Travel tripods: 5 carbon fiber kits reviewed
Gitzo Series 1 Traveler GK1580TQD4
$800 / £560 - www.gitzo.com
|The Gitzo Series 1 Traveler GK1580TQD4 kit with a Traveler ball head.|
Gitzo is one of the best known tripod brands around, and it pioneered the 180° upward-folding legs that are one of the requirements for this group of travel tripods. Along with this, the folks in Italy (who share factories and a parent company with Manfrotto) have stuck to a relatively slow, but continuous cycle of improvement in their premium support systems. While many other companies jump from one new thing to another, adding monopod legs or various materials and colors, Gitzo continues to design and finish its tripods with a consistency that is instantly recognizable and frequently emulated by others.
The 'Series 1' in the name of this kit means this tripod has the smallest diameter leg tubes (24mm top section) of the Traveler tripods from Gitzo. A Series 2 tripod would have a larger leg tube diameter, and proportionally larger components all over, in order to support a greater amount of gear and possibly greater height. The ball head in this kit is also Series 1, in order to best match the tripod beneath it.
|Folded size||16.1" (41cm)|
|Maximum height||61" (155cm)|
|Height w/ column down||50" (127cm)|
|Minimum height||9.5" (24cm)|
|Weight||3.1 lbs (1.4kg)|
|Load limit||12 lbs (5.5kg)|
|# of leg sections||4|
|Leg tube diameters||24 / 20 / 16 / 12mm|
|# of leg angles||2|
|Angle degrees||23 / 70°|
Below is a relative height comparison between the Gitzo Series 1 Traveler and a 6 foot (1.83m) photographer.
Design and features
|Tall and thin is the theme of the Gitzo Traveler series.|
The design of the Gitzo Traveler has changed a few times over the years, but has always stayed true to the concept of a very compact, light, and capable tripod. A decade ago, it was Gitzo that introduced the 180° flip up legs to further reduce the size of the tripod for packing. This idea has become a feature in the travel tripods produced by almost every manufacturer, and is one of the criteria for grouping these tripods together.
While the full kit name for this combination of head and legs is the GT1580TQD4, the two major parts are the GT1544 Traveler leg set, and the GH1781QD Traveler ball head, with the new D-profile, arca-compatible quick release system. Both of these products are available separately, but the kit lowers the combined price and ensures that they are appropriately sized for one another.
GH1781QD Traveler ball head
The compact 'bubble' (hollow) ball inside the magnesium casing of the Traveler ball head is 30mm in diameter, and holds up a modest 12 lbs (5.5 kg), like the legs beneath them. The casing has three indents where the tripod legs can fold up around the head and take up the least amount of room in a bag or when handheld.
Gitzo says that the Traveler series heads are literally "stripped down" versions of their larger ball heads, with the intention to minimize weight and allow for this very compact stowage. In the case of the GH1781, this means both the ball and the panning base are controlled with a single knob. However, the new arca-compatible quick release ('D-profile') is very large.
Elegant central hub
When looking at the central hub (or spider) of the Traveler, it's quite apparent that advanced magnesium alloy casting and finishing have allowed for the design of a very slim, but high strength part. This central hub of this compact Gitzo makes other tripod hubs seem overweight and bulky.
With just enough metal to reach each leg pivot, and an upward sweeping profile to add the needed structure, Gitzo's engineers clearly took their design cues from biomorphism (imitating the natural growth of biologic shapes). There is just enough metal arranged to satisfy the function. This makes a beautiful design detail at the literal crux of the Traveler series of tripods.
Automatic angle locks
One of the more interesting developments as the Gitzo Traveler series has progressed is the inclusion of automatic leg angle locks. The Gitzo design for these locks is a sideways-sliding block that fits into the variable spaces left by the ridges of the unique central hub.
As each angle is approached, the spring-loaded block clicks into place and the angle is set on the way down. Pushing the lock to the side to adjust the angle upward takes only a single finger when manipulating the leg, thanks to the nicely shaped indent.
The leg locks on almost all Gitzo tripods are their G-Lock (gravity lock) style, which continue to tighten as the vertical load increases, and require only a short twist to lock. Gitzo leg locks are designed to be user-serviceable, for cleaning and replacing parts, which promises a very long life for the whole tripod.
Carbon fiber legs only
All of the Traveler series tripods have carbon fiber leg tubes. In fact, very few Gitzo tripods come with aluminum legs, and even fewer with their interesting 'basalt' composite material. This brand has long been identified with quality carbon fiber, and this tripod is no exception.
