Review: Really Right Stuff TVC-33S Versa Series Tripod and BH-55 LR Ballhead Package

Posted: March 2, 2013 in Reviews

Headquartered in San Luis Obispo, California, Really Right Stuff (RRS) has been bringing top quality gear to the photography world for over two decades.  Originally formed with the singular mission of building the best quick release plate available, Really Right Stuff has taken what they have learned over the years and currently offer some of the best camera support solutions that money can buy.  Their extensive list of products includes quick release clamps, camera L-plates, lens plates, Safari gear, ballheads, mobile cases, mobile clamps, mobile mounts, and, of course, tripods.  Designed, manufactured, and shipped from the USA, Really Right Stuff has demonstrated a steadfast devotion to quality and top-shelf innovation and that ethos is readily apparent even with the most cursory of examinations of their products.

Like many photographers, I enjoy the hardware side of the profession almost as much as the photography side and I recently found myself in the market for a new tripod and mounting system.  While there was nothing wrong with my previous tripod and BH-100 pistol grip ballhead from Vanguard, it was clear that with the recent upgrade to the Nikon D800 coupled with a MB-D12 battery pack and the stout Nikkor 14-24 mm wide angle lens I was pushing the limits of stability and one thing you don’t want to be doing in the field is pushing stability and support limits with several thousand dollars worth of gear hanging in the balance, so the search for a replacement began…

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I always begin my searches with a bit of prowling around, usually on Facebook and, of course, the always amazing Google search engine.  It’s one thing to see a beautifully created magazine advertisement proclaiming the amazingness of a product but it’s quite another to read the thoughts of others who are actually using the product—if the interwebs are good for anything, they are good for the sort of truth that anonymity can bring! But care is in order as there is always an element of noise to be found on the webs, one disgruntled customer does not, necessarily, represent the entirety of a companies product line, or service, therefore it is always wise to shake a bit of salt around.  Also wise is to take a look at what other photographers are using and that is usually what the second phase of my prowling around involves, what are real life photographers using, and why are they using it?

Having narrowed the choices down somewhat, I noticed that one of my favorite photographers, John McCormick of Michigan Nut Photography, had recently purchased the Induro Alloy AT Series AT413, an aluminum tripod with some impressive specifications.  John is no stranger to photography or photography gear and it didn’t take me long before I had one of the 413’s in my living room.  Large, built like a Sherman tank, and stable as a rock, the Induro was more than impressive and the price was right—tipping the monetary scale at just over 200.00 USD, it easily fit into the budget.  Now, some of you may be saying “Hey, bub, wait a minute, two hundred bucks??  That sounds a bit cheap…” Cheap is right—as far as price goes, but it is important to keep in mind that aluminum is significantly less expensive to work with than carbon fiber.  Long story short—the Induro AT 413 is easily one of the most stable and well built tripods manufactured today and I have nothing but high praise for it.

Ultimately I chose to return it as that rock solid stability came at a different kind of price—weight.  At just over seven pounds without the ball head, the Induro was a bit much for me to lug around given that I weigh about 98 pounds covered in ice. Seven pounds may not sound like much, but when you are hiking around the Northern Michigan countryside through multiple feet of snow or inches of friction free ice coat, every ounce counts.  So, with a bit of reluctance, I packed it up and sent it back.  Again, I re-iterate—the Induro was one hell of a sturdy tripod that more than got the job done.

More prowling.  I went to the photography world once again and noticed that another incredibly talented photographer, Elia Locardi of BlameTheMonkey.Com, was using a tripod and ball head that was on my list of possible choices.  If you haven’t seen his work, do yourself a favor and check it out—truly, Elia is a world class travel and destination photographer and his work is nothing short of spectacular.  In most cases, photographers at this level are in the field worrying about one thing—the image.  In other words, their gear is the last thing on their minds—they know it works.  And what was Elia using in the particular shot where I saw his tripod and mounting solution?  A Really Right Stuff tripod and BH-55 ballhead, that’s what.  My list had suddenly gotten a lot shorter and the next phase of research began, narrowing down what, exactly, I needed for the ultimate support solution that I could depend on completely while in the field.

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A quick look at their web page and my head was spinning—there must have been eleventy million choices and combinations and models and…and…and…make it stop!  Being a man, I won’t stop and ask for driving directions—I have a GPS for that—but being a photographer I have learned that it is often necessary to practice healthy doses of humility and I figured this was a perfect time for some more practice.  Listing some vital statistics—my height, and what it was exactly I needed stabilized (In camera terms!), I fired off an email to the support staff at Really Right Stuff and before I knew it Brady and Spencer had given me all the information I needed to make the right choice for my particular camera support situation.

