Tripods are one of those things that can cause endless debate amongst photographers, and to a lesser degree videographers, when discussing what constitutes the best tripod (much like when it comes to camera bags). There is no such thing as the ‘best’ tripod, as it all depends on where, how, why and with what you’re going to use the tripod. There are number of reasons why these debates arise and the first one is affordability, the second is need and the third is knowledge. Affordability has always had a major impact on equipment purchasing, especially 40 or even 30 years ago, when a professional tripod would have cost a small fortune and even amateur brands were quite expensive. Need can be a driver where at first a photographer may not require a specific type of tripod, but they eventually outgrow the tripod or their needs change. Knowledge or experience becomes a factor after owning a succession of tripods (not necessarily poor quality ones) and the user comes to understand the where, how, why and what of tripods.
Some consider a tripod an essential tool in a photographer’s kit, while others see it as a cumbersome contraption that belongs back in the very old film camera days when cameras lacked today’s technology. With the advent of very high ISO sensors, image stabilisation in lenses and within camera bodies, many feel even more justified to show disdain for tripods and often brag about how they never need a tripod. Personally, even while I own a camera that provides image stabilisation with previously unheard of performance levels (Olympus E-M1 MkII), I still think a tripod is essential. I always take at least one tripod on every trip to the High Country, if for no other reason than to be able to take group photographs which include myself in the picture. Placing a camera on a rock or the like is not going to provide optimum results, stabilisation or not. And sometimes I might just be using a very heavy lens and need to have it on a rest while waiting for things to happen or when I’m taking long exposures.
But choosing a decent tripod is always a potential problem, hence the often raging debate on what tripod is best. Back in the day (my day anyway), there were pretty much only two types of tripod, good quality and poor quality. The good quality tripods cost an arm and a leg, if not two, but were built to last and the poor quality ones cost considerably less, but were still not cheap. Nothing photographic was inexpensive yet of reasonable quality 40 or so years ago. The good tripods were either wood or substantial aluminium (not including specialised studio camera supports) to maximise stability and reduce vibrations. Wooden tripods are still the best if you want maximum vibration dampening and is why you see these still being used by surveyors with their theodolites. But wooden tripods truly are cumbersome and heavyweight items, less than ideal if you want to haul one around the bush. Alloy tripods answered most of the requirements of a solid tripod and have stood the test of time.
As technology progressed, one of the major developments to come to tripods was carbon fibre. This material promised light weight, sturdiness, better damping and was easier to handle in the cold, which made them the favourite of hikers, landscape photographers and the like. Carbon fibre tripods have traditionally been far more expensive than alloy, but that’s changing and they are becoming much more affordable. This led me to owning my very first carbon fibre tripod, as my search for a tripod for my video rig ended when I discovered Leofoto. The Leofoto LN-404C carbon fibre tripod that I purchased has many great features, which I’ll go into shortly, but what caught my attention is that it has a load capacity of 50kg and only weighs 3.3kg. When you compare that to my old Manfrotto alloy tripod, which has a carrying capacity of 7kg and weighs 2.3kg, it shows what carbon fibre can achieve. Some may consider both tripods heavy, but that’s not my view.
After a few weeks with the Leofoto LN-404C tripod, I have to say that I’m very impressed. Over the years I’ve owned and used some high quality tripods such as Gitzo, but never have I come across one that exudes quality like this one. The carbon fibre is smooth like glass and the alloy components are all beautifully made and finished, something that you’d expect to find in the most expensive of products. The twist locks for the legs only require a small turn, lock solidly and are very substantial. The legs can be opened into three positions, normal, wide and flat out, and the locks for doing this work smoothly and positively. The latter are much better than those on my Manfrotto, as they simply slide in and out, rather than being spring loaded. The tripod will also extend to an amazing height (over 1.91m) such that I can stand under it and not hit my head on the base. The plate at the top can use either flat attachments or can be replaced with half ball adapters. Not only that, Leofoto provides a range of accessories to make the tripod even more versatile and easier to use, such as swivel feet or claw feet when using the tripod in rocky terrain.
So how does the LN-404C perform with my video rig? Extremely well to say the least. With the Manfrotto, the rig would wobble about somewhat with the slightest movement of the rig, which meant that I always needed to be mindful when starting/stopping panning or tilting the fluid head and adjust for this when moving. With the Leofoto, I can move the fluid head about and there’s no tripod movement whatsoever. This is partly due to the rigidity and weight of the Leofoto, as well as the fact that the legs open wider when at my normal tripod working height. So it provides a much better balance between the rig weight and the tripod weight. Ideally, a tripod should weigh more than the camera that it supports to absolutely minimise any movement, but that’s patently not practical. Certainly in my studio days the camera stands we used weighed 60-80kg, significantly more than the 4″x5″ Sinar cameras that were attached. So the 3.3kg that the tripod weighs is a pittance compared to the overall weight of around 12-13kg of the fluid head and rig.
Finally, I’d like to tip my hat to Leofoto for the carry bag. Other than being very well padded, the bag has a feature that I’ve never came across in any other camera gear bag in the last 40+ years. For anyone that’s used to say camping and the like, I’ll bet that you’ve rarely, if ever, come across a bag that will take that tent, chair, sleeping bag etc in quite the same way that it came out of the bag. You have to fight every last inch of the way to get whatever came out of the bag, back into the bag. But it’s not the ease of getting the tripod back into the bag that deserves kudos, though it’s great that you can place the tripod back into the bag by fully opening the full length of the bag, or just opening the top. Leofoto should receive kudos because the bag has been designed to take the tripod with a fluid head attached. With my Benro S8 fluid head attached to the LN-404C, fully folded, it becomes 200mm (8″) taller, yet fits perfectly into the bag. That’s most certainly worth noting.
Are there any quibbles? Just three fairly minor ones. The main gripe that I have is that the tripod came with a 100mm bowl, but Leofoto doesn’t sell 100mm half ball levellers, only 75mm ones. Secondly, I wish that the legs had a locking mechanism similar to when opening the legs, as when you close them they don’t come together evenly and tend to cross over if not folded carefully. Thirdly, I wish that all the legs had a rubber grip like the tan grip, even if just black. This would make it much easier to pick the tripod up with any leg, as the non-rubberised legs can be slippery to hold. I contacted the Australian Leofoto distributor about these issues and received a quick reply. Firstly, it looks like the newer releases of the LN-404C come with a 75mm bowl (I must have received an earlier model) and there will become available some accessory grips that can be added to the other legs, but there doesn’t appear to be anything to address the folding issue, so I’ll just have to be careful.
So is the Leofoto worth it? Given what I’ve found so far, absolutely! Over the coming Spring and especially Summer I’ll have a chance to really put it through its paces and see how it works in all manner of conditions. I would be very surprised if I were to be disappointed. Now I haven’t mentioned price as this varies quite a bit from retailer to retailer and sometimes, like for me who bought from eBay, there are discounts afoot. But after doing some comparisons with what I consider equivalent quality tripods with bowl, you’ll be paying a lot more for anything that comes close, especially load capacity.