Other included features
|Converts to monopod||---|
|Carrying case included||---|
|Insulated leg grip||---|
|Non-rotating center column||Yes, grooved|
|Short center column||Yes, column-less connection|
|Weight hook||Yes, retractable, removable|
|Top plate/ head platform||Plastic, integrated into ball head|
|Ball head diameter/ max load||30mm ball, 5.5kg max load|
|QR plate included||Yes, arca-type, 70mm long|
Construction and handling
The construction of Gitzo tripods is characterized by a very precise balance between the minimum amount of material for maximum structural benefit. While the metal parts of the Traveler may look insubstantial, everything feels completely solid, without any wiggle or flex. Even the leg locks and center column lock seem to only allow the tubes to move freely but never wobble.
The splatter finish on all of the cast magnesium parts is called 'noir décor' by Gitzo, and it has proven to be a very durable finish, along with making Gitzo products distinct in the marketplace. Beyond this, every lock, bolt and mechanism is designed and assembled with an attention to detail that isn't often seen on something as pedestrian as a tripod. Some other premium gear manufacturers achieve this level of fit and finish, but rarely with the mass-market efficiency of Gitzo.
Gitzo 6X carbon fiber
The carbon fiber tubes on all Gitzo tripods are manufactured through a pultrusion process (as opposed to rolling layered sheets together), which was unusual and innovative when Gitzo introduced this into camera support gear almost 20 years ago. More importantly, the ratio of carbon fibers to bonding material with this process can be very high, so the wall thickness (and weight) of the tubes can be minimized for equivalent strength. While this may not be something noticed in day-to-day work with the tripod, it helps explain the stiff structural feel of the legs, and of course the premium price.
A slight difference in models
As mentioned above, the legs in this kit are the GT1544T set, but Gitzo also sells a GT1542T leg set (watch that last numeral), which is almost identical, except for a longer center column and curiously lower price. See the images below for an idea of how these pack, and imagine a compact ball head on top of either column. This is why the 1544 model is used in this space-saving kit.
|The GT1544T, where the head fits inside the legs.||The GT1542T adds 7cm, but the head sticks out.|
All of Gtizo’s Traveler Center Ball heads are single knob designs with an emphasis on reducing weight and profile size. While they definitely contribute to how tight the whole package will fold up, the use of a single knob seems only to differentiate these heads from the rest of the line. Many other manufacturers have managed to put a second pan control knob onto their compact heads and still have legs fold up around them, so it’s curious that both Gitzo and Manfrotto stick to this very stripped down version of a ball head. At least Gitzo uses a captive knob, and has a fairly firm ball pressure, unlike their Manfrotto cousins.
Gigantic quick release
Recently, both Gitzo and Manfrotto added arca-compatible quick releases to some of their products. In the past, their heads were only available with proprietary releases or just a platform and bolt.
The Gitzo 'D-profile' release is a very large, lever-action platform with a snap-in/ snap-out mechanism to allow very quick equipment changes. This release is also convertible to Gitzo C-profile proprietary plates, and is adjustable for plates of differing widths.
Less than lifetime warranty
One unfortunate change in Gitzo tripods over the years is their warranty. In the not-too-distant past, the warranty period was confidently placed at 'lifetime.' Whether this meant the life of the photographer or of the company was not disclosed, but today the Gitzo warranty period is the industry standard of five years. Where the Gitzo (and Manfrotto) tripod lifespan still differs from many other brands is that parts for these tripods can be obtained after that five years is over, and even after the tripod model has been discontinued. Not exactly guaranteed for life, but still backed up for a long time to come.
|Anything above the ball on a Gitzo Series 1 Traveler looks comparatively giant.|
In our field testing, the Gitzo Traveler lived up to its name as a compact and very light kit, and could be carried in one hand or strapped to a bag without much concern during hikes or moving around. This is a good thing, as Gitzo only provides a thin, black Tyvek™ dust bag, which is great for storage, but won't stand up to the rigors of field use. The GC1201T bag for the Series 1 Traveler is a pricey ($70) accessory to supplement this kit.
Along with a select few other tripods, the GT1544T quickly became a preferred set of legs when using smaller cameras and lenses. The automatic leg locks and easy to turn G-Locks combined to make setup a breeze, and the overall height was a surprising bonus for such a light and small addition to the gear bag. It's almost as if Gitzo has spent decades refining the Traveler series of tripods for exactly this type of field use!
Off with their head
Perhaps the most inconvenient omission in the Traveler series ball head is the lack of a separate knob to control the panning base. The ball itself has a slightly rough motion, but is never sticky, and the lock knob provides good friction feedback. While the whole head can hold up a decent-sized DSLR and lens (within its limited capacity), the problems begin when a simple pan is desired.
