I’ve shot with good camera equipment for almost forty years (Minolta and Pentax film, Canon digital). I’ve dealt with serious support issues (tripods and other mountings) for the last eleven years. I moved big time into digital pro/prosumer and professional MF and LF systems over the last two years. I’ve added support equipment to match that equipment and wanted to share what I’ve experienced.
There are basically four types of purchasers out here - Professional, Serious Amateur, Experienced Amateur, Novice. Each has a different set of needs with regard to support. It is ridiculous in my opinion to say that one level of support system fits all four anymore than one camera body or lens series fits all four. I am not a proponent of buy the best with little regard to need and cost and never look back.
I’ll spend only a brief period of time on the Professional level. It’s almost a given here that a professional’s equipment has to be first rate. Carbon fiber Gitzo tripods dominate this level and cost is high. There is a wide selection of ball mounts at this level with Kirk, Markins, Arca Swiss and Really Right Stuff as the serious contenders. It is safe to say that the purchase of a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod and a ball mount from one of the four above will handle things pretty nicely in the professional’s support department. I have both carbon fiber and aluminum Gitzo tripods and Arca Swiss and Markins ballmounts. I expect they will be passed on to future generations, as I am not a professional and don’t extract the full level of use from my equipment.
Below Professional things really open up. Many of the tripod/ball mount choices from name companies certainly can be useful at the professional level, however we now enter into tradeoffs between various aspects. It has been said here (more times than I can count) that out of three primary support aspects (light, stable, cheap) you can have any two, but not the third. While I am in general agreement I think this characterization needs to be broadened a bit to include a fourth aspect – durability. I think you can get any three of the four (which means it is possible to get a light and stable tripod cheaply, but accept that you will loose some degree of durability).
Below Professional we consider other materials and build quality tradeoffs. Tripod legs can be carbon fiber, but also aluminum, magnesium and wood. Tripod heads/spiders/yokes can be aluminum or magnesium alloy. Ball mounts are aluminum cased, but both Delrin and aluminum make up the balls. Plate systems vary from Arca Swiss type to Manfrotto variants to non standard or none of the above. In this arena we have not only name companies like Bogan/Manfrotto, Berlbach, Gitzo (Basalt, aluminum), but a whole slew of other traditional contenders (Silk, Velbon, etc.). As well we have all the knockoffs – Benro/Induro, Feisol, Weifeng, Dynatran, etc. The latter take the top of the line Gitzo and Bogan/Manfrotto tripods and ball mounts and by using less expensive materials or build/manufacturing techniques or manufacturing in places where labor is lower cost, put out a very similar product in appearance to the top line support equipment, but will most likely suffer in the durability aspect referenced above. In this arena the buyer needs to look closely at his/her needs and decide what tradeoffs are acceptable. There is great value in this area depending on one’s risk tolerance. Still there are some basics drivers that help wade through the offerings.
Leaders lead. Gitzo has to maintain its role as the Professional’s choice. One would expect not only that they have an active R&D program, but that they communicate appropriate choices to the consumer to increase buyer satisfaction. My comments will make use of Gitzo terminology because it’s accepted. And although I will talk a little about aluminum and wooden tripods, I want to concentrate primarily on current carbon fiber offerings. To me the benefits to the photographer from even the least expensive carbon fiber offering on the stability and lightweight aspects strongly support its dominance in the marketplace. (I also have a number of carbon fiber tripods)
The first and most important driver in a carbon fiber tripod is upper leg tube diameter. In vibration testing I have done the larger the upper leg tube diameter the more stable the tripod. Gitzo has something like seven series – 00,0,1,2,3,4,5. Carbon fiber tubes are roughly 3-5mm in diameter difference from series to series. A five series upper tube is roughly 42mm in diameter. Four series is 37mm, three series is 32mm, two series 28mm, one series 25mm, zero series 22mm, zero zero series under 20mm. Whether my cheapest Weifeng ($106) carbon fiber or my most expensive Gitzo carbon fiber ($775), my testing has shown that upper leg diameter dominates the stability of the carbon fiber tripod. Larger diameter means more stable.
