Tripods: Opinion and Review

The interesting thing about tripods is that while we know we need ’em, we really don’t want them. They aren’t sexy like a big lens, don’t make macho noises like a camera on full drive, they are a pain to carry and set up, plus there are often restrictions on their use. The really bad news is that for a tremendous amount of photography, you simple can’t live without a tripod.

Over the years, I’ve bought numerous tripods. I think all photographers go through this process, even when we’re advised not to by older, wiser heads. Let me walk you through my experience and reasoning and see if it strikes a chord…….

More after the jump…….

I’ll skip the total junk I used long ago and start in the mid 90’s. My first “serious” tripod was a Benbo Trekker. I bought this as I though it had tremendous flexibility (which it does) and the salesman convinced me it was a perfect fit with my Nikon F50. I bought it with a clunky pan and tilt head and used it, laboriously, on rare occasions that I thought it was worth dragging out. There are three big problems with this set of legs. The first is that it is a total production to set up and tear down. Having a single pivot point for the “center column” and legs is horrendous. If you want to adjust one leg, you have to unlock the whole rig and it tries to collapse with a malice of a small boy. Problem number two is that because the “center column” is offset relative to the center of gravity, it isn’t a stable platform. Vibration of this thing is a pain to counter, forcing you to limit what you try to do with it. The third drawback is that it’s 2 leg sections. That means it just doesn’t collapse very far and that kills it in terms of portability. There are lots of other problems with this set of legs, but it was a learning experience.

Next set I got was much more like it. a ’97 vintage set of Manfrotto legs. These were the 190NAT legs and they were, and are, very good. Aluminium tubes with lever locks, 4 section legs with retractable spikes. I eventually used it with a Giotto ballhead that I got off ebay and this set up is probably the best all round support system. Great value for money and a competent all-round set. This is it’s strength, but also it’s weakness. These legs are a jack of all trades, master of non. Too light for long lens work, too heavy for travel (particularly in these days of stringent weight limits). Great for occasional use though.

After a trip to McNeil River in Alaska with those legs and an Acratechballhead, I got serious about my legs. Christmas delivered a set of Gitzo legs – the 3541LS. Mounting the GV2 ballhead on these and it’s like bolting your camera to a mountain. They are light for their size, complements of carbon fiber, and the vibration dampening is superb. Fantastic for long lens work and where I want the camera held perfectly still in macro work. I love these and might have to have them with me in my coffin. Two drawbacks with them. They are expensive and they are fairly big. If you’re heading to Africa on a photo safari, not a problem. They’re portable on a pack. but when it comes to travel photography they are just too big.

For that trip to McNeil, I bought my wife a set of Giotto Basalt legs. These were better suited to the conditions and held a 200-400mm with ease on a Giotto MH-1000 head. The only issue is that the foot of one leg was lost in the wilderness and it seems very difficult to get a replacement. Quality is good for the price and while the same weight as my old Manfrotto set, they are taller. Basically, a good jack of all trades, or compromise set.

A trip to the Tuscan region of Italy prompted a new set of legs. I finally admitted that the Gitzo legs were too big for the style of shooting I now indulge in. I couldn’t justify the cost of a Gitzo Traveller set, or the very interesting Giotto Vitruvian set in carbon fiber, so I found a much less expensive set of carbon legs in traveller format from Roberts Camera, the GT-228. This seems to be a store brand, with carbon legs and an aluminium center column. Retractable spikes and a built in level, plus a bag hook complete the feature set. They don’t extend very high, but with short lenses (to 200mm) they work well. Fairly robust, except the bag hook on the center column kept unscrewing itself and finally broke. Not as small as i’d like, but did a good job on my last trip, packed in duffel for plane rides and broken out and strapped on my ThinkTank streetwalker hard drive bag when needed.

Am I happy with what I have? Errr… I still would rather have a set of Gitzo 1541 traveller legs, or the Giotto Vitruvian CF set. What I have is a low cost compromise, but I make it work. The other legs mentioned are lighter, pack smaller, better quality. One christmas, maybe Santa wil take pity on me.

Of course, sometimes we make a mistake. I was going to Dubai and didn’t take any tripod with me as I was going to be on my own and it was a short trip. At the last minute my wife came with me and she thought I brought a tripod, so didn’t pack one. So we’re in Dubai, and not a set of legs between us! We ended up in Dubai Mall and found a camera store selling small lightweight aluminum Benro sets with a mini ballhead. These are actually a pretty good set of legs, although I hate the head. So that’s the latest addition to our family of tripods and brings the count to 6. OK, so 2 of those are my wife’s, so I “only” have 4.

The moral of this story is that you need the right tools for the job. If you are shooting with big long lenses, it’s going to cost. You can go my route and buy compromises, but sooner or later, if you are serious about your work, you’ll end up with Gitzo legs. Those legs are expensive, particularly when you buy 2 or 3 other sets on the way there. If you need a lightweight set of legs for portability and short lens work, sooner or later you will be jonesing for a set of 1541 legs. You just can’t beat Gitzo legs for quality and fit for purpose utility. On the other hand, don’t waste money on Gitzo ballheads, there are much better solutions than those and I’ll write about heads and quick release plates soon.

Identifying what you need isn’t easy. Even when you find it, knowing that the legs are going to cost more than a DSLR body or a 50mm f1.4 just bites. The upside, of course is in image quality. Spending that money on legs pays off in sheer image quality, which is why serious shooters end up dragging those legs around.

I think it’s Thom Hogan who says that Gitzo legs are cheaper than buying lower cost alternatives. The reasoning is that I bought my Gitzo legs after buying several other cheaper sets, effectively doubling the price of the legs. Do it right. Learn from my, and many others, mistakes. Save the money and get the Gitzo legs. Trust me, its cheaper in the long run.

More to come…… week, ballheads and quick release systems.

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