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11-16-2009, 04:51 PM   #1
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Gitzo GT3541XLS: first impressions of a 3 series carbon fiber tripod

Hi Everyone,

Back in 2008 I had used a Giottos MT9360 with a Sigma 500/4.5 + Arca-Swiss Z1 Monoball for the VLF Wildlife Photo Competition with few issues. Not the best setup, but it certainly worked. No tripod upgrade was really needed until the recent purchase of the FA* 250-600/5.6 super telephoto. Now I must consider total weight when mounting the following equipment on a tripod:

FA* 250-600/5.6: ~13lbs (with tripod collar)
Wimberley WH-200 gimbal head: 3lbs
Camera + grip + 2 batteries: 2.5lbs
Flash + bracket + extender: 1-2lbs


This means the total weight is hovering around 20lbs! The only exception is to consider using my Arca-Swiss Z1 monoball while shooting in a blind, since no panning ability is really needed. Normally your tripod should have a max. load of double the equipment weight to minimize vibration. I took in a lot of input from fellow nature photographers who use lenses ranging anywhere from 500/4, 600/4, 800/5.6 and Sigma 300-800/5.6 lenses (all Canon/Nikon shooters). That's a big reason why many nature photographers use Gitzo tripods for those heavy super telephoto setups: minimal vibration yet much lighter CF materials. The consensus was the GT3541XLS or GT5541LS.

Just a few days ago I received my Gitzo GT3541XLS along with the GT5541LS. I decided that the 5541LS was a bit too big: a massive top plate/legs, 6.5lbs! For traveling as light as possible, so the 3541XLS is here to stay.


Since I am 6' 3" tall, the following are my requirements that I had for my new tripod purchase:
  • max. load capacity of ~40lbs or more
  • at least 60" tall without a center column if using a gimbal head
  • light weight for travel (~5-6lbs or less)
The gimbal head + lens tripod foot will add at least several inches to this max. height. There are more than a few folks my height using the 5541LS which is sufficient. Since I do a lot of landscape work, an even taller max. height was an important consideration, but I'd rather not buy a center column + plate after the fact. Gitzo is the only manufacturer that I know of that meets all of the above requirements. Many tripods went from 26 to 33lbs max. load, but that's it. That meant no aluminum tripods could be considered (too heavy) and most other competitors' offerings had to be discarded.

I decided to purchase from NatureScapes because they included a free NSN Gitzo safety plate worth $69.95, a discount of ~$20 for Leg Coat tripod leg covers and free shipping! A nice extra value that came with the tripod. I received a Gitzo box with tripod, tripod dust bag, a small zip lock bag with pamphlet, instructions, warranty card, star hex and standard allen key wrenches & lubricant. Received everything with the accessories listed above in a very well packaged box.

The Gitzo GT3541XLS is a beautiful, simple, strong, yet lightweight CF (Carbon Fiber) tripod with no center column. Here are the specifications:
  • Load Capacity: 39.7 lbs (18kg)
  • Maximum Height: 78" (198cm)
  • Minimum Height: 3.9" (10cm)
  • Folded Length: 27.6" (70cm)
  • Weight: 4.3 lbs (1.970kg)
The Head Attachment Fitting is 3/8"

Pros:

  1. Max. load
  2. Max. height
  3. Very light weight
  4. Min. Height
  5. G locks are fast, simple and strong - simple 1/4 twist to loosen and lock them. Very nice twist locks and grippy rubber covers them!
  6. Incredibly stiff given the tube diameter - only the 5541LS is stiffer (but much larger).
  7. Field serviceable and readily available assembly diagrams
  8. Warranty: 5 additional years with Gitzo if you register with them online.
  9. Limited Lifetime Warranty if you register online with Bogen Imaging USA. That was a complete surprise - to my knowledge, it's unheard of with any other manufacturer's tripod offerings! If Bogen Imaging cannot repair it, the tripod will be replaced.

Cons:

  1. Price is not cheap for CF (vs. competitors).
  2. No padded carry bag - just a thin dust bag.
  3. Folded length is not as compact as shorter or 3 section tripods, but still quite workable.
  4. An expensive tripod - putting it in checked luggage should make anyone nervous!

Items received - the NSN Safety Plate, Gitzo GT3541XLS, Leg Coats:


The following 2 images are close to actual size:



Top plate details:


Length of Gitzo vs. Giottos when folded:


Maximum height:


Safety Plate:


Regarding the NSN Gitzo Safety Plate and it's development:

The combination of a telephoto lens, teleconverter, camera, flash, and tripod head is very heavy. When carrying a tripod over the shoulder, this weight puts additional stress on the tripod plate. After numerous discussions and requests by photographers, we have responded by developing a product that provides additional support to the Gitzo top plate, while offering “peace of mind.”
The plate is a perfect fit, positioned snugly below the existing Gitzo plate, inside the “basin.” Once installed, the Gitzo plate can not move or loosen, therefore preventing the head & photo equipment from falling.

