Gitzo Carbon Fiber Tripod Maintenance
The purpose of this, my first blog entry, is to talk about my experience with Gitzo tripods as well as how I maintain and care for them.
When I first started to get serious with photography in 1998 I bought a cheap $30 tripod, then quickly realized it was too flimsy and unstable for the camera and lenses I was putting on it, so I upgraded to a Bogen 058. The Bogen 058 is a huge but stable tripod that weighs 13.6 pounds/6.2 kg (without the head which makes it even heavier) which I lugged around while hiking to photo locations for a number of years. It appears they actually still produce and sell it (https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/554073-REG/Manfrotto_058B_058B_Aluminum_Studio_Pro.html). Anyway, at the time I lived in Germany and went with a friend to Photokina 2003 in Cologne/Koln. He had been using a Gitzo aluminum tripod and I was impressed with the lighter weight, similar stability, lack of support struts coming from the center which would get in the way, and especially the way he could easily get his camera at ground level since his Gitzo had no center column.
At Photokina he looked at the "new" Gitzo carbon fiber line of tripods and put one on his mental wish list. I had my heavy but stable Bogen 058 tripod and, although I couldn't get to ground level due to its center column and admired those Gitzo carbon fiber tripods, a new tripod was not on my equipment wish list.
That all changed as soon as I bought a super telephoto lens, which coincidentally was shortly after returning from Photokina. The hex plates (see https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/554495-REG/Manfrotto_030_14_030_14_Hexagonal_Quick_Release.html) I had been using with Bogen ball heads just could not hold a super telephoto steady. No matter how much I tightened them down on the lens' tripod foot, the lens would rotate on the screw in the middle of the hex plate. Just as bad, I could not get the lens and camera weight centered front to back, and I was constantly fighting to keep the lens on my subject because it was very front heavy. That's what pushed me to decide I needed to upgrade my camera support system.
I did some research and quickly determined that the Arca-Swiss dovetail-style lens plates were the ideal solution, since they allow you to adjust a lens (or camera) front-to-back or side-to-side, and a plate was available from Wimberley (https://www.tripodhead.com/) that supported the two mount locations on the foot of my super telephoto lens, assuring that the twist issue of the Bogen hex plates would be eliminated. Since I was buying a new style of plate for my super telephoto, I needed to buy plates for all my long lenses with mounting feet (500mm, 180mm macro, and 300mm) as well as my camera body. SInce I was buying a new top end support system, I figured I might as well also get a new tripod. So I bought a slightly used Gitzo G1348 carbon fiber model. I also bought an Arca-Swiss B1 ballhead for the connection between the tripod and the Arca-Swiss-style plates.
I was amazed at how stable that combo was (Arca-Swiss ballhead, Gitzo CF tripod, and Wimberley plates) and used it happily for a number of years.
I used this Gitzo G1348 a number of times in the ocean, but always extended the bottom leg section and tried to keep it in shallow-enough water that the water never got to the bottom leg lock. Even so, many times I needed to use the tripod in deeper water, or waves would wash up into that bottom leg lock. I was always careful to fully disassemble the tripod after each use in the ocean, wash all parts off with fresh water, wipe them down, and leave them out to dry before putting the tripod back together. That is, until one time I simply let it dry then put it away and didn't use it for a couple months.
When I next took it out, two of the legs were locked into place and no amount of force with my hands would release the top locks. I ended up having to use vice grips on the top leg locks to get them loose, which ripped some of the rubber leg lock cover, and then gave the thing a good cleaning and wipe down like I should have done in the first place before putting it away. Not surprisingly, the aluminum at the top had corroded and the top leg sections wouldn't go all the way back in because that corrosion blocked them. When I pushed the legs in they would also get stuck on that corrosion and require excessive loosening of the top locks essentially using their threads to force the legs loose so I could extend them.
I used the Gitzo G1348 tripod like that for a year and even tried to clean off the corrosion with a round wire pipe cleaning brush inserted into the end of the legs and rotated, but I could never get the tripod to work like it used to. Since eight years had passed since I bought it, I figured I would simply buy a new tripod. The new Gitzo carbon fiber tripods at the time also had an improvement I believe they call G-lock, which means the legs don't rotate allowing you to unlock each leg lock independently without having to worry about the leg sections just rotating in the locks instead of actually unlocking, as happened frequently with my Gitzo G1348. I actually learned to really crank the top locks down so that when I tried to loosen the lower locks, they would spin and loosen instead of the undesired top one. It was a two-hand operation too, with one hand holding the section I wanted to stay in place, and the other rotating the leg lock I wanted to unlock.
I would occasionally pinch my fingers to the point of drawing blood while closing the G1348 locks too, because it was a two-hand operation and I would sometimes push the legs together and end up having a piece of skin crushed between two locks.
