Best lightweight camera tripods for DSLR and for landscape photogrpahy

Here I will illustrate my journey of buying camera tripods for the past 6 years of doing digital photography. Initially when I started serious photography 5 years back, I only had a Nikon D40 with kit lens as any beginner would start photography. Then I never knew the importance of having a good and sturdy tripod as most of my photographs were made in auto mode and the camera would adjust any low light situation with the built in pop up flash to adjust the shutter speed to avoid any camera shake. Then I slowly graduated to a 70-300mm telephoto lens. This was the beginning of my problem with camera shakes. Most of the images from the camera looking less sharp. I was not able to apply the reciprocal rule of using minimum shutter speed of reciprocal of the focal length in use as the lighting situations I was shooting would not allow me to do it.  
I decided to buy my first tripod. I did not know any brands or makes nor the market was so flourished as it is today. There were fewer resources to help guide a beginner or a expert personal opinion available back then. I decided to rely on the sales man in the shop in my city. My budget was very limited as I felt tripod was just to hold the camera and does not make any difference whether it was costly or not. My first  tripod was a Velbon CX 440 . A very limited budget purchase of $30 (~ Indian Rupee 1800). Used it for roughly 3 months. My photography skills enhanced as the time passed and my aspirations grew. I realized that this tripod was of not much use as it was not steady and had only 2 axis movement and could not take on more weight as my camera gears were upgraded with due course of time.
The decision to sell this of and upgrade to a much better one. But how much to pay for was the next question. That was the time when I was introduced to a brand called Manfrotto.Research on internet and found that Manfrotto 55 Xpro B was the answer for this. But that is when I learnt that the tripod had to be purchased as two units. The tripod and the head.
 The tripods again can be divided in to further categories , with center column and w/o center column. The tripods w/o center column are more stable as the camera rests on the base plate. The center column tripods can be divided into geared one or rapid columns. The geared center column a lever has to be turned to raise or lower the center column of the tripod. The rapid column allows user to pull up or push down center Colum using the hand allowing for faster movements but will have to struggle for finer adjustments.
 And in heads there are multiple types like the pan heads, balls heads, fluid heads, gimbal head (I will post another review on this later). This blog is limited to the ball heads. A ball head is a kind of head were the camera can be fixed on to a ball and socket joint which allows to rotate and tilt the camera in all 3 axis with ease and can be tightened using a single knob. This kind of head also allows to make pan movement also around 360 degrees. I was getting into panorama as well at this point of time.
I decided to go with the Manfrotto 55 Xpro B and the Manfrotto 498 RC2 (this is a newer version of what I had used) ball head. This a stable and within the budget solution for a tripod. I paid $390 (Indian Rupees 19000) in 2007. This was a good solution and I was very happy with the stability. I took many good and award winning photos using this tripod. But it had a drawback which I realized sooner I started using it. I do lot of trekking for landscape photography and which required a strong tripod to accompany for hours of walking on the trail. The tripod had to be hung from my back pack which meant additional weight. HUH hit right on the bulls eye. I found most of the time during my treks I would carry my tripod to the base camp till where we had good transport and then I left the tripod behind either in the car or base camp room because of the weight. Yes The  Manfrotto 55 Xpro B and the Manfrotto 498 RC2 weighed almost 2.85 kgs. Not a good sign when you go for a 30 mile trek.
Used this for almost 3.5 years. It was my companion and almost made every picture on this rugged 3 legged legend. I started looking out for light weight solution. I realized the fact, light and cheap tripods are not stable, a stable and cheap tripod is not light and light and stable tripods are not cheap. I started researching on the carbon fiber tripods and Gitzos were the first name in it. But it came at a price that I had to pay for their quality, light weight and stability and extreme versatility for carrying around.
I narrowed down to the Gitzo GT1542T . I paid $630 (~Indian Rupees 33,000). Got it here from bnhphotovideo.com here. Its best to buy from US and get it shipped to India through your friends travelling to India.  Best thing about this tripod is the more you load it more stable it becomes as it uses a technology called G-Lock (gravity lock??).  It can take a maximum load of 7 Kgs. A tripod weighing 900gms can take a load of 7Kg. Incredible is it!  Most of the professional line cameras with best of medium telephoto zoom lens can be loaded on to this. This tripod is best for most of landscape, macro ( the center column can be completely removed to get the tripod at extreme low angle positions (versatile?) and day to day work where it can be easily be lugged on to a waist clip because of low weight.
Now the tripod was finalized. I had to chose the tripod head. Any day I would go for a ball head given the fact that I work exclusively with still photography medium. My requirement was a ball head which would fit exactly over the Gitzo GT1542T tripod and was a light weight solution to add to a light weight tripod. I did extreme researches and read reviews about the products available before arriving at this. I pinned down to the Acratec GP-s balled head which was a special solution for tripods with narrow base. I paid $399 (Indian Rupees 21000). This head is 400 gms. Clubbed with the Gitzo GT1542T it makes a extremely light weight solution of 1.3 Kgs in total.
Another good point to be stressed about the  Acratec GP-s balled head is that the ball and socket is not completely covered. So no need to fear about dust and sand getting in and the mechanism getting choked. As I am into lot of sea scapes photography this was very important. This head also allowed the 80-400mm lens to be used as if on a gimbal. Panning was easier than before on tripod.
On an overall I would give  Gitzo GT1542T and Acratec GP-s ball head combination a 9/10 review points. 1 point reduced for the sake of it:-).

1 comment:

Scott Carnes said...

Thanks so much for your observations. I'm looking for the same thing you were, light weight but stability for a solid camera and lens. You've saved me hours of research, if not years of buyers' remorse. On your advice I'm saving up for a Gitzo.