The Really Right Choice, so to speak.

Ultimately, I settled on the TVC-33S and BH-55 LR package deal which included the TVC-33S tripod, BH-55 ball head, B2-AS-II lever release plate mount, a hex head screw, several hex-key wrenches, and dust bags for both the ball head and tripod.  On the camera side of things, I went with the L-plate and basic plate for the Nikon D800 with the MB-D12 battery grip.  To round out the deal, I also ordered three spiked replacement feet for the tripod.  Really Right Stuff offers spiked feet for shifting terrain—perfect for sand, soil, and snow—and sharper claw feet, perfect for those rocky placement situations.

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During the ordering phase of the operation there was a bit of drama and while I don’t mind a bit of drama now and then, when I am holding my bank card in front of a computer displaying a web page designed to take money from my bank account, well, the less drama the better.  Again, practicing some of the humility I spoke of earlier, I refrained from the urge to keep pressing the ‘Process Order’ button multiple times and, instead, sent another email to Really Right Stuff.  Soon after, Mike not only had the problem sorted out, he made sure that the order was properly placed and before I knew it the gear was on the way.  Hats Off to the staff at Really Right Stuff, when the service is this good without a dime being exchanged, odds are the rest of the experience is going to be a good one.

The kit arrived in two days in perfect order and the process of unpacking, examination, and familiarization was initiated.  I was immediately impressed with the quality and construction of the tripod, ball head, and lever release mount.  Actually, impressed is an understatement—flabbergasted would be more like it.  Clearly, Really Right Stuff has been doing this for a while and the quality and craftsmanship is as good as any I have ever seen in the camera gear world.  Directly from their web page, here are the package specs:

Carbon Fiber tripod with 3 leg sections per leg

Tripod Load Rating = 50lbs / 23kg

Ballhead Load Rating = 50lbs / 23kg

Tripod Weight = 4lbs / 2.0g

Ballhead Weight = 1.9lb / 861g

Package Weight of Tripod & Ballhead = 5.9lbs / 2.7kg

Tripod Maximum Height = 49.75-inches / 126cm

Tripod Minimum Height = 4-inches / 10cm

Package Height of Tripod + Ballhead = 53.35-inches / 135cm

Tripod Folded Length = 23.0-inches / 66cm

Package Folded Length of Tripod + Ballhead = 26.6-inches / 78cm

Bulls eye Spirit Level = 12mm diameter

Top Tube Diameter = 1.44 inches / 37 mm

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What the specs don’t show is another impressive aspect—how nice it all looked.  The carbon fiber has a beautiful diamond pattern to it and the subdued silver and black of the tripod and control knobs makes for a very eye pleasing package.  True, how it looks means nothing when it comes to how it performs, but this gear can sit in the middle of my living room any time!

Ballhead and Mounting Plate

The BH-55 ballhead features three control knobs and a massive 55 mm ball.  One knob controls the drag on the ball, that is, when you loosen the main lock knob to recompose the camera you can set the drag to hold the camera in place until you decide to move it, or allow it to move as soon as tension is released.  Personally, I like to have one hand on the camera when the main tension is relaxed so I have the drag knob set rather light to allow for quick movement.  There is also a pan lock knob, adjusting this allows for a panning motion of the entire assembly, just the thing for sliding the composition in the horizontal plane without vertical movement, a handy feature for those panorama image acquisitions. In addition, there are laser engraved degree markings on the ball head base so you can keep track of camera rotation.

Dual drop notches in the head assembly, spaced 90 degrees apart from each other, allow for tilting the camera to vertical or steep upward and downward composures.

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The body is CNC machined and serves as both the structure and clamping mechanism of the ballhead.  Due to the large size of the ballhead and the precise construction of the ballhead body, it doesn’t take much effort of the main lock knob to set the camera to a non-moving state.  And by non-moving, I mean non-moving—not so much as a millimeter of motion was detected after setting the lock knob.  In the past, I have used ballheads of lesser quality and while they ultimately kept the camera relatively motionless, it was often the case that I would compose the shot, tighten the lock knob, and then recheck the composure as the camera would drop, noticeably, to its equilibrium position after the locking knob was set.  With the Really Right Stuff mechanism, once set, it’s set.  And it doesn’t take much effort to achieve this, no doubt the massive surface area of the ballhead contributes to the ultra stable situation after locking.  Extremely well done and very confidence inspiring.

