It’s a tool I can’t do without and one that I carry on almost every trip. Maybe you’ve guessed it: a tripod. This three legged, underrated accessory fulfills a simple yet essential task for many photographers. It supports the camera and keeps it in a fixed position and orientation during exposure. Independent of your choice of subject, a good tripod needs to be sturdy, damp vibrations quickly and be portable. After I started shooting large format film, I noticed that the tripod I used wasn’t working out well with the new camera and the longer exposure times. It showed drift and the vibrations were not damped well. After some weeks of research online I ended up buying the Gitzo GT4543LS with an Arca Swiss P0 head. Read on if you want to learn more about the legs and head separately, and my experiences with them so far (roughly 7 months at time of writing).

The legs: Gitzo GT4543LS

Figure 1: Gitzo GT4543LS and the Arca P0 head holding the Toyo 45A. Yours truly next to the tripod for size comparison (170 cm, 5’7″).

The GT4543LS is one of Gitzo’s 4-series tripods. It has four sections per leg and comes to a maximum height of 158 cm. Including the P0 head, the top reaches a height of 165.4 cm, and with a Canon 6D mounted the eyepiece is at roughly 174 cm. For my height of 170 cm (5’7″) this is sufficiently tall to even allow over head shooting without any problems. For eye level shooting with the Canon 6D I only need to extend the lower leg sections for about 10 cm, while for shooting with the Toyo 45A 4×5 I don’t even need to extend them at all. To put this a bit more in perspective, have a look at Figure 1 where yours truly stands next to the fully extended tripod.

Gitzo, which has been part of the Italian Manfrotto since the early 2000s, has a very good reputation when it comes to build quality and is known as the brand to beat in the top segment. Their prices, unfortunately, reflect this and at 965 euros (May 2017) the legs aren’t exactly cheap. They were, however, the only set that I could find that met my competing requirements of extended and folded heights, sturdiness and weight. Online you can find plenty of horror stories of buyers that eventually had to ship their tripod back to Gitzo for maintenance or repairs that ended up taking months to a year before the tripod was returned. Such customer service seems to be limited to buyers based in North America, and I found only few similar reports from buyers based in Europe. Several local sellers ensured me they never had problems with Gitzo’s support service, and the majority of comments online seem to reflect this.

When you browse the Gitzo catalog and read user experiences online, you will find that there are two series that cater to the needs of most photographers: the 3-series (by far the most popular online) and the 5-series. The latter offers the thickest and stiffest leg sections that Gitzo offers and mainly targets the market of long and heavy telephoto lenses. Being the beefiest unfortunately also means being the heaviest. To put their relative sizes into perspective: the thinnest leg sections on the 5 series are the same diameter as the beefiest ones on the 3-series. As bending stiffness scales with the radius cubed, and mass only scales with the radius, this means a significant increase in stiffness for a relatively small increase in mass. As I wanted to have the sturdiest tripod I could afford and that still met my other requirements, I ended up with a 4-series tripod that, as you can guess, sits right in between the 3- and 5-series in almost all regards. It is not as light as the 3-series, and not as stiff as the 5-series, yet the cubic increase of stiffness with leg radius makes it considerably stiffer than a 3-series and lighter than the 5-series. In Table 1, I put the (to me) most important specifications of comparable tripods from the 3-, 4- and 5-series. The GT4543LS folds to 61 cm, which makes that, if I take the head off, it can still fit in our normal sized suitcase when we are flying (spanning one of the diagonals).

Table 1: Gitzo tripods compared.
Model Maximum height (cm) Folded height (cm) Weight (g) Price (EUR)
GT3533LS 152 67 2042 999
GT4543LS 156 61 2380 965
GT5543LS 158 60 2820 1239

More importantly, however, is how it holds up in the field. After more than 6 months of usage, I feel comfortable giving my judgments. I have to admit I am impressed with the quality of the tripod. It feels sturdy, it is nicely finished and the legs lock reliably. As I said before, I don’t need to fully extend the legs to use comfortably and that also leaves some leeway when on uneven grounds or when (one of) the legs need to be spread further apart. A half twist is sufficient to unlock the leg sections and to relock them. This makes it easy to expand and to collapse. It also gives fewer possibilities of dirt getting between the threads. So far I have not had to relubricate the threads on the locks, even though I brought it to the beach on several occasions. Generally a wipe down with a damp cloth is sufficient to clean the saline moisture of the legs and rub of some of the sand.

A bit to my surprise its weight is not an issue for me in the field. Either strapped to the bag or carrying it in the hand it is not uncomfortable to carry and it the legs are not cold to the touch as for example aluminium can be. For longer walks, I do prefer to hold in my hand though, as it tends to throw off the balance of the backpack. Mind though, that I do not hike for tens of kilometers, nor do I carry camping gear. Your mileage may differ depending on the specifics you choose to carry.

