A Busman’s Holiday; Thoughts On Quality, Price, And Longevity While On A European Factory Tour
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Where does the money go? It's a question we've all asked ourselves,
often just before payday. "Frittered away on food and rent" is one
traditional answer. But as photographers, we all know there's another
money pit, too: equipment and materials.
I was reminded of this recently when Frances Schultz and I visited first Solms, home of Leica; then Oberkochen, home of Zeiss; and finally the factory in the Italian Dolomites where they make both Manfrotto and Gitzo tripods. An odd way, you might think, to spend a vacation. But all three are in very attractive places, and with a modest detour we managed to fit in a couple of days soaking in the Hungarian spas, too.
En route (a 2500-mile drive), we had lots of opportunities to take pictures
with Leica and Zeiss lenses. The equipment we were using, and the factories
we visited, made me think hard about the nature of quality in photographs, and
(still more) in equipment.
My thoughts on the latter crystallized when someone at Manfrotto--I forget who--pointed out that if you bought a good tripod, you had it for life. "In fact," he said, "it's the ideal graduation present for someone finishing photography school, because you'll never need another one."
Now, there are necessarily "generations" in the life of many photographic products. For M-series film Leicas, for example, a generation seems to me to be about 10-20 years. This is not to say that older Leicas are unusable, but that after 10 or 20 years enough improvements are likely to have accumulated to justify buying a new one--if you can afford it, and even if the old one hasn't worn out (which it almost certainly won't have). Indeed, I use a 1961 M2; an '82 M4-P; and a 2004 MP. With current D-SLRs a generation is probably two or three years, or five at most; with digital compacts, it sometimes seems like weeks or months instead of years.
But a tripod isn't really open to the same range of improvements. After all, it's just three legs and a head. The Gandolfi Major tripod hasn't changed in 100 years, and I have other tripods from the '50s and '60s as well as a Gitzo I bought new in the early '80s. What stops a tripod from lasting forever?
Basically, two things. Despite what I said earlier, there are incremental improvements, such as the adoption of carbon fiber and other new materials, so at the top of the market, there are generations, though they are less radical than with cameras. In fact, they are so unimportant to me that I don't bother. The current equivalent carbon-fiber Gitzo is a couple of pounds lighter than my old Reporter, and suppresses vibration better, but I could lose the weight of both tripods together if I went on a diet; it's still only a couple of pounds saved in weight, in return for many hundreds of dollars spent; and vibration has never been much of a problem with most of the kit I use anyway.
Raw Castings, Manfrotto Factory
If I were in the market for a new tripod, and could afford one, a carbon-fiber
Gitzo would be the automatic choice, because I would expect it to last the rest
of my life; but I'm not in the market, because my old one isn't
worn out yet. On the other hand, Frances' carbon-fiber Gitzo Traveler
monopod is so far in advance of any other I have ever used that I can see why
it is worth the stiff price. A carbon-fiber tripod is merely slightly lighter
and less inconvenient than an equivalent light-alloy tripod, but this is a different
order of creation: if she tucks it into the side loop on her Lowepro SlingShot
bag, she literally does not notice she is carrying it.
So, that's one reason why expensive tripods (and monopods) cost more: there is genuine innovation. The other reason is quality, and that's where the money goes when you compare two superficially similar tripods, whether you're talking about 100-year-old woodies or up-to-the-minute high tech.