The second driver is leg segments. Many professional prefer three segment tripods. For travel, however, Gitzo and others make multi segmented legs up to five or six segments. Recently Gitzo introduced a leg locking system called G-lock whose purpose is to reduce the stability (rigidity) loss of a four segment tripod compared to a three segment tripod and improve the stability (rigidity) of a three segment tripod. (This has been copied by Benro, in my opinion, so completely that I would be comfortable using Gitzo replacement parts in my Benros.) In comparisons with three segment, three series carbon fiber tripods I find that a G-lock type four segment gets close to the three segment non-Glock tripod, but does not totally negate the three segment benefit. By all means acquire this rigidity improver if available, but if your travel requirements allow it, go with a longer (folded length) three segment tripod. If you have to go more than four segments in a traditional tripod for compactness-sake, there are special traveler tripods from a number of companies that allow complete foldback of the legs over the center column to shorten the final folded tripod more than normal at added expense. Leg diameter continues to play a significant role in multi-segment tripods. In five and six segment tripods you gain a lot in compactness, but each additional segment adds smaller diameter leg segment to the overall support structure (as well as another leg lock that adds weight, cost, and further loss of rigidity, whether G-lock type or not). In my vibration testing I see almost a doubling of movement with each drop in series leg diameter. Still, fewer segments means more stable.
The third driver is tripod head aspects. A simple flat plate is the most stable tripod top. The Gitzo Systematic line (currently copied pretty well in an earlier Gitzo generation by Feisol, in my opinion) provides maximum head flexibility with flat plate, or leveling base, or center column. Basic tripod physics say keeping the camera lens mass as close to the apex of the tripod legs as possible maximizes stability. Mechanically, flat plates are simplest. Hard to have something go wrong with them. Leveling bases add tilt flexibility, but this might be better dealt with in a ball mount. Center columns provide added height (a compactness plus) or cantilever flexibility. Whether straight up, or used in one of the many cross arm variants, columns move the camera and lens away from the apex point of the tripod legs and will ALWAYS degrade stability. Still, as I said earlier, in this area there are many tradeoffs. Especially for something like macro work, a cross arm center column may be exactly what you need to get the picture you want. Camera/lens closer to apex of legs means more stable.
While the fourth driver is camera mount type, and there are a number of three axis options out there (I have Manfrotto 3063 and 410 heads) I want to comment primarily on ball mounts. There used to be only one professional ball mount to be considered – Arca Swiss. Highest quality adaptations come from Kirk and Markins. Gitzo and Manfrotto also make excellent ball mounts. Acratech is a relative newcomer, but is highly rated by many. Then the knockoffs again are out there with the same names as their tripod counterparts. (Not surprisingly Benro has duplicated almost the entire Gitzo line, including the off-center ball mount 1X75/76 series). A good ball mount is a joy to use. The smoothest I have is a Markins Q3 Emile. One of the most unique is the Really Right Stuff BH-55, which is a ground up design. Ball mounts come with or without tension controls. A tension control allows the ball mount to be set for the mass of the camera and lens to move where you want to move it and then stay. No tension control means you loosen a knob or lever, move the camera/lens and tighten knob/lever to hold in place. I have found smoothness to vary with cost and ability to resist creep or torsional loading to vary primarily with design and materials (not so much cost or manufacturer). Smoothness under tension appears to be a function of ball size and tension control mechanism. Teardowns I have done indicate that the single knob tension/lock is superior to separate knobs. A larger ball makes a significant addition to smoothness, and hence a larger ball mount series makes the ball mount smoother to use (with increase in weight and cost). High end ball mounts are smoother and handle larger torsional loads. Larger balls equal smoother movement as well.
The fifth driver is camera/lens attachment. You can still mount a camera or lens directly to the top plate of tripod or center column. (Since most cameras are 1/4x20 threaded and most ball mounts are 3/8x16 threaded you would want to make sure any tripod purchased allows inverting the stud from 3/8 to ¼.) Preferred by many today are quick release systems. Arca Swiss type plates and clamps are the professional standard. This is followed by the Manfrotto RC0, 2, 4 systems. Most other plate and clamping systems are copies of these two. Variants on clamps include knob tightening or lever locks; and plates can be universal in application, or machined for specific cameras, lens bases or mounts. In addition are L plates that allow cameras to be mounted to the clamps either vertically or horizontally. These are custom plates and you pay handsomely for the convenience. The type of QR system one needs is dictated by use. Most would agree that some type of QR system is preferable to mounting the camera directly to the tripod. Whether you need a knob clamp or need to go the extra expense of a lever clamp depends on how rapidly you change your camera bodies or lenses or, if you use L plates, how often you change the orientation of your camera body. Since most all ball mounts have a notch on one side for rotating the camera 90 degrees, infrequent vertical efforts would not require an L plate. Most consumers in the non professional arena probably don’t need a lever system either. QR systems make camera/lens attachment convenient. Arca Swiss systems dominate the market at the high end, Manfrotto RC systems in mid to high end.
