In another blog, I covered the basics of tripods and why we need them. This blog will discuss how I selected my primary tripod, the Gitzo Series 3 Systematic (3542LS). All the tripods I have used previously, even back to the days of yore when I used a really heavy aluminum tripod by Bogen, included center columns. At 5’11”, I don’t need that column to achieve enough height from a tripod to look directly into the camera. The column introduces a weak link in the system. It is the most likely piece to wiggle. A small shift is all it takes for a focus stack or a tilt shift composite to drift off of optimal. I’ve had that column ruin more than one image. Not a big deal if I am still there and can shoot another, but if you discover it later, then that’s a missed shot thanks to gear.
So, my argument is that center columns are not necessary or desirable for most situations. There are some really well made geared columns…there are exceptions…but for the most part the tripod is better off without a center column. Convention includes them and with the column the tripod can go taller with less weight, but it is at cost of stability which is the whole point of the tripod. The high end tripod manufacturers such as Gitzo, Feisol, and Really Right Stuff all feature tripods without columns at the top of their range. The best ones don’t include the column.
I’m a believer in reviews. I read the Google reviews, I watch the YouTube reviews, and perhaps as helpful as all those is to read the reviews on the B&H Photo website. B&H is the country’s big pro camera store, widely used by professionals. My tripod was reviewed by 33 people, many of whom shoot with very large (500 mm plus) lenses, and found it rock solid. The weight is a half pound heavier than the series 2 model, but the reviews were night and day better for the series 3. Series 4 is heavier still, but the added weight does not result in better performance unless you use extremely heavy gear. My tripod is rated for 55 lbs of load. My camera even with a large lens is nowhere near that, thank goodness!
I considered Feisol. They are good and cost less. But the reviews mentioned leg caps that fell off during use and the lack of spiked feet (built in on Gitzo). I don’t want to have to make it work, I want it to work. I considered Really Right Stuff. Their ball heads are second to none. While the reviews were good on these, one mentioned how the factory sent him the part to replace the malfunctioning piece with clear instructions. I don’t want to be on the assembly team for my tripod. If I get a bad one from the factory, then they should pay to have it shipped back and I should get a perfect one. Not a part and some instructions. So the competition simply did not measure up on the reviews and videos I read or watched. I’m sure I read around 100 different reviews. Gitzo’s systematic series simply outdid the others. Some of the lower end models were not as special, but the high end Gitzo did very well.
The articulating arm of the Oben is still useful for some situations and my really light tripod with the Acratech head is good if I have a long hike (not with a super telephoto). But in the studio and for shorter day hikes, I go Gitzo. No center column, a ratcheting system built in that tightens the mounting plate (eliminating the need to carry a little Allen wrench), and very strong and rigid carbon fiber sticks. Nothing to go sideways, wiggle, or get in the way. If I can conjure the picture, the gear won’t be the reason if I have difficulty. It will be there making my life predictable. And, if you shoot wildlife or birds and use a super telephoto, the stability of the Systematic series 3 (or series 4 or 5) will support a Wimberley Gimbal head and allow you freedom of movement with the heavy lens.
Finally, there’s another key reason for getting rid of the center column. If you open the legs of the tripod wide to lower the tripod to ground level, the traditional center column gets in the way of very short tripod height. Some very dramatic landscapes are shot low to the ground. With the Systematic series, there is no column in the way and the tripod can shoot very low to the ground. So get a Gitzo tripod (Series 3 or higher Systematic) and live the life of those pros who all rate it 5 out of 5 stars like me.