On the left, my light and swift Induro AT114 tripod with Acratech Ultimate Ballhead. On the right, my old reliable workhouse, a Gitzo Studex Performance purchased in the 1980s. I use the same Acratech ballhead on both tripods.
It's been decades since I last bought a tripod. This is not because I don't like tripods or don't use them. I do. It's largely because the first good tripod I bought, a Gitzo Studex Performance, is so damned sturdy I've scarcely needed anything else. I bought it back in the 1980s, when Gitzo was still a French-owned company and not far removed from its heritage as a manufacturer of tripods for machine guns. My Studex is made of aluminum (carbon fiber tripods didn't exist at the time) and extends to just short of 60 inches (1.5 meters) with the center column down. Should I be reckless enough to fully extend the dual-extension center column I can get another two feet--and that's not counting the head itself, which adds another four inches or so.
I've used the Studex with cameras as small as a Minox and as large as a 4x5-inch Sinar F. I've used it with tilt-shift lenses for architectural work, macros for close-ups, and a 500mm telephoto just for the hell of it. As long as I used good tripod technique--minimal leg extensions, no center column extension, a solid head, cable release, mirror lock-up, waiting for ground and wind vibration to die down, etc.--I was rewarded with tack-sharp photos.
These rewards come at a cost, however. My Studex weighs seven pounds even with lightweight head attached and measures 28-inches long fully retracted. Neither one is a big deal if you're shooting at home or in a studio. Try travelling with it and you discover that a) it won't fit in a normal suitcase, and b) seven pounds is too heavy to carry around for extended periods of time, especially if you're carrying equal weight in cameras and lenses. For travel you need a smaller, lighter tripod.
"Why carry a tripod at all?" you ask, "Haven't you ever heard of image-stabilized cameras and lenses?"
"Sure," I answer, "but tripods do more than reduce camera shake. In most cases they prevent it. They're also an aid to composition. They help ensure precise registration and repeatability from frame-to-frame. HDR, panoramic, and serious video shooters couldn't live without them. Last but not least, it's a lot easier to insert yourself into some of your own photos if you have a tripod than if you have to rely on the kindness and competence of strangers."
My problem was that until relatively recently, most travel tripods fell into one of only two categories: they were either small, lightweight, sturdy, and expensive (translation: Gitzo carbon fiber) or they were small, lightweight, flimsy, and cheap (translation: the type of tripod you would typically find at a mass-market retailer). I didn't travel enough to justify the expense of the best models but knew better than to waste money on the cheap ones.
Then a funny thing happened: A few Chinese industrial conglomerates realized that if they could built high-quality bicycles and tennis rackets out of aluminum and carbon fiber, they could build a high-quality tripod, and for an extremely competitive price. So they did. Search for brands like Induro, Benro, Feisol, and Giottos and you'll see what I mean. Look even closer and you'll discover that many appear to be exactly the same tripod but with a different label. Because of these similarities, I decided to go with Induro, which offers better customer support and distribution without being significantly more expensive.
The specific model I chose was the Induro AT114. Basic specifications are:
- Max height: 50 inches (1.3 meters) with center column retracted, no head
- Folded length: 19.3 inches (49 cm)
- Weight: 3.3 lbs (1.5 kg) without head
- Maximum load: 13 lbs (6 kg)
Induro makes an equivalent carbon fiber model, the CT114, that weighs slightly less (2.8 lbs) and accepts a heavier load (17.6 lbs). These differences are negligible for my purposes. Because the CT114 costs 2.6 times more, however, I opted for AT114.
For those of you who don't already know, carbon fiber is not inherently "better" or more stable than the aluminum equivalent; it just has a higher ratio of stability and rigidity to its weight. The lightness and sturdiness of carbon fiber really come into play when you're dealing with taller tripods with larger diameter legs; with smaller travel tripods, not so much.
Back to the AT114. What I like about it, in no particular order, is that:
- It's small enough to fit into an overhead luggage bag without my having to place it on the diagonal.
- It extends high enough with head attached that I can use an eyelevel viewfinder without having to stoop over or extend the center column. (Keep in mind that I'm only 5 foot-6 inches in height. You taller gents might prefer to use live view instead.)
- It comes with a sturdy, 25-inch long, padded nylon carry case with strap and toolkit.
- It has a built-in bubble level.
- The legs are non-rotating for swift extension and retraction.
- The upper legs are covered with closed-cell foam for more comfortable handheld carry.
- The leg locks are the rubber-covered twist type rather than levers, which are bulkier and have a greater tendency to get snagged on things.
- The lock for the center column is above the spider (the attachment point for the legs). Please refer to the accompanying photo. This makes the tripod slightly longer than it might otherwise be but removes my hands from between the legs, where they have a greater chance of getting scraped or pinched.
The AT114 is rock-solid at minimum extension and becomes increasingly less rigid as you extend it, but even at maximum leg extension I'd feel comfortable using it with a 200mm lens in light wind. That said, it's a good idea to hang your camera bag from the spring-loaded hook at the bottom of the center column for a lower center of gravity and extra stability. If you extend the center column more than an inch or two, however, you're asking for trouble. Since I seldom extend the center column my next purchase will be a short center column, which will allow me to spread the legs and drop the head lower to the ground for macro shots.
As for the head, I attached my Acratech Ultimate Ballhead. Some of you may be amazed to discover that this head costs twice as much as the AT114. Why so much for a head? First, when I bought it the price was closer to $200. Second, because a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I've learned from experience that the weakest link is more often the head than the legs. The Acratech ballhead provides a quick release, adjustable friction, no shift during adjustments, rigid lockdown, and a smooth pan head, all while adding less than a pound of extra weight. If there's sufficient interest I can follow-up with a post on "the perfect ballhead." In the meantime I'll be having fun with my new Induro AT114, giggling at just how tack-sharp my images are, and looking forward to an upcoming trip to Paris, tripod packed and ready for action.