With the drivers discussed, we need to consider cost versus value. This are is dominated by the durability aspect mentioned above. Any photography site or seminar one goes to says to stay away from junk tripods. Junk has a pretty far ranging definition depending on your perspective. Ifthe term is applied to a tripod's stablility aspect, stay away. If it is a durability issue, then it's one of those tradeoffs and value may be present. When you look at a tripod or ball mount it’s really a pretty simple piece of work compared to your camera body or lens. The tripod legs slide into one another to shorten for compactness. The legs are hinged at the head to allow for compactness when folded. Spacers control the wobble of the legs. Clamps/leg locks control height of the extended legs. If you have a center column there is a clamping mechanism that, like the leg lock, sets the height of the column and locks it in place. For a tripod, that’s about it mechanically. Ball mounts are essentially clamping mechanisms that act on a ball attached to the camera. Whether the entire ball is clamped as in the Really Right Stuff ball mounts, or just a portion of the ball mount as in the Arca Swiss variants, again the mechanics are fairly straight forward. Where the tradeoffs exist are in how these basics are implemented (design,), in the materials that are used, in the parts manufacturing processes (engineering, tolerances), and where they are made (labor cost). Improvements in durability will cost more in the final product.
Certain technologies are mature and can be applied pretty much across the board. Others are unique and maintain some degree of proprietary edge for the manufacturer. Metalwork falls into alloy use and style of manufacture. Markins makes a titanium ball mount. Strong, lightweight, and VERY expensive. Unlikely that it will become mainstream anytime soon. Most issues in metalwork tradeoffs that I’ve seen relate to injection molded parts compared to gravity molded parts (it’s a primary marketing point of Gitzo). The negative possibilities here have to do with breakage of a primary tripod part, the head/spider/yoke, either at the leg flanges, or the column/plate clamp, or some other metal failure, due either to air bubbles induced with the injection process, or poor alloy process creating brittleness where flexibility is required. This is less of a problem with traditional company’s products and more of a risk component with knockoff products. Good metalwork is more expensive.
Carbon fiber technology has been around a long time. Gitzo first applied it to tripod legs over ten years ago. Today its use is common, across all levels of tripod build. So commonly available is it and so well does it dampen vibration and add to leg stiffness that it is the preferred choice for tripod leg material. It is unique in its manufacture that it can be tailored for specific use. Fibers can be oriented to enhance rigidity or flexibility in the desired axis. A number of ways exist to create a stiff/rigid carbon fiber leg, but in the overall scheme of things, in my experience, they are all pretty much the same as far as dampening and rigidity. More important is leg diameter. Carbon fiber technology can be enjoyed by everyone today.
Minor in size, but major in longevity are fasteners, whether screws or clips. Stainless is the way to go here, and cost goes up accordingly. Get stainless hardware if offered.
The next demarcation comes in fit and finish, both internally and externally.Most name brands are pretty consistent in both areas. When you move to the knockoffs much effort is spent to get the outward appearance right from a marketing standpoint. When you see a Hyundai that looks like a BMW this approach is in effect. In teardowns I have done on both tripods and ball mounts the knockoffs nearly always look great on the outside, but show some of the cost cutting in manufacture that shows up in the tap and die work, machining shortcuts, and poor castings. These are functional tripods and ball mounts, but they normally are not engineered to handle the loads that those better engineered and manufactured counterparts are, and will wear excessively or break under heavy use. For much of what an experienced amateur or novice might do they are probably fine. At the serious amateur level, you probably want something that is well engineered and manufactured inside and out. (Obviously the reason is the value of the equipment you are placing on them). Knockoffs look good, but are limited in vertical load and torsional holding power. For high end equipment, fit and finish inside and out are prudent and indicative of support that will likely wear less and be less likely to fail (again the durability issue).
