Three Different Tripods — Gitzo, Manfrotto, Oben
B&H Photo sent me 3 different tripods to review, not the usual ones I use, but ones I thought would provide some perspective across a wide price range. The exercise was a real groaner, meaning that I found it irritating to work with these three tripods, each of which is seriously flawed. But perhaps it will save my readers from an unlucky purchase, and therefore I have gritted my teeth and persevered.
If you cannot afford a good tripod and head, don’t get one at all! Instead, invest in a camera that shoots well up to ISO 3200 along with an f/1.4 lens, and learn to brace yourself or put the camera down on natural objects. See Making Sharp Images. A tripod that is not fast and efficient to setup and use will simply go unused, and you will have wasted all your money.
For my recommended tripods, see recommended small tripod, recommended medium tripod, recommended large tripod. For the small and medium tripods, get one of the Really Right Stuff heads, like the BH-30 Pro II with the screw knob. For the larger tripods, get the amazing Arca Swiss Cube. Do not skimp on the ballhead! You will need mounting plates that clamp into the head, one for each camera (or larger lenses that are tripod-mounted).
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Notes on the notes
Quoted height is to the top of the ballhead. Weight are *as weighed* with supplied ballhead on a scale good to 0.1 pound.
All the tripods here have rubberized mounting plates, which I hugely dislike, because it squirms and deforms when screw pressure is applied to tighten.
The ballheads on all these tripods are laughable.
Two of the tripods have solid mounting plates, and thus can easily accept a quality ballhead, like the Really Right Stuff BH-30 Pro II, but the ultra expensive Gitzo can’t function in this most basic type of versatility.
All three of these tripods are poor investments. And all of them become monopods with center columns to achieve more height— avoid that whenever possible.
If you’re on a budget, go with the Oben, add the Really Right Stuff BH-30 Pro II as you can afford, along with a Really Right Stuff camera mounting plate or L-bracket.
OBEN AC-1320 AL TRIPOD with BA-1 HEAD
Aluminum, 4.2 pounds, 3 leg sections, stands about 5' high, extending center post is about 5' 8".
At about $170 with tripod head, the Oben was my favorite of the three (which is not to say I’d want to use it over my recommended tripods).
The Oben has the same design flaws with its head as the Gitzo, but the head is easily removed, and unlike the Gitzo, I could mount my Really Right Stuff BH-30 Pro II on the mounting plate immediately and securely.
The Oben stands about six inches higher than the Gitzo, and only a few inches lower than the Manfrotto, and its clamps were faster and easier to operate than the Manfrotto.
Furthermore, the Oben legs had considerably less resonance than the vibration-prone Manfrotto, and 2/3 legs are wrapped with 7" long padded sleeves, a big plus when it’s cold and one is using bare hands to carry or handle a metal tripod (and why I prefer carbon fiber tripod legs).
I dislike the Oben tripod head for the same mounting-plate reasons as the Gitzo, but it was less fiddly to operate than the Gitzo head and with a less complex design, proving conceptual design flaws can be implemented by Gitzo for a lot of money, or by a company like Oben for a lot less money. So if you’re going to go with this style head, save yourself $830 until you can afford a good set of general purpose carbon fiber tripod legs that can accept a well designed ballhead.
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Manfrotto 055XDB with 498 MAXI BALL HEAD
Aluminum, 5.9 pounds, 3 leg sections, stands about 5' high without extending center post, a few inches over 6 feet with the center post extended
At about $260, the Manfrotto 055XDB is a no nonsense tripod with straightforward construction.
But it has a critical defect: the threaded mounting plate screw is integral to the ballhead, which means that it must be screwed into something (e.g. the camera).
Screwing into the camera is unworkable except as self-torture, so this means that one would need to purchase a clamp that screws to the ballhead, and then a camera plate for the camera which can be inserted into the clamp— so what is the point of such a ballhead to begin with, since one could just buy a proper ballhead in the first place which already integrates a robust easy-to-use clamp?
The tripod legs are aluminum and resonate intensely when tapped lightly, an absolutely intolerable design flaw. This is definitely not a tripod to use when there is any wind or vibration. Even camera mirror slap is a problem. With careful use of mirror lockup, remote release, and no wind, one could persevere. See Making Sharp Images for thorough coverage of such challenges.
At 5.9 pounds, the Manfrotto is a heavy tripod, and with the leg resonance, I’d rather shoot hand-held or improvise.
