Travel tripods: Comparing 5 aluminum kits
Dolica LX600B502D/S Ultra Premium
$250 / £150 www.dolica.com
|The Dolica LX600B502D/S Ultra Premium tripod, or just LX600 for short.|
Dolica is a US company that is best known for their variety of tripods in the $80-and-under price category, while the tripod under review is literally their "ultra premium" offering. In fact, the full name of the product is the Dolica LX600B502D/S Ultra Premium Professional tripod, leaving no doubt about the aspirations of this product. The same tripod components and head are also available with carbon fiber leg tubes at a higher price, but the name begins with CX instead of LX. In regards to the name, this review will shorten the alphanumeric jumble to just "LX600."
|Folded size||16.2" (42cm)|
|Maximum height||60" (152cm)|
|Height w/ column down||50" (127cm)|
|Minimum height||15" (38cm)|
|Weight||3.5 lbs (1.6kg)|
|Load limit||20 lbs (9.1kg)|
|# of leg sections||4|
|Leg tube diameters||25 / 22 / 19 / 16mm|
|# of leg angles||3|
|Angle degrees||23 / 55 / 85°|
Below is a relative height comparison between the Dolica LX600 and a 6 foot (1.83m) photographer.
Design and features
|The full kit from Dolica, in the only bright finish available.|
Dolica does not break any new ground with the design of the LX600, and many of the features on this kit can be found on other tripods, but typically not at this price point. The marketing blurb for this tripod series (which includes the carbon fiber model) starts off saying 'it’s the only Dolica tripod that utilizes ultra-precise CNC machining to create 95% of the parts of the tripod.' While this is apparently where the ultra premium label comes from, how it is made is only a part of what makes a travel tripod a good companion. Here are some of the features that further distinguish this tripod from the other Dolica offerings.
CNC ball head
Tripods from Dolica invariably come in a kit with a head of some sort, and the LX600 is no exception. The included ball head is also primarily made from CNC machined aluminum, and has a case that is finished in the same bright silver as the leg set components.
The controls on this head are minimal, with just a large knob to set both the amount of friction and to lock the ball in place, and a smaller knob to enable panning the head on the indexed base. With just two knobs, this makes the head easy to fit between the folded legs of the tripod, with only the quick release platform taking up extra room at the top.
Automatic leg angle locks
When the tripod legs are folded 180° around the center column, just pulling them down starts the satisfying click of the spring-loaded angle locks. Each of the three angles can be easily set either by pulling the leg down, or pressing the tilting angle lock button inward and pushing the leg back up.
Detachable monopod leg
Barely visible in the photo to the left is the faint label for the detachable monopod leg. Unscrewing this leg reveals a standard 3/8" threaded post that will allow adding the center column to get up to 60" (152cm) in monopod height, or to attach the included ball head (or other head) directly.
Short-throw twist locks
Along with much of the rest of the LX600, the leg locks and column lock are machined from aluminum. Inside the locks are plastic sleeves and other components, but outside is the same bright metal and rubber seen elsewhere.
The leg locks have a short throw, meaning they take very little twisting to unlock. They will continue turning long past the unlock point, so locking them again can be more than that initial quick twist.
There is also the requisite sticker to indicate which direction to turn the lock, and, of course, the 'Ultra Premium Professional Tripod' label.
Other included features
|Converts to monopod||Yes, 60" (152cm) max height|
|Carrying case||Yes, unpadded, with shoulder strap|
|Insulated leg grip||Yes, on all three legs|
|Removable feet||Yes, spikes included|
|Non-rotating center column||Yes, grooved|
|Short center column||---|
|Weight hook||Yes, retractable, removable|
|Top plate/ head platform||Metal, reversible mount screw, safe-lock|
|Ball head diameter/ max load||33mm ball, 15kg max load|
|QR plate included||Yes, arca-type, 50mm long|
Construction and handling
|Smile! It's a shiny, aluminum Dolica.|
By trumpeting the use of CNC machining for the aluminum parts in their Ultra Premium tripod, Dolica is distancing this product from their own (and other) cheaper tripods, which are usually made with thinner, cast magnesium-alloy parts. That said, there are so many variables in casting magnesium-alloy and machining aluminum, that the fundamental differences in weight, strength and durability can sometimes be negligible. Still, it’s a safe bet that a tripod marketed at $40 will have inferior parts to another, sold by the same company, for $200.
