Confessions of a Tripod Addict (Part Two of Two)

Please read Part One first, so you know what being a Triprostitute is all about.

Until recently, my workhorse tripod and travel tripod were Gitzos, same as with many of you. Mine are the old kind, with legs that rotate so you have to extend and retract them in the right order. I never did get comfortable with that. Also, they are so old that they don’t work very smoothly, with the legs sometimes freezing up on me right when the light gets good. Given the price of the new Gitzos, and of the new Really Right Stuff tripod, I’m sure I would have stuck it out with my old Gitzos for a while had I not discovered Feisol.

Feisol was a vendor at the 2011 CNPA annual meeting, where I learned about the company for the first time. The very personable Michael Affemann allowed me to play with and scrutinize his products without giving me a sales pitch. I was impressed, to say the least, both with Michael AND his products. Feisol’s tripods appeared to be as good or better quality than Gitzo, with a price that was 40% lower. How could that be? Remember, I’m a Triprostitute. Nobody’s going to pull a fast one on me when it comes to camera supports. So I let Michael give me the sales pitch. After that, I was hooked.

In a nutshell, as a company Feisol starting manufacturing carbon-fiber tubes first, developing new technologies for making the strongest and lightest tubes. (Sorry, I just can’t bring myself to use the term “cutting-edge” that is in the Feisol literature. Am I the only person who cringes at jargon like that? Like “space-age” or “industrial-duty” or “precision-engineered.” Okay, I’m on a rant. I’ll shut up now.) Anyway, Feisol took the carbon-fiber technology they had already developed and started manufacturing tripods from the ground up. (Oops, that’s more jargon, ain’t it?) Their goal, and one to which I think they’ve succeeded, was to create the best tripods available for the money.

Before I go any further, full disclosure. I am not a paid spokesperson for Feisol, or any other company for that matter. They aren’t giving me any money to say nice things about them and they aren’t sending me a bunch of stuff for free. If you click the Feisol logo in the right column of this blog, the only thing I get out of it is the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve directed someone to a quality product. (As I keep saying, if any company out there wants to throw some money and/or gear my way, I’m happy to receive it. I won’t say nice things just because of it, but I’ll be happy to take your money and try out your stuff. J)

Every month I get at least a half-dozen queries from folks asking my advice about tripods and tripod heads. I can either ignore them, tell them I don’t divulge information about the gear I use, or give them my honest opinion. The first two options are not acceptable to me, so I always tell people what I think. I just figured it was about time I formalized it in a blog post. (Sure will make it easier to respond to the emails from now on. I’ll just send them this link!)

Photo of Feisol tripod

My "Mutt" tripod. Feisol legs, Benro center column assembly, Gitzo base plate, Really Right Stuff ball head, no-name hardware items.

My workhorse is the Feisol Elite CT-3372. This baby rocks! It extends to 5 feet without the optional center post extended and is rock solid, more than enough to handle anything a DSLR photographer can put on it. And it weighs less than 4 pounds without the center post and less than 5 pounds with it! At a retail price of $548, it’s substantially less than the equivalent Gitzo. Truth is, it’s more tripod than most photographers would ever want or need. The Tournament CT-3342 ($388) is probably the one most people would choose as their workhorse.      

For travel and backpacking, I use the Feisol Tournament CT-3442. It’s the same pod as the CT-3342, except that it has four legs instead of three. Many photographers would choose this as their workhorse over the CT-3342 and would go with an even smaller pod for travel. To me, at less than 3 pounds and 18 inches folded, it’s already a baby and perfect for extended hiking or stuffing in a suitcase. For these uses, I don’t mind the extra time it takes to extend four leg sections and the fact that it’s a smidge less stable. However, for a workhorse, I want only three leg sections. The 3442 retails for $399.

Of course, Feisol offers a lot more than these models, including some impressive ball heads. One thing to look out for is the diameter of the tripod base plate, the part where the legs attach. On the CT-3372 it is about 3.5 inches; on the CT-3442 it is about 3.25 inches. This is bigger than most in the industry and is one of the reasons why these tripods are so stable. Feisol also offers units with smaller plates that will pack up smaller, but they will not give you the same solid support. Look for this with ANY brand of tripod you buy. All else being equal, the larger the plate, the more solid the support. Some of the tripods out there with really small plates simply are not stable when fully extended, regardless of the price you pay for them.

Feisol offers pretty much everything I look for in a tripod. They stack up with the kinds of specs you read on paper when evaluating any piece of gear, but I consider a lot of other things to be just as important, if not more so. Like, how does it feel? Is the tripod an extension of your arm, or is it some alien piece of carbon and aluminum that you have to tame every time you use it? Do you enjoy using it? Seriously, for the first time I finally found a tripod that I feel completely comfortable with.

