Another part of my recent equipment upgrades has been the tripod. I wanted not just stability, but also flexibility. Since I don’t shoot with gargantuan lenses (e.g., the Canon 1200mm f/5.6), I don’t really need a super-heavy-duty tripod. I’m not extraordinarily tall, either, so no problems there. No, I wanted something a bit sturdier, and able overcome some of the issues I’ve been having with my old tripod (a Benro Travel Angel). And most other tripods, for that matter.
One problem I’ve had are the set stops for the leg angles. They just don’t cut it when you’re working on really uneven terrain, like the boulders along the shore of Lake Superior. I wanted something a great deal more flexible, so I spend less time fighting with, and cursing at, the tripod and more time actually shooting.
The centre column was also an issue. I could have replaced the centre column that allowed for a proper ground set of the Benro, but that was only one of the issues. The other was that, like most other tripods, you just can’t position the thing close enough to a lot of subjects when you’re doing macro work. So a centre column that could swing out like a boom seemed a good idea. And since I’m not trying to balance a Bigma on the end of that boom (just a 50mm macro lens), weight really isn’t a big problem.
Enter the Gitzo Explorer (the GT2541EX, if you want the full catalogue number). This tripod has exactly what I was looking for: stability and flexibility. Rather beefier than the Benro, it is also taller (~53 inches without the centre column extended or tripod head vs the Benro’s ~49 inches).
The leg locks on the Gitzo Explorer are unique. Instead of the set stops that most other tripods have, the Explorer instead is infinitely adjustable, allowing you to set the angle between zero and 90 degrees. You just flip the lever down to lock the leg in place. This means that the tripod legs can be set to ground level very easily.
The centre column also has a fairly unique flexibility to it. It is actually offset from the centre of the tripod legs, and when folded up in nestles between two of the legs. However, not only can it extend above the tripod, it can also be swung three-hundred-sixty degrees horizontally, and a full 180 degrees vertically. That’s right, it can point straight down if you want it to. And for macro photography, this can be useful. It can also come in handy for photographing documents or unframed 2-dimensional artwork if need be, allowing the camera to be set up on the same plane as the subject. And when setting the legs to lie flat on the ground, the column can be brought horizontal and out of the way.
So, after all of this babble, how does it actually work in the field? I’ve had it a couple of weeks now, and I have to say that it works very, very well. It is light-weight carbon fibre (a whopping four pounds, or 1.8 kg, without the head), so it is easy to haul around. I got the 4-section legs rather than the 3-section legs for easier transportation – it folds up about 4 inches shorter – which will come in handy when I need to haul it on a hike, strapped to my backpack (which I haven’t done yet, as of this writing).
While I’ve read some people find the leg locks rather fiddly, that is only if you are trying to get them to exactly the same angle; if not, they are quick and easy to set, especially if you are on uneven ground. I just kind of zen it much of the time; since I’m using the Arca-Swiss Monoball P0 and a bubble level in the hot shoe, getting the tripod legs exactly level is really not an issue. If I were to want to set the legs in the “normal” position, it is a bit tricky without any catch to let you know you’re reached it; there is small, raised arrow on the tripod spider, with a corresponding indentation on the top of the leg to help you put it into position, but the arrow is rather hard to see. Maybe I’ll put a bit of paint on it or something. The leg locks also have one added benefit: if it is rather windy outside, you can spread the legs a little bit wider to provide a more stable stance for the tripod.
The centre column is also really easy to use. It is just a matter of loosening one knob to move the column vertically, and another knob to swing it horizontally (or upside-down, for that matter). I’ve already made use of the column to do some macro shooting close to the ground, and it makes a big difference: without the funky centre column, I simply would not have been able to shoot those things at all.
The leg locks on the Gitzo Explorer are actually a bit easier to use than those on the Benro. They are just tighter, and so far not prone to the same slippage as those of the Benro (which is about four years old, at this point – a fact which may or may not be meaningful).
In all, the Gitzo Explorer is exactly what I was looking for – a tripod to make my life easier while out shooting.
Of course, none of this comes without a hefty price – $799 CDN, to be exact (not including taxes & shipping). Ouch. But a damn fine tripod.