Gadget Bag: Carbon-Fiber Tripods

They’re lightweight, rock-solid tools that are guaranteed to make an immediate improvement in your images
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Admit it: You know you should use a tripod more often, but you can find more excuses than a ninth-grader who forgot his homework assignment. In your heart, you understand that a tripod is the only accessory that will improve nearly 100% of your images. And if you do any shooting after sunset, a tripod is a requirement, not an option. But tripods can be heavy and sluggish to operate, and you already have a camera system with image stabilization. Sound familiar?


Induro Carbon 8X

Even if your camera or lens has built-in anti-shake technology, it’s no substitute for a rock-solid tripod. Modern tripods spring into action faster than ever before, so time-consuming deployment is a thing of the past. That leaves just one complaint: weight.

Carbon-fiber tripods are 20% to 30% lighter than their conventional metal cousins and offer many advantages compared to other types. As is the case with expensive graphite golf club shafts, carbon fiber is said to dampen vibration better than metal. To be honest, I distrusted that assertion until one morning when I was shooting a street scene before sunrise. Exposures ran as long as four seconds, and everything went fine until a sanitation truck rumbled by. I shook, but the tripod absorbed the tremor, and the image created during that long exposure was undisturbed.

Most carbon-fiber tripods feature center columns and leg tubes that are hollow and range from 0.9mm to 1.5mm in wall thickness. Like all high-tech tripods, the legs typically are sold without a head, which means that you may select the best model head to suit your specific needs as opposed to being saddled with the included style. Note that every tripod featured here is described as legs only, but may be bundled with a tripod head by some retailers.

Benro Travel Angel

Because carbon-fiber tripods are lighter, they can become more top-heavy than aluminum types, especially when supporting a four- or five-pound DSLR. To shift the center of balance downward, many models include a hook at the base of the center column. The hook will hold a “rock bag” or other weight (try hanging your camera bag or even a gallon jug of water with a rope loop that can be consumed later if needed).

Carbon-fiber tripods cost a bit more than conventional models, but not that much more if you compare apples with apples. When shopping for any tripod, consider the following specs. I suggest that photographers make a chart to record the info for each model on their wish list. Top consideration for carbon-fiber tripods is total weight or “pack weight,” then maximum load capacity, i.e., the heaviest allowable weight of the mounted camera-plus-lens combination. Lighter tripods bear lighter loads in general. Remember that load capacity is an average, so err to the conservative side.

Next is the size collapsed (also called “pack length”), which goes hand-in-hand with the maximum extended height. Your height is a factor to consider, too. If you’re 6’ 8” don’t buy a tripod that’s 5’ 9” unless you enjoy hunching over to peer into the viewfinder.


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Flashpoint F-1328

Then consider the tripod head (some tripods come with a head, but usually this will be a separate purchase), leg locks and feet. Judge the leg locks for operating speed, as well as strength. Locks should be quick, but secure. Feet usually are rounded rubber with retractable spikes for gripping outdoor surfaces. Hint: If you’re working in mud, duct-tape a crutch tip (available at many pharmacies) over the foot to prevent debris from infiltrating the mechanism.

Finally, check what materials were used for the other parts of the tripod. The spider, or hub where the legs attach, can be aluminum or hybrid synthetic. More expensive models use magnesium or other lightweight metals. Confirm that adjustment knobs and handle arms are durable and well made. And look for the little extras. Many carbon-fiber tripods come with a case, and some models feature a spirit-type bubble level that many find indispensable.

Giottos MT-8270

Checking in at 3.5 pounds, the Benro TRCB269 Travel Angel Tripod kit is built from eight-layer carbon fiber and die-cast magnesium. It features a 180° folding mechanism, which allows the legs to enclose the top plate and spider for greater compactness. Travel Angel tripods feature individual leg angle adjustments (24°, 55° and 80°), a reversible center column with a spring-loaded bag hook and a leg lock design that helps resist dust and moisture. Closed, it’s 14.6 inches, but fully extended it’s 63.1 inches, and it supports up to 26.4 pounds. The TRCB269 features removable rubber feet and accepts optional stainless-steel spikes. The kit includes a matched Benro B-1 ballhead with quick-release plate, Deluxe Carry Case, a strap and a toolkit.

