'Kay, my reasoning here is a little twisty-and-turny, so see if you follow.
A couple of weeks ago, in the discussion following the "Letter to George" post (TOP's most popular post of 2010 so far, by the way), I boasted that I'd bought a really good tripod right out of the gate, in 1980, and had never seen the need to replace it. (Patted self on back, fortunately did not hurt arm.)
But then I got to thinking well, actually, that's probably only because I'm not a tripod kind of guy. I've mentioned many times that I'm not a big fan of tripods, nor a heavy user. My tripod has seen consistent low-level use over the years, but it's not an important piece of gear to me. So maybe that's the only reason I've been satisfied with the one I have.
But then it occurred to me that maybe the reason (or one reason) I don't much care for tripods is that the one I have isn't as good as I think it is. Hmm. Cart or horse?
First of all, the Gitzo is heavy. I felt sure the hammertone gunmetal main leg sections were steel—they look like steel, they feel like steel, they seem to weigh like steel—until Bryan Geyer disabused me of that notion by suggesting that I test it with a magnet to see. What do you know—he's right. They're aluminum.
The Gitzo is solid as a rock, but light it is not. It tilts the bathroom scale at better than 7 lbs., unofficially. I was kind of surprised at that, too—it feels heavier. I would have guessed ten pounds. All collapsed, it's an imposing 31" long.
By the way, that first, largest-diameter section into which the other sections telescope is technically called a "shell section," Bryan tells me. (If you don't know the name, Bryan is the founder and former owner of Really Right Stuff.)
The longest of the knobs on the head is 10.5 inches long. It can be folded down almost parallel with the legs, but of course that makes it a bit slower to set up.
The thing is solid, have I mentioned that? And tall—with the center post extended, it goes well over my head. (That's what I wanted, back in the day, because I used it with a 4x5.) And it has lasted beautifully. As you can see from the pictures above, the legs have taken some battering, and the rubber knurling on a couple of the locking knobs has vanished, but that's it. I've taken the whole thing completely apart for a thorough cleaning three or four times—once when I had it up to its neck in fetid swamp water and I had to clean the insides of the legs lest they smell. You can see from the grime on the leg in the picture just above that the noble beast could stand a cleaning once again.
The tripod isn't hard to use—how could a tripod be hard to use? But it's not super convenient, either. The locking knobs for the legs can come close to seizing, requiring a lot of force to release—I'm always careful not to over-tighten them. The biggest weakness of the tripod and head is something that could easily be fixed by buying an attachable quick-release plate, which I should have done long ago. What happens is that when it rattles around in the trunk or wherever, the threaded bolt can get stuck in the threaded opening through which you remove it, over at the far end of the slot in the plate. And I mean stuck—it can require pliers to free it again. That doesn't happen often, but there were at least two times that I remember when I wanted to use the tripod and just had to give up because the bolt was stuck and I didn't have a tool with me to get it unstuck.
So anyway, there's the dilemma—am I really just not a tripod guy, or would I use a tripod more often if I had one that wasn't so heavy to carry and slow to use? I decided to find out. So I've been looking into the state-of-the-art in tripods, circa 2010. What I'm learning is fascinating. Part II of this post won't show up for a week or two, but stay tuned—
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
ADDENDUM: I guess I should have mentioned that one reason I'm thinking about tripods again is that the two cameras I've been shooting with the most lately are the Mamiya 7II and the Bronica RF645, the latter seen above. Although both are rangefinders and might seem inappropriate for tripod use, both also have ƒ/4 lenses, which, with 400-speed film I usually shoot at E.I. 200, is quite a comedown from digital as far as hand-held speed and low-light capability are concerned. —MJ
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "I have bought more tripods over the years than I care to recall. I have two Gitzos at the moment and I've never been charmed by their legend. Both are sturdy but neither is friendly.
"For small cameras I prefer my Manfrotto Carbon One. Light, easy set-up, built-in clips to keep the legs together during transport.
Berlebach Report 8023
"Lately with my medium format cameras I've been using my Berlebach Report. It's a real piece of art, and relatively inexpensive. An ash wood tripod, beautifully crafted and finished, just a bit heavier than a high-tech CF but much lighter than Mike's scaffold, simple and reliable adjustment mechanisms, and easy to handle in any weather. Most important, my Berlebach is rock-solid and vibrationally dead in every leg configuration. Berlebach has been making these things since 1898 so I guess practice makes perfect.
"For closer work requiring some precision (but not requiring a boom) I use the Manfrotto Triaut. It's definitely a serious rig, although its quick-release legs make its bulk easier to manage. Plus its geared center post with a geared head makes precisely positioning the camera easy.
Featured Comment by Player: "My situation exactly. I used to lug around a Bogen 3236 with an NPC Pro Head; I even bought a carrying strap for it. Eventually I lost enthusiasm for taking pictures with the prospect of hauling that three-legged monster around. I finally realized that instead of retiring from photography I could purchase a smaller and lighter tripod, but I didn't want spend a ton of cash on an exotic tripod like a Gitzo carbon-fiber or the like. So I got a Manfrotto 190XDB and a small Markins ballhead. It's even sturdy enough to support a D700 and a prime lens up to 85mm. Photography is fun again."
Featured Comment by Chris: "Sorry, Mike, but tripods don't qualify as 'beastly' until they can support the weight of their photographer. ;-) "
Mike replies: ...Fail. I'm pretty sure the Gitzo would do it on the lawn, where the leg-tips would dig in a bit, but not on the carpet where the tips get no traction and the legs are free to splay outwards. However, I'm pretty sure I'm going to tear, pull, or strain something if I pursue this particular equipment test further, so I'm going to bail....
Featured [partial] Comment by amcananey: "I have a carbon fiber tripod and a big expensive ballhead. Why? Because everyone insists you need both to be a real photographer. The tripod sits in a corner of my closet of a home office at home, in its original box. My advice to budding photographers is: unless you're into macro, night photography or landscape photography, don't fall for the hype! Wait until you run into a real and repeated need before blowing a ton of cash on something unlikely to get much use."
Featured Comment by Julian Love: "I mainly shoot travel and adventure sports, and while I don't need a tripod that often, when I need one I really need one. My solution was to blow the cash on a carbon fibre Gitzo 1-series 4-section tripod and a Markins Q3 head. With the rationale being that the best tripod is the one you have with you; anything heavier would get left behind at the hotel too often. This setup weighs in at about 1.5kg and is sturdy enough to hold a 5D mark II with a 70–200. But more importantly it is light enough to strap to the side of my backpack and carry around all day without noticing it too much. I've had this setup for three years now and am very happy with it."
Featured Comment by Ken N: "I am so ashamed to be seen in public with my 20-year-old Bogen 3221 or 3021 tripods. Setting up these old beasts at the scenic overlook while surrounded by the latest in carbon fiber wizardry is just too much. And heaven forbid that anybody sees the hex QR plates. The salesman sold me these things because they'd last a lifetime. The problem is that they are lasting a lifetime. Why can't they wear out so I can get new ones?"
Featured Comment by steve Mason: "I shoot virtually all my personal work with a tripod. There is nothing like a Gitzo and nothing better than carbon fiber. The use of a tripod goes beyond shooting—its uses are many and varied. It has saved my balance while climbing over treacherous terrain, allowed me to spread my way through deep prickly bushes, saved me from getting wet while setting up a shot, allowed me to keep my bag from getting wet, dirty and/or full of poison ivy. Yes, a tripod is my friend."