Travel tripods: 5 carbon fiber kits reviewed
$330 / £196 - www.sirui-photo.com
|The lever-lock, carbon fiber Sirui ET-1204 and included E-10 head.|
The new Sirui ET-series of tripods is a budget-conscious line of travel tripods from a company already known for offering the best bang for the buck in support equipment (see our review of their K-40x ball head). What sets these ET tripods apart from other Sirui offerings is that these have lever-type leg locks and come with a simplified, E-type ball head included in a kit.
Although Sirui offers its ultra-compact T-0X tripods with a color-matched ball head, the ET-series are the only full-sized models that include everything in one bag. Considering how impressed we were with their largest ball head, we have high expectations for this new line of tripods that caters to the lever-lock crowd.
|Folded size||16.5" (42cm)|
|Maximum height||55.1" (140cm)|
|Height w/ column down||45.7" (116cm)|
|Minimum height||7" (18cm) w/ short column|
|Weight||2.4 lbs (1.1kg)|
|Load limit||17.6 lbs (8kg)|
|# of leg sections||4|
|Leg tube diameters||25 / 22 / 19 / 16mm|
|# of leg angles||3|
|Angle degrees||23 / 52 / 84°|
Below is a relative height comparison between the Sirui ET-1204 and a 6 foot (1.83m) photographer.
Design and features
|The thin, but very conventional ET-1204, with lots of anodized black aluminum.|
The design of all Sirui tripods is almost rigidly consistent. The shiny, black aluminum parts and ubiquitous black foam and rubber grips on various surfaces makes the ET-1204 almost indistinguishable from its siblings, except for the lever locks and very compact ball head. Also in common with other tripods from this brand, the legs can be had in either the carbon fiber tubes seen here, or in aluminum (ET-1004) at a lower price, but with an additional half-pound (220g) of weight.
E-10 ball head
At the heart of the included ball head is a 30mm diameter, coated aluminum ball that moves smoothly under friction. The machined aluminum casing is also very slim and designed to match the size of the ET-1204 platform, and still fit within the legs when they are folded upward for storage.
Unfortunately, the quick release platform is just a bit too big for the legs to be snug against the sides of either the head or the slightly wider platform beneath it. There is always one leg sticking out just a bit more than the other two.
Short center column
The leg angles on the ET-1204 extend as far as 84° outward. With the included short center column, this puts the mounting platform just 5.1" (13cm) off the ground. Add in the E-10 ball head, and the bottom of a camera can go as low as 7" (18cm), which is truly low.
Sirui has thoughtfully included an anti-rotation groove in the carbon fiber short column, but no provision for the weight hook. This means the short column can replace the long column for regular shooting, as long as extra weight isn't needed below it.
The short column can also be screwed onto the center column to add a few more inches of height.
Lever leg locks
In a change from the rest of their tripod designs, Sirui has put lever-type locks on the legs of the ET-series (and the equally new, but larger, EN-series). These locks are naturally reminiscent of Manfrotto's proven designs, with cast metal clamping rings and hard plastic levers to operate them.
Using lever locks reduces the number of parts per lock, and consequently also reduces the assembly time and final cost. This is why the ET-1204 is considered a budget tripod in the Sirui line, despite the nicely made carbon leg tubes.
For many photographers, lever locks are also faster and easier to use than twist locks.
Other included features
|Converts to monopod||---|
|Carrying case included||Yes, padded, with handles and strap|
|Insulated leg grip||Yes, on two legs|
|Non-rotating center column||Yes, grooved|
|Short center column||Yes, grooved|
|Weight hook||Yes, retractable, removable|
|Top plate/ head platform||Metal, reversible mount screw, safe-lock|
|Ball head diameter/ max load||30mm ball, 18kg max load|
|QR plate included||Yes, arca-type, 50mm long|
Construction and handling
|While rather trim overall, the ET-1204 still has some hefty components.|
Aside from the carbon fiber tubes, most of the ET-1204 is made from well-finished aluminum that is anodized a deep, glossy black. This shiny finish is a hallmark of all Sirui products, along with the light blue labels and occasionally wavy rubber grips. The multi-part central hub, or spider, is rather thick for this size of tripod, but keeps a narrow profile for compact stowage.
The construction of the entire kit is consistently tight, and shows an attention to detail that belies the budget label that even Sirui has applied to this line of tripods. The standard, 6 year warranty from Sirui is also reassuring. Considering how many parts it borrows from other Sirui tripods, particularly the T-series, it's hard to find out where costs were cut when making this tripod, other than in the leg locks.
Lever locks mean budget?
Lever-type leg locks are easier to assemble, and have fewer parts, than twist-type locks, but they still require fine engineering to insure they lock securely and hold up to repeated use. Manfrotto has perfected this in their various support products, but Sirui has also come out with a very robust solution. The locks themselves are cast magnesium-alloy with a thick, black coating, while the levers are made of dense plastic. They work well right out of the box, with the right tension on each screw, but their longevity is unknown at this point.
E-10 ball head
While very few Sirui tripods are sold as kits, every model in the new ET-series comes with a head, either the E-10 or larger E-20. The E-10 is a compact cylinder of aluminum, with a 33mm ball and only a single knob for both adjusting the friction and locking that ball. Conveniently, there is also a pan lock knob to go with the indexed base, and all knobs are made entirely of metal. The quick release is basic and functional, but a bit large for the head.
One of the perils of digging in the parts bin is seen in the very large and thick platform that the head is attached to. This is identical to the platform on other Sirui tripods, and is very well made from machined aluminum with a plastic, non-slip surface and a safety screw that can secure the head more than the usual threaded bolt. This platform, and a few of the other oversized, re-used parts, add a little weight and bulk to the whole package.
