Vanguard Alta Pro 263 AT tripod

It often surprises me to see photographers with expensive cameras and lenses balanced on the most unsecure tripods. Your tripod should be sturdy and hold your kit safely and still. Spending somewhere between ten and twenty percent of the value of the kit you put on a tripod seems a reasoned investment.

I was asked by Vanguard if I would be interested to have a look at their Alta Pro 263AT tripod. I said yes and the tripod with an SBH 100 ball head was soon in my hands. I’ve used the tripod recently and thought to share my views here.

EOS-1D Mark IV with EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM on Vanguard Alta Pro 263 ATMy own reference points for tripods are a venerable (old) Manfrotto 055, a Carbon Fibre Gitzo G1128 Mk II and a simple inexpensive Calumet tripod similar to the Manfrotto 055. I use a range of ball heads, 3-way heads and even the odd video head on my tripods. The Vanguard came with their small ball head the SBH 100 claimed to hold up to 10kg.

Legs

The three section legs of the tripod allow it to reach an impressive height of 140cm before the centre column is raised, put the centre column up and you will reach the heights of 175cm but to be honest, I wouldn’t push it that far and I’d certainly not want to put an EOS 7D and the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens on it when fully extended, even though this is well within the 7kg weight loading of the tripod.

Each leg has a pair of quick release locks to allow the legs to be extended and locked in place. I needed to tighten a couple of the clips as they were loose on my test example though Vanguard provide a handy tool set to make such adjustments with the tripod. The tops of the legs have a foam padding on them which makes grabbing hold of a metal tripod in the winter weather outdoors a bit more comfortable. Each of the three legs can be splayed wider than the default, an easy to use button at the top of each leg allows the leg to move to one of three positions. Splaying out the legs will get the working height of the tripod right down to ground level. The legs feature a rubber foot that can be screwed in to reveal a spike that will ensure the tripod stays put outdoors, best not use it on a new wooden floor though. The whole assembly is finished in an atractive and tactile paint finish with a few items having orange styling details.

Multi-angle centre column

Macro photography with the centre column repositioned

Macro photography with the centre column repositioned

The extending centre column also rotates, but it’s party trick is that it extends all the way up then you can move it to a sideways angle, something that is often helpful when shooting macro at ground level. Of course if you have a lot of weight on the end of the column then the chance of tipping over is increased, and also the rigidity of the tripod is compromised too.

At the bottom of the centre column there is a spring loaded hook to allow you to hang your favourite camera bag from for extra stability – though I must say I rarely use this feature on any of my tripods that have it, as my camera bag is often over the weight limit of most tripods.

Using the centre column in the angled position results in plenty of whip and movement in the tripod and the camera on the end of it. The multi-angle column is one of the great features of the tripod if your camera & lens is lightweight, but becomes it’s weakest point even with the column in the straight up position as the camera and lens weight increases. Perhaps an unfair test, but with an EOS-1D Mark IV and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM the centre column shows movement even fully retracted. Switching to the significantly lighter EOS 7D and EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens and this is all but gone. The swinging joint that allows the tripod centre column to rotate has preset steps, I found that when the column was positioned in one of the preset steps there was some movement, the step or indent seems a little loose, however if you set the angle so it’s not at one of the presets it’s possible to get a more solid lock – strange but indeed works.

Fittings and fixtures

When I first unboxed the tripod I was concerned to see a small 1/4″ x 20 thread on the top of the centre column, most of my existing tripod heads have the larger 3/8″ x 20 thread. The Vanguard has a neat feature of a built-in adapter to convert to the larger size, and it’s somewhere that will make it always accessible – the top plate. In fact the supplied SBH 100 ball head also has the larger 3/8″ x 20 thread fitting, plus it also has the thread adapter so now I have two, just in case I lose one. All my existing heads and accessories fitted the tripod as hoped for.

SBH 100 ball head

SBH 100 ball head

SBH 100 ball head

I have an old and well used Manfrotto ball head the 368 RC2, the Vanguard head is smaller and lighter, has an additional knob that allows rotation of the complete head around the tripd legs, and a scale marked in degrees in case you might need it. On the top there’s a quick release plate, and a spare in the pack so you can be ready with two bodies or even one body and one longer lens. The ball head platform has two spirit levels set at 90 degrees to each other to enable you to level the head, though in practice this is not simple with ball heads. The main control to release the ball head is the large knob, I often found it hard to judge if the head was tight or loose enough to move and either found myself catching the camera or trying to move it all with the camera held rigid. The quick release plates are ok, but you need a key or coin to tighten them to the camera or lens. Fortunatley the quick release plates fit on the ball head in either direction and a small safety lock switch ensures that the camera and lens won’t slide off the ball head by mistake.

Summary

  • Good tripod for smaller cameras such as the EOS 600D up to an EOS 7D with smaller lenses
  • Light enough to carry most places, yet sturdy enough for stills. Video shoots with heavier heads, cameras, sound kit, matte boxes may take the total weight to be over the design limits
  • Useful multi-position centre column but take care with locking it in place, best used with minimal sideways extension to maintain stability and rigidity
  • Well thought out top plate to store the 1/4″ to 3/8″ adapter
  • Ball head comes with two quick release plates, though not the same as popular Manfrotto or Arca Swiss types
  • Nicely finished and attractively styled, includes carrying bag for the tripod & head

I’m not sure I would have bought the Vanguard on name alone, but having tried the tripod it is now one I would mention, like the Manfrotto 190, to photographers looking for a small compact tripod at a reasonable price.