Fit and finish, in silver
Obviously, the LX600 hardware is primarily made from machined aluminum (aside from steel screws, brass washers, and rubber grips), and the bright silver finish emphasizes this material choice. The ultra premium Dolica is not even available in standard-issue black, much less the galaxy of anodized colors that some other tripod brands offer. While the silver finish is consistent, some parts of the tripod (specifically the leg locks and head platform) have sharper edges and rougher detailing.
The general construction of the Dolica is also a mixed bag, with some of the machined aluminum parts fitting together with tight tolerances and minimal gaps, while other parts wiggle and shift around more than expected. Along with the occasional rough edge, this makes it seem like the ultra premium label only applies to some parts and not others.
Some of the leg sections rattle against each other when they are all unlocked and extended, but firm up when each twist lock is tightened. This would be unsurprising if they were secured with flip-locks with a large range of motion, but most twist locks only unscrew enough for the tubes to slide out slowly and confidently. The leg locks were tested (below) for strength, and they passed with flying colors, so the only explanation is that the tubes or the locks are not a consistent size.
Leg angle buttons
The leg angle locks in particular are not quite as good as the rest of the LX600. While they're easy to use and click positively with each new angle when the tripod is unfolded, pressing them reveals a sloppiness that doesn't inspire confidence. They shift up and down in their slots at the top of each leg, when they should just tilt in and out like the button they are designed to emulate.
Along with this, the aluminum of the lock tabs is rather thin compared to similar parts on competing tripods. These spring-loaded squares of metal, wedged between the central hub and the leg, are the only thing holding each leg at its angle (and taking much of the load from above in compression), so even with solid locks holding the leg sections together, the weight limit for the Dolica is not something to test out regularly.
85 degrees but no lower
A curious feature on the LX600 is that the available leg angles go all the way down to 85°, which puts the legs nearly horizontal. However, Dolica doesn't include a short column to take advantage of this low situation, and one isn't even available as an extra purchase. This is disappointing, considering how close to the ground the center of the tripod can go.
Note: The image illustrates the leg angles. For the best stability, the center column should be down with the legs at the next higher angle.
Ultra premium ball head
The ball head included with the Dolica LX600 is similarly made from CNC machined aluminum, with metal knobs and a simple, but robust quick release platform. The 33mm ball is coated and moves smoothly under friction, even with fairly substantial loads. However, with only a single knob for friction and locking, and no provision for setting a minimum friction amount, the Dolica ball head may not be ideal for heavy lenses. The only construction issue with the head was a slightly cockeyed lock knob on the test unit (as seen in the front views).
One slight design misstep is the bubble level that is embedded on the base of the quick release. While it's nice to be able to tell when the platform is level, most often this is done with a camera on the head. Leveling just the empty quick release, and then attaching the camera, adds weight that will almost invariably cause the ball to move, defeating the action of pre-leveling.
A pretty nice platform
The platform underneath the head is similarly machined from aluminum, while many other tripods use cast platforms or even plastic. Within this platform is a small screw that can be turned from below to press on the bottom of the ball head. This safety-lock prevents the head from coming unscrewed off the platform, and is a detail usually only found on better tripods.
The platform itself can be unscrewed off the column to reverse the mounting screw from 3/8" to 1/4" threads, and it can also be attached to the bottom of the center column (after removing the retractable weight hook) for low-angle shots. Very convenient!
|The Dolica LX600 in the field again, once spring has arrived.|
With all of the fretting over the build quality and materials done with, the Dolica LX600 happily did its job as a stable support companion on some truly cold and adventurous photoshoots in the field. Yes, there were times when setting a minimum friction amount on the ball head would have been great, and the rattles in the legs and angle locks continued, but overall the tripod did not feel overtly cheap or insubstantial. In fact, it became one of the preferred tripods to use because its few faults don't really affect any function, just the feel.
