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Gadget Bag: Going Light With Firm Support
When 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.
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.
The 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.
The 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.
Compact Aluminum Tripods
The second strategy, using a shorter aluminum tripod, can work quite well, too. If you’re on a backpacking trip into remote backcountry or flying from place to place, space can be as much at a premium as weight. A smaller tripod, then, can solve more than one problem for you.
Gitzo (Bogen Imaging)
Hakuba (ToCAD America)
Manfrotto (Bogen Imaging)
Novoflex (HP Marketing Corp.)
Slik (THK Photo Products)
Velbon (ToCAD America)
Although the shorter maximum height might be an issue on occasion, it also can make it easier to set a camera close to the ground. For wide-angle shots with wildflowers carpeting the foreground of that canyon in which you’re backpacking, a smaller tripod can be ideal.
The ultralight Manfrotto Compact Digi Tripod 718SHB weighs just 2 3/4 pounds, including a three-way head with quick-release. It supports a 5 1/2-pound camera up to 41 inches above the ground without raising the center column. List Price: $160.
The Velbon Ultra LUXiSF weighs 2.1 pounds with its included ballhead. It will hold up a 6-pound camera and reaches a maximum height of about 40 inches when you don’t lift up the center column. A unique leg-locking system offers quick setups. List Price: $159.
The Slik Pro 330DX raises an 8.8-pound camera to 51 inches above the ground without elevating the center column. With its included three-way head, the tripod weighs just over 3 1/2 pounds. List Price: $149.
Getting your tripod’s weight down to about three pounds is only half the battle—some heavy-duty three-way tripod heads can weigh that much all by themselves. Where weight is the paramount issue, ballheads might be your best choice. They generally weigh less than three-way heads designed to support the same amount of gear. New magnesium heads help keep weight down even further.
The ultralight Giottos MH 1002 ballhead weighs only 8 1/2 ounces, but supports 13 pounds of gear. A separate pan lock lets you maintain your tilt settings while you move the camera left or right. List Price: $69.
The Gitzo magnesium ballhead G1178M weighs in at about 14 ounces and supports up to 8.8 pounds of camera gear. List Price: $212.
The Kirk Enterprises BH-3 ballhead weighs 20 ounces, but its aluminum, brass and stainless-steel construction supports your gear with ease. Separate locks control ballhead tension and panning. List Price: $239.
The Novoflex Mini Magicball ballhead weighs less than three-quarters of a pound and supports 11 pounds of gear.