The Manfrotto does have a solid mounting plate once the head is removed, and thus can accept a reasonable tripod head, like the Really Right Stuff BH-30 Pro II.
The locking knobs are easy enough to use, but the numerous screws and threads involved say to me that it won’t be long before the legs start to have problems, or become infused with grit.
Gitzo GK2580TQR Traveler 4-Section Carbon Fiber Tripod with Gitzo head
Carbon fiber, 3.75 pounds, 3 leg sections, stands about 4.5' high without extending center post, about 5' 5" with center post at full height.
At about $1000, the Gitzo is priced like pro equipment, but I would not pay $50 for this tripod. Though the legs themselves (taken out of context) are lightweight and work nicely like any other Gitzo leg, the ballhead is awful, and the legs do not lend themselves to choosing another ballhead.
The included ballhead is an exercise in futility— screw the squishy plate into the camera? Then getting the plate inserted reliably and clamping it down is fiddly, and kept jamming on me. And what about an L bracket?
The Gitzo head kept coming unscrewed from the leg, and operationally I found it irritating from the start. It’s full of crevices and crannies, a small tension screw and metal locking plate that would chill or hurt my hands when cold, and/or shred my gloves over time. I don’t know what they were smoking when they designed this turd.
The fiddly camera plate slides in and out in a non-intuitive way and kept getting stuck... and one is supposed to screw it on the camera with a screwdriver (not a nice compact allen wrench).
Has Gitzo even surveyed photographers to see that 99% of those in the field use an Arca-Swiss compatible camera plate and/or L bracket? Who in their right mind would want to use this Gitzo head is my question to Gitzo. It’s so grossly inferior to an Arca-Swiss style clamp that it’s laughable— and that’s forgetting the price.
Even if one throws away the Gitzo head, I could find no way to attach my trusty Really Right stuff head, because the oversized screw is part and parcel of the tripod head, and there is no extra screw (one could probably be obtained). But here’s the kicker— the legs have no proper mounting platform to accept a conventional head even if a spare screw can be obtained. Apparently Gitzo thinks the head is such a design wonder that no one would want to use anything else on these legs.
The Gitzo stands only about 4 feet high without extending the (monopod) center column, so in normal head-height operation (still low for my 5' 10" height), you’re not even on a tripod— you’re on a monopod.
While operating the Gitzo legs is up to the usual Gitzo standards, the unit as a whole is a non-starter for me. While my older Gitzos have worked well for me over the years, Gitzo quality has degraded markedly, such as legs falling off for me, problems for another reader.
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Portrait photographer and photojournalist Arnold Crane:
I will NEVER trust a Gitzo again! About 3 years ago, I purchased a Gitzo Carbon Traveler, . Used it 3 times, always carefully wrapped. I don't know what possessed me to do it, but just before I packed it for a European trip, I decided to open the legs one more time! As I did, one of the legs CAME OFF IN MY HAND! I inspected the pin. It looked like cast aluminum. IT WAS JUNK!!! At Photokina before the last one, I met their US rep, identified myself, told him my story. He just shrugged, and just really didn't appear to "give a damn".
Called my dealer here. He got me a new pin. I had to Install it myself. The leg now swings-loose. Am afraid to tighten it. Haven't trusted it since. It is still in my closet and just ROTTING AWAYI then called Really Right Stuff who had introduced a new line of tripods and told them my Gitzo story; asking them what metal they use in their pins! They replied "Real Steel", in their pins. I am now using RRS tripods. They have NOT failed me!
It is my recollection that Gitzo was sold some years ago.
DIGLLOYD: it is my intention to try the Really Right Stuff tripods soon.
Chris L writes:
Be sure to read the entire sequence from Chris L below, who has a decades-old model that is his frame of reference for the Manfrotto:
It so happens that I do own and use one of the original Manfrotto series 055 tripods, bought circa 1984/85. I am an archaeologist. The Manfrotto 055 has seen some heavy use over the past quarter of a century, including rather unpleasant conditions. You express the concern that "The locking knobs are easy enough to use, but the numerous screws and threads involved say to me that it won't be long before the legs start to have problems, or become infused with grit." In my experience, the locking knobs are among the best features of this model, and I'm happy to see that this is one feature Manfrotto has not changed: in many years of use, they have never failed. They operated in sand, mud or water, whereas the Gitzo I was also issued with often jammed. The screws and threads render the knobs easy to adjust, clean, unmount or, if necessary, replace. Though this has never been necessary with my tripod.
