Perfect for Each Other (Part 1)
This is my first blog post of 2016. I would like to begin by wishing you peace, happiness and contentment in the New Year.
Some time ago, in “A Letter to a Photographer”, I had touched upon the importance of having a good, solid tripod and head. I had been using a trusty set of Benro legs and a Manfrotto head for many years, and while they served me well, I knew when it was time for an upgrade. In this two-part series (if two parts can be called a series), I share my views on the combination I currently shoot with, one that I hope will last me a lifetime. A tripod and head perfectly paired for each other.
I am a firm believer in the adage that when it comes to tripods and ball-heads, you should buy the very best that you can afford. When you consider that a high-quality body shooting through high-quality glass can have its shots ruined by the poor stability of a cheap tripod, the wisdom of investing in a high-quality base becomes self-evident. Take your time, do your homework, read the reviews. There are so many things you need to take into consideration when you’re out shopping for a tripod – construction material (carbon fibre, aluminium, aluminium-magnesium alloy, basalt, the list goes on), number of leg sections (usually 3 or 4, but sometimes 2 or up to 5 or 6), load-bearing capacity, maximum and minimum height, folded length, weight, centre columns (with or without, removable or fixed or articulating), type of leg locks (twist vs. flip), and so on. Different strokes for different folks. What’s important for me might not be important for you.
There’s a good tripod for every budget. However, remember that you get to pick only two out of the following three: sturdy, light, inexpensive.
There’s a good tripod for every budget. However, remember that you get to pick only two out of the following three: sturdy, light, inexpensive. I wanted a tripod that I could travel with without compromising on strength, stability, rigidity and load-bearing capacity. So that meant throwing “inexpensive” out of the window. I shoot with a Nikon D810 with a battery grip, and my heaviest lens weighs 1300 grams, so although my tripod had to be light, it had to hold a pretty substantial piece of kit steady in the heat, in the cold, in the dust, in the blowing wind and the driving rain, in mud, in water, on a sloping hillside, just about anywhere.
And so a Gitzo it had to be. A Gitzo Mountaineer. Gitzo launched the Mountaineer, the world’s first carbon fibre tripod, way back in 1994. And it’s been leading the charge ever since. The Mountaineer series has come a long way over the past couple of decades, with technological advancements and innovations that have made it lighter, yet stronger, than ever before. My Mountaineer is the Series 2 GT2542, which weighs in at 1.7 kg but has a safety payload-bearing capacity of 18 kg (40 lb). Paired with the Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 ball-head (more on that here), this is a solid combination that should give me years and years of reliable service.
My Nikon D810 mounted on the Gitzo GT2542 with the Arca-Swiss Z1 Monoball head
My old Benro had an aluminium-magnesium alloy construction, and I could immediately see the difference in stiffness when I upgraded to the Gitzo. While both tripods weigh about the same, the Gitzo has a much higher load-bearing capacity. The carbon fibre tubing has been reengineered, the new Carbon eXact tubes maintaining the lightweight characteristics of the preceding Carbon 6X models, but with increased stiffness and better tube dimension optimisations. The construction reduces both weight and wind-induced vibration (so you don't sacrifice stability or image quality). There is absolutely no play in the joints even with the leg sections fully extended, and the G-Lock Ultra Twist locks are a pleasure to work with. I like the fact that I can untwist the locks on all the leg sections at once, and it only takes a half turn or so to unlock and pull the legs out. Gitzo claim that the G-Lock creates new levels of ergonomics and resistance, with smoother, softer operation, while reducing dust entering the system. Don’t underestimate the importance of a secure, dust-proof leg lock. I had taken my Benro (flip-locks) to Iceland, where I was shooting in shallow sea-water. When I got home to India and took my tripod apart for a good cleaning, you won’t believe the amount of salt and sand that had gotten into the works.
Carbon eXact tubes
More than the maximum height, it’s the tripod’s minimum height that makes it more alluring.
The GT2542 features four leg sections, allowing it to be collapsed to a comfortable 22 inches for packing into your carry-on luggage or for strapping to your backpack. The legs extend the tripod to a height of 1.4 metres (4 feet 7 inches) without the centre column extended (the centre column adds an additional 11 inches). Add the height of the ball-head and camera, and the viewfinder sits at a perfect height for a photographer 6 feet tall or less. But more than the maximum height, it’s the tripod’s minimum height that makes it more alluring.
Tripod manufacturers add a centre column to make the tripod more stable when the legs are fully extended, and to allow a few additional inches of height when the column is raised. However, the centre column will not allow your tripod to get as low down to the ground as one without a centre column, unless the column is removable and can be mounted upside down. This reversibility is a feature of my old Benro, but if you’ve never used a camera mounted on a reversed column before, don’t. Yes, it does allow you to get down to ground level, but it’s a pain in the rear to shoot this way, even with a remote shutter release. And if you’re shooting in shallow water, this isn’t safe. While the GT2542 comes with a centre column for stability at full height (with a hook for added ballast), the column is removable with a simple twist of a ring, all the while keeping the base-plate and head firmly attached to the legs. This allows you to get down to less than 6 inches off the ground, which is about as good as you can get with any tripod. Of course, if you want to do it the hard way, the GT2542’s centre column is reversible too, so go for it, Batman.
For ground-level set, the centre column is removable with a simple twist of a ring
Ground-level set on the GT2542
Another view of ground-level set on the Mountaineer GT2542. The AA battery gives you some perspective of how close the tripod gets to the ground.
The centre column also features an anti-rotation groove, which is just another one of those little innovations that costs nothing but makes such a huge difference. The top spider and column lock have also been reengineered for enhanced security and rigidity, and the leg angle selectors have been redesigned, making them easier to engage and disengage. You just grab and pull to change the angles, and the selectors snap back into position, thanks to integrated springs. The leg ends are interchangeable, so you can swap out the rubber feet for spikes or big pads, depending on the conditions you’re shooting in.
Leg angle selectors on the GT2542
The leg angle selectors are engaged with a simple grab and pull. Integrated springs snap them back into position.
Perfection has a price, and the GT2542 is not a tripod for the budget-minded. Overall, it comes down to use and personal preference. There are several good tripods out there, and my choice of a Gitzo doesn’t mean that the folks at Really Right Stuff or FLM or Feisol (all of which I had also considered) don’t make great tripods too. You won’t go wrong with any of these. Go with what suits your shooting style and budget, but remember, get a tripod-head combination that will support at least 5 times the weight of your heaviest camera and lens. One that will take a beating. And if you plan on owning only one tripod, always prioritize strength, stability, rigidity and load-bearing capacity over portability and weight. Your long exposures will be infinitely better. And when you see the difference for yourself, drop me a line here to thank me. You’re welcome.