Choosing a tripod can be quite a difficult decision. There is always a compromise that you have to make somewhere. We want stability, light weight, low price and large size pretty much as an ultimate goal when selecting a set of tripod legs. The problem is that we rarely get more than two of those options ticked off. So we have to make a compromise. Good tripods essentially manage to tick off three of those four. Great tripods tick all four boxes with the large caveat that one of those criteria are in relation to its peers (for example ‘well priced’ in relation to its competition does not mean cheap). Aluminium tripods are an attempt to get the most bang for buck out of a tripod, but they come with the hefty (excuse the pun) drawback of increased weight.
Enter the SIRUI N-3004x aluminium tripod. I was recently sent a set of legs by SunshineCo to drag about the Wild Coast on a workshop I would be leading. So, my primary set of tripod legs, a carbon fiber FLM, were relegated to time-lapse and backup duty while I dutifully turned the set of aluminium legs into my primary tripod for the trip. This meant that they were put through their paces as if they were the only legs I owned. This means actually carrying the tripod for miles along the coastline, setting up quickly and being doused by the occasional rogue wave. To which I would say they performed… admirably.
The N-3004x is constructed entirely of aluminium. The apex is made from a specially forged aluminium that is then black anodised. The leg tubes seem to be of a relatively thick wall, meaning that the tripod has sacrificed weight for durability (light-weight aluminium tripods tend to be less durable and less stable than their similarly weighted carbon fiber counterparts).
Inside the leg tubes have shallow channels that allow for non-rotating leg segments thanks to a plastic cir-clip at the top of each segment (this is a part that gave issues in the M-3204x that I tested in 2014 – it seems to be improved in this N-3004x model). The leg locks are similarly made from aluminium and are wrapped in a high-quality rubber that gives good grip and didn’t slip at all during use. The feet are made from nice grippy rubber and have a built in stainless steel retracting spike.
The centre-column splits in two to allow for a low-level ground kit (basically the full centre column is made of a long tube for centre column use, and a shorter retaining tube for when no centre-column is required). Interestingly the internal part that hooks the long centre-column tube to the shorter ground kit centre-column piece is made from carbon fiber.
The most delicate parts are probably the small stainless-steel springs behind the leg angle locks. These springs allow the leg angles to click back into position when you are closing the tripod legs. SIRUI state on their website that these springs have been stress-tested 100, 000 times to make sure that they continue to work. I can’t say that I tried out that number, but the part seems easy enough to replace. Plus, there’s the 6 year warranty that comes with all of SIRUI’s tripods, so even if the springs do go after a few years, chances are SIRUI will honour their warranty.
As with SIRUI’s top of the line carbon fibre tripods, the N-3004x comes with all the trimmings. The centre pole separates easily and quickly to become a ground level tripod. The legs fold over the head in the now de rigueur style of the travel tripod (really? it’s made of aluminium). The feet have some of the best recessed spikes I have had the pleasure to use. The legs spread in three angles to just under 90 degrees (meaning ground level use). One of the legs is removable to become a solid eye-level (for a 6ft2” user) monopod. Two of the upper leg tubes are wrapped in cushiony neoprene foam to aid handling. Both the ground level kit and the full centre pole have a recessed and strong stainless-steel hook for hanging weight off of. There are even little niceties like a rubber collar around the centre-pole head so that the legs don’t get scratched when you put it into contortionist traveling mode. This is a fully featured tripod. The only thing I could find that was missing was a level on the shoulder of the legs which would have made levelling the tripod so much simpler.
The N-3004x is essentially the aluminium brother to it’s lighter carbon fibre M-3204x sister (which I reviewed in 2015). SIRUI has made every effort to ensure that it is one of the most customisable tripods on the market. For a start the ground level kit is one of the best I have seen. The centre column consists of two parts; a short column piece at the top and a longer extension below. If you want to move to a ground level setup, simply unscrew the longer section. The hook for hanging a weight off of can be attached to either the short or long centre column section.
