This winter, I’ve decided that, while my Benro Adventure Series 2 Carbon is an excellent tripod, especially for a mirrorless setup like my Fujifilm X-T3, it’s inadequate when it comes to ultimate stability. For times when I want to use my telephoto lenses or when I can afford to carry a little more weight in exchange for more stability, I needed a better tripod. I ran into this issue the first time I took out my 100-400mm lens. While not huge by telephoto standards, it was still too large for the Benro Adventure 2, especially when setting up the 100-400mm in a gimbal position. While a good balance between portability and stability for most jobs, there were more than a few times where I was forced to activate the optical stabilization on the lens to get the shot, and if you’ve ever used a tripod, you know that’s not correct. Whether it was too short for the job, requiring use of the center column (which also impacts stability) or frighteningly unbalanced (like a gimbaled telephoto lens), the bottom line is that I’d need to drop some money on a tripod that’s not classified as “travel.”
Mind you, I love my Benro Adventure Series 2 Carbon. It’s an excellent travel tripod that’s perfectly suited for most mirrorless setups. I’ve simply reached its limits.
The next step up are the systematic tripods. I’m sure you’ve heard of them: Really Right Stuff (RRS) and Gitzo to name a couple of brands who specialize in these. They’re basically single section video tripods, or the most entry level of video tripods. Despite this, they’re also the highest level of photographic tripods, generally speaking, due to their weight capacities and inherent stability. And they’re extremely pricey: for example, the Gitzo Systematic Series 3 starts around $750 without a center column or head. The RRS solutions start around $1000. So, on to the next point.
I’m not rich. I have no trust fund, obviously, by my choice of gear. I’m not a professional photographer nor a freelance one, for that matter. Nor am I compensated in any way, or sponsored, for either my photographs or my writing. Because of this, I approach a large-ish purchase like this skeptically. If I can save money, I will. I believe in buying once, lifetime guarantees and reputable companies. I’m also a brand whore who loves brands with cachet, history or both. But I also love good value and will always sacrifice cachet for value. Since I do own a few RRS products and love them, I could go buy an RRS TVC-24L and be perfectly happy $1600 later, but I’d have a nagging feeling I got fleeced. It’s why few of my lenses were bought new. In fact, only 2 of the 10 lenses I own were bought new. As such, and due to Amazon’s satisfaction guarantee, I decided to start with the cheapest tripod available I felt met my needs based on the product descriptions. What did I feel I needed? Basically, I based my requirements around the Gitzo Systematic Series 3 Long GT3543LS and the RRS TVC-24L Versa Mk2.
So, after many hours of research on Amazon, Adorama and B&H, I’ve compiled a list of potential tripods whose specs closely match that of the Gitzo GT3543LS and RRS TVC-24L:
- Leofoto LN-324C (Series 3 Compatible) – $489
- Robus RB-5570 Vantage Series 3 – $549
- Feisol Elite CT-3472 – $599
- Induro Grand Stealth GIT304L Series 3 – $649
Normally $559, the Leofoto LN-324C kit was available for $399 as a “Demo, Like New” on Amazon. A plus is that the distributor for Leofoto is OEC Camera Accessories, aka Desmond Photographic Supply, in Happy Valley, Oregon. I’ve bought a lot of Lužid and Haida filters from them in the past with no regrets, so I trusted them. Because of the price and availability, I started with this one.
Before going further: I bought it with my own money. No one influences my reviews. They are simply my hands-on experience with the product I’ve bought for my own personal use. If I bash it, it deserved it. If I praise it, that too is deserved. Either way, it is my own opinion formed with the use of decades of experience in a few different fields of expertise, especially aerospace metalwork, machining, assembly, advanced composites, coatings, electronics, displays, hardware UI, logic hardware, programming and sensors. I also have extensive experience as a gunsmith and in explosives and ordnance.
The Leofoto LN-324C’s basic specs:
- 59″ height
- 22.25″ folded length
- 32mm max tube diameter (4 sections)
- 3 angle legs
- 60mm bowl (Gitzo Systematic Series 3 compatible)
- 5 lbs
- Carbon fiber and aluminum construction
- 10 layer carbon fiber
- 55 lb load rating
- 10 year warranty
It’s about a half pound heavier than the more expensive brands but all other features were near equal. Included in the price was a modular center column, also of carbon fiber and aluminum construction, with a 32mm post diameter and 60mm base diameter, adding another 14″ in height, 3″ folded, and 1 lb to the weight.
Out of the box, it made for an intimidating presence. Fully extended, it was clearly as tall as advertised and the weight seemed about right. Looking more closely, all the details looked right. Tearing it down exposed finely machined parts all around and a carbon weave that didn’t betray it’s “10 layer” claim; the weave was consistent throughout with no waviness or warping of fibers and no pitting, cloudiness or inconsistencies in the resin. All of the aluminum bits are finely milled with no tooling marks. Parts that may have originally been cast were unpitted and finely machined to remove any casting seams. All cuts into them were obviously milled. The anodizing is consistent all around and all of the included optional hardware is of similar quality. No flashes, splinters or metal shavings anywhere. Most sharp edges and corners were also removed. Metal on metal contact points had proper bearings installed and showed evidence of lubrication as they glided through their movements smoothly.
