First, and most importantly, know what genres of photography you enjoy the most and if that genre requires a tripod. Then, buy the largest, highest quality tripod you're willing to carry that fits in your budget. Specifically in that order; do not put budget ahead of any other aspect of the tripod. If you go too cheap, you may very well end up with a tripod that meets none of your needs when you're forced to replace it due to instability or fragility. The adage, "buy cheap, buy twice (or more)" applies here.
As much as I like Gitzo as a brand and the quality of their products, some of their stuff just isn't as good as others. Take for example their leveling base; Gitzo features a large lever for tightening a head to the base and a handle borrowed directly from their sister Manfrotto's lineup. Instead, I got the series 3 leveling base from Really Right Stuff. It's lighter, has a simpler attachment system with no silly lever and a much sleeker locking handle with, get this, a gear hook! That hook alone is almost priceless, allowing me to attach weight for stability when I'm not leveling the head, ending any need to swap back to the flat top base. Back into the box that can go.
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.
Very simply: Does Wine Country Camera actually use the same glass and coatings between their filters? I wanted my filters to produce the same results between my filter sets to reduce post-processing time. Recently, I replaced my B+W and Haida ND filters with WCC because the results between the two would cause difficulties in post as I'd work to match the output if I used both during the same shoot.
This is one aspect of the Wine Country Camera system I was not expecting at all. While most systems fit up to 82mm lens threads, the Wine Country Camera holder is able to fit lens threads up to 95mm due to its much larger size. It still takes 100mm filters, but combined with the filter Locker system that engages the rails to provide up to a 15mm larger diameter lens aperture, the adapter system and holder also places the filters closer to the front element for a shorter overall profile. The result is the ability to fit on both larger and wider angle lenses than other filter holders.
Since finding joy in landscape photography, I made the decision to try and do as much "in camera" as possible in an attempt to teach myself the art of photography, rather than exploit the science of photography, to create a photograph. As such, I slowly learned exactly what that meant and have been on the quest to acquire the best tools for me to do so, starting with a solid tripod and high quality circular polarizers. From there, I continued. I bought a set of B+W ND filters in 3-, 6-, and 10-stops. Then, I bought a Formatt-Hitech (F-H) 100mm Firecrest filter holder kit so I could use graduated ND filters, solid ND filters, and a circular polarizer all at once.
After the trip to Forks, I realized I needed a mini tripod for those times when I forget my full or travel sized tripod. One that's small enough to carry all of the time and when height isn't all that important compared to just getting the shot. This is one of those things I'll be throwing into the bag whenever I may encounter low light, ensuring I can use whatever shutter speed I need to get proper exposure without fear of instability.
Cleaning and lubricating your tripod, no matter what material it's made of, will extend its life. The biggest point of contention seems to be over lubrication, so here's where I'm going to attempt giving a definitive answer for most tripods and ball heads.
Out of the box, the Leofoto LN-324C 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 threads and no pitting or cracks in the resin. All of the aluminum bits are finely milled with no tooling marks. Parts that may have originally been cast were finely machined to remove any casting seams and cuts into it 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. Metal on metal contact points showed evidence of lubrication and glided through their movements smoothly.