Then there’s the included monopod. One of the legs unscrews from the top of the tripod, leaving an exposed thread onto which a hand loop strap and smaller plate are attached. The result is a very light 148cm length monopod. I usually use a heavy duty Manfrotto pro monopod. Lugging it and a tripod around on assignment is a chore. Having the ability to switch between a monopod and a tripod without the additional weight of two items is fantastic. Of course the downside is you can’t have a tripod and a monopod at the same time, but you can’t have everything I suppose.
As I mentioned in my review of the carbon fibre M-3204x, spikes are a contentious issue with me. I keep losing my Gitzo rubber feet which unscrew far too easily. Then there are the retractible spikes on my usual tripod – an FLM CP30L3s – which invariably pop out without my knowledge, scratching floors and sliding on tiled surfaces as a result. The SIRUI retractible spikes require about nine twists on the rubber foot for the spike to emerge. It’s an elegant and effective solution. Yes, nine twists might seem excessive compared to the simpler single bayonet twist on the FLM, but you know that the spike is in or out, and I like that.
Something else I like are the leg locks. When I reviewed the M-3204x the locks had a flaw that irritated me – the leg kept losing it’s internal sliders, causing the whole tube to slide out when expanding the tripod leg. This seems to have been fixed now. Maybe the aluminium tubes have a different sliding design, the whole package seems firmer and more solid.
I also like the fact that I can unlock all the twist locks in one movement by grasping all three locks and twisting, then locking from the top down. It makes set up incredibly quick. On this note too, maybe I’m dreaming, but the rubber appears to be a different quality to that on the early version of the M-3204x that I tested. On that unit the rubber surround over the twist lock could slip from time to time (to be fair the unit was tested on a Namibia trip where the temperature rose to 48 degrees centigrade). Not so with the N-3004x. In fact, try as I might, I couldn’t get the rubber to budge loose. I’m not sure whether this will be case after years of use, but out of the box it’s brilliant and as good as any of it’s competitors.
Simply put, the SIRUI N-3004x is a joy to use. It’s simple to operate, fully featured, quick to setup and equally fast to break down. The locks are positive, locking with a 1/4 twist. They unlock as easily. If I have a gripe about the locks it’s that I often thought they were locked, only to find one leg slowly collapsing. This is more user error than anything else, and something I’d get used to. Basically the feel is just a little different to my usual tripods
I am not a huge fan of four section tripods, but the shortened packed length of this tripod meant that it fit neatly onto the side of my F-Stop bag for two 12km round trip hikes to Cathedral Rock on the Wild Coast. Invariably I end up carrying my tripod in my hand, but the shorter length means strapping to a backpack and keeping one’s hands free is possible. Despite this the tripod reaches a respectable 146cm in height without the use of the centre column (which I ended up removing to cut down on weight marginally).
If the tripod is missing one thing, it is a spirit level on the apex of the tripod. For such a fully featured tripod not to have one seems strange. Personally, if the tripod belonged to me, I would buy a small spirit level from a hardware store and glue it to the surface of the tripod shoulder (it’s nice and flat so would sit easily there).
The angle stops at the top of the tripod are also really easy to use. They are spring loaded, meaning that when you close the legs the stops click back into the narrower angle position. I personally like this. They also weren’t sticky or difficult to press in, while having enough tension that they wouldn’t accidentally allow the legs to spread wider than the stops.
Overall, the N-3004x was an excellent tripod that was easy to use. There wasn’t any handling issue that I could single out apart from the slight collapse when I thought the leg locks were tightened. Unlike many tripods I have used, it felt simple and easy enough to use that someone new to photography could easily use it. At the same time, the tripod is fully-featured and high enough specified that it could be used for the most demanding of tripod applications.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there is always a compromise when selecting a tripod. In this case, it’s the weight. Aluminium is significantly heavier than carbon fibre. There are advantages to aluminium though, being cost and durability. By and large aluminium tripods are significantly cheaper than their carbon-fibre counterparts and are also a lot more durable. There is some anecdotal evidence that aluminium doesn’t absorb vibration as well as carbon-fibre and that the stiffer carbon-fibre doesn’t flex as much as aluminium when under load, but I personally have never found this to be a limiting factor. This might be more the fact that I shoot predominantly wide lenses on heavy duty ball heads though. Using a long telephoto, or a smaller sized head would amplify any vibration caused by the camera’s shutter.
