GROUP TEST: CARBON- FIBRE TRIPODS UNDER £ 350
In the market for a new tripod? You’re in the right place. Nine models that won’t break the bank are put to the test
THEY'RE ALL CARBON- FIBRE, ALL UNDER £ 350, AND ALL COMPLETELY DIFFERENT! NINE TOP TRIPODS FROM THE BEST KNOWN BRANDS, ALL SUBJECTED TO THE REVEALING SCRUTINY OF OUR UNIQUE NEW TEST PROCEDURE
These tripods have two things in common – they're all carbon- fibre and cost around the £ 300 mark, give or take. But those things aside, they're a very varied bunch, from lightweight travel tripods, to heavier professional standard supports, with some models sporting unusual designs and attractive extras.
Most tripods at this level come without a head, but have a universal 3/ 8in screw on the top platform to fit any head of your choosing. it's important not to skimp on that as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the head is the main user- interface; the bit you actually work with. at the lighter end of the scale, we have the slik Lite, which weighs only around 1kg and can be closed down unbelievably small with that cunning mechanism where the legs fold up and back on themselves to wrap around the ball- head, but then extends into the tallest on test! Can tripods like these really support a full- size dslr and telezoom lens?
the middle ground is well populated with tripods from Benro, Manfrotto, sirui, vanguard and velbon. they include innovative features like articulating centrecolumns and monopod conversion options. one model even offers both, but can still step up to the mark for regular tripod duties.
and, at the more enthusiast end, there are three models that are clearly focused on the vital task of providing super- stable support with fatter leg sections and more robust fixtures, but still with a keen eye on the weight. how much difference do these things make?
to find out, we've developed our usual field analysis and added a new and revealingly accurate test procedure for measuring a tripod's resistance to wind- buffet and mirror- shock. there's no hiding from this one. it's described in the section below, with simple percentage performance data given in each of the respective reviews.
How we did THE Tests
the two enemies of tripod stability are buffeting from the wind, and vibration from the camera's mirror and shutter mechanisms. We set up tests to accurately measure the effects of both, using imatest software to analyse the blurring of real world images. imatest is normally used to measure lens MTF sharpness very precisely, and it does exactly the same thing with movement blur.
the wind effect was generated with an industrial fan, carefully positioned and turned down low to simulate a Gentle Breeze 3 as defined by the Beaufort scale that runs from 0 ( dead calm) to 12 ( hurricane). Gentle Breeze 3 blows at 8- 12mph, set with a calibrated wind meter, and is described as ' leaves and twigs in constant motion, light flags extended.' this proved to be quite a tough and revealing test, but not an unrealistic or unusual one in practice.
a shutter speed of five seconds was found to be the exposure time necessary for consistent results that include all the strongest vibrations as they run down and back up the length of the tripod legs, with oscillations and resonances then clashing together to produce an extra bump. Mirror- shock was measured in the same way with the fan off, at a shutter speed of 1/ 15sec that is usually the worst affected speed with dslrs.
the outfit used in our test weighed 1.9kg and consisted of an enthusiast- level dslr ( Canon eos 7d) fitted with a telephoto zoom ( ef70- 200mm f/ 4L), mounted and balanced via the tripod collar on a high grade arcaswiss p0 head. all the tripods were set at exactly 122cm ( 4ft) high to the top platform, and the figures in each review are the percentage of sharpness compared to control images ranked at 100% taken with the fan off and fast- duration flash. For example, if the control image with flash showed a 100% resolution of 40 lines- per- mm on the test target ( at MTF50), then a tripod scoring 75% would deliver a 30- lpmm resolution image under test conditions.
it's well known that bigger and heavier tripods are more stable, but it's interesting to see how closely this fact was played out in the tests. and in much the same way, if you are able to compare a few tripods side by side, you'll probably be able to rate them in order of performance with a fair degree of accuracy if you set them up to the same working height, then hold two legs and gently push and pull them one against the other. You'll feel movement even with the best tripods, then look down the legs to check flexing around the joints. extend the centre- column and do the same with one hand on top and the other holding the top platform.