This fall I received a couple of items from Gitzo for review: the GT3543XLS carbon fiber tripod, and the Gimbal Fluid Head (GHFG1). As a previous Gitzo owner, I was curious about the advances made in their products, and this was my first chance to try out one of their tripod heads.
Before I get started, I feel it’s important to clarify the circumstances as to why I received this gear and am writing the review. You’ll note that I said I am previous Gitzo owner. Many years ago, my first “professional level” tripod was a Gitzo, the G1325. I purchased it based on Gitzo’s reputation as an industry leader. Even today, Gitzo is the first brand off the tongue of many photographers when someone asks which tripod to buy. I had just picked up my first “big lens” (a Canon 500mm f/4) back then, so I wanted a sturdy, quality product to support it.
The tripod lasted about six years until—Pop!—a leg came loose during a winter Yellowstone trip. Uh oh. The biggest issue wasn’t just the loose leg (I was able to hold it together with electrical tape somehow, even in the freezing conditions), but the fact that this occurred outside of the manufacturer’s five-year warranty window. I was able to send it into Gitzo’s sister company, Manfrotto, for repair. The going rate was $200 per leg fix. When the second one started coming loose a couple months later, I was done with the G1325. I had a second, smaller Gitzo tripod for landscape work that continued to hold up, but of course, it was rarely used (in fact, I still own it, but probably haven’t used it outside of one shoot in the past five years).
When Gitzo recently contacted me regarding a partnership, I told them that based on my past experience it would be hard to endorse their products without another hands-on test. And now we’re here.
When I think about an ideal new rig, I’d need something that would replicate (or hopefully improve upon) my current tripod setup for big gear (a Canon 600mm f/4 IS III). My existing “big lens” tripod/head combo consisted of an Induro CT314 tripod and a first generation Wimberley gimbal head (WH-100/101). The former was my replacement for the old Gitzo G1325, the latter a pre-owned purchase that has continued to hold up all these years.
It was hard to find any reason to complain about the Induro. It was less expensive than Gitzo, had a longer warranty, and has held up fairly well. The only issue that required warranty repair was a leg joint bolt that wouldn’t tighten properly after a while. And there were lost tripod feet that came unscrewed and fell off (a common issue across many brands). The Wimberley head is a beast. Solid, even now, but quite heavy… it seems to double the weight of the tripod every time I put it on.
Weight is, of course, one of the most important considerations when it comes to our gear. I carry a lot of stuff, often over long distances, so if I can find a way to save a pound or two here and there, all the better. I was curious to see how the new Gitzo gear would compare to my equipment functionally, ergonomically, and in terms of weight.
I received the GT3543XLS tripod during my October Yellowstone visit.
The Gimbal head was still on backorder, so I chose to hold off on testing until I had both items. I finally received the head in time for my January return to the park, so it became my go-to rig for that trip.
I’m not going to spend time gushing about the lovely packaging or anything, but I was surprised to see what came in the Fluid Head box. Not only a lens plate for large lenses, but a removable panning handle made for scoping or filmmaking. The latter especially was intriguing. Though I don’t spend as much time recording video as I used to, I’ve had trouble panning smoothly with a normal gimbal head. I was curious if this handle, combined with the fluid head, would improve my performance behind the lens while recording moving footage.
The tripod package also contained a surprise. The tripod itself—part of the Systematic line Gitzo describes as “the strongest and most stable tripods”—sported wider, articulating rubber feet. In a small bag were a set of alternate solid rubber leg tips, akin to what I have used on previous tripods.
I was unsure about the articulating feet… I saw potential for some issues down the road, so I packed the replacement leg tips just in case.
To start, I did a weight and visual comparison between the two setups.