The Flashpoint F-1328 Carbon Fiber Tripod combines high-tech features, excellent performance specifications and an affordable price tag. Four leg sections collapse to 21.6 inches for easy carry, but extend to a maximum height of 63 inches. Pack weight is less than four pounds and total capacity tops out at a healthy 24.2 pounds. Like all Flashpoint tripods, the legs of the F-1328 have rubber double-grip twist locks. The center column comes apart and can be used as a low column for ground-level use. There’s a bubble level built in to assure straight horizons, and the leg tips feature rubber pads with retractable ground spikes. Nice touch: The included wrench can be used to adjust leg friction to meet your preferences.


Gitzo GT1541

The Giottos MT-8270 Classic features a unique center column that can be used as a lateral arm with angle adjustment, making it highly suitable for macro work. Plus, the column can be reversed, providing 360° horizontal and 180° vertical adjustment. The legs are 32mm in diameter and constructed of 12-layer aerospace carbon fiber. Pack weight is 4.8 pounds and load capacity is a beefy 32 pounds. Maximum height is 66.9 inches, and the center column includes a retractable bag hook. Also included are a toolbox and neoprene rubber foot.

Using Carbon 6X carbon-fiber material for its leg construction, the Gitzo GT1541 Mountaineer is said to be stronger, yet lighter than its predecessor. Carbon “6X” is made using a complex, 3D process weaving six layers of carbon fiber into smooth, solid tubes. At a scant 2.5 pounds, the GT1541 Mountaineer stretches to a maximum height of 62.6 inches and supports up to 17.6 pounds. The Anti-Rotation Leg system makes it possible to extend legs quickly. The unique Ground-Level Set feature gets you closer to the ground by removing the center column and attaching the mounting plate directly to the spider—without tools.


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Manfrotto 190CXPRO3

The 2.8-pound Induro Carbon 8X CT114 tripod features carbon-fiber legs and a cross-braced magnesium-alloy spider. It includes an oversized center column lock, enhanced leg angle locks, a reversible locking center column and interchangeable rubber feet with stainless-steel spikes. Extending to 59.3 inches, the CT114 will safely hold up to 17.6 pounds and includes a handy, integral bubble level. Full-width leg locks are dirt- and moisture-resistant, and the double-threaded accessory mount fits a wide range of accessories.


Slik PROFESSIONAL 4 CF

Manfrotto 190X series tripods have been playing center stage since their introduction. The carbon-fiber 190CXPRO3 is 20% lighter at 2.8 pounds and offers an increased load capacity (11 pounds) compared to the all-metallic version. Maximum height is 57.5 inches. The center column is designed to be used either vertical or horizontal without removing it. By extending the column to its highest vertical position, the column can be swung over to horizontal without removing the head or disassembling the column itself. Four leg-angle settings (25°, 46°, 66° and 88°) assure stability on uneven ground. The magnesium top plate has an integrated bubble level. The 190CX family includes three models, the three-section 190CXPRO3, four-section 190CXPRO4 and a basic version, the 190CX3.

The Slik PROFESSIONAL 4 CF reaches a maximum height of 100 inches and supports up to 44 pounds, but still boasts a pack weight of around eight pounds. This is a very beefy tripod, with 36mm diameter leg segments. It’s suitable for just about any camera up to most 8×10 view cameras. The legs are of a grooved tubular design that resists rotational torque when unlocking or locking. The multi-angle leg locks allow each leg to be positioned at a different angle to accommodate uneven terrain.

The Velbon EL Carmagne 640A tripod weighs 3.2 pounds, grows to a maximum extended height of 61.4 inches and supports up to 13.2 pounds. All models in the EL Carmagne series have three-position legs and a split rapid center column. Also included is an accessory hook for rock-bag stabilization, neoprene covering the top leg sections, and height markings on the lower two leg sections to allow for more precise positioning.

RESOURCES
Benro
(914) 347-3300
www.benro.com

Flashpoint (Adorama)
(800) 223-2500
www.adorama.com

Giottos (HP Marketing Corp.)
(800) 735-4373
www.hpmarketingcorp.com

Gitzo
(201) 818-9500
www.gitzo.us

Induro
(914) 347-3300
www.indurogear.com

Manfrotto
(201) 818-9500
www.manfrotto.us

Slik (THK Photo Products)
(800) 421-1141
www.thkphoto.com

Velbon
www.velbon.co.uk