Tripods get taken for granted. But the day you find your tripod has a loose leg or a wobbly head is the day you realize how essential a fully functional tripod really is. Here’s information on repairing common tripod troubles and instructions to help keep your tripod in good working order. A little bit of preventive maintenance will go a long way to ensuring that your tripod serves you well for many years.
Cleaning And Maintaining
Generally, if it isn’t exposed to the elements, you shouldn’t have to clean your tripod very often. But after working in certain circumstances, a thorough cleaning is a must. For instance, if you work in particularly dirty or sandy conditions, or if your tripod is exposed to water—particularly saltwater—it’s best to clean the legs well before collapsing the tripod. If the tripod is immersed in mud, sand or water of any sort, then after your shoot you’ll need to disassemble the tripod and clean it completely.
Most screw-type tripod legs simply unscrew so that each section can be removed from the section above it. Tripods that use latches may require removing a bolt or screw in order to remove the joint and the leg section inside it. Manfrotto actually includes a plastic nut driver that doubles as a cable manager and snaps onto tripod legs. One opening on the little device is sized perfectly to act as a wrench for the small nuts and bolts that hold joint connectors tight.
On every tripod there are typically plastic shims or sleeves at the end of each leg section, so when taking apart legs don’t forget to take pictures of how the shims may be positioned so that you can put them back correctly during reassembly. Once dismantled, clean any dirt, debris or saltwater off of the tripod elements using clean, filtered water to minimize contaminants along with a cloth, sponge or soft bristled brush. Then, rinse clean and dry with a cloth and allow the tripod to thoroughly air dry prior to reassembly.
To follow your tripod manufacturer’s rules, try not to carry the extended tripod with a load (i.e., the mounted camera) over your shoulder. This stress could warp or damage the tripod and its sensitive joints. Also, don’t leave the tripod in your trunk for long periods of time in hot or cold weather, as the temperature extremes aren’t good for the lubricants that keep your tripod working smoothly.
Fixes And Repairs
If your screw-type tripod leg locks are sticky and don’t turn easily, they likely need to be cleaned and lubricated. Unscrew the locks completely and use a clean, dry cloth or stiff plastic or natural-bristled brush to remove any sand, dirt or old grease from the threads that prevents smooth twisting.
If the threads need cleaning, use clean filtered or bottled water and a soft-bristle brush to remove any contaminants from the threads. It’s imperative to be sure all of the components are completely dry before reassembly in order to prevent mold and corrosion.
Next, using a high-quality silicone lubricant (such as Napa Sil Glyde, which is durable and long lasting), apply a small amount to the first few threads on each leg. When the joint is reassembled, the lubricant will be spread to the remaining threads. This should allow the smooth operation of the twist-to-lock joints.
If the tripod head is wobbling on its connection to the legs, sometimes it’s an indicator that the head has spun loose on the large bolt that connects it to the tripod. Often there’s a setscrew accessible from below the tripod center column that can come loose and allow the tripod head to come loose. Start by tightening that small, countersunk setscrew. Another option for this kind of wobbly head is to ensure that you’ve cleaned the hinges that connect the legs to the spider—that’s the central piece that the legs connect to and through which the center post slides, or directly to which the head is mounted. On my tripod, the hinges are barrel type—a thin steel tube that rotates, thanks to lubrication, inside the joint. The legs screw into that rotating barrel, and when the lubrication dries up, wears out or gets contaminated by dirt or moisture, you’ll definitely know it’s time to disassemble and clean the joints.
I recently had to repair my tripod when the legs became very loose and no amount of tightening of the bolts that connect the legs to the hinge would help. It turned out that over time and wear and exposure to enough heat (like when leaving the tripod in the trunk of the car on a hot day, for instance), the grease that lubricates the barrel joints had completely dried up. What once rotated freely to smoothly spread the tripod legs now was stuck tight—so tight, in fact, that when I removed the leg bolts I had to hammer the cylinders out of the hinge. Once out, clean any old grease from the hinge using a solvent such as naphtha. I used a very fine sandpaper to smooth away any particularly stuck areas from the cylinders and the brass washers adjacent to them.
Newly clean, and long after everything had dried, I lubricated the barrel joints with the Sil Glyde silicone lubricant and reassembled the tripod. While maybe not literally “good as new,” the tripod’s movement was vastly improved. Had the hinges not been repairable, new parts can be ordered from helpful manufacturers for a nominal charge.
While the elements that go into tripods are fairly simple and straightforward, they’re still finely tuned instruments that take a little forethought to maintain in good working order. With a bit of care, you can extend the life of your tripod indefinitely.