For photographers who carry their gear long distances, saving weight is a real issue. We economize every way we can, leaving spare camera bodies behind or bringing fewer rolls of film. We carry lighter tripods, too, but until recently, there was a limit to how much weight we could save in our camera support. Lightly constructed metal tripods just aren't stiff enough to provide a sharp image.
Carbon-fiber tripods solve that problem. They're about 30% lighter and noticeably more rigid than a metal tripod of similar size and build quality. They also dampen vibration more effectively, contributing to sharper images. These tripods are wonderful to work with, especially if you have to take them any great distance.
They're surprisingly light, perhaps even more so than their specifications suggest. While I was researching this article, a box of carbon-fiber tripods arrived. The box weighed so little that I assumed a single tripod was inside. I was astonished as first one tripod, then a second one, and finally a large magnesium head appeared from within their bubble-wrap cocoons.
Although both tripods were very light, neither was light-duty—they could support a medium-format camera, a field 4x5 or a D-SLR with a fast telephoto lens.
The larger tripod could even hold up a D-SLR with a super-telephoto or a studio 4x5 camera.
I took both tripods to California's Anza-Borrego to shoot desert wildflowers. The smaller tripod did a great job, but the large one grabbed my attention when it easily lofted my camera above eye level and kept it there firmly without any trace of movement.
It performed as well at ground level, too, quickly spreading its rigid legs outward to get a low angle of view. In short, the larger of the two carbon-fiber tripods rivaled my heavy studio tripod for firmness, but bested its weight by nine pounds. It outperformed the "lightweight" metal tripod I've used while hiking, and it was still two-thirds of a pound lighter.
When I took along the smaller carbon-fiber tripod for a seven-mile hike, its nearly two-pound weight advantage over my light metal tripod made my trek much easier. The weight difference was especially appreciated on that trail, which climbed steadily upward on the outbound leg. The tripod's rigidity made shooting a joy. It would be a blast in Bryce Canyon, the Sierras or anywhere you face a steep ascent.
Because of carbon-fiber tripods' rigidity, center leg braces are absent, even on the heavy-duty models. This frees tripods with short columns to position a camera very near the ground just by spreading the legs. Alternatively, some models feature variable-angle columns that swing into a myriad of unorthodox positions for greater versatility. Since the columns are themselves made from carbon-fiber tubing, they flex much less when extended than do their metal counterparts.
As with any other new technology, though, there are downsides. The most obvious is that carbon-fiber tripods are expensive. Expect to spend at least half again what you would for an equivalent metal tripod.
Ironically, one of the tripods' main advantages, their lack of weight, results in a somewhat more top-heavy arrangement with your camera aboard. Since there's also less overall mass to resist movement, they will be easier to knock over with an inadvertent bump. (To combat this problem, many models feature a hook below the tripod column for suspending rocks beneath the tripods.)
If you're an experienced tripod user, carbon-fiber tripods do take a little getting used to. Their light weight and the absence of metal's familiar springiness can make them feel oddly like matchsticks at first. It won't be long after you start shooting with a carbon-fiber tripod, though, that you'll appreciate its strength and durability. I've been using them a while now, and I'd find it hard to go back to metal.
Users of large tripods will see the most dramatic weight savings when switching to carbon fiber. That's because most of the weight saved is in the legs, and small tripods haven't as much weight to lose. The carbon-fiber versions will still be noticeably more rigid, making for a superior photographic platform.
Carbon-fiber tripods are terrific, but do you really need one? That depends. I've been using large, heavy metal tripods in the field for more than 20 years, and I've certainly hauled those tripods into my share of crazy places. Then again, "hauled" is exactly the right word. On a long hike, a carbon-fiber tripod could mean the difference between "fun" and "endurance." For backpackers, mountaineers and others heading to truly remote areas, they'll be indispensable.
If you spend a lot of time shooting in the desert sun or winter snows, you'll find a carbon-fiber tripod more comfortable to work with. While they do warm up and cool down, they don't become painfully hot or cold like metal tripods. The new tripods also are a natural partner for the new crop of 8-megapixel advanced compact cameras, whose capabilities similarly belie their lightness. On a backpacking trip or a steep trail, the two technologies make a formidable combination.
Many of the tripods here are sold without a head. If you've been using a heavy head on your metal tripod, mounting it on your new carbon-fiber tripod will eat into your weight savings. Many manufacturers now produce magnesium heads that offer great strength and reduced weight, too.
The Giottos MT 8160 supports up to 22 pounds while weighing in at 5.5 pounds, including its integral three-way tripod head. The tripod's innovative leg angle control ring lets you dial in the amount of leg spread for all three legs at once for a quick setup. Each leg's angle also can be adjusted individually to cope with uneven terrain. List Price: $345.
The Gitzo G1228 Mountaineer Mk2's four-section leg design enables a folded-up length under 22 inches. You easily could stow the tripod and a head in your carry-on bag next to your clothes and fly away for a weekend shoot. When you get there, the rigid tripod will support your camera firmly without making you stoop. The 3.3-pound tripod (without head) supports more than 17 pounds. List Price: $683.
Hakuba's HG-503MX weighs just four pounds, including its three-way aluminum head. The tripod's split-center column allows the tripod to fold down to a minimum height of just 11 inches. The 503MX's topmost leg sections feature a neoprene cover for carrying ease. List Price: $459.95.
Manfrotto's 441 Carbon One (#3443) features faceted leg and center column tubes for extra stability. For greater versatility, the center column swings out to become a sliding lateral arm. The tripod weighs just 3.5 pounds without a head and offers quick-action leg locks. List Price: $536.
The ultralight, three-section Slik Pro 713 CF weighs just 2.75 pounds without a head. Supporting 12 pounds, the tripod reaches a maximum height of 651/2 inches with the center column extended. List Price: $399.
Together with its included magnesium three-way head, Velbon's El Carmagne 530 weighs 3.8 pounds. Its three-section legs feature lever-activated locks and are marked in one-inch increments for easy length adjustment. The legs spread out to provide a minimum height of 10.2 inches. List Price: $449.95.