Twist lock threads, while lacking external, weather sealing o-rings, were cleanly machined and they operated smoothly, The internal key shims are single piece and cemented in for durability, reliability, and ease of maintenance. This alone is awesome as the legs are obviously designed to be torn down for user maintenance.
To be completely honest, if you were to cover the labels and set it next to an RRS tripod, you’d likely assume this was also an RRS tripod, even from close range. Only if you owned one yourself would you be able to tell an immediate difference, visually. A friend of mine owns one; I spent a weekend with it and while I can tell some differences, those differences are minute. Considering my background, even after close examination those differences wouldn’t affect day to day usage or performance. Longevity maybe, but we’re talking years. Most of these features are designed to enhance manufacturing convenience, user comfort or simply to meet a price point. If this collection of parts don’t last you at least 10 years, Leofoto’s warranty should have you covered, if they still exist. I’ll get back to this in a bit.
For instance, RRS uses a forged and milled base. It’s durable, precise and expensive as each part must be cut from a billet individually. A cast and milled base is slightly heavier to meet the same durability criteria. The advantages are a much lower cost and higher speed of manufacture, however, a milled part can be cheaper than casting in smaller production runs. The durability of forging is superior if the product is advertised to be used as, for example, a shooting rest, as RRS products are advertised as rifle rests in parallel to their photographic market under RRS SOAR.
It’s difficult to tell if all aluminum parts on the Leofoto tripod are cast and milled or forged without removing the coatings on the parts. Some parts are obviously forged while others I’m assuming to have begun as cast before being machined and milled into the final part. The lack of any casting seams and pits on all surfaces of anodized parts has me leaning towards them being forged, but I will assume certain parts like the spider and clevis joints are cast, for now.
Performance. Let’s not get that crazy here since I don’t have the scientific equipment necessary to perform scientific tests on this, or any, tripod. I have no torque meter, vibration meter, scales, plumb bob, etc. I will use three examinations: one commonly discussed, one actually worthwhile, and an eyeballed examination.
First, the commonly discussed “tap” test. Extended to full height and with a telephoto lens and body attached, you tap on a leg and see how long it takes for the camera to settle down. This can obviously become quite subjective depending on the camera type, lens used, surface, etc. However, after doing this “test” with a Fujifilm X-T3 and 16mm lens, the viewfinder image settled still after less than half a second on level ground. I tapped it using a finger flick and hitting it with my fingernail; it shook visibly once or twice, lessening until all movement was gone in under half a second. Can’t tell you if that’s good or bad since I don’t have a comparable tripod to compare it with. Anyways, you can negate this by using a remote and not flicking the legs of your tripod while the shutter is open. Besides, if it did happen, you’d retake the shot. Mostly useless test over.
Second, the twist test. Fully extended, you grab 2 legs at the top-most sections and twist against each other. This tests both the rigidity of the leg locks, the rigidity of the leg sections, the flexibility of the platform or spider, and the tolerance of the clevis joints. It lends insight into the durability and stability of your tripod by testing it as an assembly. Check out a Gitzo Systematic or RRS tripod to see what it should feel like and a 3 Legged Thing or Vanguard for an example of how it shouldn’t. On the Leofoto, this test showed minimal flex… less than my Benro Adventure 2 Carbon, which was the sturdiest tripod I owned prior. This result was obviously expected.
Third, and final test, although more of an examination, the level test. Fully extended, feet fully screwed in, legs set at the most narrow and locked position, place the tripod on a known level spot without the ball head. Place a level on the platform to ensure the tripod is level. Add a 10 lb sandbag to the equipment hook and recheck for level. Look for evidence of the legs bowing or twisting. From my observation, the Leofoto was as level as the ground it stood upon and it did not change after the application of weight.
Which brings me to the only issue: Support. While RRS and Gitzo have been around for a while, Leofoto has not. With their distributor being close to me in Oregon, I have some measure of recourse should their advertised 10 year warranty fail me. Even if it doesn’t, I have a place to go to have that warranty honored since Amazon won’t. But the fact is that Leofoto is not some internationally recognized brand name. For now, you could even classify it as some Chinese fly-by-night. If this tripod suddenly looks like a yardsale in 3 years, Leofoto could have changed their name to “Leonardo Photography” and skate out on the promise they made to me, in writing, at purchase.
Looking at each part individually, then at the assembly as a whole, it’s pretty clear that’s something I won’t have to lose sleep over. It is very well built and as long as I maintain it properly, like keeping it cleaned, lubed and properly tightened, avoid using it as a crowbar or stepladder, and most importantly, avoid using it in and around saltwater without proper care and maintenance, there’s no reason this tripod shouldn’t last for 20 or 30 years. Gross negligence or abuse is what will be its downfall.
If, however, during the next few weeks I discover serious shortcomings that threaten the durability or capability of this tripod, I’ll be sure to write it up, return it, and try the next tripod on my list, either the Feisol Elite CT-3472 or the Beards & Hats exclusive Robus RC-5570 Vantage Series 3.
For now, I’ll stick with this and return in a few weeks to reevaluate it, and if positive, show some closeup photos of the parts that make up the tripod.