A Busman’s Holiday; Thoughts On Quality, Price, And Longevity While On A European Factory Tour Page 2

At the cheapest end of the market, there's a lot of pot metal in tripod bosses (the bit at the top of the legs) and heads. Pot metal is a generic term for cheap, usually zinc, alloys that are fragile enough when freshly cast, and crystallize and break even more easily as they age. High-quality aluminum or magnesium alloys are a lot tougher; rather harder to cast; and much more expensive.

Because it's easy and cheap to cast pot metal very accurately, you can build a remarkably precise tripod for very little money. At least, it will be precise for a while, but it will also wear rapidly. You can plan for this by inserting spring washers, which will actually accelerate wear, while disguising it for longer than the penalty exacted by that acceleration. A tougher, harder material, machined for accuracy, puts the price up again.

Dr. Hubert Nasse

Dr. Hubert Nasse, director of lens design at Zeiss--Taken with the near-mythical and completely redesigned 85mm f/2 ZI lens, which may actually be available by the time you read this. I mounted it on my Leica M8. They wouldn't let me take it out of the factory. But the image quality...wow...

Similar considerations apply to legs and leg locks. Both the quality of the materials and the precision of manufacture will greatly affect durability, both in general wear and tear (especially important with leg locks) and resistance to more serious knocks and drops.

An interesting point here, which I learned at Manfrotto, is how carbon-fiber leg tubing is made. Essentially, it can be rolled round a mandrel, or spun. The latter is vastly stronger, and (surprise, surprise) much more expensive. What is more, the thickness of each layer, and the way it is laid down, can have a very considerable effect on strength and the wall thicknesses needed. You will not be astonished to learn that thinner, stronger, more durable tubes cost more.

But if you're using carbon fiber to reduce weight and increase strength and durability, instead of as a marketing ploy, top-quality spun tubing is essential. The difference in weight between a cheap tripod and an expensive one is often spectacular, and this is true whether you're talking about carbon fiber or light alloy. If the weight difference is not significant, the differences in strength and durability are likely to be even more spectacular. A cheap tripod can be heavy and durable or light and flimsy; but if you want a light, durable tripod, it's not going to be cheap.

Closely related to build quality is reparability. Gitzo sells, for example, leg-locking collars, because they might wear out in a few decades. For the same reason, spare parts are available from Manfrotto and (it must be said) others, too. The least expensive manufacturer I know with a deliberate policy of reparability is Cullmann in Germany. Although from personal experience you need Cullmann parts more often, bear in mind that it took two or three years of hard professional use to wear out the leg locks on the one we bought in the '80s, and the parts for that very tripod are still available. With light amateur use, you might see a decade or two.

Ruin, Slovenia

Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before it became part of Yugoslavia (literally, "Southern Slavia") and then achieved independence in the 1990s. It is littered with ruins from the Austro-Hungarian period. Why do ruins fascinate so many photographers? (Leica M8, 35mm f/1.4 Summilux.)

In other words, you can take three superficially similar tripods, each doubling or even tripling in price relative to the next one down, and when they are new, you won't necessarily see much difference, though the more expensive one will probably be a bit more elegant, a bit easier to use, and significantly less festooned with unnecessary weight-adding "features" such as a geared center-column drive on a lightweight tripod.

The real difference, though, will come 10 years down the road, or 20, or even 50, when you'll still be using the top-flight tripod. If you went for the cheapest, sooner or later you'd spend a lot more than the price of the expensive one in replacement tripods, while with the mid-range one, you'd spend at least as much on spares and repairs as the difference in price between it and the expensive one (and any spares you need for the expensive one).

Of course, tripods aren't the only illustration of the old proverb that "quality doesn't cost--it pays." Top-flight optics are another: many people are still using decades-old Zeiss lenses on Hasselblads with digital backs, and the oldest Leica lens I regularly use (including on my digital M8) dates from the '30s. Bags are yet another example. Frances and I have actually worn out a couple of bags, wearing through the fabric itself, but a cheap bag will start to come unstitched and its metal fasteners will fail long before that. If you are unlucky, the lock or strap will break, and that can be really expensive.

The list goes on. The few surviving enlarger manufacturers, such as De Vere, are (and always were) at the top of the market. In a far less expensive realm, a top-flight cable release is maybe 10 times the price of the cheapest, but I'm still using one I bought in '66. And I don't know the age of my Photon Beard focusing spots, but I bought them secondhand some 15 years ago.

It's also true, of course, that if you don't plan on using something hard, or for long, you may not need the best; but the older you get, and the more you have to replace things, the more you wish you'd bought quality in the first place. You might therefore care to ask yourself where it makes sense to buy the best, and where you can afford to economize. At the very least it will help you understand where the money goes, and perhaps it will also stop quite so much of it going quite so fast.

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