There’s a saying that goes, “buy cheap, buy twice,” and it’s especially true when it comes to tripods. Going cheap on a tripod always results in having to buy a replacement; I found this out myself when I got into landscape and astrophotography. While I’ve been into photography, off and on, for over 35 years, and into digital photography for 15 years, I’ve only needed a tripod for the last 3.5 years. My first tripod, I’m ashamed to admit, was some cheap, Chinese white label piece of crap I bought on Amazon for $99. It was a carbon fiber, 4 section tripod with inverting legs and converted into a monopod. I thought it was pretty pricey, but great value overall, since it was of carbon fiber construction and included a ball head. Man, was I wrong. It leaned, as the ramps for the leg angles weren’t even between the three legs. The legs’ clevis bolts wouldn’t stay tight, the center column was crooked, it couldn’t be set at ground level because there was no way to attach the ball head once the center column was removed for clearance, the rubber grips on the leg locks split can came off within a week and the leg locks themselves were all inconsistent; some required a quarter turn, others required as much as a full turn. And finally, one of the feet snapped off as the carbon fiber leg section split at the point where a roll pin was driven through to keep the threaded end in place. I won’t even start on the ball head. Within 2 months this thing was trash.
Even then, I still didn’t learn my lesson. I replaced it with what I thought was an “expensive” tripod. It was a $279 Benro Adventure 2 Carbon tripod that included a head. Yes, it was a step up. I truly thought the use of flip locks, which are pretty rare on a carbon fiber tripod, would avoid most of the problems I’d previously encountered. Wrong. Damn flip locks weren’t designed very well and gummed up quickly. Tension adjustments were extremely hit and miss. This one at least came with a shorty center column so I could set it to ground level, as long as I remembered to bring it with me. The ball head was a joke, though, as it required me to really reef on the locking knob to lock the ball and it still crept. Every time you tightened the pan lock, it would punch into the mechanism, as if the lock was a steel spike and the bearing surface was brass, which it was. After a few uses you’d end up with the lock dragging on the craters it created; other times, you’d try to lock it and it would find a previous divot and shift the pan by a degree as you tightened the pan lock. Lastly, the platform base was some cheap, cast zinc alloy covered in a thick layer of rubberized plastic. The problem was in trying to use the set screw… the plastic coating was thick enough, and had enough give, that tightening the set screw to keep the ball head in place would crank the whole ball head at an angle.
Only then did I finally learn my lesson. $380 later, I found myself dropping $1100 on my first Gitzo, the GT1542 Series 1 Mountaineer with GH1382QD ball head tripod kit. Since then, I haven’t looked back and have become a Gitzo evangelist.
For the past few years, I’ve been using my Gitzo Series 1 Mountaineer as my primary tripod. It served me well when my primary camera body was the Fujifilm X-T2, X-T3 and X-H1. Once I bought the GFX 50S to use alongside my X-H1, I became acutely aware of the tripod’s shortcomings.
The Gitzo Mountaineer Series 1 GT1542 is an excellent tripod. Combined with the lightweight Arca-Swiss p0 head, the tripod weighed in at just under 3 lbs and featured a very slim profile when folded down. The 25mm max leg diameter contributed to this slim profile, and while it works well with entry-level DSLRs and mirrorless camera bodies, the slim legs are just a bit too thin for a heavier, professional level body like the GFX 50S.
Most people with a larger, heavier camera would be perfectly served with any Gitzo Series 1 tripod, as they only need it for single shots in adequate lighting. In my case, I use it primarily for landscape photography, astrophotography, night photography, etc… situations that require long exposures and/or multiple exposures for stacking, exposure blending or panoramas. This requires greater demands on my tripod as any movement between shots can ruin an exposure. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to work with multiple, misaligned exposures in post-processing, thus a lighter-weight tripod can cause problems as any flexing will result in misalignment.
While I haven’t gotten rid of my Series 1 Gitzo, I recently bought a Gitzo GT3542 Series 3 Mountaineer. It features a max tube diameter of 32.9mm, matching my Gitzo GT3543LS Series 3 Systematic tripod, so I have a few years of first-hand experience with the performance of Gitzo Series 3 tripods, all of which is positive. This experience is also why I chose a Series 3 Mountaineer instead of a Series 2; I wanted to give myself a little bit of overhead in case I upgrade to the rumored GFX 100S or simply pick up a GF 250mm ƒ/4 lens, which is not lightweight by any means. Based on my experience with my Gitzo Series 2 Monopod, I am familiar with the size and performance difference between Series 2 and 3 and figured the slight increase in weight was a worthwhile trade for the higher upper limit. I feel that Series 2 would’ve been ideal for my current setup but I may be stuck in the same position I’m in now should I upgrade to a heavier camera setup in the future. But why didn’t I just use my Series 3 Systematic? Well, to be blunt, it’s huge with its 5″ wide spider and weighs over 7 lbs. with GH3382QD Series 3 ball head and 75mm leveling base. The spider, while providing a wide, stable platform that’s unmatched by any travel oriented tripod, the width prevents it from folding down to a reasonable size for long hikes.
Because I’m a scant 5’6″ and universally considered “not tall,” I opted for the GT3542 instead of the GT3543L, which is 6.3″ shorter than the “L” version. Mainly because it was $300 cheaper at the time of purchase, I also had no real use for the extra height and associated weight and packed length. Sure, a taller tripod can always be made shorter and not the other way around, but I’ve yet to encounter a situation where the lack of a taller tripod compromised the shot. Realistically speaking, 6″ of height is not going to make or break any situation and is really only designed for comfort for taller users.