Gitzo GT3543XLS carbon fiber tripod (bottom): 5.05 pounds
Induro CT314 carbon fiber tripod: 5 pounds
I’d hoped for some weight savings. It wasn’t happening. This despite the fact that the Induro sports a center column and the Gitzo does not. Also disappointing was the extremely wide base for a head. The Gitzo “collapsed profile” is much wider at the top than the Induro, possibly designed that way for accommodating larger video rigs. This wasn’t a really big deal, but it does mean the Gitzo takes up more space even when packed away. When packing a tripod in a suitcase or bag, I’d rather have the skinnier rig.
Next, I compared the tripod heads.
Gitzo GHFG1 Gimbal Fluid Head: 2.98 pounds
Wimberley Gimbal Head (WH-100/101): 4.15 pounds
Boom! There’s the weight savings I was looking for. Funny thing is, the Gitzo head looks massive out of the box, with a thick base and especially thick arm, but it’s all surprisingly light. My initial thought was that this was a better step up, based on weight alone.
But we’d have to see how it would all perform…
In the Field: GT3543XLS Tripod
From the get-go, it was important for me to study and react to this new gear objectively. It’s very easy to get hung up on problems that stem from simply not being used to a system. For example, the placement of certain control knobs on the gimbal head differs between the Gitzo and my old Wimberley. I did my best not to downgrade the new equipment just because it functioned a little differently than what I was used to. However, if certain design elements don’t make sense ergonomically or in terms of basic convenience, that’s something that should be noted.
Let’s start with the tripod itself, and one of my chief concerns that arose from the moment I unpackaged it: those articulating feet.
I wasn’t sure they were the best option for a winter Yellowstone trip. Often times I’d be shoving my tripod legs into deep snow, with the feet ending up on unknown and mostly uneven surfaces. The wide rubber pad at the bottom which might normally provide more stability on a smooth, flat frozen road was unlikely to land straight when shoved onto a hidden branch of sage brush or rock beneath the snow. I speculated that whatever advantages the feet bring to the table in a less rugged environment would be neutralized by the setting.
That proved to be the case. More often than not when I pulled the tripod out of the snow, one or more of the feet were askew, rotated vertically. Since reaching down into a snow bank to straighten a tripod foot every time you set up makes little sense (especially in time-sensitive situations), I didn’t really see the advantage of the rotating feet. It was only a matter of time before I’d swap them out for the more standard (and sturdier) rubber leg tips.
This was reinforced later in the trip, when I discovered this one morning.
That was another concern with these feet. Screw-on rubber leg tips have a tendency to get loose on occasion, as I mentioned (some photographers seal them with industrial glue, such as Loctite), but I figured the chances of losing an articulating foot were much greater. It sure didn’t take long! As it turned out, I found the foot on our snow coach. So it had simply popped off while sitting inside a vehicle, not even a victim of the rigors of the field. My decision to switch feet was cemented.
Update: If you are thinking about taking the feet off using your hands, or even pliers, don’t bother. Gitzo actually provides a special hex wrench that fits into the bottom of the foot so you can unscrew it. I finally figured this out after reading the manual (yes, this tripod has a manual). Swapping out the feet was very easy once I figured that out.
Functionally, the GT3543XLS works pretty smoothly. It’s new, of course, so the joints are fairly tight and will likely loosen a bit over time. For now, I don’t have to worry about the issue of loosey-goosey legs flopping around, but we’ll see if it becomes an problem as it was with my Induro.
This is a tall tripod, with a max height of nearly 80 inches (202cm). This means no center column like on my old Induro, but the trade-off is some longer leg segments that make for a lengthier and less-compact collapsed tripod (see the comparison shot above).
Two features I appreciated on the Induro that weren’t found on the Gitzo: padded upper legs and longer leg locks.
Padding can help ease the discomfort of longer treks when the tripod rests on a shoulder, but it’s not something built into this tripod. Instead, Gitzo sells expensive pads separately. According to reviews they’re more helpful for avoiding touching cold legs than providing adequate padding. Many photographers just rig up a DIY solution using foam pipe insulation and some tape.
