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Friday, April 1, 2005

Gadget Bag: Going Light With Firm Support

Ultralight, but steady tripods for hiking and travel

Going Light With Firm SupportWhen I began using a new "lightweight" tripod in the late ’90s, I was relieved that it weighed just 8 1/2 pounds—five for the tripod and the rest for the head. It certainly seemed light because it was just half the weight of my first solid tripod, a 17-pound brute. If you do a fair amount of hiking, backpacking or traveling, 81/2 pounds is still too much. Today, there are truly lightweight alternatives. Unlike the tripods I used years ago, you can find a stable tripod tipping the scales at just over three pounds, with solid, but lightweight heads to go with them. You can use the weight savings for lenses, a tent, some extra clothes—or just to lighten your load and make life easier.

The key to the new tripods is that they work around the springiness of the aluminum of which most of our tripods have been constructed. If you want a steady, full-sized aluminum tripod, its legs will be fairly thick to keep them from flexing, and that thickness leads to heavy tripods. To get a steady, but lightweight tripod, then, we can either shoot from a shorter aluminum tripod or find a tripod that's made out of something other than aluminum. Both approaches have advantages.

Carbon-Fiber Tripods

When thinking of new lightweight tripods, the first material that comes to mind is carbon fiber. Carbon-fiber tripods can be as much as one-third lighter than aluminum tripods of similar height, and the carbon-fiber models are noticeably more rigid, to boot. You'll also find them more comfortable to work with in the heat of summer and the cold of winter, as they don't become nearly as hot or cold to the touch as metal tripods. I've been shooting with carbon-fiber tripods for a year now, and my trusted metal tripods—both of them—are sitting in my closet.

Some companies now feature magnesium and other exotic metals for the parts of the tripod that still aren't made from carbon fiber. The aim is to reduce the weight of those components without giving up the rigidity for which carbon-fiber tripods are known.

Gitzo G1227 MK2 Mountaineer tripod gives you a rock-solid, 55-inch height without extending the center column or counting the height of a head. Its carbon-fiber construction reliably supports more than 17 pounds of gear in spite of its 3.4-pound weight. List Price: $659.

Hakuba HG-503MX weighs just 4 pounds, three-way head and all. A convertible center column lets you get down to just 11 inches off the ground for macro work. List Price: $459. The Manfrotto MagFiber 190MF4 augments the strength of its carbon-fiber tubing with magnesium metal fittings. The 3 1/2-pound tripod's four-section legs give you an 18-inch folded length that's ideal for backpacking or traveling, while still allowing the tripod to rise to 45 inches without the center column. List Price: $450.

The Slik Pro 814 CF II folds down to airline carry-on height, but still takes a 12-pound load up to a height of 63 inches. Carbon-fiber construction keeps the weight down to 3 1/2 pounds. List Price: $469.

The Velbon El Carmagne 530 weighs in at less than 4 pounds, even with a magnesium three-way head attached. Its lever-activated locks make it quick to set up, and marked leg lengths help you get just the right extension without fuss.
List Price: $449.

About the only real drawback to these new tripods is their price. To get around that, some manufacturers have begun to look at still other materials, with an eye to providing some measure of carbon-fiber's performance at a more modest price. Gitzo is working on a basalt tripod offering most of carbon fiber's advantages, for example, which should be available soon.



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