This brings us to the last driver. In the professional world high dollar equipment still breaks and wears and needs adjustment or repair. Service, spare parts, and rapid turnaround are critical. For companies like Manfrotto and Gitzo, a serious amateur or professional would not spend the amounts they do for equipment without the service and support available to keep things working as long as these high end items are expected to last. These companies have the service departments at least regionally to support their users. Benro is working through MAC to establish their ability to provide service and parts for the imported Induro line. MAC charges a pretty good premium for not only being around, but for the 5 year warranty, compared to Benro stuff available over the net. As you step down in price, you tend to leave service behind and lose the ability to get parts. Although still around in large metro areas, the local camera store where something can be fixed and returned without resorting to UPS or Fedex and lengthy delays both in shipping and repair time are pretty much gone. Any buyer of a tripod or ball mount for long term use needs to think of the when something wears out or breaks and how it will be dealt with by the seller, not if. You’re going to pay for that service and parts availability, even if covered under a warranty.
So where does that leave me for recommendations.
I agree with those that suggest spending a portion of your camera and lens (kit) cost for a tripod and ball mount. Somewhere from a third to a quarter of the cost. For traditional name brand equipment:
Professional – Gitzo carbon fiber and any of the four ball mounts mentioned above. The new Gitzo 6X tripods with anti leg rotation (ALR) and G-Lock. Gitzo has enough variety to handle any use requirements.
Serious Amateur – Again Gitzo or Manfrotto, Gitzo and ball mounts above with any long lens use (300mm or greater). Acratech ball mounts below as well. Besides the Gitzo 6X, the Manfrotto Magfiber tripods and RC2 series of ball heads are particularly favored here.
Experienced Amateur – Manfrotto, Giottos, higher end Velbon, even higher end Slik.
Novice – Here I think you would be foolish to buy a high end tripod without first understanding its use and getting a handle on various features. At the same time if you follow the price guidelines above and stick to name brand, you will come away with something stable and durable enough to take you to the next level, if indeed you make a tripod a serious part of your kit. Same with camera body and lenses. The Manfrotto, Giottos, Velbon and Slik can all be economical and provide good value.
In any of the above categories you can find good value in the knockoffs. For two reasons – 1) the technology isn’t that new and has truly permeated the marketplace as far as carbon fiber and metalwork, and 2) with consumer acceptance of a larger part of the risk associated with service and support (virtually non existent with some of the lower cost carbon fiber offerings) huge savings can be made and you will still wind up with a stable platform.
In knockoffs (in my opinion), Benro is a copy of everything Gitzo in the ball mount and Mountaineer line, down to the ALR and G-lock; Feisol is a copy of the last generation (no ALR, no G-lock) Gitzo Systematic series. These two probably make up the majority of high dollar knockoffs in tripods. I don’t have any Feisols, but do have three Benros tripods. I have two Benro ball mounts. I do assume the wear and breakage risk and for dollars expended I’m fine with that as a tradeoff point. Below these are my personal low dollar favorite, Weifeng, and a Manfrotto knockoff, Dynatran (although their Endurance 10X series is looking pretty Gitzo-ish). Again, the US sellers here are simply import and ship companies. Little to no service, but you’ll likely get a useable, functional tripod that will provide value (my Weifend 3 series carbon fiber ($160) tripod is ALMOST as stable as my Gitzo 5540 carbon fiber tripod ($775). Most other knock off ball mounts are all modified Arca Swiss designs. Again loading and torsional limits are probably substantially reduced, but there are surprises here as well (my $90 Weifeng ball mount is fairly close to the performance of Markins M mounts).
There are enough reviews in almost any photography forum to establish whether the majority of owners of one or another of the knockoffs are happy with the performance or not. Certainly necessary reads before purchase. Do the knockoffs have to be treated differently or more carefully. Only if they have limited or no warranty or if no service is available. Feisol offers great service, but a short warranty and shipping to Taiwan. At over $300 for a Feisol higher end tripod, I’d look hard at service and parts (which appear to be available) before choosing it over another name brand. With Benros being such good copies of Gitzo Mountaineers I am confident that if Induro can’t provide them, I can find something fit to my Benros from Gitzo parts supply if something should break.
I don’t have any experience yet on the Dynatrans, which appear to be the cheapest of the available carbon fiber tripods out there, but believe they are similar to Weifengs. If so, they will support camera and kit lens fine, and with gentle and moderate use will provide both value and service.
You do get what you pay for, but you can get good value (and a decent tripod and ball mount) if you’re willing to take some risk.