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Taking Traveling Tripods to New Extremes

In an article titled Digital Killed my Tripod, a well-known equipment reviewer and blogger, Ken Rockwell, wrote “Many people still cling to the mystique of the tripod, even though tripods went out with film cameras….Tripods are no longer required, and actually often degrade sharpness, because shutter speeds have climbed and IS and VR lenses reduced the need for slower speeds.” How strange. It made me wonder if, as a professional photographer, I’m on a different planet. ISO amplification has certainly climbed—my Nikon D4S goes almost as high as half a million—but given that noise has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, there’s every good reason for keeping it low, and with scenes that don’t move much, like landscapes, a long exposure has the advantage. Large depth of field for a deep, dimensional effect? Use a tripod. The interesting light at the ends of the day? Use a tripod. Any kind of image-stacking effect, from HDR to focus stacking? Ditto. Precision composition? The same. Slo-mo long exposures with heavy grad filters? Yes, indeed.

Tea Horse Road book spreads

The issue, of course, is actually carrying this thing around, and dealing with the extra weight and bulk. The traditional answer has been ‘only when necessary’, and when you’re travelling and shooting, usually boils down to a compromise in which you assess how much you’re likely to need a tripod during the next hour or few hours’ walkabout. Leaving the tripod behind means acknowledging that there will be certain kinds of picture that you’re prepared to forego for the freedom of being lighter and less encumbered. All of this makes tripod weight and bulk, for me at least, the most important single area of technical improvement. This is exactly what the combination of the new series 1 Traveler Tripod and the new Centre Ball Head addresses.

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Taking Traveling Tripods to New Extremes

I’ve used Gitzo tripods for travelling for approximately 40 years — almost my entire career — and my latest, which is carbon fibre, I bought in 1997! This is one of the problems of well engineered equipment, that it lasts forever. As a result, I haven’t bothered looking at tripod development for many years, and now that I have this new one, I find myself surprised at all the engineering innovation that has been going on behind my back. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but my personal tripod time-lag of 20 years makes me perhaps unusually impressed with this extraordinarily light and well-designed 5-section Series 1 Traveler Tripod (code GT1555T). It comes as a kit with the Centre Ball Head GH1382TQD, with the combined code GK1555T-82TQD.

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The key development since the old days of tripods for travellers is that the legs fold back on their hinges by 180º. Pushing the centre column UP means that it, together with the legs, becomes the extremely short overall length when carrying the tripod—just 35.5 cm (14 inches). Compare this with the height when fully opened—131.5 cm (51.8 inches). That’s a very high ratio of open-to-folded of almost 4:1. Raising the centre column takes the head up to my eye level at 148.5cm. The weight is also way down on what I’ve been used to, 1.42 kg (3.13 lb), yet the safe payload recommended by Gitzo is 10 kg (22 lb), and I’m personally happy to take that higher on the rare occasions I use a seriously long telephoto, like Nikon’s 600mm ƒ4 (that’s an extra 7 kg, but fine if I use the lens’ own mount).

Gitzo Traveler tripod, Xizhou village, near Dali, Yunnan, China

The new locking system, which Gitzo call Traveler G-Lock is a delight, particularly because the process of unlocking, extending and re-locking is the big potential time-waster with any tripod—and wasting time often means losing a shot. The new grips are shorter than the older ones, and have a double curve that makes them more positive to the hand. In particular, I can get my moderately sized hand around all four at once (this is a five-section leg), twist to open them all, and then pull out all of them from the foot in one smooth movement. A quick twist to lock each one, and the leg is ready. Now, obviously all this folding for storage must compromise the speed of getting a tripod up, so I was interested to know how long exactly it takes me, and I timed it. The sequence went as follows:-

Pull back all three legs to the second-click normal position:                       5 seconds
Unlock one leg and extend fully:                                                                        3 seconds
Tighten each lock on one leg:                                                                              3 seconds

So, to get from folded to the shooting position with the centre column up at my eye-level, takes about 25 seconds, which is pretty good for any tripod of any type. There are two leg-angle settings, useful for steep or highly irregular surfaces, and the centre column can be replaced with a short one to use the tripod with all three legs at the wide angle. Gitzo say that the new internal O-ring ‘reduces dust and grit entering the locks.’ As no dust or grit HAVE entered mine after three months, I’ll take that on trust.