Another consideration is that aluminium is more prone to corrosion as a result of salt water than carbon-fibre. However, this doesn’t mean that carbon-fibre tripods are immune to salt water corrosion. Tripods such as the SIRUI, FLM and Gitzo carbon-fibre tripods still have components made from magnesium fibre, steel and aluminium which are sensitive to corrosion.
The benefits to choosing aluminium over carbon fibre are obviously costs, but also surprisingly weight. Aluminium is heavier, but this can mean for a more stable tripod. The reason the hook below the shoulder of the tripod exists is in order to weight down the tripod. Carbon fibre tripods, because of their lack of weight, should really be weighted down to be their most effective. Aluminium tripods on the other hand are already heavy, so in theory don’t need additional weight for stabilising.
Then there is the question of durability. A heavy aluminium tripod will outlast a carbon-fibre tripod hands down, save for salt water corrosion. Carbon fibre is brittle and can split or shatter on impact. Aluminium just scratches and dents. So although the aluminium will show wear sooner than carbon-fibre, it will keep on working year after year. In my personal experience an old Gitzo Reporter bought in 1999 and a Velbon Sherpa in 2002 have outlasted two Manfrotto carbon fibre tripods (both still in use admittedly, but far from the same level of user friendliness as the aluminium legs I have thanks to carbon fiber legs that jam up and leg locks that have corroded). The caveat is that you have to carry that weight if you are interested in anything other than hide-bound or studio-bound photography. The N-3004x tips the scales at 2.33kg without a head. The carbon fiber version of this tripod, the N-3204x, weig 1.81kg. That’s half a kilogram difference – basically the weight of the ballhead that you are likely to attach.
Here’s the thing though – this tripod is priced at R4 295.00. If you look at what’s available on the market, then it’s hard to believe that you can get a large, high quality tripod for that price. The carbon fiber version (N-3204x) costs a full R4 000.00 more at R8 295.00 – almost double the price for a 500g weight saving.
Reviews of equipment can never be perfect. Every photographer has their own preference to a particular feature that you might find on whatever thing it is that you acquire. To make an analogy, Apple makes three phones right now; an iPhone 6s, 6s Plus and SE. My personal preference would be towards a smaller form factor phone such as the SE while my assistant swears that the PLUS is a better bet. Not only are our needs different, but so are our preferences based on taste. Tripods can be like this. There is a bewildering array of legs and heads out there from which to choose. Unlike Apple with three phones, SIRUI makes dozens of tripods. There is almost too much choice meaning that you will forever wonder whether you should have chosen a different one.
By far and away my current favorite SIRUI tripod is the R-5214XL, but it is physically enormous, weighs a ton and costs a small fortune (R15 995.00). Other photographers have looked at the behemoth that is the R-5214XL and exclaimed that I must be mad. Unlike SIRUI’s giant R-5214XL, The aluminium N-3004x is a good ‘everyman’ tripod. No, it isn’t as lightweight as the N-3204x, but it is just as versatile, has the same specifications (apart from weight) and costs a lot less. If you don’t intend to take the tripod on a long walk in the bush, then the lower price might be a deciding factor. If you intend to do a lot of travelling with a large tripod, however, then a carbon fibre option may be the better bet. That said, I don’t think any photographer would be unhappy with the N-3004x. It’s a solid, well-behaved tripod. Unexciting perhaps, but solid and dependable. A good buy in other words.
|Material||Aluminium and Forged Metal|
|Maximum Carrying weight||18kg|
|Maximum tube diameter||32mm|
|Minimum tube diameter||22mm|
|Maximum extension without centre column||1460mm|
|maximum extension with centre column||1750mm|
|Lowest Height (Ground Level)||150mm|
|Packed length with centre column exposed||580mm|
|Packed length with centre column inverted||515mm|
|Leg Angles||20-51-83 degrees|
Emil von Maltitz is a professional landscape and commercial photographer who spends most of his time photographing industry and agriculture for clients like Tongaat Huletts. You can find his incredible body of work here.