet can be used to set the legs at any angle, but in practice I wouldn't want to put that much faith in them at anything lower than the (lockable) 45 degree setting. That gives the 3032 an effective minimum height of just over two feet, so there's no low-level benefit from not having a centre column. The tripod legs can also pivot beyond 90 degrees - except for the one that's blocked by the tension knob for the levelling ball - so the 3032 won't even provide a stable support when it's completely splayed out on the ground. Not that any of my tripods that lock at eighty degrees are worth anything in that position - there's far too much spring in the legs for that. But they don't claim that they have a minimum height of 3.5", which might be technically true for the 3032, but it certainly isn't useful.
There's a small subset of photographers who are genuinely "Tripod People", but I've never been one of them. I find them all - tripods - vaguely annoying and rarely worth their inherent inconvenience. By that standard the Berlebach compares quite favourably: somewhat annoying, physically and photographically inconvenient, but also tremendously strong, relatively inexpensive, and not metal. It does exactly what I bought it for, should last for decades, and has caused more conversations with complete strangers than any other tripod I own. Despite the way this review consists of little more than complaints strung together with stilted prose, I can recommend a Berlebach tripod to anyone who's looking for their combination of features and price. Just be aware that it behaves a little differently from the other tripods out there, and has its own learning curve. I can't say that I've become best friends with mine, but we're working it out.
updated two years and nine months later: One of the biggest nuisances about the 3032 is that its plastic feet are too slippery to grip properly on hardwood floors – they just skate along on any smooth surface. Today I fixed that with a $3 roll of hockey tape. Now the tripod is rock solid and is vastly more useful.
For non-Canadians: hockey tape is adhesive fabric tape that wraps around the blade of the hockey stick. It's designed to grab the puck, so its surface is both durable and grippy, and not at all bouncy the way shock-absorbing tape for a hand grip would be. I haven't yet seen how it will hold up on concrete, but ultimately it doesn't matter. A lifetime supply of tape costs about three bucks. They even make it in different colours.
For Canadians: hockey isn't our national sport. Get over it.
last updated 5 aug 2012