So, I tore down my Gitzo Mountaineer GT1542 to see what’s so special about it. Actually, I do this with every tripod I buy to discover its weaknesses and proper disassembly for maintenance, cleaning, and lubrication. During the process I just happen to take a close look at each part to see how well it’s been made, purely out of curiosity. In this case, I was truly interested to see if Manfrotto/Gitzo does anything differently during the manufacturing process that justifies the higher retail price or legendary status.
I always begin with the leg sections since these will need to be cleaned and lubricated most often to ensure longevity. It also gives me a chance to see how much lubrication was done during assembly and to see how to disassemble and reassemble the legs properly and if there’s anything I can do to improve it. Sometimes I’ll find flashes from the molding process, metal shavings from the machining of the threads, etc. that can interfere with extending/retracting/locking the legs and I’m able to rectify it before first use.
Pleasantly surprising was the use of rubber o-rings at the top of the twist lock assemblies. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that these gaskets are less for protection and more for tactile sensation. They add a smoothness to the locking mechanism as you twist them but the design of the shims and bushings betray the use of the gaskets: There are no gaskets at the bottom of each locking assembly and the bushings used to provide the friction for locking are your average polymer, single piece, unsealed parts. So, no… the rubber gaskets aren’t able to keep dirt and water out of the legs since the bushings have large gaps to let it all in. Also surprising: The use of very thin keyway shims at the top of each section. Unlike some brands, Gitzo doesn’t cement these on, probably because of how thin and flimsy they are. They’re easily bent if you’re not careful and a crease or crack will increase friction between the leg sections, making extension/retraction more difficult. Since they’re not cemented on, they’re easily replaced, but cementing them on would make that unnecessary. Again, a design choice they followed in their choice to make the knobs on their ball heads easily removable. This is not something you expect to encounter on a $1200 tripod kit, especially when far cheaper tripods have figured this out already.
Onto the upper part of the legs, the clevis bolts are simple and foolproof, with a two-piece system of bolt and tightening/retaining screw. Gitzo chose to use a #5 Torx head, and while that’s dissimilar to the rest of the industry’s use of 4mm hex/Allen head, the Torx tool can be used for both applications, but not reliably vice-versa. So, if you use Gitzo tripods, I recommend carrying around a pair of #5 Torx wrenches so you’re never caught out.
Somewhat unique is the use of a self-releasing, sprung lock to control the leg angle. While some use spring levers, most use a simple, unsprung sliding lock mechanism that’s foolproof and unlikely to break. Anything sprung increases the parts count and thus the opportunity for breakage, no matter how slight. As an owner, it’s hard to not appreciate the elegance of Gitzo’s locking mechanism. Because it’s an added failure point, it’s something you’ll have to be mindful of, both in the field and over time as crap can get into the spring mechanism and jam it. The use of steel also makes it susceptible to corrosion, so keep the area well lubricated and be sure to clean and lubricate it after going near saltwater or where fine particles of sand or dirt may get in. Otherwise, the lock itself is robust and could function just fine without the spring return system just by toggling the lock outward to open the legs and inward to lock in a specific angle.
One of the more unique features on the Mountaineer range is the removable center column. Other brands either implement a different solution or ignore it completely. One brand I’ve encountered uses a bolt that extends the length of the center column to attach it to the bottom of the ball head plate while the majority simply offer, or include, a short column that doesn’t extend much beyond the bottom of the “spider.” Gitzo, on the other hand, uses a twist lock system that’s surprisingly complex but elegant all at once. Beneath the ball head base is a twisting lock; rotating it counter clockwise (while looking from above) unlocks the center column from the base for removal. Both are keyed to prevent center column rotation. The top of the center column is an aluminum shank with a top flare that’s engaged by 3 locking pawls that are retracted when the ring is turned counter clockwise. To reinstall, align the center column’s keyway with a discreet mark on the tripod’s “spider,” insert column fully and rotate the twist lock clockwise. This saves the time of having to loosen the column’s twist lock, remove the bottom hook, remove the assembly from the tripod, remove the column, and reinstall the ball head onto the tripod. Of course, the addition of more moving parts presents more points of failure, but the moving parts are mostly rugged and well protected from the elements.
To quickly note, the ball head base is removable and includes a reversible bolt to accommodate both 3/8-16″ and 1/4-20″ accessory threads.
Least, and by far least, is the inclusion of the aforementioned hook at the bottom of the center column. Unlike most other brands, Gitzo has chosen a solid, metal hook instead of the sprung, 5 piece units used widely. This is the solitude example of Gitzo choosing a more simple, durable design compared to other tripods in this class.
Now, let me clear: none of these design choices make the Gitzo especially fragile compared to other tripods in this class, especially if you never disassemble the tripod. However, no matter the brand or construction, I recommend disassembling to clean and lubricate at least periodically to get the most life out of your tripod in the long-term. This is especially true if you use your tripod around sand, saltwater or use it frequently. If your tripod is an indoor dog, an annual wipe down of the exterior and lubrication of the critical points, like leg angle and section locks, if probably all that’s necessary. The only truly questionable choice, in my opinion, is the use of an extremely delicate variety of keyway shims at the internal end of each leg section.
On a side note, most of this information should carry over to the Gitzo Traveler series of tripods but with exception to the leg angle lock design and ability to remove the center column.
Do I recommend this tripod? In a word, no. However, in truth it’s a bit more complicated. There are many tripods out there that are built far more durably that will cost you much less money and will last just as long. If you’re overly worried about what other people will think when they see you set up somewhere, first off: go somewhere else and shoot something less photographed. Secondly, if you care that much about the opinions of others, especially when it comes to gear, you are in the wrong hobby. Thirdly, if you can’t abide by the first 2, buy a cheaper tripod and a can of Hammerite paint, then coat the metal parts in it to obtain that “Gitzo” look. Gitzo tripods are built well but they’re not the best by any means and their price reflects the reputation more than the product itself.
Some examples: Benro Mach3 or Adventure tripods are nearly carbon copies of the Gitzo Mountaineer, the latter trading twist locks for lever type. MeFoto also makes a great tripod, as does Sirui, Leofoto and 3 Legged Thing. I would stay away from Vanguard and Manfrotto, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for and can recognize a poor design choice when you see one. Really Right Stuff makes a great tripod but it too has a price that’s questionably high and beyond the budget of most amateurs.
So, you may be asking “why?” Why is Gitzo, or in the same sense Really Right Stuff, so expensive? Very simply, it’s due to labor costs. Gitzo is mostly made in Italy, which falls under the Eurozone and thus the price reflects the cost of labor once you exchange the euro for the equivalent dollar amount. Same goes for Really Right Stuff, as their products are mostly made in the USA with American labor. All of the other brands I recommended are Chinese brands, using mostly Chinese materials, assembled by Chinese workers at Chinese wages. You can get an equally great tripod for half, or even a third, the price. If you must own Gitzo, I recommend waiting for a sale or buying used. Sometimes it’s nice to own a luxury branded item; BMW and Ducati are popular for a reason and it’s not because of their reliability or long-term affordability. Just know that the price you’re paying isn’t going into a superior design or materials but towards the exchange rate, labor costs and cachet.