Sunday, March 1, 2009

Hub's Pick - The SLIK Pro 330EZ Tripod

One of the biggest mistakes a serious beginning photographer can make is to cut corners when purchasing a tripod. Tripods range in cost from about $20 to well over $1,000. The temptation to save money and buy a cheap tripod is understandable, but, in the long run, a waste of good money. Cheap tripods don't provide the stability, durability, camera safety and flexibility photography requires.

I have had my Gitzo tripod for more than 25 years. It has become a friend and my stable photography platform. During this time, I have learned to operate it with my eyes closed. The one problem with my tripod is weight. At about 12 pounds, my Gitzo provides a workout every time I go into the field.

For this reason, I would not recommend my tripod to beginning photographers. (Or to me as a field tripod for that matter.) The recent industry trend in tripods is lightweight and sturdy. To that end, many manufacturers have taken to producing ultra lightweight tripods based on carbon fiber technology. When I started this investigation, I was immediately hit with "sticker shock". They ain't cheap. Even smaller carbon fiber tripods start at $250 and if I needed a larger unit, it could eventually cost more than the camera it was made to support. (By the way $250 was just for the tripod. I would need to add a separate tripod head to have a functioning tripod. Add another $100 plus.)

This isn't the value I was hoping to bring to my readers. We don't require space-age, stealth technology that will outlive the pyramids. What we really need is a semi-light, flexible, extremely stable and affordable "take everywhere" tripod. Serious beginners want to take landscapes, portraits, still lifes, night shots, wildlife and be able to do some experimenting with techniques like HDR photography.

So, I decided to follow my own advice and talk to the people I trust most - my local professional camera dealer. In my case, that means a trip to Pro Photo Supply in Portland, Oregon. The pro I found waiting for me was Tom. I told him I was about to write an article for my readers on tripods, and that I needed his advice on a solid but budget-friendly option for serious beginning photographers.

There was no hesitation. Tom led me directly to the store's tripod display and handed me the SLIK Pro 330EZ tripod. The price was extremely reasonable. I have found this tripod priced between $105 and $120 (Manufacturer's suggested price is $179). Best of all, Tom let me take it for a working "test spin". So that's what I did for the next 10 days.

Opening the box, I was pleasantly surprised to find that everything came with the tripod. I didn't need to buy any accessories (as if a tripod head could realistically be called an accessory). The tripod ships with:
  • tripod (with soft-foam covered top legs)
  • a two-piece tripod column and pan/tilt head
  • two bubble levels incorporated
  • quick release camera mount
  • instructions
The Pro 330EZ is not made with carbon fiber, but the next best thing - super titanium alloy. This gives the little guy excellent strength and noticeably light weight.

The unit weighs in at 4.4 pounds (including the head) and when collapsed it's a mere 24 inches long. Doing some research I found that an equivalent carbon fiber tripod would only weigh an ounce or two less. Since I was concerned about saving pounds, an extra ounce didn't seem like too much of a sacrifice to save a couple of hundred dollars.

The included camera quick release device attaches to any standard camera tripod socket, making set up and tear down a snap.

With the release device attached, the camera slips onto the tripod mounting plate, snaps into place and is secured by the quick release locking lever shown above. From this angle you can also see the two bubble levels. Extremely handy when attempting to level the camera for horizons, panoramas or any vertical/horizontal elements in the composition.

With the camera mounted, how stable is the unit? I'm pleased to report that this tripod is extremely stable at all heights. I felt my camera was as secure and stable as it would be on my trusty old Gitzo. Even normal bumping of the tripod didn't cause it to tip or fall in any of the configurations I used.

With either size camera the bubble levels are clearly visible for fine adjustment

I used the Pro 330EZ with a Canon EOS (with extra battery compartment accessory) and a Nikon D60 (considerably smaller than the Canon). Both cameras were held securely and without any "top heavy" tendencies or vibrations. SLIK rates the tripod with an 8 pound load capacity. More than enough to safely support a camera and long telephoto lens.

Vertical pictures can be easily accommodated by loosening the platform locking knob and horizontally rotating the camera 90 degrees. Then use the tilt and pan handle to move the camera to the desired vertical position. Very quick.

But the real story behind the Pro 330EZ is the flexibility it provides the photographer.

Each tripod leg has two extension sections that are quickly released and positioned with quick snap leg locks. Fully extended (including the head column extended) the tripod is 48.4 inches high.

The quick release leg locks and smooth action of the leg segments make set up in even the most complex and rugged situations quick and easy. In this set up, the front leg was at full extension as was the center column. And the camera remained rock steady during the long exposures used to create flowing-water motion in the nearby stream.

But that's only the beginning.

At the joints where each leg connects to the center column support, three two-position leg locks allow the angle of the legs to be altered in 2 steps to allow the tripod to conform to unusual shooting situations or a lower camera for unique perspectives.

In the picture above, the leg locks were adjusted to the most extreme angle and the column was raised to allow a lower shooting angle.

Since the center column is made of two pieces (as shown above), one section can be removed to allow an even lower camera position.

In the above picture, the lower section of the center column has been removed to allow an extremely stable camera platform and low perspective. In this lowest position the top of the camera mounting plate is a mere 11 inches above the ground. Pretty cool.

Need to get even lower and closer?

Then reverse the column and lay on your stomach. It takes a while to get used to shooting "upside down", but -- as you know -- a good macro shot is well worth the effort.

Without a doubt, it's mass production that helps keep the cost down on the SLIK Pro 330EZ. But the solid build, fit & finish, smooth operation, flexibility and quick operation of this tripod shouts "professional". It may be considered the low end of the professional line, but don't tell the tripod. It acts just like its big brothers.

Its size and weight are a joy. It easily fits into a backpack or suitcase. Most importantly, a photographer can carry this tripod all day and never notice its 4.4 pounds.

So, my friend Tom at Pro Photo Supply had good reason to point me to the SLIK Pro 330EZ. This "everything's in the box", durable and infinitely flexible tripod is a winner.

As a matter of fact, it's now mine.

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