Normally, you get what you pay for. If you try to buy something that is less than half the price of its competitors, it's going to be bad. This is certainly what we expected when we compared four of the most popular carbon fiber tripods, but I'm shocked and excited to tell you we actually liked the most affordable model we tried the best.
Our tripod of choice for years has been the Manfrotto 055xproB. It was built like a tank, it easily fit in our checked luggage, and at around $250, it was very affordable. I could have been happy using this tripod exclusively for the rest of my career, but Manfrotto replaced this tripod with the worst tripod we have ever used. This tripod was literally falling apart just a few days into filming "Photographing The World 1."
We recently left to film Photographing The World 3 and we got B&H to send us four similar carbon fiber tripods from Really Right Stuff, Gitzo, Induro, and Benro. Throughout this season of "Photographing The World 3 Behind The Scenes," you'll be able to watch us use and compare all of them, but the bottom line is that the cheapest tripod, the Benro Mach3 TMA38CL, was our favorite. We didn't think it was the best because it was the best value. Both Patrick and I agreed that if all of the tripods were the exact same price, we each would have chosen the Benro TMA38CL as our favorite.
You're probably wondering how this could be possible, and we were also shocked. We both expected the $1,000 RRS tripod to be our favorite, and don't get me wrong, it was a great tripod. But it was the little things that you would only notice after using the tripods back to back day after day that really help you choose a favorite. We love the Benro tripod for a few reasons, but the first thing that you will notice when you pick it up is the overall build quality. Every aspect of it is solid, smooth, and secure. Nothing rattles or squeaks, and when you first open the legs they move, in a smooth and controlled way. The screw locks on the legs feel amazing, and when they are loose, the legs are capable of sliding freely on their own (although not as freely as a heavy metal leg). None of the other carbon fiber tripods that we tested worked as smoothly. With some of our old tripods, it seemed like we were losing feet on a weekly basis; the threads on these feet are coated with a clear oil that holds them securely in place but still allows them to be swapped out for the included spiked feet when you need them.
At just 4.3 pounds, this is much lighter than our previous tripod, and when it's collapsed, it's actually smaller. And when it's fully extended, it's almost the exact same height at 69 inches.
As for negatives, It would have been nice if the center column could become a lateral arm like our old Manfrotto. We do occasionally like to shoot straight down. The screw locks on the legs were our favorite to use. They were smooth, and with a short turn, they could fully lock and unlock the legs. That being said, if you are used to a old school flip lever lock, the screw locks may take some getting used to. While we were filming "Photographing The World 3," we met up with a few photographers who didn't have the best things to say about older Benro tripods, but after seeing ours, they were impressed. This is the first Benro product I have ever used, and this leads me to believe that Benro has really stepped things up with the new Mach 3 series. So, you may want to see this new line of gear in person before you completely write it off. We've only had ours for a few months now, so we can't comment on the ruggedness of these tripods over years of abuse, but after months of use, we haven't had a single problem or even a loose screw. If we ever do start to have issues with them, we will certainly update all of you.
For years, we resisted moving to carbon fiber simply because they were too expensive and I knew we would destroy them anyway. Even though this was our favorite tripod that we have ever used, if it cost $1,000, we wouldn't have bought it. That's just too much when we consider that we need at least five and when you consider how we treat them. But for just $410, it was an easy decision to swap out our old Manfrotto tripod with five new Benro TMA38CL Mach3 tripods. We will still be holding on to our old Manfrotto tripods, but from now on, we will only use them when we have a shoot at the beach.
What I Liked
- Shockingly affordable for carbon fiber at just $410
Incredible build quality for the price
Included padded case, tools, spiked feet, and short center column
Extremely small at just 23.2 inches but can expand to an impressive 69.7 inches
What I Didn't Like
- Center column cannot move laterally (none of the tripods we tested had this feature but our old Manfrotto did)
- Screw locks in general may take some getting used to
- The Benro brand name isn't as prestigious as Gitzo or RRS so it probably won't impress your photography buddies
You can purchase the Benro TMA38CL Mach3 here.