New Sirui Tripod

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I recently upgraded my tripod to something more substantial:

New Sirui Carbon Fiber Tripod

The tripod is made by Sirui. It’s their N-2204 model which is a carbon fiber compact travel tripod. It has a Sirui K-20x Ball Head. I spoke a little about this in a post last month. Based on all the research I did the Sirui tripod seemed like the best fit for me. I haven’t had a chance to use the tripod much yet but I have really enjoyed using it the little that I have. I plan on doing a more in-depth review after I’ve had a bit more time to use it so stay tuned for that.

Tripod And Ball Head Search Update

Last week I posted about my search for a new tripod and ball head. In the post I said that I decided to go with the Feisol tripod and that I would be researching ball heads to go with it. Well, in that research, I came across another option that I wasn’t aware of.

As I was looking for a ball head to go with the tripod I came across a new brand that I wasn’t aware of, Sirui. They are a Chinese manufacturer that has developed a good reputation in Asia, and just recently entered the US market. Their ball heads have received very favorable reviews across Asia and Europe. The German photography site Traumflieger (Google can translate it to english) reviewed several of the Sirui ball heads and gave them high marks.  As I researched the ball heads it appeared that their tripods were worth considering and seem to have a strong following as well. While Feisol is certainly a strong brand and has a solid reputation, based on the research I did, I decided to go with Sirui. This was primarily due to the positive information I found online but also because of the relative lack of information I found online. That was intriguing to me since it seems that Sirui is a well-made product but because it is so new to the US market, few people in the United States have purchased one for their own use. Most of the reviews I found were from users in Erope or Asia, where Sirui has been for a while. Being a bit of a “calculated risk taker” I decided that Sirui was for real and deserved a try.

Cost-wise Sirui is at the higher end of what I would call the “mid-price” tripod market. They are higher than the typical Benro or other off/store branded tripods but lower priced than the Gitzo’s of the world. Compared to Feisol, the Sirui carbon fiber models are very close in price and offer some of the same features (larger diameter legs, forged metal instead of cast, etc) that Feisol uses to distinguish themselves from other brands. The things that persuaded me to go with Sirui over Feisol was the longer (six year) warranty that is supported by an established US distributer, Argraph Corp, which is in New Jersey and has been in business since 1953. Also, the Sirui tripods come with a short center column, carrying case and shoulder strap. The model we ordered also has the capability of converting into a monopod by removing one of the legs. While I don’t expect to use that feature very much, I imagine I will find it useful from time to time so it’s nice to have as an option. Sirui tripods and ball heads are available on eBay from several Asian sellers but I ended up ordering from Adorama Camera here in the US in order to make sure I received the 6 year warranty that is available, as well as the excellent customer service that Adorama is known for.

I decided to go “all-in” with Sirui and get tripods and ball heads for both Pam and I. For me, I ordered their N-2204 carbon fiber tripod along with the K-20x Ball Head. I also purchased an aluminum legged tripod, the N-1004 4 section Aluminum Tripod with a K-10x ball head for Pam, who will be using a tripod much less than I will. If she really enjoys photography we can always upgrade to a carbon fiber tripod at a later date.

I should receive the tripods/heads from Adorama this week and I will post a review of them once I’ve had some time to use them.

Choosing A New Tripod

Last week I posted about my “goals” for 2012. In that post I mentioned that one of the goals was to upgrade the quality of my tripod. Well, I’ve decided to make that happen sooner, rather than later. We will be going to a few unique places to shoot over the next few months and I’d like to get the best images that I can. The fact of the matter is that the Slik Sprint Pro II tripod I bought last Fall is marginal at best, especially with a DSLR and larger lens attached to it. It is a fantastic tripod for small cameras (it will be perfect for our S95).

I’d already been doing some research but once I decided to move forward I got more serious about it and came up with these basic criteria for my next tripod:

  1. High value for the money spent
  2. Stable enough to support our current equipment as well as reasonable upgrades.
  3. Tall enough to allow me to use the tripod without the need to extend the center column.
  4. Must be portable enough to carry-on flights
  5. Light enough to make extended hiking with the tripod comfortable

With those requirements in mind I began my research. I quickly found out that there are an incredible number of tripod manufactures out there selling a HUGE number of models. It was pretty overwhelming, actually.

Price

I caught my breath and tried to narrow down the list. The first choice was to settle on a realistic price range. It is very easy to spend well over $2000 on a tripod/ballhead combination, and a lot of people do that, but I’m definitely not one of them. I do have a budget but I don’t want to shortchange myself. Based on some digging around at various sites like Adorama and Amazon I decided to keep the cost as close to a max of $600 as possible.  That’s definitely a lot of money but I figure that this tripod should last a very long time and the last thing I want to do is find myself wishing I had some thing just a bit more stable 6 months after I buy it. It seems like I should be able to get a decent quality tripod with a like quality ballhead. If I could find something for less that would be a bonus for sure.