Given the value of the equipment I'm slinging over my shoulder while mounted on the tripod, that's a small fee to pay for such a safety plate if you had to buy it. As you can see, those bolts are very stout! You can find a hardware review of the NSN Safety Plate at NatureScapes.

I have always advocated economical tripods such as the Giottos tripod I own (and will continue to do so), but the new weight of the FA* 250-600/5.6 mandated a new support system that met all of my criteria. I'm very pleased with the build quality, fit/finish and lifetime warranty of this tripod.
Some folks might disagree with the cost, etc. and there were few choices available!

A very important consideration:
the max. height also allows me to stand up while even positioned on a surface with a significant slope or photographing upwards into trees. This means a taller person will not put undue stress on their back: a shorter tripod height or one that allows you to see at eye level on flat ground will force you to stoop to see into the viewfinder on a sloped surface, etc.

Now my last consideration is the hiking/carrying system: probably Kinesis or Lowepro but I haven't really researched all of the options yet. Being airline friendly is always a consideration, so any input/thoughts are welcome!

Regards,
Marc



Last edited by Marc Langille; 11-16-2009 at 05:45 PM.
11-16-2009, 05:41 PM   #2
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Very fine review Marc! I look forward to the day I too require a tripod and head with 40lb capacity. That means I have something worthwhile to mount on it.
11-25-2009, 03:25 AM   #3
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Great review Marc. Considering you put 'expensive' in the cons list twice, this must be pricey. With the weight of all parts considered, you're going to need a pack mule in Texas next time!

Any photos of the head and the new lens/camera attached to this setup?
11-25-2009, 05:10 AM   #4
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I must say those carbon fiber legs have a weave I've never seen before. Do composite materials help reduce weight all that much?

11-25-2009, 05:20 AM   #5
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QuoteOriginally posted by imtheguy Quote
Very fine review Marc! I look forward to the day I too require a tripod and head with 40lb capacity. That means I have something worthwhile to mount on it.
I agree and thank you - look forward to that day you can do the same!

Regards,
Marc
11-25-2009, 05:22 AM   #6
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QuoteOriginally posted by Peter Zack Quote
Great review Marc. Considering you put 'expensive' in the cons list twice, this must be pricey. With the weight of all parts considered, you're going to need a pack mule in Texas next time!
Peter: thank you and yes, a mule might be in order! That's a lot of big FA* glass.

I'll be doing a more in depth review for a Nature-centric photography forum in the near future. I've been in conversation/messaging discussions with the owner so this will be fleshed out and performance aspects added.

The reference to price the second time is the baggage handler syndrome we can often encounter. Packing a tripod worth $825 into your checked should make anyone pause , unless it's a complete hard-sided case. That situation would be the only situation under which I'd check it in and it is the norm for a Gitzo owner that I spoke with. He will check it in with hard sided luggage only. Luckily Samsonite or a similar company makes them for under $100. I was pleasantly surprised by the lifetime warranty on the tripod too.


QuoteOriginally posted by Peter Zack Quote
Any photos of the head and the new lens/camera attached to this setup?

For your enjoyment, the lens/gimbal head setup:




I'll do my best to answer any questions!

Regards,
Marc

Last edited by Marc Langille; 11-25-2009 at 01:41 PM.
11-25-2009, 05:28 AM   #7
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QuoteOriginally posted by ftpaddict Quote
I must say those carbon fiber legs have a weave I've never seen before. Do composite materials help reduce weight all that much?
Hi Dan,

I agree and that weave is relatively recent - it's unlike any carbon fiber road bike which I've ridden in the past. It's exceptionally light and strong. Roughly 20% lighter, IIRC - I'll have to check to confirm.

That tripod in aluminum would easily be double or triple the weight for that height capacity. I checked and the Gitzo GT1500 series aluminum is 9.5lbs, but only supports 33lbs. Therefore it's not even a real consideration. Some of the others are stratospheric prices and not really suitable for this sort of work. The Sachtler goes up to 67", weighs 11.5lbs and costs $2600. Not for wildlife work!

Regards,
Marc
11-25-2009, 05:39 AM   #8
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Thank you for the quick reply, Marc. It appears Gitzo's PRCF tubing uses longer strands of fibre. Cannondale's new bikes use the same technology, but the layers are moulded in different patterns, so you can't really tell.

11-25-2009, 05:57 AM   #9
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As I used to do a lot of sailboat racing, CF was common for certain parts like a spinnaker pole. In the elite group of boats, the hulls and masts would be made from it as well. Very strong and light. But it has issues as well that have to be considered.

It does not take to bending like steel or even fibreglass can. The stuff will shatter when hit the wrong way and doesn't take compression well. I saw a spinnaker pole on a 50 foot yacht snap near one end and nearly decapitate a guy on the foredeck. The pieces were razor sharp as well. It's 14% stiffer than steel and 18% stiffer than Aluminum. So it doesn't like to be bent. So shipping the tripod in a hard case is a very good idea. Some baggage handler tosses that thing on a cart and you have a baggy full of very expensive CF bits.

