Selecting a Tripod – Conclusion
If I had to be honest, when I penned my previous two articles that dealt with selecting a tripod, I suspected that I was going to wind up buying a unit from Sirui, and, in the end, I did. I had heard from many photographers that Sirui straddles the cost-quality divide and again, truth be told, brands like Gitzo are priced well beyond what I personally consider reasonable. So, having now owned a Sirui N-3203X for a few weeks, let me conclude this sequence of articles with a deep dive into what prompted my decision to purchase this specific tripod and provide some feedback on what it is like to live with.
At the core of my earlier ramblings on the topic of tripods was the idea that one should give careful consideration to the choice of manufacturer before parting with hard-earned cash. All manufacturers supply tripods in various sizes and constructed from both aluminium as well as carbon fibre; however, they do not all supply a complete range of accompanying accessories. Of particular importance to me was the ability of the chosen company to offer an L-Bracket as well as some sort of levelling system, such as a levelling plate, and Sirui met both these criteria. A further consideration was availability since, as has been illustrated by my old Vanguard, a choice of tripod is a long-term commitment. I wanted to be certain that in years to come I could easily source parts and Sirui made the grade in this area too, with its products being sold by various South African vendors.
Indeed, availability played a more direct role in my choice of tripod. Sirui has an enormous range but only a few of their models are easily available in South Africa and I limited myself to those models. Sourcing components from overseas is certainly a valid alternative if you are in search of niche equipment and I have chosen that route in the past, but this time I just couldn’t have been bothered with the hassle. I needed to narrow my search not broaden it!
Once I began my investigation into Sirui products it rapidly became apparent that the company’s NX Series was the correct choice for me. Sirui appears to have its merchandise divided into three categories: travel, general purpose or studio, and video. Given that I was in search of a tall, sturdy tripod, the general-purpose NX Series was immediately attractive. The marketing bumf describes the NX Series as “universal tripods” and, consequently, they are slightly bigger and sturdier than their travel-category stablemates. That is not to say that the NX Series is ill-suited to travel; in fact, it is quite the opposite. The N-3203X folds down to a very tidy 587 mm, smaller than its predecessor, the Vanguard ALTA+ 263AP.
The ability to compare tripods in this way turned out to be a real help. Whenever confronted with a choice between price and features, I could evaluate the options against the Vanguard and make a rational decision. This point is best illustrated by my choice to purchase the N-3203X, with its three leg sections, rather than the N-3204X, which features four leg sections. The N-3204X cost a whopping 30%1 more than its three-section sibling and I questioned whether a slightly shorter folded length was worth the extra money. My aversion to moving parts aside, I could see no valid argument in support of the N-3204X, given that the N-3203X superseded my existing tripod in every way – folded length, maximum height and weight.
As a head for the tripod assembly, I selected the Sirui K-30X Ball Head. Sirui’s KX Series ball heads are a common-sense companion for the NX Series tripod legs. The only decision that I had to make was to choose which one of the four sizes that make up the NX Series best suited my agenda and it is in this regard that I feel I had made a small mistake.
All the KX Series ball heads have a maximum carrying capacity well in excess of all the NX Series legs and, importantly, far greater than any camera lens combination I own. As a matter of fact, the smallest of the KX Series heads, the K-10X, can handle about four times as much weight as I need, meaning that any choice I made would result in a grossly over-rated head. In an effort to make sense of the situation, I simply looked at the price of each head and noticed that there were small increments in cost between the K-10X, K-20X and K-30X, but a steep increase from the K-30X to the K-40X. I thus concluded that the K-30X had to be the most cost-effective solution and purchased it.
The reality is, however, that the K-30X is far too big. It certainly holds my camera still, although I’m sure, now, that the K-10X would do a fine job of that too. It is also worth noting that there is a 150 g difference in weight between the K-10X and the K-30X and, while that might not sound like much, I can tell you that holding the half a kilo that is the K-30X in your hand will surprise you – it is very heavy! I would highly recommend that anyone looking to purchase one of these ball heads pays more attention to their actual requirements than I did.