A current trend in tripods is to offer one leg that can be unscrewed from the leg joint just below the central hub spider, and used as a collapsible monopod. This is very convenient, as monopods are really just a single tripod leg anyhow, and sometimes this is all the support needed for a certain photo expedition. Why carry more than you have to, and even better, why buy a fourth leg at all?
3/8" standard bolt
The LX600 monopod leg is quite useful in the field, since it requires no tools to assemble and has a 3/8" threaded bolt on top to accept either the center column for extra height, or the included ball head. With this type of attachment screw, there is no need to take the head platform off the center column as most other convertible tripods require.
Beyond this detail, the monopod was quite sturdy for quick photos. With the included spike feet installed, it also made walking across ice less of a trial.
Once comfortable with the idiosyncrasies of the Dolica, most of the construction and quality issues faded to the back of the mind. There was just one little gremlin left to remind us of the budget build of this tripod, and that was a hard to place, occasional rattle when extending or collapsing the legs very quickly or when planting the locked legs very firmly.
Eventually the rattle was tracked down to ill-fitting screw threads on the removable rubber feet. The rattles began after swapping the standard feet out for the (included) spikes, and then replacing the rubber feet. After tightening one down, the rattle would eventually return and it would be yet another foot coming loose. They never actually came off, but it was way too easy to accidentally start them unscrewing after breaking the seal, so to speak, with that first swap of footgear.
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 the stated load capacity for all three legs was reached, or until any leg lock began to slip.
The Dolica twist locks required quite a rotation to lock, but then they comfortably withstood the rated load limit of 20 lbs (9kg), and never showed any signs of slipping during field use with much smaller loads. The only issue was unlocking them after the stress test, as they had become quite hard to turn, but this is unlikely to be a common occurrence.
Vibration can make even the sharpest lens turn out mushy, blurred photos. While vibration from the camera can be minimized with mirror lockup or a remote shutter release, and environmental vibrations like wind and moving water can be eased by adding weight to the bottom of the tripod (with the weight hook or a stone bag), not all vibration can be eliminated. So, we tested whether the tripod will dampen vibrations or transmit and reflect them to the camera.
With the legs fully extended and the center column lowered, our vibration analyzer (an iPad on a 3 lb (1.36kg) aluminum block) was mounted to the ball head with a long lens plate. A large solenoid valve with a plastic hammer was then used as a consistent 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 head to the initial shock, as well as the rate of decay for residual vibration within the tripod.
|Dolica LX600B502DS vibration resistance test results - click the image for a larger graph
For comparison, see the reference graph from the 6.4 lb, ash wood Berlebach 2032
The Dolica LX600 did surprsingly well in the test, both minimizing the initial shock and damping the vibrations. In fact, the results are almost as good as some higher-end carbon fiber tripods, even though the all-aluminum Dolica feels a bit loose in overall construction. Regardless of what combination of factors is responsible, this performance is admirable.
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.
The ultra-premium Dolica was easy to transport in the extreme cold and snow due to the thick foam on all three legs, which made it very easy to grab with thin, shooting gloves on. The rubber gripped leg locks and ball head lock knob were big enough to be turned with thicker mitts on, with only the pan lock and quick release knobs being a little small, smooth and fiddly in the cold. The ball head was considerably harder to pan in the cold, but the ball action remained fairly smooth. Overall, there was little to complain about with the LX600 in the snow and ice.
All too often, the comparative market price of a product is used as a shorthand for what you can expect; in other words, "you get what you pay for." In the case of the Dolica LX600... Ultra Premium tripod, this frequently misguided judgement cuts both ways. This tripod kit offers far more in terms of features, performance and utility than other Dolica products at lower prices, but also falls short of the build quality (and potential durability) of pricier competing brands.
Where the LX600 aluminum kit really exceeds expectations is that it continues to work well in adverse conditions and under the (sometimes extreme) stress tests it was subjected to. So, in that regard, Dolica is delivering a very good tripod at a fair price, even if what they consider 'ultra premium' in their catalog is just where some other brands start.
What we like:
- Competitive features (auto-angle locks, monopod leg)
- Simple, but quality ball head
- Very good vibration resistance
- Low price, high value
What we don't like:
- Inconsistent finish quality
- A few rattles and wiggles
- Lack of short column