24 January 2013

Sirui T005 - The ultimate travel light tripod?

For us, outdoor photographers, a tripod is not a luxury. It's a necessity. However finding the good perfect one is, probably, impossible. Let's see what is, normally, for us the definition of a perfect tripod: it has to be, simultaneously, light, small, stable, durable and... cheap.
A piece of equipment that unites all these characteristics still has to be invented. So we diversify. Any person that is a little bit serious about photography will end up acquiring at least two tripods: one, normally heavier, when maximum stability is paramount, and a lighter unit when (as Galen Rowell wisely pointed) it's better to take a light tripod than no tripod at all. Normally the latter is the problematic one. Until now my lightest tripod was a Manfrotto 190XDB that I used with their lightest ball head (the ProBall 308 RC). However, although stable, this combo is still heavy for a person that likes packing light and in most mountain trails it's already on the limit of what we can, comfortably, transport on our hands. In mountain trails, on steep terrain, if we need both our hands to help the progression, the last thing we need is one of them occupied in handling a tripod.
In those circumstances (quite common in Madeira, actually), we might choose one of three possibilities: leave the darn thing behind, strap it to the rucksack or use a tripod strap and pass it over your shoulder. Since I don't wear a rucksack (on daily hikes I enjoy very much my Lowepro Inverse AW200) and in my modest opinion the use of tripod straps is a good way to compromise your equilibrium in more technical steps, I went shopping for a tripod light enough to strap to my waist pack without damaging it and at the same time sturdy enough to allow for some sharp pictures. Galen Rowell used to talk about two which he considered as good options: the Gitzos 001 and 026.
Sadly the prices of Gitzo material are anything but accessible, so I tried to find a cheaper alternative.
And, in this particular case, it appeared as the Sirui T005.
The tripod comes in aluminium (in a choice of three different anodized colours: black, blue and red) and in a carbon fiber version. I bought the version shown in the above picture and one thing I can tell you: it's really light.
It's Gitzo look-a-like construction is visible particularly on the rubberized twisting leg-locks and the quality construction is patent on the machined parts of all the structure. With the legs (five sections!) fully extended, opened in minimum angle and with the center column not extended (as shown in the picture) this light piece of kit has the head's base plate at 1.20mts from the ground. With the additional extension of the center column (it's a telescopic one) we gain an additional 17cms in height, positioning an attached camera at about 1.38mts from the ground. Not bad for an equipment that retracts up to 31cm when fully closed.
Two of the legs have leg warmers, however that rubberized material seems a little delicate for intensive use. Certainly not in the same league as the ones on my trusty Manfrotto 055 NAT3. I think they will wear out quite fast. Have to start looking for spares.
The standard ball-head that comes with the equipment (called C10 by the maker) is well machined and with a smooth movement, having both a ball lock knob and a panning base lock knob. However the max load allowed for this rig (4kgs, according to the constructor) seems to me a bit optimistic. This is an equipment clearly aimed to a consumer DSLR kind of camera with a light kit lens and not for the weight of a professional product, such as the Nikon D4. Or even for a D300 or D700 with a heavier Nikkor lens. So you can imagine my surprise when I read on the SIRUI site that this particular ball head has a max. weight load of 15kgs (or 33.1lb). Now... that's optimism.
One thing annoys me, however: you cannot lower the center column. It's fixed on the tripod's base plate. and you will always have those 21cms of metal between the tripod base plate and the head you choose to put on top of it. I think it was John Shaw who once said that a raised center column turns a tripod into a three legged monopod. I'll see in the future how it works under windy conditions. Granted, there's a retractable hook on the tripod's base plate. You can always suspend some weight on it for additional stability, but... come on Sirui... all you needed was to drill a hole and place on it one more twist locker, pretty much similar to the ones on the legs.
By the time I'm writing this, their website is already showing another version of this tripod. This time, without its center column. But it would be more interesting that the center column was there. And that we could use its extension at our own discretion.
After testing it in the field, I'll update this small review. Meanwhile, a small tripod is better than no tripod. And this small buddy seems to be quite alright for the task. Keep on shooting...