Part I is here.
I've now gathered together some tripods for "testing." (As you might remember, I dislike the word "test" on photographic sites on the internet—a better, more accurate word is "trial." Most people don't run real tests, and many of those who do don't know how to design their "tests" well enough to avoid error—or even randomness. As for me, I'm just messin' around—one might more kindly call it "investigating"—and telling you what I think.) Of course the other possibility is that somebody's trying pretty hard to copy somebody else.
So anyway, sometimes comparisons on the internet are faulted for cutting distinctions too fine. If you find people arguing about which sensor shows more noise at 100%, and there are proponents on both sides, chances are the difference isn't worth chasing. But wouldn't you say that if and when something is twice as good as something else, it's unabashedly, unambiguously better?
First of all, I went to a local camera store—Mike Crivello's in Brookfield, Wisconsin—and took a quick look at what they had. Since I'm mainly curious about carbon fiber, I bought this: a ProMaster SystemPro T325P Carbon Fiber ($260). It's a cute little thing—wee, which is not to say twee, and almost impossibly light: I was able to weigh it on my Pelouze digital postage scale, upon which the legs and center column registered a featherlight 2 lbs., 5.2 oz. (1055g). It almost comes up to my knee with the legs unextended. You can get a five-section version for $40 more that collapses even smaller but, naturally, takes a little longer to set up and knock down (more locking collars to loosen and tighten). If you don't know the name, ProMaster is sort of a shared house brand for camera stores—it makes a whole range of products (flashes, bags, filters, cards, and on and on) for rebranding or retail sale mainly at dedicated camera retailers.
I'm actually quite enamored of the $260 ProMaster. It's very slight, which used to be indelibly associated with cheapie amateur occasional-use tripods, and, indeed, the ProMaster doesn't seem like it would hold up to frequent hard use very well—although it might, who can tell?—meaning the ProMaster probably isn't a tripod for actual pro masters. But the attention to detail is very high. It has both a level and compass built into the tops of the leg brackets (for those times when you find yourself lost in the trackless wilderness having remembered to bring your tripod but somehow forgotten to plan for finding your way around); the leg-locks are wonderfully easy to use, and lock and unlock quite positively with minimal pressure; the middle leg section, thoughtfully, doesn't rotate, so you can lock and unlock the bottom (innermost) section when the middle section isn't locked down; and there's even a spring-loaded hook at the bottom of the center post for hanging a bit of extra mass, should you wish to.
I then asked my friends at B&H Photo to send me a Gitzo GT1531 Mountaineer ($560 with current rebate). Gitzo, originally a French brand now owned by Italy's Manfrotto, is one of the oldest and most prestigious names in tripods. It was both a pioneer of carbon fiber as a material for tripods and also says it pursues continuous development of its materials and designs, so that today's carbon fiber tripod is considerably better than its original carbon fiber tripods.
Much to my surprise, however, the Gitzo is also wee—about the same size as as the ProMaster. The Gitzo is somewhat longer when folded up. It has a locking collar above the circular plate to which the legs are attached (the ProMaster's is underneath), which accounts for most of the height difference. It has a shorter center column and its legs are skinnier, just. (The thicker section you see at the top of the right leg of the ProMaster is a foam carrying handle which could easily be cut off if you don't like it.)The Gitzo (above) has its center column locking collar above the top plate, the ProMaster (below) has its less effective locking collar underneath the top plate.
The Gitzo tilts the postal scale at 4.8 oz. heavier—2 lbs 10 oz. on the nose (1190g).
The two tripods look so much alike that I inspected them carefully for signs that they were sourced from the same factory. The fit'n'finish of the Gitzo is higher overall, but the ProMaster is nicely finished too. Despite many close similarities I didn't find any actual shared parts, so I can't say they're cousins; however, I wouldn't bet much that they didn't emanate from the same mainland Chinese factory*. (Zhongshan Ltd. in South Guangdong province, possibly. Just a guess; I know nothing.) The other possible explanation is that somebody is trying really hard to copy somebody else. No accusations, just sayin'.
That said, the Gitzo's higher level of finish shows virtually everywhere—the locks are more positive and stronger, the hammertone finish is nicer, the leg tips unscrew. And no little compass. And although I thought the ProMaster was very attractive when it was all I had in the house, the Gitzo is handsomer still.
I really am impressed with the ease and positiveness (for lack of a better word) of the leg-locks on both tripods, but especially the Gitzo. Both are easy and dare I say pleasant to use. The Gitzo locks loosen with a little "tock" sound, as if they're coming unstuck; both are very easy to loosen, which certainly cannot be said of my old Studex. Both lock quite strongly with relatively little pressure, but here again the Gitzo does better: even firmly tightened, I can put weight (far more than the weight of any camera and lens) on the ProMaster legs and get the locks slip; the locks on the Gitzo just stay put. More weight still might get them to slip, but it's not my tripod and I'm not going to test the limits. For all conceivable values of "the weight you might put on a tripod" the legs just stay put.