To pan the head, the knob must be turned beyond the point where the ball is completely unlocked. This requires having one hand to steady the camera so it doesn't fall, while the other turns the knob very carefully. Once the panning base is unlocked, there is still a certain amount of friction applied to the ball, so it won't flop loosely in the case, but it's still far too easy to change the tilt of the camera. Once the ball stem is in the drop slot and the camera is tilted 90°, using this single knob makes a bit more sense, but maintaining any upward angle during a pan is still a hand-holding chore.
In the field, it was frustrating and tiring to work like this, particularly in comparison to all the other heads (save the Manfrotto BeFree) that have a separate pan lock knob. One blessing is that Gitzo thoughtfully includes a spare column platform for using a different head on the legs (the GH1781QD head connects directly to the column). After a couple of outings, trying really hard to use the single knob, we just couldn't be bothered anymore and put another brand's head on top.
Ground level set
Many Gitzo tripods can have their center column removed, and replaced with the long bolt of the weight hook screwed into the head platform to create a connection inside the center column lock. This allows a very low camera position, called the ground level set, without needing a short column.
This also means there is one less part to include or purchase separately, and the tripod can convert to this low setting at any time in the field. The only disadvantage with the Traveler kit is that the platform is an integral part of the head. So, there is precious little way to put a different head, or other attachment, on top without also bringing the spare platform.
Stress test results
Leg lock strength
To evaluate the overall strength of the leg locks, a single leg was extended and its twist locks were hand-tightened twice (once to lock, and a second twist to insure they were set). Weights were then placed directly above the extended leg (or monopod, for convertible tripods) until either a leg lock began to slip, or the stated load capacity for the tripod was reached.
Gitzo's patented G-lock leg locks remained solid up to the rather conservative maximum load rating of the whole kit. The locks themselves did not require an extra twist to lock down, and there was never any slippage encountered in the field or any normal usage.
Vibrations can make even the sharpest lens turn out mushy, blurred photos, and can ruin long exposures. Camera vibration can be mechanically minimized with mirror lockup, electronic shutters, and a remote shutter release, while adding weight to the bottom of the tripod (with the weight hook or a tripod stone bag) can help with environmental vibrations like wind, water, and passing trucks. However, not all vibration can be eliminated, so we tested whether the tripod will dampen them or transmit and reflect them to the camera.
The tripod legs were fully extended with the center column lowered, and our high-tech vibration analyzer (an iPad on a 3 lb (1.36kg) aluminum block) was mounted to the ball head with a long lens plate. An industrial solenoid valve with a plastic hammer was used as a source of vibration (a knock to the bottom of one leg). The resulting graph of all three accelerometers shows both the resistance of the tripod and ball head to the initial shock, as well as the rate of decay for residual vibration within the tripod.
Gitzo Traveler kit vibration resistance test results - click for larger graph
For comparison, see the reference graph from the 6.4 lb, ash wood Berlebach 2032
The compact Gitzo performed very well in the vibration test. Although it transmitted quite a bit of the initial shock to the camera position, the carbon fiber legs and magnesium components damped the vibration quickly and admirably. This performance is among the best of the reviewed tripods, particularly when factoring in the Series 1 Traveler's light weight and thin legs.
Cold weather use
All of the travel tripods in this group were used extensively in one of the harshest and coldest Canadian winters in recent memory. In fact, the initial group photos were taken on a sunny day at -13° F (-25° C)! While this extreme temperature doesn't affect the function of the tripod legs as much as the ball head, there were still things to note.
Without any foam grip on the legs, the Traveler was a bit tricky to grab in the cold when the gloves were off, but carbon fiber does not conduct heat away from bare skin anywhere near as fast as aluminum, so it was not painful. The G-locks remained easy to use in the cold, and the automatic leg angle locks could still be manipulated even with thick mitts on. The only real negatives are the permanent rubber leg tips that prevent the use of spikes or Gitzo's fine snow shoes, and the single knob for the ball head was slippery and small under a gloved hand.
There is no doubt that Gitzo can make a fine tripod, and their Series 1 Traveler is a great showcase of how to minimize weight and bulk while retaining all the stability and rigidity required of a tripod of this size. The automatic leg locks are a great addition to the series, while the proven design of the legs has been refined to hit the sweet spot between height, weight, and load capacity for many traveling photographers.
Unfortunately, the ball head in the kit was disappointing, both in the roughness of its function and the handicap of a single control knob. The D-profile quick release worked very well, but is huge for a tripod as otherwise compact as the Series 1 Traveler. In conclusion, the GT1544T is probably the best set of legs we tested for travel and general-purpose use with lighter gear, but the GH1781QD head in this kit is just not at the same level. This head takes the kit from a potential 5 star rating down to 4, unfortunately.
What we like:
- Slim and light while feeling rock solid
- Extremely compact when folded
- Outstanding build quality
- Very good vibration dampening
What we don't like:
- Single knob ball head with huge QD release
- No carrying case included
- Premium price