We’ve tested two of the most popular carbon fibre tripod systems in Indonesia during a photographic adventure; climbing volcanoes, exploring temples and island hopping. Read on to find out how they compared.
As a travel photographer who specialises in landscapes and astro-photography, the tripod is indispensable for those long exposures to capture the phenomenal natural light. I travel frequently and most of the time I travel alone, so having a tripod is sometimes the closest thing I have as a travel companion. It also helps me take picture, just the way I like them and it’s dependable.
My most recent trip took me to Indonesia where I tested out two lightweight travel options from the heavyweight brands of the tripod world: the Gitzo Ser.1 6x Traveller 4S G-Lock (GT1542T) and the catchier named Manfrotto BeFree. Climbing volcanoes, exploring temples and island hopping really put these two carbon fibre support systems through their paces. As part of my adventure I took big planes, small planes, ferries, motorbikes and overnight trains to really see if they live up to their design as professional travel tripods.
Both tripods were designed to be lightweight which is the most influential factor in my purchasing decision. I once carried a tripod all the way up to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and by day two you bet I was glad it was made of carbon fibre! The Manfrotto BeFree only weighs 1.1 kg (2.4 lbs) whereas the Gitzo weighs in at just 0.995 kg (excluding the ball head). I’m using the Gitzo GH1781TQD Traveller Ball Head which is a hefty 0.460 kg, hence a combined weight of 1.455kg. That might seem a small difference but after using the both interchangeably, I was always more relieved to be carrying the BeFree rather than the Gitzo. The weight is noticeable.
I learnt the hard way about the importance of stability when choosing a support system. During a wait for the sunset on top of a temple in Bagan, I set up my tripod in order to take an obligatory selfie. I set the timer and darted into position, when a swift gust of wind caught me and the tripod by surprise. To my utter horror, I heard a dull thud as my DSLR toppled over crushing the lens as it hit the enduring temple brickwork. I held my breath fearing the worst (i.e. that I would have to shoot with a kit lens…!). Fortunately, I had accidentally left the polariser filter on the lens which took all the shock. When I first folded out and set up the BeFree shooting in pitch black at the Borobudur temple I was impressed with its stability even though I had my initial reservations due to the spindly legs and lack of a weight-stabilising hook on the centre column. However, when I anchored the Gitzo it felt like Thor’s hammer and I hadn’t even hooked my backpack on the incorporated weight-stabilising hook yet. The Gitzo is incredibly stable in a variety of conditions. I really put it through its paces by setting up on muddy paddy fields as well as sandy volcanic terrain. It would not be moved!
Speed of set-up
When I’m trying to catch the golden hour I’m always in a rush because I don’t want to get up too early and wait in the cold. There have been times where I’ve been walking hastily to “my spot” whilst simultaneously trying to set up my tripod. I did this once in Venice and I mindlessly twisted the twist locks so much that the legs fell off and rolled down Rialto Bridge! Setting up at Mount Bromo was both a quick and painless experience for both the Gitzo and the Manfrotto travel tripods. I even managed to do it whilst hiking up a steep incline of a volcano. Both of quick release systems are intuitive but the Gitzo steals it with a spring loaded click in system that feels much more secure than the Manfrotto.
The solidly built magnesium Gitzo ball head has the most user friendly and quick DSLR mounting system I’ve used. The design is phenomenal right down to the sound it makes when you slot your DSLR on. Similar to a sound of cocking back a magnum ready to shoot! However, the Manfrotto just edges the Gitzo on speed because of its preference of clip locks. Up until I used the BeFree, I’ve always preferred twist locks as featured on the Gitzo. I thought they were neater and packed away nicely. Releasing the clip locks to extend the legs is significantly easier than twist locks. I find twist locks fiddly at times and the legs seem to stick as they slide out.
I really have to applaud Manfrotto how much they reduced the size of a tripod without compromising on stability. I have managed to slot the BeFree in my 25 litre backpack which not only contains my pro-DSLR but also my travel essentials. The BeFree has a folded length of just 40cm including the ball head which has a unique design that allows it to tuck neatly between the legs. On the other hand the Gitzo is 50cm taking into account the ball head which slightly protrudes out past the legs. It doesn’t pack down as well as the BeFree so I have to strap this to the exterior of my daypack which is not ideal when I’m squeezing through tight spaces and getting on and off various modes of transport. I did find due to the length of the Gitzo, it did keep hitting the ground when I put my bag down. This was not ideal for a tripod worth nearly a grand!
The maximum height of the Gitzo is 149 cm which is the same height as my nose. In my opinion this is too high and unnecessary. My other grumble about the Gitzo is that when it folds out the legs spread out a bit too far out. When it was set up on a paddy field it took many attempts to try and position the wide spread of legs on the narrow uneven paths.
They are both more than capable premium lightweight travel tripods but I think the price difference is going to be a huge factor for the buyer, and it’s not just pocket change! The Gitzo with the ball head is just over 3 times more expensive than the BeFree. In addition, in my opinion I think the Gitzo has designed a tripod which can extend to unnecessary heights at the expense of portability. If Manfrotto added a weight-stabilising hook, it would be an amazing travel tripod.
Prior to my trip, I had already decided to myself that the BeFree would be my ideal travel companion. However, as much as I didn’t want to carry around the much bulkier Gitzo, I couldn’t help myself but want to use it. Although I knew I had to strap the Gitzo outside by bag for my impending lengthy hikes, I kept reaching for it over the BeFree. There must be a reason for this!?
During a really fun photoshoot in some muddy paddy fields in Bali, I realised that the main reason I wanted to use the Gitzo is that it is dependable, so dependable that I was comfortable leaving my DSLR on the ball head, swinging the tripod around whilst moving to another viewpoint! I would not have trusted the BeFree ballhead in this manner. It just looks too fragile. I was always confident that I would be able to get crisp shots with the Gitzo without having to worry about unsteady terrain or sudden gusts of wind. This was the major factor in my decision to prefer the Gitzo as my ideal travel tripod. If the Gitzo was 10cm shorter, it would undeniably be the 3 legged king.