The only real practical difference between the two tripods is that the center column locking collar on the ProMaster doesn't clamp the center column terribly firmly—which its designers acknowledge by providing a secondary column lock. Best to reserve this tripod for smaller cameras and lenses, in any event.
Just based on their features and a close inspection of their operation and fit'n'finish, I'd pick the Gitzo if money were no object or if I used a tripod a lot. But the Gitzo costs more than twice as much as the ProMaster, and, according to today's designated leitmotif, a factor of half or double is undeniably significant. If it were my money, especially given my only occasional use of tripods, I'd have no trouble picking the ProMaster; it doesn't really have anything to apologize for...given its cost.
Carbon fiber, carbon fiber
I'll get around to comparing the stability and user-friendliness of these two tripods relative to an older aluminum Bogen and my formidable old Gitzo Studex in the next installment of this series, which will come along some time in the next three weeks. But here's the real point of this post: even the heavier of these two tripods weighs in at 2 lbs. 10 oz. (Did I mention I was able to weigh them on my postage scale? I did? Okay.) The Bogen I'll be comparing it to weighs more than 5 lbs., and the Studex, about 7 lbs. Now, it's possible that this is like comparing apples to melons, since I've clearly picked two smaller, shorter carbon fiber tripods to compare to my larger, taller metal ones. Still, it seems abundantly clear to me from playing with these that materials science has wrought a quiet revolution in the tripod category since I bought my trusty Studex.
In portable tripods, lightness is good. And when something is twice as good as the competition, that's a significant difference. And carbon fiber tripods are better than half the weight, roughly speaking, of equivalent metal or wooden tripods. That's very, very good indeed. Revolutionary, some have called it. Half as heavy = twice as good in my book, at least where tripods are concerned.
This isn't remotely news to veteran tripod users, and it's not really even news to me, but still, having acquainted up-close and personal this week with both a cheap and an expensive carbon fiber tripod, one thing that seems unarguable to me is that carbon fiber material is a no-brainer for portable tripods unless you simply cannot possibly stretch to afford one by hook, crook, or patiently saving up.
Mike*This is wrong. See here for an update.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Question from Ctein: "For those of us constrained by the dimensions of airline luggage (both checked and unchecked) it would be most useful to know the dimensions of the tripods, with and without the center columns removed (assuming they're removable)."
Mike replies: They're both removable. Using my old-fangled 1922 tape measure (really—it was my grandfather's), the ProMaster measures 22 3/4 inches long when compacted, and you would save 3/4" by removing the top plate (no need to remove the whole center post, which, by the way, breaks into two parts like a fine pool cue. I am really unsure as to why, because you can remove the center column by just removing the bottom cap. I guess it's so the same base unit can be used to create different length center posts?).
The Gitzo measures 24 1/2" collapsed and 23 3/8" with the center post removed (the locking collar is affixed to the top plate and doesn't come off, so removing the center column doesn't save you a lot of length).
If anyone would like any more measurements please let me know. —Mike
Question from Richard: "Do the legs turn when trying to lock them extended? I know some Gitzos have a nice feature that stops their legs from rotating, making locking less complicated."
Mike replies: Sorry for not making that more clear: the center leg sections of both tripods don't rotate, making it easy to lock or unlock the third (bottom, innermost) leg section without the center section being secured.
Featured Comment by latent_image: "Working on various survey crews in the 1970s, I was constantly setting up tripods for transits, levels, and theodolites. Surveyors have a technique for very quickly getting the tripod head level and over target on sloping ground that involves setting down a leg that may be slightly shortened on the uphill side and then grabbing the two downhill legs and moving them into position while observing the level on the head. What makes this easy is that surveyor's tripods have legs that can be tightened at any angle.
"I mention this because a lot of photo tripods have no method for locking down the legs at more than a couple of predetermined angles. To my mind this is next to useless. I can't tell you how many times I've watched photographers tediously shorten and lengthen legs to get their tripods level. Legs that can be locked down through a full range of angles are faster to set up and make it easier to locate the head in the most stable and safe position with relation to the feet, which goes a long way towards preventing a mishap with the camera."
Featured Comment by Joe Reifer: "The Gitzo GT1541 [$600 with current rebate —Ed.] is the 4-section version of this tripod, and folds to 21.3", which will fit in many carry-on bags. A 1-series Gitzo tripod is really only appropriate as a lightweight travel tripod - it's too light for windy days or long lenses. My everday tripod is a GT3541LS [$710 with current rebate, 21.7" folded —Ed.] and I couldn't be happier."
Mike adds: Joe, who has contributed to TOP several times, is a dedicated nighttime photographer and knows his tripods.