All manufacturers and retailers sing many songs about the durability of the products they sell, but very few offer factual reports of how products have faired after serious use. I believe in the products that I recommend to people and am more than happy to report on the actual durability of those products, based on heavy use by a professional. This is the first long term review of a product and there are more on the way. The aim is to provide you with honest and unbiased information on the products’ strong and weak points when put to serious use. This is all part of our dedication to educating our clients about why our products are the best and worth their price tags…
The Gitzo GT3541XLS
It has been to Iceland, Patagonia, Italy, Seychelles, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and of course all over South Africa. I got my first Gitzo tripod in May 2012, putting it at an age of approximately 3 years. Before my enlightenment about Gitzo, I was a frustrated Manfrotto supporter. Despite rigorous maintenance, all my manfrotto tripods ended up beyond repair within 24 months or less. Many of my friends were using the Gitzo GT3541LS and highly recommended it, so I bit the bullet and ordered one from the supplier. They made a mistake with the order, but offered to fix the situation by giving me the extra long GT3541XLS for the price of the normal one – very nice of them. So it was actually by accident that I got the extra long version, but I consider it fate.
Anyway, this article is not to sell anyone on the extra long tripod, it’s to testify on the durability of Gitzo tripods.
Frequency of Use
The most important thing to look at is how much I use my tripod. Saying that I’ve had it for three years can mean absolutely anything. One needs to determine how many days/hours it has been used. I shoot roughly 200 days of the year and the average shoot is 3 hours, twice a day. So multiply 3 years x 200 days x 6 hours and you should get an answer of 3600 hours of use. Let’s say that I exaggerated and round it down to 2500 hours. Back in 2012, the tripod cost a reasonable R9000.00 whereas today, our bipolar exchange rate has brought it up to R11495.00. Divide the price by the hours and the calculator says that I’ve paid R4.60/hour for my beloved tripod. That is in my opinion, a very fair rate.
Unless you look closely, it still looks quite new.
Maintenance and Service
Another critical factor is how the tripod is treated. I would like to think that my tripod is put through pretty intensive use, but with good sense and care. The first thing is that I give it a good service at least twice a year. This means taking the legs and their joints apart and washing it all with warm water and some dishwashing soap. The joint threads are gently scrubbed with a toothbrush to get sand and dirt out and the legs are thoroughly wiped down with a cloth. Once everything has dried, some of the supplied Gitzo lubrication grease is applied to the joint threads and the tripod is reassembled. It’s a time-consuming job, but the tripod feels new again after a decent service.
The fact that Gitzo gives lubrication with the tripod is a clear sign that it needs to be serviced. If you leave your tripod’s fate in the hands of the elements, it will have a short lifespan. It is a moving mechanical device made up of many different pieces and materials and if used outdoor, it needs to be cleaned in order to ensure a long lifespan.
Used or Abused?
A popular lesson taught in photography clubs and magazines is to always extend the lowest leg section last, because it is the thinnest and most likely to cause vibration. That is good advice when shooting on floors or paved surfaces, but horrible advice when shooting in nature. If the lowest leg is extended last, then there will usually be a joint right at the bottom of the leg. If the tripod is then set up in dirt, sand, mud etc., the user will be submerging the leg joint in that element. Now regardless of how much a tripod costs, any material that can enter the joint is it’s worst enemy. If you ever shoot outdoors, you need to make a habit of always extending the lowest leg first so that the joint is far away from the ground.
This practice has been programmed into my subconscious, but my joints still end up in the elements every now and then. When I need to shoot as low as possible, the joints will be at the bottom of the legs and it will thus end up in the elements. What I often do is to put any kind of bag over each leg and fix it with an elastic band. Never ever underestimate how much damage it does to your tripod to get dirt in the joints. The number one thing you can do to prolong the life of your tripod is to keep the joints dry and clean. Seawater is also detrimental as the water may escape, but the salt accumulates on the mechanical parts, accelerating all wear and tear.
I believe that I have good tripod use practice, but it is inevitable that joints will sometimes end up in seawater, sand, mud, snow etc. and my tripod’s joints have been in it all.
There are always factors outside of the owner’s control that might cause serious damage to a tripod and of course it has happened to me in 600 days of shooting. I have slipped and fell onto my tripod twice while walking and I’m over 100kg. On both occasions it escaped problem free. I have dropped the tripod numerous times and apart from the odd scratch it hasn’t caused any serious damage. It has been through international airports’ luggage systems countless time without any problems, both in my bag and just in it’s own thin polyester bag.
As can be expected, it is no longer the shiny new tripod that I got three years ago. The apex/baseplate is full of knocks and scratches and the legs also have their fair share. The rubber joints are faded from perishing due to the elements and the coating on the baseplate has started flaking off around the areas that took a serious knock. The only part not made from an expensive material, a steel bolt at the top of each leg, is well rusted from countless seaside sunsets.
None of this makes the tripod any less functional; it just looks less shiny, which doesn’t matter.
There are only two major problems, but neither makes the tripod unusable. Both just compromise slightly on the use of it.
The first is that the rubber grips on the joints have started to come loose from the joint. When you rotate the joint to lock it, the rubber grip slips and you have to really hold it firmly to lock the joint properly. There was just one loose in January, which I fixed with a multi-purpose glue. As the 2015 travel season is now coming to an end and almost 100 shooting days lie behind me, two of the grips have come loose and I will use stronger glue next time.
The second problem happened after about two years and I’m not sure what caused it. Upon disassembling the legs for a service I discovered that I could no longer take section 4 out of section 3 on one of the legs. My suspicion is that the guide plates caught on the inside edge of the joint and bent outwards. I then tried to use force to get it out, which probably just bent it further outwards and made it more difficult to get out.
If you don’t know what the guide-plates are; they are like a grooved collar that fits around the outside of a leg. The groove lines up with a guide on the inside of the larger tube and this prevents the legs from being able to rotate within each other. The leg tubes fit into each other with fractions of a millimeter to spare, in order to ensure good stability. So if the guide plate had bent outwards just ever so slightly, section 4 would have jammed within section 3. The only serious consequence of this is that I can’t clean the joint threads of section 4 on one leg and its operation is thus a bit grittier than the other well-maintained joints.
So after roughly 2500 hours of intense use, I still have a functional tripod that could well go another 2500 hours. Considering how much use I’ve obtained from the money invested, I think I can treat myself to the newer GT3542LS. The old one will get a decent service and be dedicated for sea and sand use. For a tripod to still be in good functional condition after what I’ve put it through is testament to the design and engineering that goes into these brilliant products.
So if you’re asking yourself the question of whether it’s worth shelling out around R10000 on a Gitzo Systematic tripod…figure out how many hours you shoot in a year and you should be able to calculate how long it will last you based on my experience. That is of course if you service it regularly and practice good tripod etiquette. For a professional it can offer anything from 3-10 years of loyal service depending on frequency and intensity of use. For a hobbyist it can last a lifetime if well looked after.
I’d be very interested to hear other peoples’ experiences with their tripods, whether Gitzo, one of the Gitzo copies like Benro or the super cheap brands available from non-photographic stores.