Figure 2: The swivel feet allow the tripod to find a stable position also in awkward positions.

The tripod comes default with swiveling rubber feet. These are intended for even grounds such as in a studio or in the city and allow also a solid stance in more inconvenient locations as shown in Figure 2. I find they also work really well on compact, but wet sand (like you will find at the beach during the wet seasons or close to the water line), but fail on uneven ground such as loose sand or grass. When using it in loose sand, I use the swiveling feet, but put some old CDs underneath the legs to distribute the pressure and prevent the legs from sinking into the ground. For other cases, I suggest you use metal spikes that can be jammed into a crevice or that grip into the soil. These are, however, not included.

So, what is not to like? First and foremost the lack of a carrying solution in the form of a protective bag or even just a strap is disappointing at this price point. I currently wrap the tripod in a small blanket when I have to transport it in a suitcase, which works out okay but is not ideal. Carbon fiber is more vulnerable to fracture than aluminium and will breaks rather than dent when it is struck. Second is its folded height at 61 cm. Although it is small enough for most practical situations, it is also slightly on the long side when attached to my backpack.  As the legs extend to below the bottom of the bag, the tripod can get in the way when sitting down. That is unfortunately the results of a trade-off between maximum height and folded height. Third and last, there are the feet that came with the tripod. By default, the legs come with swiveling feet attached and a set of three rubberized tips. These work great on a flat surface, but spikes are more convenient in the field. I do not see the point in the additional rubberized feet, and would rather have like spikes instead. The spikes I used on my previous tripod fit on the Gitzo legs, but don’t lock properly. The Gitzo alternatives have rubber rings to lock the threads when they are tightened. I managed to loose (and luckily find back) two spikes this way as they got loose during a walk in Edinburgh. I will eventually have to get myself some long spikes by Gitzo or Marsace (e.g.).

The head: Arca Swiss P0

Figure 3: Spirit level on top of the Arca P0 aids in leveling the head, but disappears underneath the camera.

Tripods in this price range come without the head, and thus need to be picked separately. This may look like a downside compared to cheaper tripods, but it is actually an advantage. If your camera needs a sturdier tripod, chances are that the typically smaller heads that are usually included are not adequate or meet your other requirements (for example, you need a L-shaped mount for that heavy 600 mm lens). Tripod heads come in many shapes and sizes, but you will most often see people using a conventional ball head which has the socket connected to the tripod and the ball connected to the camera. My deliberations led me to the Arca Swiss P0 and P1.

Heads in the Arca P-series differ from conventional ball heads in several ways. Most noticeable from a first glance is Arca Swiss’ choice to invert the ‘conventional’ design in their P0 and P1 heads by attaching the ball to the tripod, rather than to the camera. This moves the panning base and socket (which are normally connected to the tripod) to the top. This allows for perfectly horizontal panning even if the tripod is not level, as the rotation axis is now aligned with the camera rather than the tripod base. For an exaggerated example see the video below.

The head is different from the mainstream ball heads in two more ways. Arca Swiss uses asymmetric balls that are slightly ellipsoidal rather than spherical. Arca claims that this compensates for camera tilt (that causes the load of the camera to move from the top towards the side) without the need for further tightening of the ball head. Frankly, I personally haven’t noticed any benefits of this, but I can see this becoming an advantage if you often work with longer/heavier telephoto lenses. The other difference is in the way the head is locked. The P0 and P1 both use a set of planetary gears that are connected to one central locking ring to apply pressure to the ball. The advantage of this is that twofold: the ring can be accessed from any side of the tripod, irrespective of its orientation and you can apply great amounts of pressure on the ball using a minimum amount of torque on the ring. I have experienced this to be a major advantage over other tripod heads I have worked with in the past and a feature I will certainly miss if I ever buy another ball head again. I also really appreciate the overall build quality of the head. It feels very sturdy and has tight tolerances.

Figure 4: The panning stage lock is awkwardly placed. Although it doesn’t hit the quick mount lock, its position is awkward.

There are of course also grievances. The locking knob on the panning base is awkwardly placed and should not be rotated more than half a turn. If you turn it more it will end up in a position that interferes with the locking knob on the quick release as can be seen in Figure 4. If there is to ever be a Mark II of this P0, this would be the main issue to tackle.

Second to this comes the play on the locking ring as shown in the video above. Although it is part of the design of the planetary gear system and not a flaw, it does make it easier for dirt to get underneath the ring. The spirit level on top works well for leveling the tripod head, but cannot be seen when the camera is mounted. By lightly tightening the ring, the friction on the ball can be set high enough to slowly and relatively accurately position the head. If you need very precise leveling, however, I recommend you get a geared head like the very popular Manfrotto 405 or the top-of-the-line Arca Cube C1.

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