The lever release mounting plate is also a pleasure to use.  Featuring two settings, one allows you to slide the camera plate in from the side and the other fully open setting of the lever allows you to place the camera on the plate from the top.  Slide the lever to the closed position and forget about it—the camera is about as secure as you could possibly want.  Further testament to the outstanding craftsmanship and quality Really Right Stuff has put into their gear.

The Tripod

Labeling the TVC-33S as ‘feature rich’ may sound a bit pretentious—hey, it’s a tripod, it’s got three legs, what’s the big deal?  Normally, I would agree, if it can hold the gear without collapsing or flying away in high wind, mission accomplished.  However, the TVC-33S has a couple of features that bear closer examination.  First, and quite possibly the most important, it has what is known as the Suregrip ™ Apex Lock.  Concerning the equipment mounting area of the tripod, that is, ‘the top’, the Apex Lock is of solid aluminum construction surrounded by a stainless steel locking ring that is mechanically locked into place with three set screws.  What does this mean, exactly?  Well, put it this way—you can carry your tripod over your shoulder, with gear attached, and be confident that when you bring the tripod back over the shoulder to setup for the next shot…the gear will still be attached.  That’s sort of important, and Really Right Stuff, through innovation and engineering, has taken an innovative step here.  I certainly have carried camera’s on the tripod, over the shoulder, and have yet to have one yank out the center mount but it is not an unheard of occurrence and to see it being addressed in this manner by a manufacturer lets us know that Really Right Stuff not only cares about sales and making a profit, they care about the end user and their gear.  Stuff like that will keep you in business.  Once again, Hats Off.

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The V means Versa, and by Versa they mean that, if you wish, you can replace the top center mounting base with a mount that includes a center column or a leveling base, for example.  Personally,  I doubt I will find a use for a center column or leveling base as the tripod height when fully extended is right around perfect and my need of a leveling base, at this time, is non existent, but once again we see the innovation at work here in terms of future proofing the product by way of providing additional functionality should one choose it.

Further neat stuff found on the TVC-33S are the offset leg joint and ratcheting angle stop construction.  The offset leg joints allow for the tripod load to be distributed through the strongest points while at the same time providing for the ultimate in vibration reduction.  The ratcheting angle stops ensure that when the tripod legs are placed in position that they are fully seated in a quick and efficient manner.  Your non-pinched fingers will thank you!

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Last but certainly not least…low!  I really enjoy acquiring images from a low perspective and the TVC-33S, with ballhead (without center column or leveling base) gets low, real low.

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In the Field

The fact is, a lot of things look good on paper but when it comes time to put those things to their intended use, well, we may go back to that piece of paper and scratch our heads as we try to figure out what went wrong.  I think it is quite clear that the Really Right Stuff TVC-33S tripod and BH-55 ballhead look great on paper, but how will they perform in the field?  And not just any field, but an icy cold, harsh, and unforgiving Northern Michigan Winter field…

As some of you know, I’m a big fan of the Northern Lights and when the alarms and alerts go off more likely than not I’m in the car and on the hunt for the perfect photo op with a sky full of Northern Lights beauty.  And, as luck would have it, last night was just such a night, and, as an added bonus, the sky was clear, always a good thing when looking for something beyond the clouds.  I bundled up and left the house under clear skies and a bitter cold temperature in the 12 F range.  But no wind to speak of.  In other words, if the lights were out, conditions were perfect to see them.  The moon wasn’t due up for several hours so I loaded up my trusty Subaru Impreza and made my way to one of my favorite spots along the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, that being Good Harbor Bay.

Arriving at my destination I was a bit startled as there was some sort of howling going on outside of the car and the car was moving around a bit.  Oh, I thought, that would be the wind.  It picks up a bit near the big water.  I didn’t have my anemometer handy but I would estimate the wind velocity at between 300 and 700 miles per hour, give or take.  On the plus side, it was warmer near the lake, a pleasantly balmy 25 degrees F.  With the wind chill factored in that balmy 25 no doubt would have felt more like –385 and as I listened to that wind howling, I thought to myself that it might be a good idea to write a review about how amazingly well the Really Right Stuff gear transports from site to site in the car.  The very warm car.

