Roundup: Six Large Tripods For Heavy Duty Use
|From left to right; ProMediaGear TR344, Really Right Stuff TVC-34, Sirui SR-3204, FLM CP34-L4 II, Leofoto LM-364C, Gitzo GT3543LS. (Pro tip: keep the leg locks away from sand if possible.)|
There is a saying about tripods; ‘Cheap, light, stable – you can pick only two’. And maximizing one aspect will minimize the others. This roundup covers tripods that emphasize stability over affordability, and make what concessions they can to portability. Further, these tripods represent ‘once in a lifetime’ purchases for most enthusiasts, and ‘never have to worry about it’ gear for professionals.
We have collected together six tripods intended for use with heavy cameras, long lenses, and in difficult conditions. They are all from well-known makers of quality, durable tripods, which share similar specifications and represent each company’s interpretations of the ‘systematic 3-series tripod.’ Great, but what do these terms mean?
A ‘systematic’ tripod has a large, open apex with a removable top plate, where different accessory items (video bowl, leveling base, center column, etc.) can be inserted to change the function of the tripod itself, without needing another set of legs.
|Open Apex||Platform||Video Bowl||Half Ball||Level Base|
Gitzo pioneered this modular approach more than 40 years ago, and because those initial tripods and their inserts were part of a system, Gitzo referred to them as ‘systematic’ to differentiate them from their other, non-modular tripod offerings. That term has now become a standard to describe all tripods of this type.
Next, ‘3-series’ is another Gitzo tripod term referring to the different size ranges of their tripods, and it has been adopted by other manufacturers to some degree to indicate the tube diameter and general size of their products, as well. Generally, it means the top leg tube diameters of the tripod legs are between 33-36mm, although some exceed this.
Key specifications compared
All six tripods are the ‘3-series systematic’ type of medium size and modular apex, with four-section legs at the ‘regular’ length, except the ‘long version’ FLM. Therefore, the specifications are quite close among them, and the red/ green differences in the table below can be relatively slight.
|Leofoto LM-364C||FLM CP-34 L4 II|
|Length (folded)*||55 cm (21.6″)||54.5 cm (21.5″)||53 cm (20.8″)||53 cm (20.8″)||53 cm (20.8″)||60 cm (23.6″)|
|Weight*||1.94 kg (4.27 lbs)||2.1 kg (4.62 lbs)||1.82 kg (4.02 lbs)||1.93 kg (4.25 lbs)||1.92 kg (4.23 lbs)||1.95 kg
|Max. Height*||146 cm (57.5″)||150 cm
|148 cm (58.2″)||145 cm (57.1″)||173.5 cm
|Min. Height*||9 cm
|14.3 cm (5.6″)||9.4 cm
|Leg Tube Diameters*||33, 29, 25.3, 21.8 mm||33, 29.5, 26, 22mm||34, 30, 26.2, 22.4 mm||36.7, 33, 28.5, 24.7 mm||36, 32.5, 28, 25mm||34, 30, 26, 22mm|
23°, 53°, 86°
|25°, 51°, 79°||24°, 50°, 84°||26°, 53°, 86°||23°, 56°, 87°||25°, 54°, 84°|
|Platform Diameter*||70 mm
|78mm (3.1″)||69mm (2.7″)||70 mm
|75mm (2.95″)||75mm (2.95″)|
* All sizes, weights and angles based on in-house measurements.
## Manufacturer provided amount. Not a standardized measurement.
In this group of tripods, every represented manufacturer offers these tripods with three or four section legs, and most offer ‘long’ versions, for extra height. The FLM in this group is a long version, as that is the only size normally stocked in North America (the Medium and Small are special order). In addition, almost all of the brands offer even larger systematic tripods with thicker legs, and corresponding increases in other dimensions, as well.
Testing methods – four seasons of use
These tripods were not simply unboxed or examined in a vacuum. They were compared against each other over four seasons of pandemic-inspired photography along the US Atlantic coast. Each tripod has been used in sand, snow, mud, rain, and salt water; set up in the bog-like Atlantic salt marshes and the wind-swept Appalachian mountains. They have been loaded with gimbal heads, ball heads, geared and pano-heads, and up to 4kg (8.8lb) lenses attached to cameras ranging from APS-C to medium-format, shooting anything from long-exposure landscapes to extreme telephoto birds-in-flight. The only test they did not go through was being rough-handled at the airport, thanks to pandemic travel restrictions.
Due to the size and price of these relatively niche tripods, and considering how long they were used in the field, these reviews will include comments on how easy they are to maintain, and considerations on spare parts and service. This gear is designed for long-life and continual use in many challenging environments, so cleaning, care and repair should be a routine part of their use.
Gitzo has been the first (and sometimes last) word in high-end and heavy-duty tripods for many decades, and their innovations and influence are clearly seen in every other tripod of this type on the market. The GT3543LS exemplifies Gitzo’s continual refinement of this type of tripod in fit, finish, form and function. While it may have the slimmest legs and narrowest stance in this group, both of which anecdotally should make it less stable, it comes in a close second for vibration resistance.
Our take: The safe, but pricey, bet. Excellent performance with worldwide support
The wide variety of accessories available to fit in its 70mm apex means this is truly a broad system to buy into. Only a few small issues come up in terms of the leg angle locks and the overall dimensions, but this tripod has very few flaws and performs admirably in every situation and test. While any Gitzo is an expensive proposition, they are the most accessible and widely supported tripod of this type worldwide, which makes it a safe bet as a stalwart companion for many years.