The Feisols feature superb weight-to-stability ratio (extremely important); simplicity in use, being very quick to set up and retract (critically important for me); the legs swing to ANY angle, including folded back over themselves (a requirement for setting up close to an obstacle); the legs have three preset click stops (spring loaded, so they work quickly) and the release won’t pinch your fingers (some of you know exactly what I’m talking about); the leg collars loosen and tighten with a quick twist and they are large enough for gloved hands to grip well (I’m not a fan of the lever-type collars used on some tripods. I like gripping and twisting the collar and knowing for SURE that it is tight); foam padding is standard; optional leg spikes are available (I recommend the spikes for all field work); and the leg tension is easily and quickly adjustable (important for me, as I like the tension to be strong so the tripod will be stable even when it is not set up on a pre-set click stop).

Finally, and very important, they don’t cost so much that I have to choose between buying one and not having to sleep in the barn for six months! There’s more, but I fear you are probably starting to doubt me when I say Feisol isn’t giving me anything to say all this stuff.  

Alas, as much as I like my Feisols, there is room for improvement. The perfect tripod simply doesn’t exist, although if Feisol will listen to me they could come pretty darn close to making one. For me, the ideal tripod needs to have an extendable center column and the ability to shoot at ground level at the same time, without having to spend precious minutes setting up. Furthermore, the column needs to have the ability to cantilever the camera out from the tripod for those situations when you need to set up against a wall or when the tripod leg might get in the way of the wildflower or something. Anything that requires you to remove setscrews or any kind of fastener won’t cut it. You need to be able to set up very quickly, without fumbling around with wrenches and tiny setscrews. Also, any design that nests the center column away from the center of gravity (the exact center of the head base plate) is less than ideal. Finally, the support has to be rock solid.

I know a lot of photographers who do not use a center column, preferring to mount the tripod head directly to the base plate. Personally, I find the column necessary for achieving precise positioning. I don’t like settling for “close.” If the camera needs to be an inch higher, I want to be able to extend it an inch and not have to fiddle with the legs, which in some cases would throw everything out of whack. And no, extending the center column on a well-designed tripod does NOT mean you are shooting with the stability of a three-legged monopod. If the pod is properly designed, you will maintain stability when you extend the center column a few inches.

I am aware of only one tripod that has the ideal center column. I discovered it by accident when my body made a trip to Venice a couple years ago but the airline made sure that my tripod didn’t. It’s no fun having to buy gear on a trip, but doing so in Venice is REALLY not good for the bank account. Fortunately, I lucked up in finding a decent tripod for about 140 Euros, so by cutting out red wine for a couple of evenings, I could pay for it. It was a Benro, which I later learned is about the same thing as Enduro. They are decent tripods, available for surprisingly low prices. Photographers on a tight budget would do well to check them out. I own a few of them now, but use them only as backups because they are heavy and moody. At least with the aluminum models that I own, the legs don’t work smoothly all the time. Still, I do recommend them for those on a tight budget.

Anyway, back to the center column. The Benro I bought in Venice features what I think is the perfect solution for the ultimate flexibility in supporting the camera. The center column removes entirely when you loosen one knob. Loosen another knob and you can rotate the collar to any angle and reinsert the center column. So the column stays on the center of gravity for most shooting, allowing the tripod to pack as small as possible and not forcing you to cantilever your camera for regular shooting, yet in less than 5 seconds you can reposition it for cantilevered shooting. Some tripods offer a feature similar to this, but with all I have seen there is something less than ideal about the design. The smart thing about the Benro is that the adjustable collars are ribbed, so that when you tighten the knob they can’t slip, no matter how much force is applied. The tripod will tip over before the collar slips.

I like this feature so much that as soon as I got home from the trip, I adapted it to my then workhorse Gitzo tripod. I bored a hole in the base plate to accommodate the Benro center column and reworked some washers, collars, and stuff to make it all fit. And now that I have the Feisol CT-3372 as my workhorse, what do you think I did? You got it; I removed the base plate from it and modified the Benro/Gitzo center column once again to fit the Feisol. So my workhorse tripod has Feisol legs, a Gitzo baseplate with a big hole bored in it, a Benro center column assembly, and few other no-name parts.

The arrangement works well, but it could be better. The Benro center column is made of aluminum, which is heavier than carbon fiber, as are some of the other parts I had to use. (This is why I haven’t modified my travel pod.) Also, obviously what I have is a mutt. If Feisol applied their engineering to something like this, I have no doubt the result would be a lightweight, elegant design. I suspect it would come close, if not actually achieve, the lofty goal of being the “perfect” tripod. (I put “perfect” in quotes in this context because there are a few other things I’d like to see incorporated into a tripod before I’d call it perfect. The engineer and I just need to have a few beers.) 

Feisol, are you listening?    

As I mentioned in Part One, I’ll be demonstrating my homemade and modified tripods at this year’s Western North Carolina Foto Fest in September. Feisol will be there as a vendor, so you’ll be able to try out their products firsthand.

Hope you can join us!

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