The missing friction knob?
The E-10 head has only one large knob to control both the friction and locking of the ball, and a smaller knob for the pan lock. However, a knob labeled 'Friction' still showed up on the head in this kit.
Although technically correct, most of us are used to seeing a 'Lock' label on the quick release knob, if anything. This is probably just a production error, but humorous anyhow.
Getting the right angle
Another common element in Sirui tripods are the automatic angle locks, which conveniently click into place as the each leg is pulled down from the stowed position. To change the angle or put the legs back up requires pushing a tab inward to unblock the angle, and on the ET-1204 this tab has to be smaller than most, which gives it a limited range of motion. It is still large enough to be pressed in, but it just barely clears the angle stops when fully depressed. This makes changing the leg angle a bit difficult at first, and something to get used to on this smaller tripod.
We really like the bags that Sirui makes for their tripods, and the ET-1204 inherits this robust and handy carrying case for storage and field use. This bag, combined with the very small packed size and minimal weight of the carbon fiber Sirui, made slinging it over a shoulder for trekking very easy. The full tripod and head combination is so light that we could hang it from a belt loop, or just carry it in one hand while hiking. This usually worked well until the lever locks grabbed onto our pants, or we started clearing brush with it.
Quick set up
While there are opinions on both sides of the lever lock vs. twist lock preference, we found the lever locks of the ET-1204 to be much faster for initial set up than all of the twist locks on the other tripods. Part of this is the levers themselves, which flip open to completely loosen the sections, but also having only three of them to grab with our (admittedly large) hand. Some twist locks can be grabbed three-at-a-time as well, and given a quick twist to unlock, but this doesn't guarantee completely unlocked sections like levers.
Flipping the levers let the carbon leg sections slide out at once, but there was a looseness to the sections that was a bit more than expected, coming from Manfrotto locks. Still, pressing each lever down brought the solid feeling back with a solid snap of the lock. In general, pushing each lever down takes just as much time as twist locks would, but some of the other benefits of lever locks is that they are easier to manipulate for photographers with weaker hands or wrists, and their lock status can be seen with a quick glance.
The full plate
The ET-1204 has a slightly large quick release platform that blocks the legs when they are folded up. However, it also comes with a 50mm wide plate that fits it perfectly.
This plate tended to twist on the bottom of the camera, no matter how tightly it was screwed into the tripod socket. The rubber pads are either too slippery or too few to prevent movement. At the very least, the plate did not obscure the bubble level on the side of the platform.
A matter of height
The Sirui ET-1204 is compact and has only four leg sections, and this combination results in a fairly low maximum height of 4.6 feet (140cm). This makes it the shortest of the carbon fiber tripods being reviewed. Combine that with a 6 foot reviewer, and the center column was extended to some degree throughout the review.
Fortunately, this did not make the tripod feel unstable or wobbly with smaller loads, but with a larger DSLR and heavy lens, the ET-1204 became a bit touchy. So, the column was dropped and a weight bag was added, but this still means this is not an ideal tripod for taller photographers or anyone who needs a higher vantage point.
Stress test results
Leg lock strength
To evaluate the overall strength of the leg locks, a single leg was extended and its lever locks were closed. Weights were then placed directly above the extended leg until either the stated load capacity for the whole tripod was reached, or when any leg lock began to slip.
With lever locks instead of twist locks holding the tubular sections together, the Sirui legs wobbled a bit during extension, but always had a very positive locking action. In the stress test, these locks held fast as the full weight that the tripod can hold was placed upon just one leg, and there was never any hint of lock slip in the field.
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.
Sirui ET-1204 vibration resistance test results - click for larger graph
For comparison, see the reference graph from the 6.4 lb, ash wood Berlebach 2032
The Sirui did a great job minimizing the initial shock, given its minimal mass, and the resulting vibrations were also admirably reduced. When considering typical camera vibrations, this means the ET-1204 will work well with extended exposures, and longer lenses (if they are fairly light). Overall, this an excellent result for such a light and thin tripod, and it further shows that the choice of lever locks over twist makes no difference in vibration resistance.
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 waterfall 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 mental difference between lever locks and twist locks comes up in the cold, and once again we found almost no functional difference. The legs locked as tight as ever, and were easy to open and close with gloves on. The rather small angle locks made it difficult to adjust the angle or fold the tripod up again with thick mitts on, and taking the gloves off exposed fingers to very cold aluminum. Speaking of which, the all metal knobs on the E-10 head may have been somewhat slippery to handle, but we never dared putting bare hands on them at such temperatures. Some rubber wraps would be an immense improvement in the cold.
While Sirui may refer to the ET-series as its budget alternative, and price them accordingly, this combination of a ball head and tripod legs designed for each other, in the same package, is an advantage that many other manufacturers have standardized on. The use of lever locks instead of twist locks makes almost no functional difference in the ET-1204, when compared to its contemporaries, so this becomes a matter of personal preference (with the Sirui T-1204 as the twist lock variant).
However, many parts are borrowed from the production lines of other tripods, and sometimes these parts are too bulky for such a slim product. Everything is well assembled, though, and Sirui offers a compelling, lightweight travel package at a very reasonable price.
What we like:
- Very solid lever leg locks
- Compact ball head is very good
- Good for low-height shooting
- Very good vibration resistance
What we don't like:
- Not quite tall enough for packed size
- Some shared parts seem too big
- Unknown longevity
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