November 23rd, 2020

Back in July 2020, I wrote a short review of my time with the Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 Carbon Fiber Tripod. You can read that review here but the gist of it is that the tripod did not meet my needs and I had to find a replacement. That same month, and after a considerable amount of decision fatigue, I decided to take the proceeds from my Manfrotto sale to help fund the purchase of the tripod I briefly considered before buying the Manfrotto, the Gitzo GT553S Systematic Series 4 Carbon Fiber tripod. I've been using the Gitzo steady since and I feel that I have now used it enough to be able to offer some thoughts on whether or not the tripod is worth it.

What brought me to this specific model of Gitzo were three things: size, height, and stability. Having used nothing but full-size tripods for my landscape photography, I was keen on finding a tripod that could function as my primary but be compact enough for easy attachment to my camera backpack, have a workable maximum height (at least 5 feet), with a stable set of legs. The Gitzo covers the size and stability bases very well. Its maximum height of 53.5 inches borders on not being quite tall enough but there is a solution for that that I will cover later. First, I'll start with the size and stability.

Having read countless reviews on travel, or compact, tripods I was surprised by how little the Gitzo GT553S shows up on lists of considerations. It's especially surprising considering that the Gitzo's minimum height is just shy of 19 inches (18.9 inches, to be exact). If you travel often this is a tripod that fits neatly into standard carryon luggage and, having traveled with this tripod several times, it works well. It is also a size that lends itself well for camera backpacks. My main camera backpack is the 50-litre F-stop Tilopa and its side panel attachment and retention straps hold the tripod securely in place.

I mentioned stability as a important factor and the Gitzo is rock solid, for several reasons. First, there is no center column. Center columns do sacrifice some stability in favor for accessibility, so the lack of a center column in any of the Systematic Series tripods makes for an especially solid foundation. Second, the leg diameters; the Gitzo has stout tripod legs. To give you an idea, below is a table with measured diameters for the Gitzo and my previous Manfrotto tripod. Keep in mind that the Gitzo is a 5-section tripod while the Manfrotto is a 3-section tripod.

Gitzo GT553S (mm) Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 (mm)
37 29.2
32.9 24.8
29 20.4
25.3 --
21.7 --

As you can see, these are substantial differences. As I said in my previous review of the Sirui travel tripod, I don't think leg diameters get mentioned often enough. The more substantial the diameter, the greater the stability. Many travel, or compact, whichever term you prefer, tripods fall short in this category simply because leg diameter is sacrificed in order to keep the tripods as compact as possible. I think a good rule of thumb is that if you can't use the last section of your tripod because of the lack of stability, then you don't have the right tripod. There are happy mediums and the Gitzo occupies that space nicely.

In terms of overall build quality, the Gitzo delivers. It is a quality piece of equipment. The leg angle adjustment pull tabs are smooth and the twist-locks are large, ergonomic, and handle nicely. The flat base adapter sits securely in its place and can be easily removed or tightened with the integrated screw key. The tripod comes standard with rubber traction feet that can be removed for spikes, if you choose to do so. At first, I was indifferent about the rubber traction feet but after having used the tripod in all kinds of terrain they work quite well. Again, it's a supremely well built. There's virtually nothing to complain about here.

Speaking of complaints, are there any disadvantages? There are some; several subjective and one objective. The first subjective disadvantage is its size. Although it is a compact tripod considering what it offers, the larger leg diameters do contribute to some bulkiness that becomes apparent when fitting the tripod in a carry on luggage. Like I mentioned, it does fit nicely in standard carryon luggage, it just takes up a bit of extra room because of those larger leg diameters. Whether or not it is deal breaker will largely depend on how you pack. From my perspective, having slightly less room was worth the trade-off for having a more robust tripod. The other subjective disadvantage could be both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on your point of view. The maximum height of the tripod is 53 inches which, coupled with a tripod head, doesn't quite reach eye-height for those around 5 feet 10 inches. Out in the field, I often found myself wishing for a bit of extra height. The advantage offered by the Systematic series of tripods are that they are somewhat modular; the flat-base tripod mount can be replaced with a Gitzo GS3513S Rapid Center Column. This center column adds an additional 13 inches of telescoping height. I should note that while the tripod remains surprisingly compact, it will no longer fit into standard sized carryon luggage unless you remove the center column. On one hand, this modularity is a nice advantage to have, on the other it can add significant costs to a system that is already expensive. Which brings me to the one objective disadvantage, the price.

I won't sugar coat it, this tripod is expensive. To be fair, it is not the most expensive tripod for photography that you can buy; a quick high-to-low price search on B&H Photo or Adorama will tell you all you need to know, but that doesn't change the fact that it is a nervous amount of money. I have seen the price of this tripod fluctuate occasionally but nothing meaningful. On average, you are looking at $950 for the legs alone and around $240 for the Gitzo GS3513S Rapid Center Column. All in you're approaching $1200 and that's before any sales tax if you happen to live in a state that collects it. The important question is, then, is it worth it? To be clear I saved and spent my own money for this system, so I understand the hesitation that one might have about investing in a tripod that costs this much money. That's new camera, or lens, territory. I suppose a better question would be; would I purchase this tripod again if it were lost or stolen? Absolutely.

The simple truth is that this is a solid, well-built tripod. It really isn't any more complicated than that. You can argue that you are paying for the Gitzo name, and while there might be a sliver of truth to that, I would also argue that you are getting far more than just the name. For the premium name, you are also getting premium materials and a premium build with a long history of service and reliability. That's not to say that there aren't less expensive options that might offer similar features of course but, generally, you are going to sacrifice something in favor for something else. The Gitzo GT553S, on the other hand, sacrifices little. So, yes, this tripod has a premium price tag but Gitzo has made a convincing case that the price is actually justified.