I definitely noticed the shorter leg locks on the Gitzo, compared to the Induro. That, combined with the round textured design, made the locks harder to grip and manipulate than Induro’s longer, beveled locks.
In the Field: GHFG1 Gimbal Fluid Head
While I was noting the functionality of the tripod, I also had to get used to the head. This was more of an adjustment for me. Basic tripod functions are pretty universal, but gimbal heads have more design options. In this case, the Gitzo head is laid out quite differently than my old Wimberley in one respect: the horizontal panning screw is controlled on the side of the head rather than in the middle (over the center column). Even the newer Wimberley heads have changed to this side knob layout, so it’s practically universal among gimbals at this point. This was simply an instance of muscle memory screwing me up sometimes, something I didn’t really factor into my judgement. More repetition and use in the field will cure that problem.
The massive vertical panning knob was useful, and I didn’t find much issue with the fact that the horizontal knob is quite a bit smaller. The clamp knob on the opposite side worked fine too (though it also suffers a little, like the tripod, by having a round textured surface as opposed to a beveled design that’s easier to grip… especially with winter gloves).
I mentioned that the Fluid Head came with a couple surprises in the box. One was the removable panning handle. Quite easy to insert and remove, and though I didn’t have too many opportunities to use it with video shooting in the park, it seemed a welcome addition (especially since panning large lenses without such an arm has often produced hesitant and jerky movements). The design of the fluid head also makes for a much smoother panning motion, though I found it took a bit of an adjustment to get used to the added resistance in the horizontal joint.
The other surprise in the box was a complementary foot plate. A nice touch… but it’s so big! It’s much wider than the Wimberley P-40 plate I’ve used all these years on my large lenses, presumably designed for use with bulkier video cameras. Since that didn’t apply to me, I left it in the box (for this trip I opted for the much more compact Fusion plate that I received for Christmas; it worked well).
I had no issue with the clamp system while using my big (600mm) lens. Everything worked as one might expect. But things changed when I tried mounting my second body, attached to the Canon 100-500mm lens. It didn’t fit!
For a couple reasons, it turns out. The first issue was immediately apparent: I could not mount the body onto the clamp while the panning handle was inserted.
This problem was very specific to my setup. I had a battery grip on my Canon R6 body, and it was the grip that was bumping into the panning handle jutting out from the head. While the tripod foot on a larger 600mm lens is tall enough to raise the camera above the arm, with the smaller 100-500mm lens, the attached foot doesn’t provide the clearance. But then you have to factor in the other issue: I set up my gimbal heads with my knobs on the right side.
Many photographers prefer to have their gimbal knobs on the left side of the lens, so they can hold the camera with their right hand while controlling their tripod head functions with the left. I’ve never found this terribly comfortable when shooting (I prefer to stabilize my big lens underneath rather than draping my arm over the top). So in this case, my tripod head is typically set up with the gimbal arm and knobs on the right. But when you insert the optional Gitzo panning handle on that side, it blocks the camera body grip, which doesn’t allow the lens to settle properly into the clamp. You either have to use a camera body without a grip, or reverse the head and insert the panning handle on the left side. The first option is unrealistic, the second is an inconvenience for right-side shooters at best. As it is, the camera barely fits alongside the panning handle when it’s mounted on the left side too!
Could I attach the lens and body without the panning arm attached? Not exactly. I actually had problems with that too, because of the type of plate I was using. In addition to the Fusion brand plate on my 600mm lens, I also have a new, smaller Fusion plate on the 100-500mm lens foot. Why? Because Fusion plates have a handy collapsible metal ring that can be hooked on a BlackRapid camera strap. This setup is more secure than what I’ve been using, a BlackRapid with a clamp attached. The clamp would latch onto the lens plate and I could carry it that way… but not without endangering the whole rig should the clamp loosen or come unscrewed from the strap attachment (have had it happen, and a costly lens repair was needed afterward).