However, going back to the “a taller tripod can always be made shorter” remark, when I placed my new tripod side by side with my Systematic, I noticed the clevis’ are designed exactly the same. Surely to streamline their production, that means the legs on both tripods are completely interchangeable. This is true across the board for all of Gitzo’s tripods; max leg diameter and attached clevis is universal by series across their whole lineup and a Series 2 Mountaineer’s leg will fit onto a Series 2 Traveler’s spider, and vice versa. Since I have a long-legged version of the Series 3 Systematic, that means I now have a complete set of Series 3 legs in both standard and long.
Yup. I swapped the legs. I did this because I intend to use the Mountaineer for more than I do the Systematic. Plus, the extra height above my Systematic’s spider due to the ball head and leveling base, results in a setup that’s just a few inches above eye-level with the shorter legs attached. My Systematic is most often used on flat, mostly level ground so I don’t need the extra length to level the tripod during setup. Besides, the leg swap process is straight-forward and simple, as long as you have both of the included Torx wrenches, so I can convert it back within minutes whenever I need to. In the end, I got the extra height of the GT3542L without having to spend the money for it.
As for build quality, since I pretty much covered the design, it’s as solid as you’d expect from Gitzo. The legs are a little tight as the shims are new, but will loosen up over time. The thin-walled tube construction is just as thin as my other Gitzo tripods, resulting in a complete tripod that’s at least a pound lighter than an equivalent tripod from competing brands. The ground level conversion is smoother than the one on my Series 1 Mountaineer. The 3/8″-16 platform screw converts to 1/4″-20 as you’d expect and the platform base is 60mm in diameter. Because of that, my Arca-Swiss p0 head and Novoflex panoramic base fit seamlessly. The angle locks are the familiar Gitzo design with semi-automatic ratcheting; they glide out smoothly, as if on bearings, and pop into position when the leg is opened to its most obtuse angle. All of the twist locks rotate smoothly and tighten securely with only a quarter turn. Finally, the feet are removable and use the standard 3/8″-16 thread for swapping out with different feet.
On the subject of feet, since I’m always looking for good value I forwent the $120 set of Gitzo long spikes and found a set of medium length, 3 inch spikes for $20. They’re 1/4″-20 thread, which is fantastic since they’ll also fit on my GT1542 Mountaineer and GT1555T Traveler tripods. To be completely honest, the latter is a compromise tripod that I only use in urban environments since it’s extremely light, and packs down super small, while the former is probably going up for sale; if not, I won’t be using it much as it’ll go with me only if I’m packing the X-H1. Regardless, the spikes do fit both applications. I added a set of 3/8″-16 bushings and washers to fit the Series 3 tripods and will definitely be using these instead of the 4.5″ set, which are just too long for most of the terrain here in the PNW. The extra long spikes are probably ideal for areas with more boggy, mossy terrain, like Scotland or something.
I also found a set of 45mm diameter hemispherical feet from Leofoto. I have a set of their 38mm hemispherical feet that I really like and the larger ones are more than enough to keep the twist locks off the surface when I set the tripod to ground level. The 38mm feet will stay on the Systematic since I can’t lower it all the way due to the leveling base’s handle getting in the way. These feet are well priced at $25 per set and compare well to the mushroom style feet from Really Right Stuff. The latter’s feet are also priced competitively at $8 each, but they charge nearly $10 to ship them, which is outrageous. Even at $35 shipped, they’re a relative steal compared to the $32 they charge for their 3″ spikes; hilariously, they advertise a $3 savings if you buy 3. And finally, I also have a set of rock claws (which have been getting a lot of use this past year) and 50mm “Big Foot” hemispherical, ball-joint feet for smooth surfaces; the latter pretty much stays with my Systematic tripod for studio and pavement.
Anyways, it’s been a long time coming for this tripod. It’s something I really should have bought a year ago instead of pushing on with a compromised tripod, especially for the sort of photography I enjoy doing. Looking back, there were a lot of missed opportunities and rejected shots because I was stubborn. Granted, the new tripod is much, much larger and over a pound heavier, but at least it’s not as big and heavy as my Systematic. I wish I were either a younger, healthier man or I had taken better care of my spine in my youth, so adding a few more pounds to my backpack wouldn’t be so critical.
If you shoot with a digital medium format camera like the Fujifilm GFX or Hasselblad X1D, or use a Nikon D850, D5, Z6/7 or Canon 5D, 1DX, R5 or larger, I highly recommend the Gitzo GT3542 or GT3542L Series 3 Mountaineer. Granted, the Traveler folds down smaller, but it’s wider when packed, has a separate shorty center column for ground level shooting, has only 2 leg angles and doesn’t go larger than Series 2. The Series 3 Systematic supports more weight and is more stable, but it’s heavier and is nearly twice the width when folded, taking up significantly more space in or on your bag. It’s also wildly unbalanced and top-heavy when folded, further complicating packing. If you really need a “no compromise” tripod and are willing to make the required compromises, there’s no substitute for the Systematic Series of Gitzo tripods.
However, if you need a strong and light tripod to support a camera or camera and lens combo like the ones listed in the previous paragraph, one that packs down and carries easily with a minimum of compromises for backcountry hikes, there’s not much better than the Gitzo GT3542 Series 3 Mountaineer. At just under $1000 USD, it’s by no means cheap, but the build quality is excellent and it includes an extended, 7 year warranty when you register it after purchase. You’ll know it when you need a tripod like this and it’s best to buy it once and have it for life.