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After a bit of time passed I ‘manned up’ and exited the vehicle and cautiously made my way across the iced up parking lot to the crunchy snow of the beach, facing full on a bitter wind that was fierce, and constant.  I setup the tripod and just to make sure of some extra stability, I extended one of the legs at a shallower angle than the other two, putting to test the offset leg joints right off the bat.  Next up was mounting the camera, and harsh wind or not it was a snap as I set it in the plate, locked the lever, and powered it up.  So far so good.  At this particular time, the Northern Lights were nowhere to be found so I took the opportunity to grab a few long exposure images of the bay and practice holding the camera strap in the gale force winds without tipping everything over.  I changed the composition a few times, made easy by the large main lock knob and once locked it was locked—just like in the comfort of the living room, the frigid cold had no effect on performance.

It wasn’t long and I had had enough.  I couldn’t feel my fingers or my face and I carefully made my way back to the car to warm up and then head back home, extremely satisfied with the support gear but not impressed at all with my will (or lack of it!) to endure the frigid cold.  In the comfort of the warming car, I took a few quick and dirty handheld shots and, sure enough, saw hints of the Northern Lights on the LCD display and, perhaps a bit reluctantly, left the comfort of the car once again.

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I decided to stay off the beach this time in hopes of just a bit of relief from the harsh winds but that meant I had to setup the gear on the iced over parking lot.  First things first, I setup the tripod then came back to the car for the camera, mounted it, and began taking more exposures.  I have to be honest, I was a bit worried that the wind was going to play havoc with the tripod on the ice—I hadn’t installed the spiked feet yet—but I was able to find a relatively stable location but it was still slick.  I had nothing to worry about, the only thing moving out there was me as I carefully grabbed the camera strap during each exposure to help eliminate any vibration induced blurriness by the action of the wind on the strap.  The lights were there, but barely.  Low on the horizon and not strong as far as intensity was concerned, I nevertheless quickly stopped worrying about two things—my gear, and my gear falling to the ground in a mass of collapsed tripod assembly.

The Really Right Stuff really was the right stuff.

Finally, I packed the gear and sat in the car for awhile until I got enough feeling in my hands to enable safe driving and made the twenty mile drive back to headquarters, extremely satisfied and confident that my latest gear purchase was the right one.

In closing, I strongly and highly recommend the offerings of Really Right Stuff.  Customer service, innovation, construction, quality, and, most importantly, performance and ease of use in the field far and above expectations lead me to one conclusion—Really Right Stuff deserves to be included on any ‘must have’ photography gear list one may choose to compile.

*****

The author wishes to thank Brady, Spencer,  Mike, and the rest of the fine folks at Really Right Stuff for their immediate, thorough, and complete customer service—well done, it’s nice to see that sort of thing is still around.

Bob Simmerman

Across the street from Bronson Lake

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Comments
  1. Boon says:

    Good day Bob! My name is Boon and I’m from Singapore. I say this rewiew of the TVC-33S is so clear & detailed that it certainly made my decision easier! But before I take the plunge, I would like to check if there is a set screw near the 3/8″ mount on top of the plate? (I know that there are 3 set screws on the side to secure the plate). The 2nd picture indeed shows a set screw beside the 3-8″ mount, I just need to confirm it as I thought this is a great safety feature to have. Greatly appreciate if you can clear my doubt… Boon

    • bobsimmerman says:

      Hi Boon!

      Thank you for reading the review and I am glad you liked it! The TVC-33S uses a mechanical locking ring system to ensure an absolute solid mount for the ballhead and the camera. The three set screws provide for this grip, and this information from the RRS web page gives a good diagram of how this mechanical ring system is constructed. The threaded hole next to the 3/8 ” mount is not used for securing the tripod head, but I can confirm that this mount setup easily and with a lot of confidence holds my Nikon D800 and a 14-24 mm lens even while transporting level to the ground. I am not sure what the threaded hole is for, it may be for an accessory setup of some sort.

      http://reallyrightstuff.com/ProductDesc.aspx?code=TVC-33S&type=4&eq=&desc=TVC-33S-Versa-Series-3-Tripod

      I have been using the tripod for a few months now and it has performed flawlessly in all situations and conditions from frigid cold to blazing heat, it is a very fine piece of kit.

      • Boon says:

        Hi Bob, really appreciate your time taken to reply my query. I think you’ve made my choice a little easier… The TVC-33S and BH-55 LR should be on it’s way to Singapore soon. I’m also a D800 user and absolutely love the camera. 3 cheers to you Bob!

  2. bobsimmerman says:

    Hi Boon,

    I am sure you will be happy with the tripod and ballhead, top shelf all the way! Let me know how it works out!