It's not really possible to say how much stronger it is vs steel due to the various methods it can be created (Polymer resins , laminates and sandwich cores) but the general rule of thumb is 4-5x stronger than steel with a longer fatigue life by almost 2x.

Last edited by Peter Zack; 11-26-2009 at 11:38 AM.
11-25-2009, 06:03 AM   #10
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Marc, that is pure camera porn. Wow what a setup!
11-25-2009, 02:15 PM   #11
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Marc, you surely make us drool with that setup.

By any chance will you post a photo of you carrying that setup with you included?
I'm seriously curious to know how to carry all this heavy artillery on a shooting field.
I have enough problem already carrying K20D + 540 Flash + Giottos Mt9360 + Head MH 1300-657. Last time I went to Huntington Library with this setup, I had to use a luggage cart to haul all my equipments.
Do you carry them all at once or do you have to transport it one by one to the location?
You must be a really big guy to carry them all at once, I guess.
11-26-2009, 11:33 AM   #12
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Exactly Peter - that hard sided suitcase will protect it very well. That's a common travel method for ProTour cycling teams to protect their lightweight helmets, etc. when traveling all year long.

QuoteOriginally posted by Peter Zack Quote
Marc, that is pure camera porn. Wow what a setup!
Thanks Peter!
11-26-2009, 12:03 PM   #13
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QuoteOriginally posted by HermanLee Quote
Marc, you surely make us drool with that setup.

By any chance will you post a photo of you carrying that setup with you included?
I'm seriously curious to know how to carry all this heavy artillery on a shooting field.
I have enough problem already carrying K20D + 540 Flash + Giottos Mt9360 + Head MH 1300-657. Last time I went to Huntington Library with this setup, I had to use a luggage cart to haul all my equipments.
Do you carry them all at once or do you have to transport it one by one to the location?
You must be a really big guy to carry them all at once, I guess.
Actually that lens doesn't look very big beside me.

Regarding your question: a lot depends on what I'm photographing. That determines my lens selection. When traveling by air, if I'm headed into a dedicated multi-day shoot or something similar, then the FA* 250-600/5.6 and FA* 300/2.8 might both be brought with me, in addition to the FA* 200/4 macro, DA12-24, DA 50-200 and Tamron 28-75/2.8. That's not including accessories, etc. Each has their uses! Normally I'll have the Pelican 1510 carrying one or both lenses and it's carry on compliant. The 250-600/5.6 will fit in the case (barely) and I can fit both if I remove the 250-600/5.6 tripod collar. It's a very cozy fit!

If I am setting up in a blind for several days, etc. then I'll carry one super telephoto at a time to the blind from the vehicle. Just depends on the situation. If I am hiking for several miles, then normally one is at base camp or I only bring one lens - depends on the target subject. For birding photography, then the longer lens and perhaps the FA* 300/2.8 with a drip watering hole setup. I have no problem slinging the 20lbs attached to the tripod over my shoulder for shorter walks, although I'll take off the lens and carry it or stow it properly if I know there's a longer hike ahead.

Again, those choices are very dependent on the location, available photo opps, etc. The variance can be significant and I prefer to travel and lightly as possible. The type of shooting I often do means larger, heavier lenses and gear so it's always a consideration. If I know I'm headed into a substantially longer trip, sometimes I'll drop ship a package with low-value, non-fragile items (eg. hip waders, chest waders, bean bags) to a nearby location, since the airline fees would be more costly.

I'll try to get a photo of my being beside the FA* 250-600/5.6 that's decent - cheaper P&S camera images don't always come that well. I hope I answered your questions? Please let me know.

Regards,
Marc
11-27-2009, 05:28 PM   #14
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Wow. That's a big whackin' lens.

I suspect if anyone sees that setup out there, we'll have a good idea who it is.

I noticed mention of the quarter-twist leg locks: I wonder if the type come on any humbler models, Gitzo or otherwise, if the type seems to be catching on, or are they fairly unique, etc.
12-01-2009, 12:02 PM   #15
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QuoteOriginally posted by Marc Langille Quote
Actually that lens doesn't look very big beside me.
...
I'll try to get a photo of my being beside the FA* 250-600/5.6 that's decent - cheaper P&S camera images don't always come that well. I hope I answered your questions? Please let me know.

Regards,
Marc
Hi Marc,

Thanks for the explanation. Sorry for late reply. I just got back from long Thanksgiving vacation.

Your answer actually is more than I expected , thanks though.
What I really want to know is if you really carry this heavy setup along on your shoulder/hand while walking everywhere or needing some kind of mini transportation to help you with, for ex: a cart.

Yes, please show me maybe photo while you're hiking and carrying this setup (camera, FA*250-600, your new & expensive tripod).
I want to see how big those are compared to you. But like you said, they don't look that big on your side so you must be a big guy.
Also, I want to know how usually people carry a big setup like these. Maybe I can learn some techniques.

Thanks,
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