Review: Tripod Showdown

Until recently, I have been using a Gitzo 1548 tripod with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead for all of my camera support. The combination is great - it's rock solid, very flexible, and did I mention rock solid?

Unfortunately, it's also heavy as sh*t and very cumbersome to hike with......

The legs themselves tip the scale at over8 lbs, but extends rather tall and can support over 30 lbs of camera equipment. While this is great for my telephoto lens, it's also very distracting to wield a tripod that weighs more than my camera. Add the BH-55 ballhead (another 2 lbs) and the entire tripod without any camera is over 10 lbs. That's huge.

I gradually found myself using the tripod less and less because it was so bulky (it's almost impossible to fly with it; the size dictates being in checked luggage and 10lbs of tripod doesn't leave much room for anything else!). I wouldn't travel with it, I avoided hiking with it, and it spent alot of time collecting dust. Unless I was doing a nighttime shoot where the long exposures meant I couldn't get away with hand holding, that tripod didn't travel.

That's stupid.

Tripods are only effective when they are holding a camera. They greatly improve sharpness in an image and the setup time of a tripod usually means I'm spending a few extra seconds planning out my shot. In the case of my old tripod, however, it took so long to setup that I stopped unfolding the legs (more on this later).

After having the realization that this was all very stupid, I started to research a new tripod. I like the BH-55 ballhead, so initially I wasn't looking to replace that and focused my attention on some new legs. My requirements for the new tripod: lightweight, sturdy, fast, and lightweight.

I ultimately didn't stray far from home - after tinkering for several hours at my favorite camera shop, I settled on another Gitzo tripod, the GT1531. The tripod only has three sections, aka two leg locks, so it's super fast to unfold. Additionally, unlike my previous Gitzo, it features the G-Lock system, which enables you to untwist all the legs and expand them at once. For fun I had my husband time me as I broke down both tripods as fast as possible. It took me 49 seconds to collapse the G1548 tripod vs only 16 seconds for the GT1531. That's a difference of almost a minute saved every time I use the tripod, which is a huge amount of time! The tripod also weighs significantly less at 2.5 lbs, making it far more user friendly for hiking.

While on my quest for a lighter tripod, I also discovered a smaller and lighter ball head that enabled the same features I love in the Really Right Stuff, except it was better! The ball head is made by a company called Acratech (I have the Acratech GP ball head). The head is the same style as the BH-55, except it is smaller and hallowed out, making it significantly stronger. Due to the construction, however, there isn't a loss in quality with the decrease in size. One of the best features of this ball head is that it features a lock on the lever to prevent the accidental opening of the clamp, which could damage a camera. I really like this feature because I've had my camera strap snag underneath the lever of the BH-55 several times and the lock prevents any chance of the clamp accidentally opening and destroying a lens. The biggest drawback on these heads is that the knobs are smaller, making me fumble for them more than I ever did for the BH-55. Being priced similarly, however, I prefer to take an extra second with the knobs in favor of lighter weight and reduced chance for accidentally disengaging the clamp.

My new tripod setup is now significantly lighter for backpacking and is actually better (with features like the lock on the clamp lever). I can unfold the entire tripod in a fraction of the time and it weighs around 4lbs for the entire setup.....! I now find myself grabbing the tripod on every outing and have been very pleased with how the tripod supports everything from my digital SLR to my large format film camera.