Tripods are essential for many forms of image making but no more so than for Landscape photography. Tripods not only provide stability, they are a platform to work from. Just like a painter and his easel they allow the user to tweak the composition, use different techniques and to simply step back and take your time.
If you’re a beginner looking to improve your photography then rather than invest in a new camera or lens, buy a decent, sturdy tripod. The ability to change settings and see the direct results image to image is one of the quickest ways of learning how your equipment works and improve your images.
The tripod market is huge, and is growing at quite a rate. There are vast number of manufactures providing an array of features, materials and weight classes. Manfrotto are the market leader and there is no doubt most photographers would have owned one of their tripods at some point. Most likely from their 055 / 190 aluminium range which are affordable and well built. The downside to these are their weight. After carrying mine up a few mountains it was an easy decision, despite the cost, to move onto a carbon fibre based tripod. Gitzo are the go to brand for many professionals. Offering the most lightweight and sturdy carbon fibre tripods on the market. However, they are expensive, and for a photographer on a budget the continued onslaught of lugging around heavy equipment or parting with a small fortune is a tough choice to make.
In more recent years, with the continued manufacturing growth in East Asia there have sprung numerous companies offering lightweight alternatives for a fraction of the price. But are they any good and how do they compare?
I’m going to run a comparison on my Gitzo GT2541 tripod from their highly popular ‘Mountaineering’ range and a cheaper no-frills alternative from a Chinese brand, Sirui and their R-2204 model. I chose these two as both are very similar in design and build. Both manufacturers have a wide (yet confusing) range of tripods that might have more or less features that suit your needs better than these two. But this review is to give you more of an idea of the brands rather than direct comparisons of specifications.
Both tripods are extremely similar in design, both with twist lock legs, reversible centre columns and adjustable leg angles. The main difference is that the Gitzo can nearly reach ground level (16cm) whereas the Sirui legs are limited to a minimum angle of 90 degrees leaving it’s lowest position at 36.5cm. For me though, I rarely shoot that close to the ground so I’ve never had an issue.
The Gitzo ‘2 series’ mountaineering range tripods come in two heights, the taller (defined by ‘L’ in the model name) version which is around 12cm higher fully extended than it’s counterpart but around 5% more expensive. 12cm doesn’t sound much but being 6’ 4” it makes a big difference by having the camera at eye level. The Sirui comes in one size fits all and sits at a comfortable height for me at 163cm, fully extended.
The weight is a big factor here, the Siriu comes in at a feather-weight 1.3kg which is impressive considering its overall height. My Gitzo is only 150g more but added onto your backpack, the extra weight is considerable. The more up to date versions of the Gitzo are as much as 450 grams heavier!
As you would imagine the Gitzo is extremely well built and ticks all the aesthetic boxes. The Surui does also look the part but on closer inspection you can see where cheaper materials have been used. However, it’s worth mentioning the center hub of the tripod is made from milled aluminium rather than the casted magnesium alloy on the Gitzo. This is worth mentioning as over the years Gitzo users have reported issues of these hubs cracking or snapping in extreme conditions. Gitzo are still using the Mg alloy but have now suggested a minimum temp usage of -30 degrees C. The alloy failures are rare relative to the amount of used tripods so it’s up for debate to whether Gitzo should start using a stronger, more reliable material.
These tripods are fairly basic but the less features also means less weight. Gitzo have since updated their mountaineering ranges to include more features in the equivalent GT2542 and more recently GT2543. However these extra features have increased the weight making it less favourable for mountain photography. They have, however, increased the sturdiness of the thinner and slightly smaller 1 series which looks like a viable option.
One thing I like about the Sirui are the retractable spikes within the feet, it’s a clever solution which I have found useful, especially on ice. Unfortunately the spikes aren’t really long enough to make much difference on soft ground such as mud or sand and the foot diameter is much larger than the Gitzo which make it difficult to penetrate through undergrowth. It’s also worth noting that I find the rubber on the Surui is very soft making the camera a little less study on harder ground. The Gitzo has the advantage of interchangeable feet which simply screw into the bottom, meaning you can fit much larger spikes than the Sirui but that again comes at a cost and additional weight.
I initially bought the Surui tripod for extra support for my time-lapse and video work, yet I’ve found myself using it on a more regular basis. You can’t deny that the Sirui tripods are incredible value for money with the Gitzo range at 3-4 times the price of the Sirui alternatives. There really isn’t much else out there that can beat it on price.
Gitzo tripods are very well made and work incredibly well in the field. If I was walking out the door to go and catch the sunset then I would pick up the Gitzo everytime. But if you’re looking to ditch the aluminium dead weight for a lighter and cheaper alternative without the frills then I would highly recommend Sirui tripods.