So, how is this all in the field you may ask? Well firstly, the L-Bracket is a game-changer. The ability to use the camera in portrait orientation while having its centre of gravity in line with that of the tripod makes a colossal difference to both stability and ergonomics. It is one of those devices that, having used it, you question how you ever lived without it to begin with. I cannot overstate just how positive an impact the L-Bracket has had on composing portrait photos and, for no particular reason, I often find myself shooting in portrait orientation.
As for the K-30X ball head, I don’t have any strong feelings in this regard. The ball head works very well with the correct mix of resistance and smoothness, something that makes it a joy to move around. The unit is built like a jewellery box, constructed with premium quality materials and incredible attention to detail. However, the jury is still out on whether or not the ball head is a fundamental improvement on my old Vanguard head. It is substantially bigger than my Vanguard and thus holds my camera more securely but that is to be expected. I think that the true difference between one ball head and another lies in the subtleties and those little nuances take time to appreciate. I’m sure that, given sufficient opportunity, I will develop a strong opinion of the K-30X but, right now, I’m sitting on the fence.
Finally, the meat of the arrangement, the Sirui N-3203X tripod itself. I am incredibly happy with the performance of this unit. It surpasses my Vanguard in every way. The most significant improvement is the working height, which is perfect for my 181 cm frame. It requires only a small lift of the centre column and I am comfortably staring at the back of my camera. Like the L-Bracket, the additional height has greatly improved the ergonomics of my setup.
As for the construction of the tripod, it is exemplary. It is obvious that no expense was spared during the selection of materials and all the moving parts – twist locks on the legs and so on – are easily slackened and secured, making setup effortless. The whole assembly has a strong and sturdy air to it and this translates into a solid platform from which to take photos. As glorified scaffolding goes, the Sirui N-3203X does a sterling job of holding my camera still.
With that said, the tripod does have one weakness. The unit has a stated minimum height of 165 mm and to facilitate getting down that low, the centre column can be split in two, leaving just a short stubby piece of carbon fibre tube holding the camera in place. Considering that I initially wished for a tripod without a centre column, the arrangement seemed like a perfect compromise since tripods of the columnless variety are considerably more expensive. The trouble is that the act of splitting the column in two is fiddly and when completed you are left holding not only the lower half of the column itself but a rod that ordinarily extends all the way through the centre section. Reassembling the centre column is equally awkward as now the foot-long rod needs to be repositioned very carefully before it mates with the stub. It’s all just a hassle and certainly not an area of the design that received much thought during its conception.
Whenever I reflect on a purchase, I am in the habit of asking myself, What is likely to break first? When I evaluate the N-3203X and exclude perishable items like the foam grips at the top of the legs, I believe that the answer is: The springs that actuate the leg positioning ratchets. The ratchets are responsible for setting the angle of the legs relative to the centre column and are an integral part of the tripod’s design. It is thus a little disappointing to see that these springs are flimsy. They certainly appear as if they will be the first points of failure. Naturally, this is all speculation but it is at the same time something that Sirui should consider improving.
Finally, there is one important feature of the N-3203X that I am not able to legitimately review, its ability to have one of its legs removed to create a monopod. I have experimented with detaching the monopod leg and I am pleased to say that, unlike the centre column, this is something that is easily achieved. However, the question of whether the monopod is actually useful, given its height, is something that I cannot answer. My first impression is that it is too short to be truly valuable but I must disclose that I do not use a monopod and, as such, I am not really qualified to comment.
To conclude, I am tremendously happy with my whole Sirui tripod setup. Sure, there are a few matters that I would have preferred to solve another way but the unit still represents a vast improvement upon my Vanguard and, importantly, has already had a meaningful impact on the quality of the photos I can produce. I am happy to say that I agree with all the photographers who recommended Sirui. It is undoubtedly a brand that provides excellent products at reasonable prices.
1. This percentage was calculated using retail prices from two independent vendors. At the time of purchase, the company that I sourced my N-3203X tripod from did not stock the N-3204X.