The resonance you mention may be a problem, although I suspect that newer models have a lighter build than the old ones. Under field conditions, I was not unduly bothered
DIGLLOYD: But I am concerned that your model of many years might be very different from what I actually tested, not only the legs, but the knobs.
Your concern is entirely justified. You piqued my curiosity, so this morning I went out in search of a current Manfrotto 055. You're absolutely right, the quality has declined markedly. I should have checked beforehand.
DIGLLOYD: Vibration: it's so bad, and I have so much experience with this issue with such a variety of equipment, that I cannot accept any statement that it's usable. Mounting no matter what way would be irrelevant given the severe resonance of the legs. Even the DSLR mirror slap makes the legs resonate. Useless in terms of making a sharp image especially with 200mm on up, and this is painfully obvious just putting the camera into Live View mode at full magnification. See Making Sharp Images for more on this topic.
I see what you mean. I took my D7000 plus 180mm/2.8 and my modified old 055 and tested it against a new Manfrotto. Once the vibration was excited, the LV image bounced like mounted on a trampoline. Not to say the old 055 was really good: it never was. But the current one is really bad. Please file my previous comments as historical perspective only. My experience may have been somewhat mitigated by the fact that, during my active field years, I used mostly an Olympus OM-1, which had a relatively well-dampened mirror mechanism, and a Leica M-4. It is also likely that I didn't know better when I was younger, and that I accepted equipment and results (especially on film) which I now would reject, based on experience and critical advice, like yours.
Yves M has a question on wooden tripods:
I have a question about tripods: have you ever used or heard about Berlebach German wood tripods (or other wood tripods for that matter)?
DIGLLOYD: I've heard that wood dampens vibrations really well, and I like the look of the Berlebach enough that I emailed them to ask if an evaluation tripod could be obtained.
Thorsten K writes on the Really Right Stuff carbon fiber tripods:
Thank for the tripod notes! I've used a Gitzo (2530, probably better than the one you reviewed) and didn't think there could be much improved upon. Not sure if you tried the RRS, but last week I got my RRS Versa 33, and I'm completely blown away. That thing is so steady, one thinks it's a concrete floor not a tripod platform. The 2530 is downright flimsy in comparison. And the RRS barely weighs more and is high enough for me (6'1) to look thru the viewfinder without crouching, even though it does not have a center column.
DIGLLOYD: I’ve ordered the Really Right Stuff TVC-24L Versa Series 2 Tripod.
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Luiz K asks about tripod heads:
I was just buying a Manfrotto when I read your article. Thanks for the info on the ballhead!!! Saved my day!!
Do you think the Manfrotto 055XPROB with the recommended Really Right Stuff BH-30 Pro II is a safe buy? I am not a pro, and do not travel a lot with a tripod like this. Here in Rio de Janeiro is quite difficult to buy the recommended Gitzo.
DIGLLOYD: I don’t like the Manfrotto at all because of the resonance and dubious build quality. I’d much rather use the Oben, see notes above. For either tripod or any future tripod, a quality head like the Really Right Stuff BH-30 is an outstanding choice. See my earlier notes at top on tripod heads.
Alek K writes:
I enjoyed reading your Gitzo, Manfrotto, Oben tripod review ... gotta love your "tell it like it is" commentary! ;-)
I have the Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 tripod with the 498RC2 head which seems to work semi-decent for my hobbyist work. I can't help but wonder if that would address some of the concerns you had with the 055XDB/498Maxi. For instance, I totally agree you want a camera plate. And the Carbon Fiber tripod is much lighter and I gotta believe has less resonance. Finally, I know you aren't a fan of center columns, but there's some nifty flipping around you can do on the CXPRO3 that is helpful in unusual shooting situations, especially when down low.
I don't mean to sound like a shill for Manfrotto ... but just tossing out an idea if you decide to look at a few more models as I think posts such as that one is a real service to your readers.
DIGLLOYD: I can’t make any assumptions about other models. I’m sure Manfrotto has a whole line which varies up to pro level. Yes, carbon fiber is good for vibration, but some of the Gitzo models are nonetheless awful for resonance problems. Resonance is the dirty little secret of 90% of the Gitzo line (and most other brands); the “weight limit” is at best a misleading specification when one takes the real issue into account: resonance.