    Bob

  3. Bob,

    I’ve been drooling over one of these bad boys for over a year now, your review has helped solidify the decision to go for this over a Gitzo/BH-55 combo. Thanks!

  4. Rohan says:

    Hi Bob,

    Thank you for this great review. I am 5′ 5″ myself and from the information on the RRS website, http://reallyrightstuff.com/mmrrs/Images/library/versausers/ImageGrid.html it looks like the TVC-33S + BH-55 is the right combo for me.

    But a lot of folks suggest I get a taller tripod such as the TVC-33 for my height. I understand that the extra height is useful when on a slope but for everyday use on flat surfaces, I will have to stand on a thick book or two to get my eye to the view finder. what are your thoughts about this?

    Thanks!
    Rohan

    • bobsimmerman says:

      Hi Rohan,

      I am about 5′ 7″ and I find the TVC 33S to be perfect, perhaps even a smidge too tall, when fully extended and I am trying to see through the viewfinder! If I am using live view then it is just about perfect when fully extended. I have had quite a few people say the same thing to me–get a tripod that will be tall enough so if you are looking when it is fully extended then you wont have to bend over to see through the viewfinder. Keep in mind, the BH-55 ballhead adds a few inches to the tripod height when mounted.

      Sometimes, I do use the tripod fully extended and standing on the ground with boots on, it is easy for me to see through the viewfinder. I use the metal spiked feet for sand and those sink into the ground quite a bit so the overall height of the tripod is shorter. Other times, I use the regular rubber feet on flat ground and the tripod is higher. I also do a lot of shooting with the tripod very low to the ground and have to kneel down or sometimes lay on the ground to compose the shot so for me I’m not looking for a tripod that is perfectly eye level and, as you said, if I am on a slope the tripod is very low to the ground where the camera mounts.

      Also keep in mind–the camera mounting plate will add some height and if you are using a battery pack there is even more height!

      Personally, I think the TVC-33 would have been too tall for me in certain situations so I went with the TVC-33S and don’t regret it one bit. Sure, if you are going to be taking most of your shots from the same, fully extended tripod height–such as portrait works–then you definitely don’t want to be bending over or standing on tip toes to work the camera. On the other hand, if you are going to use the tripod in all sorts of locations and situations like rocks, slopes, beaches, grasses, etc. then, in my opinion, the ‘perfect height’ is not as important.

      Before I ordered my equipment, I sent the folks at RRS an email and told them of my height and what I was going to be using the gear for and they recommended the TVC-33S so I went with that. I made sure to practice using it in my house with all the gear just in case it was too tall or too short. Ask them if the tripod is too tall or short for you if you can return it, for example. However, given your height, I bet the TVC-33S will be the best one for you.

      Thank you for taking the time to read the review and happy shooting!!

      Bob

      • Rohan says:

        Dan,

        You are correct. I mounted my D800 on my $50 tripod and extended it to match the height of the TVC-33 + BH-55 combo and also the TVC-33S + BH-55 combo. The TVC-33 is ridiculously tall for me while the TVC-33S combo is the right height.

        Can one use the RRS tripods without the legs fully extended. That’s the only way I see myself using a TVC-33.

        Thank you for taking the time to reply. I really appreciate that.

        Rohan

  5. RRS Fan says:

    I just purchased the TVC-33 with TA-3-QC and BH-55 PC-LR plus some (not cheap). I am around 5ˊ7”+ and an inch taller with shoes (thats 68”+)so i think the 33 is better because i have the option to go full height at 72” + or 6′ inclusive of the head and camera vs 33s max is around 58” with ballhead and camera (thats less than 5′). I prefer standing straight while taking photos.

  6. Marshall says:

    Hi Bob,

    I just emailed you to ask about the Lucroit system and then I saw your review of the TVC-33 and BH-55. It is funny that I went through the same process, also learning of this great product from Elia and his “behind the scene” pics (they should give that guy free gear!).

    I have ordered the same set up and am patiently waiting for the delivery. You write a great review and reading about your process helps remind me (and my wife!) that I am not alone in doing throughout research (what my wife likes to call “obsession”) before taking the plunge!

    Let me know when you have a minute to comment on the Lecroit gear. Thanks again!

    Marshall

    • bobsimmerman says:

      Hi Marshall,

      Thank you for the kind words, I appreciate them! I am sure you will be happy with the Really Right Stuff gear, I’ve been using it for about a year now and have zero complaints. Well worth the money spent and I am looking forward to years of use!

      Happy Shooting and let me know how the gear works for you!

      Bob

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