Sirui made their name with a line of excellent tripod heads and a dizzying array of smaller tripods, with the SR-series at the top of their line in most regions. Many of the highlights from their other products are on full display in the SR-3204, with excellent leg collars, well-machined aluminum and magnesium alloy parts, and excellent carbon fiber tubes, but then some of the other common parts, such as the press-in angle locks, do not scale up as well. The full SR-series includes an aluminum legged version, as well as a 3-section carbon fiber tripod, which lower the already affordable price of this size and type of tripod.
Our take: Budget-friendly pick, with option for even less-expensive aluminum legs.
Functionally the built-in video bowl is quite welcome, as is the (hard-to-find) center column accessory, but there are some compatibility issues that warrant looking to other manufacturers for add-ons. The lack of any instructions or spare parts for maintenance of this type of support system is surprising, given the expected longevity. When compared in this group, the Sirui SR-3204 is a bit heavy and not as vibration resistant as its peers, and lacks some refinement in its design and functions, but still offers a lot for the low price.
FLM CP34-L4 II
The CP34-L4 is the tallest tripod in this roundup, due to FLM prioritizing this ‘Large’ size for the North American market, but it also shows just what can be gained from any tripod by opting for a longer-legged version. Meanwhile, FLM has built its reputation on the rock-solid stability of its various heads, and though these new tripods are made in China, the same durable engineering and tight construction is carried over. The tripod is well finished and incredibly sturdy for its size, with only a few missteps in the design, such as the missing weight hook and bare metal leg locks, but these are offset by the integrated video bowl and relatively affordable price.
Our take: The tall option, with thoughtful features at a reasonable price
Vibration resistance for this long-legged version is quite good, and the ease of maintenance and availability of spare parts carries over the FLM tradition of support long after purchase. The end result is an easily recommended alternative to the top-end tripods from any other manufacturer, and well worth the special order in some markets if something less than the tested ‘large’ tripod is needed.
ProMediaGear Pro-Stix TR344
ProMediaGear has carefully engineered the TR344 to be as light and compact as possible (besting its rivals in this group), with thoughtful features like a variety of apex attachment points, hidden (but always there) foot spikes, and a large bubble level. The available options of a larger-legged version or a more compact apex (the TRS344), and the even larger 42mm-series, complete the PMG tripod for the high-end of demanding users. Exploiting the systematic, modular apex on the TR344 is a little harder due to a proprietary attachment method, but many apex inserts and options are available from PMG.
Our take: Lightest and most compact in this group, with excellent build and options
Excellent vibration control characteristics and a very precise fit and finish make the TR344 a joy to use in the field, and while the use of manual leg angle locks and all-metal leg collars may be unusual, but not a big functional issue unless it gets really cold. Cleaning and maintenance are fairly easy and well-documented, while spare parts are available direct from PMG. Overall, the ProMediaGear TR344 ‘Pro-Stix’ tripod is a high-performing support system that doesn’t distract with issues or shortcomings during long days of shooting.
Really Right Stuff Versa TVC34
When it comes to support gear, Really Right Stuff is almost always considered the ‘nec-plus-ultra’ in terms of design, innovation, and high price. In other words, great stuff if you can afford it. The RRS ‘Versa’ TVC-34 tripod, however, is not much more expensive than a few other 3-series systematic tripods in this group, but delivers nearly bomb-proof stability along with eminent portability in a very refined package. Attention to details like the rounded leg angle locks and sealed leg collars pervade the RRS tripod line, while the 36.7mm top tube diameter of the TVC-34 is the largest of any ‘3-series’ tripod in this roundup.
Our take: maximum stability in an overbuilt but balanced package
The only issues to be found are a reluctant leg extension (due to very tight tolerances), a simple aluminum platform, and lack of any extras in the box compared to the competition. RRS includes a guide on maintaining their tripods and provides spare parts and service from their Utah headquarters. By overbuilding and oversizing almost everything about this tripod, while retaining a very portable profile, RRS has simply gone beyond the competition in this roundup, and exemplifies their ‘best of the best’ philosophy in support equipment.
Leofoto Summit LM-364C
The LM ‘Summit’ series of ‘systematic’ tripods from Leofoto extends to 12 different models, varying in height, number of leg sections, and leg tube width. The LM-364C is their 4-section ‘3-series’ size with generous 36mm top leg tubes, included extras like a padded bag and 75mm video bowl, and a large catalog of optional extras for that open apex. The relatively low price for this size and type of tripod is the real attraction, and after a thorough review and long testing period, there were only a few minor issues with the fit of all the parts.
Our take: High value for a low price, with very few compromises
Stability of the system is the primary function of any tripod, and the Leofoto does not disappoint in that regard. It is easy to use and will support heavy loads in a variety of conditions. The wide range of options in the ‘Summit’ and related ‘Ranger’ series, with similar legs and materials, mean there is probably a good personal fit in the Leofoto tripod line for most needs. The only ongoing concern is the availability of parts and support long after the initial purchase, but this will vary by geographic region.
|Our intrepid tripods, standing tall in the shoulder season. From left to right; SIrui SR-3204, RRS TVC-34, FLM CP34-L4, PMG TR344. Leofoto LM-364C, Gitzo GT3543LS.|
These are not your normal, run-of-the-mill, three-legged support systems by any stretch of the imagination. They are purposefully designed for maximum stability and flexibility, and may not be a good choice for everyone, or every situation. The good news is that each of these manufacturers has options for smaller, lighter, and more portable tripods, just as most of them offer even larger legs, if desired.
After all is said and done, which is the best ‘3-series systematic’ tripod? That depends on many personalized factors; like what gear you will support with it, where you will take it, how tall you are, and what your budget and priorities are. If you’ve read through these tripod reviews with interest, most likely one or more of them will jump out at you as being the best compromise for your needs. And when you really need stable support for some big or heavy photography equipment, that tripod will be the best for you.
Sincere thanks to Lensrentals.com for providing cameras and (large) lenses used in the creation of these reviews