Anyway, I was liking this Fusion plate. But what I discovered was that it has two small bolts protruding at the bottom that prevented the plate from laying flat in the clamp. Unlike my old school Wimberley I clamp, the Gitzo clamp is not grooved in the middle, so any protrusions along the bottom of the plate don’t have a place to hide out. I was forced to remove the two bolts from the plate (which shouldn’t affect its performance).
This is a collection of annoying little details surrounding a circumstance I wouldn’t face too often (filming with my 100-500), but it does exhibit some shortcomings in the Gimbal Fluid design that prevent the head’s compatibility with a wider array of tools and equipment.
Don’t get me wrong, I do like this head! As I mentioned from the start, the weight is a huge plus, and ultimately the more compact size compared to my old head is a bonus as well. The smooth panning motion makes it a desirable option for those who dabble (at the very least) in video. I can’t help but think it could be even better, however.
This is an oft-overlooked topic when it comes to tripods. I learned how important it is after I had to send my first Gitzo in for repairs after the five-year warranty had expired. When I switched to Induro soon after, the ten-year warranty with that brand was a deciding factor alongside the price.
Any tripod used more than 2-3 times per year is going to get beat up. We sling them over our shoulders, they get jostled around in vehicles, they’re stuffed in checked luggage for flights. Sometimes, they just fall over. And occasionally, despite their rugged design, they can’t handle all of the elements Mother Nature throws their way. The GT3543XLS is rated to -22 degrees F. I guarantee it’ll be used in colder temps than that some day. Feet fall off and disappear, leg joints loosen, padding (if built into the tripod design) cracks and splits. Repairs will become necessary at some point.
So a longer warranty helps. Fortunately, Gitzo appears to have boosted their offerings in this regard. What used to be a five year warranty can now be extended… to either seven years (according to Gitzo’s own site), or perhaps ten years (according to B&H). I’m actually not sure which is correct, and Gitzo still hasn’t clarified with me at the time of publication. Regardless, the warranty duration has improved a bit.
The GT3543XLS tripod and GHFG1 Gimbal Fluid Head are considered top-of-the-line in their field, and they are priced as such. So is the extra investment worth it?
When it comes to judging the tripod, you may have to check back with me five or six years from now for a final verdict! Will a leg (or two) have popped off by then, or will this tripod prove to be of better craftsmanship than my G1325? My short term verdict is that it’s solidly built and does everything you’d ask of a tall, carbon fiber tripod made for big lenses. It should stand the test of time, and that’s what ultimately will determine whether the added investment in this brand is worthwhile.
If I compare it one-on-one with my Induro, it actually suffers in terms of some design elements:
- It’s not as compact when collapsed (thanks to the wider top base).
- It has no padding.
- The leg locks are harder to manipulate.
- It’s much more expensive (compared to the updated Induro equivalent of my old CT314—the CLT404L—there’s still a price difference of nearly $500!).
There’s no doubt this is a good tripod that will do everything a big lens photographer needs in the field. But the price is steep. Given a choice between these two familiar brands and knowing my budget, I would likely lean toward the new Induro (though its heavier weight might push me to swap out the center column for a shorter replacement).
I look more favorably on the GHFG1 head, despite the niggling series of design flaws I outlined above. It’s tight, smooth, and well-built. In spite of the issues with the panning handle combined with a medium zoom lens setup, I like that added option for video work. It really is a better head design for photographers working both in stills and moving pictures. The extra accessories accompanying the head are a nice bonus.
The big plus, however, is the weight. At three pounds, the head compares favorably to other premier tripod brands like Wimberley and Really Right Stuff (popular lower-priced options from Jobu and Benro weigh about the same or even lower).
Unlike the tripod, this head is more competitively priced with its peers (especially compared to the RRS fluid head), giving it even greater appeal. If there’s room in your budget for a premium head, this is a great option, particularly if you plan to do any video work.
Buy the GT3543XLS Tripod and GHFG1 Gimbal Fluid Head
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