Stability

For a photographer who is trying to capture sharp shots, especially with longer exposure times, a stable tripod is an absolute must. I discovered that the hard way on our trip out West last Fall. While I got some decent shots I noticed that a fair amount of them were not quite “tack sharp” and I think that is a result of using the tripod that I used. I don’t want the tripod to be a limiting factor in the quality of my images.

This brings me to a “critical” cross-roads. Do I go for a carbon fiber legged tripod or save a lot of money and get an aluminum legged model? The cost difference in most cases is nearly 2 times so this is a big decision. Carbon is renowned for light weight and superior vibration resistance. Lots of people report very significant differences between carbon and aluminum when it comes to preventing vibration from reaching the camera. They also report much less money in their wallets with carbon :-) Is it worth the extra cost or not? Everyone is different but at the end of the day I decided that I would search for a carbon fiber tripod instead of aluminum. The cost is higher now but I’m hoping that the benefits will be realized for a long time to come.

The other factor to consider is the leg diameter and number of leg sections. Smaller diameter and/or more leg sections often result in less stable tripods. The number of leg sections also figures into the compactness of the tripod. The more leg sections, the more compact. I decided to go for a 4 section leg tripod with the biggest diameter legs I could get within my price range.

Height

Having a tripod that is both compact enough for travel yet tall enough to allow me some measure of comfort while using it could be a problem. Many compact tripods only extend to a height (without the center column extended) of 47 to 50 inches. I’m nearly 6′ 1″ so stooping down to look through the viewfinder could get painful in my old age :-)  Based on some measurements I decided that I want a tripod that extends to somewhere between 53 and 56 inches. By the time I add the ballhead and my camera to it the viewfinder should be around 64 inches or so, which is right about eye-level

Portability

Portability is the next thing I looked at and decided that the tripod should fold up to less than 20 inches, making it able to be packed on a carry-on piece of luggage. The short length will also make the tripod easy to strap to my backpack and take with me on hikes. Weight enters into this equation but fortunately pretty much any tripod that meets the length requirement will be on the lighter end of the scale.

Narrowing The Field

Once I made all the basic decisions as to price, material, height and portability, the potential candidates whittled down quite a bit. After a fair amount of searching, comparing specs and reviews, I settled on these three tripods:

Benro C2691TB1(approx $530)-This tripod/ballhead combo extends to 55+ inches and folds down to just over 17 inches.

Feisol CT-3442(approx $399 without ballhead)- This is a well regarded carbon fiber tripod that extends to 54 inches and folds down to just under 19 inches. A ballhead is additional.

Feisol 3441T(approx $414 without ballhead)- This is a bit of a “Frankenstein” tripod that is sold through Really Big Cameras, a web retailer. They took the leg assembly of the Feisol CT-3442 and matched them with the top assembly of the CT-3441S to give a tripod that extends to 56+ inches and folds down to 19 inches. A ballhead is not included with this one either.

There were a few others that could have been on this list but these 3 seemed to be the best options. The Benro is tempting since it’s an all-in-one solution but the Feisol’s seem to have a slightly better reputation. And, adding a ballhead to them puts them in the same basic price range as the Benro.

In the final analysis I decided on the Feisol 3441T from Really Big Cameras. Given my requirements it seemed like the best fit overall. The price will definitely be at the upper end of my range but I’ll be ordering it in the next few days and will post a review of it once I get it and have had a chance to use it in the field.

Summary

I think the take away from this whole experience of choosing a tripod is to take your time, determine your needs and budget and spend some time researching the options. There are so many options in the market today that the “perfect” tripod exists for just about any combination of individual needs. Remember, just because someone chooses a tripod for them doesn’t mean that that is the correct tripod for you. You need to do your own research and make up your mind based on your unique situation.

Now that I’ve settled on a tripod, I need to decide on a ballhead unit to go on top of the Feisol tripod legs. Stay tuned for a post on that in the next few days or so.

Happy Shooting!

 

My Holiday Guide To Photography Gifts

We’re deep into the holiday shopping season and if you are like me, there’s a bunch of neat photography gifts that you’re probably wishing for.

I thought I would put together a short list of some of the things I can recommend to other photographers (either as gifts or for yourself) based on my use as well as a “wish-list” of things I (and just about any photographer) would sure like to receive. I’ve included links to many of the products so if you want to get something for a photographer in your life, or even me :-) you can click on the links.

So, without further ado, here is the first annual “Mark’s Photography Spot Guide To Photography Gifts”:

 Cameras

Canon EOS T3i: This had to be the 1st camera on the list because it’s my camera :-) The T3i was my first digital SLR and I couldn’t be happier with it. I was looking for a camera that could allow me to take good images as well as shoot HD video. I did a lot of research and the camera has received numerous positive reviews. I’ve had the camera for 5 months and have taken about 3,000 images with it. The camera has a lot of features and you will definitely want to purchase an aftermarket guide to help you learn the camera. I’m still learning how to make the most out of the camera but am having a ton of fun in the process.
Canon Rebel XSI: The Rebel XSI is an older model DSLR that was 1st released in 2008. I just purchased one of these for Pam. She has expressed an interest in learning more about photography but isn’t 100% sure she’ll want to be as much of a geek (or is it “geekette”?) about it as me. Based on some research this camera came highly recommended as a great 1st DSLR to purchase used. The XSI has 12.2 megapixels, an advanced autofocus and metering system and all of the features you need for learning how to take good photographs. It doesn’t shoot video but it does have a live view system and a sensor cleaning system. It uses the same cards and lenses as the T3i and the controls are very similar. That should make it easy for me to help Pam learn how to use the camera. We’ll be able to share lenses as well, which should save some money, especially if she enjoys “serious” photography. I found mine on Ebay. Ebay is a great place to purchase used camera equipment. Just be sure to research the product so you don’t overbid and only deal with reputable sellers. Here’s a link to a search for the camera:
Canon PowerShot S95: We purchased this compact point and shoot camera to replace an older model. The S95 has received a lot of praise as a camera that complements a DSLR very well. It fits in your pocket and has a fast f/2.0 lens with 3.8x zoom. It also allows you to shoot in fully automatic or manual mode and takes great high definition movies with stereo sound. The image quality is excellent for such a small camera and you can take full advantage of the RAW file format if you want. Pam used this camera on our recent trip out west and took a lot of great photos with this camera. Bottom line is that the S95 is an excellent camera!

Accessories

Camera Bags: If you have a DSLR, you probably will want something to carry the camera, lenses and accessories in. There are thousands of different camera bags on the market, so think about what you need the bag to do and start your search from there. After doing that research I purchased two camera bags to help tote everything around, the Lowepro Rezo 170 and the Tamrac 5547 Adventure 7 photo backpack. I did a fairly extensive review of both of these here. You can always purchase a brand new bag but finding a good used bag can save a lot of money. Ebay is a great place to find the perfect camera bag. Here is a link to help you find one on Ebay.

Tripods: If you want to get good photographs you will most likely need a tripod. Once again, there are all kinds of tripods on the market to fit just about every need. I was looking for a compact, portable tripod that I could easily carry with me while hiking. I ended up getting the Slik Sprint Pro II tripod. I’ve used it extensively over the last couple of months, mostly while hiking in Death Valley and Zion and it works fine with my relatively lightweight setup. I’ll probably get a heavier/sturdier tripod in the next year but for an inexpensive well-built tripod, the Slik does a great job. If you want to search for your perfect tripod, here’s a link to Tripods on Amazon

The Wishlist

Ok, I’ve given you my suggested camera stuff based on my usage and experiences. Now its time to share what’s on my “wishlist”. I don’t have these items yet, but I’d sure like to, so feel free to purchase any of these for me. I promise I’ll put them to good use :-)

Cameras

If I could afford it, I’d probably buy this camera tomorrow! The Canon EOS 5D Mark II is a full-frame camera that has fantastic image quality. Many top outdoor photographers use this camera because of the awesome image quality and great low-light performance. Sure, I’d have to buy new lenses but it would be worth it. If you’re looking for a fantastic camera, especially for nature photography, this just might be it!

If I didn’t get the 5D Mark II I’d probably get the Canon EOS 7D. It gets fantastic reviews, has a super-fast autofocus system and also does well in low-light situations. My secret hope is that Pam loves the EOS XSI and wants to jump into photography with both feet. That way she could use the T3i and I’d be “forced” to buy this camera!

Lenses

The lenses that came with my T3i, the Canon EF-S 18-55mm ISandCanon EF-S 55-250mm IS f/4.0-5.6 are decent lenses, and a great value, but it would be nice to upgrade the quality some. If I could, I’d probably get the following lenses:

  1.  A 10-22mm Wide Angle Lens: I rented a wide angle lens for our trip out West and fell in love with it. There are lenses from Canon, Sigma, Tamron and Tokina that are in that range. A lens like this can really open up lots of creative opportunities in both landscape and other types of photography.
  2. The Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS  lens. While the “kit” 18-55mm lens that came with my camera is OK and takes decent images, it’s not the best “walk around” lens. It’s a little short on focal length range. The 15-85mm would fix that and allow me to keep just one lens on the camera for a typical day of around town shooting. In addition, the image quality of the lens is supposed to be fantastic.
  3. A 70-200mm Zoom Lens. To complete my lens transformation, I would get a high quality telephoto lens. The 70-200mm range is a common one and offers many great choices. The price range for this lens is anywhere from $700-$3000 depending on which brand and quality level you get.

Filters

Most good photographers will tell you that one of the keys to getting great nature, outdoor and landscape photographs is to use the proper filters. The correct filter can make a good photograph great. There are many different types of filters for all kinds of situations. Some of the best filters seem to be from Singh-Ray . I’ve got my eye on some of their Neutral Density filters but they have all kinds of filters.

Well, that’s pretty much my wishlist. It would be great to get all of this stuff but the reality is that my current setup is perfectly fine, especially given my experience level. I’ve managed to take some great photographs so far and and photos that were less than great are entirely due to photographer error and not the equipment!

I hope this short list of camera equipment has given you some ideas. Please let me know if I left anything out or what you’re hoping Santa brings you this year by leaving a comment.

Happy Shooting!