Gitzo Traveler tripod, Xizhou village, near Dali, Yunnan, China

Another detailed improvement, perhaps less obvious at first, is the new carbon fibre tubing. Called Carbon eXact and replacing the earlier Carbon 6X, this new tubing is both stiffer and wider for extra overall rigidity (the diameter of the lowest, fifth section, for example, is 40 percent wider than its predecessor). For a tripod this compact, the result is surprisingly solid, and if looking at the pictures of it in use here conjures up the word ‘spindly’, the physical reality is totally different. I have two personal acid tests for a tripod’s basic performance. One is to mount a camera with a telephoto lens, then tap the lens hood while looking through the viewfinder to see how the image shakes. The second is to grip the head and try to twist it to judge the torque. In both cases, the deceptively slim build of the 5-section Series 1 Traveler belies impressive stability.

Gitzo Traveler tripod, Xizhou village, near Dali, Yunnan, China

In the head-added kit form, which is what I’ve been using (GK1555T-82TQD), the 5-section tripod is paired with a new Gitzo design of ball head, called a Center Ball Head. I’ve always favoured ball heads for travelling, as long they have an independent 360º pan lock, and have been more than willing to give up the precision of two-way movements for the saving in weight and space. True, as soon as you unlock the ball to make a small adjustment, you lose any levelling you might have gone to some trouble to get, but that’s the price to pay. Now, I already have my Really Right Stuff ball head with a quick-release plate, and I’ve been very happy with this for the years I’ve had it, so my very first thought was that I could try and put that on this new Gitzo tripod. That’s just me being stuck in my ways. Then I realised that the new Gitzo head is very intelligently designed, so that it nestles neatly between the feet. Not only does this allow the entire kit to fold up, but the feet protect the head. A small but brilliant touch, because heads are damageable, and I always have a padded cover for the RRS head. No longer needed! I’m learning to do without the quick-release mechanism of the RRS head, and it does take a little longer to open and close the locking knob on the GH1382TQD Centre Ball Head, but overall it’s a net gain. The coating for the ball is tungsten disulphide, which is billed as being extremely smooth, and it certainly feels that way. Interestingly, its friction is so low that it needs hard metal locking components, which I assume will last much longer than nylon or anything else softer. There’s a separate friction control knob. The top is Arca-Swiss compatible, which you’d expect; it’s the industry standard.

Gitzo Traveler tripod, Xizhou village, near Dali, Yunnan, China

On to the carrying strap, which deserves a review of its own. Yes, how you carry a tripod, particularly in largely unpredictable travelling situations, matters greatly. After camera and shoulder bag (that’s what I use), a tripod is one more thing to get in the way, and yet if you’re taking it with you in the first place, it has to be ready for use as quickly as possible. Previously, with my larger 20-year old Gitzo, I would keep it in a light bag with its own shoulder strap (handing this to anyone who was willing, of course, such as a guide or driver). This newly designed strap intrigued me. A cord at one end of the strap loops through a hole in one end of the folded tripod. The other end has a Velcro strap basically at right angles to the carrying strap and this wraps around the ball-head-and-feet end of the tripod. Very slightly fiddly because of a rectangular ring that should keep the Velcro strap at right angles to the main strap, but that’s a minor quibble. To unlock, I yank up the end of the Velcro strap and pull it all off, and can then immediately open the legs. There is yet another way of carrying it, simply hanging down from the cord looped into the hole in the tripod. This requires a little fiddling to secure it with a toggle. While I believed the assurances from the engineers at Gitzo that this is totally secure, something in me feels nervous about this method, but put that down to personality.

Gitzo Traveler tripod, Xizhou village, near Dali, Yunnan, China

Altogether an impressive and satisfying piece of engineering. A lot of ergonomic thought has gone into this, and I’d feel hard put to think of any user suggestions for improving it. I don’t review equipment for a living, so I cannot compare it directly with competitors, but I signed up to Gitzo many years ago as the premier makers of tripods, and having spent a lot of time with this one and seeing in detail what the Gitzo engineers have done, I see no reason to doubt that this is as good as you get.

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Michael FreemanOther articles by author

In a 40 year career, internationally renowned photographer and author Michael Freeman has focused on documentary travel reportage, and has been published in all major publications worldwide, including Time-Life, GEO and a 30-year relationship with the Smithsonian magazine. He is also the world’s top author of photography books, drawing on his long experience.
In total, he has published 133 books, with 4 million copies sold, including 66 on the craft of photography, published in 27 languages. With an MA in Geography from Oxford University, Freeman went first into advertising before launching his career in editorial photography with a journey up the Amazon.