Anyway, I decided upon the Gitzo GT3541XLS you see pictured in this blog entry, which I purchased in 2011. I also figured I might as well get a new ballhead too to complement the tripod and give me a complete backup support system with the Gitzo G1348 and Arca-Swiss B-1. At the time, I understood that the current Arca-Swiss ballhead model that had replaced the B1 had metal glued to metal (see https://www.tripodhead.com/stem-failure-history.cfm), which quite frankly scared me thinking that glue bond could fail, so I decided to give the Kirk BH-1 (https://www.kirkphoto.com/bh-1-ball-head.html) a try.
The first trip I made with my new GT3541XLS was to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. On my last day I stopped by Manteo so I could photograph the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. I set up the tripod on the pier that leads to the lighthouse, then squatted down directly below it to get in my camera backpack to set up my camera and lens prior to mounting them in the ballhead. A strong gust of wind immediately blew with such force that it tipped the tripod over! I quickly tried to catch it but missed, and watched in horror as my new tripod and ballhead combo that had cost me around $1,300 bounced off the edge of the pier right into the ocean next to it.
Fortunately, a trick I had picked up from Art Wolfe back in the 1990s when I was first starting out kept the tripod from sinking to the bottom of the sound and being lost forever. That trick is to use regular old foam pipe insulation over your tripod legs. That insulation protects the legs from bumps, makes the tripod much more comfortable to carry, especially with a camera and lens attached when slung over your shoulder, and also makes it more comfortable to touch the tripod in the cold. Aluminum is a great heat conductor, which is why it is often used as an electronics heat sink. However, that trait means it also conducts the warmth from your hands when you touch an aluminum tripod in the cold. Carbon fiber isn't nearly as good of a heat conductor so is better than aluminum in the cold, but the foam pretty much nullifies any heat loss from your hands. Anyway, what I learned that day in 2011 is the bonus feature of the foam pipe insulation which is that it lets your tripod float on water!
Sadly, the tripod had fallen far away from the pier, and the pier was high enough above the water level that I couldn't reach the tripod. I walked down the pier where someone was fishing to explain what had happened and ask a favor of casting his line out to hook my tripod and reel it in next to the pier. However, as I spoke to him, I saw that the current in the sound actually started to float my tripod back toward the pier.
I walked over next to it and waited for it to get directly below the pier, took off my flip-flop, sat down on the edge of the pier, then used my foot to hook a tripod leg and lift it up. There were some apartments nearby so I immediately took it over to them and doused it with their hose. I then opened the tripod up fully in the back of my truck and left it there to dry while I drove the couple hours back home. When I got home I also disassembled it, gave each part a good washing and wiping with a rag, then put it back together.
Unfortunately, I think that single dousing sealed the fate of my new GT3541XLS tripod, and a few years later the aluminum in it also corroded just like what had happened with my G1348 tripod, preventing the top leg sections of two legs from sliding all the way up. Worse, those two legs would get stuck up and I had to use the threads of the leg locks to force the legs loose so I could extend them. I dealt with this for about two years.
Since my G1348 had lasted about 8 years, and my GT3541XLS purchased in 2011 was now 8 years old as well, I considered buying the latest GT3543XLS tripod which costs about $1,000. As an aside, my Kirk BH-1 ball head had started to act up in 2017, and the tension adjuster knob actually fell off while I was on a photo trip, leaving me to have to use excessive force to move the head into position for every photograph until I returned from the trip. I was very impressed with Kirk Enterprises since they only charged me $50 to completely fix and refurbish the BH-1 then send it back to me. In comparison, I had sent in my Arca-Swiss B1 for maintenance twice; the first time was covered by warranty and the second time cost me $200.
Back to the new tripod purchase choice, I thought about it and determined I didn't need to have three carbon fiber tripods, and saw the cost of new leg sections was just under $200 each (see https://www.gitzospares.com/), so decided it would be cheaper and just as effective for me to spend $400 and purchase two top leg sections to fix my existing GT3541XLS. The photos accompanying this article show the condition and process. I thought about buying replacement top leg sections for the G1348 as well but haven't yet done so because I consider it my backup and have never used it since buying the GT3541XLS.
The replacement two top leg sections arrived about a week after I ordered them. I took apart the two legs that were sticking due to the corrosion, cleaned up all the washers, screws, and spacer pins where the top sections join to the base plate (where the head connects to the tripod) using a rag, put a little grease on both sides of the washers that go on the inside and outside of the base plate mounts, then attached the new top sections. I then inserted my original legs back in. That same night, I took the tripod with me to my local hardware store, found the correct pipe insulation diameter that exactly fit my tripod legs (if I recall it was 1"), spent $3 for the type with the slit and peel away cover so you can wrap and stick it around pipes, cut it to length, put it on each leg, put my camo cloth covers back on using the hook-and-loop fastener strips sewn along the edges of each, and pretty much had a new tripod!
Other than the one time mistake with my G1348, and the accidental dousing of my GT3541XLS, I follow the procedure I'm about to describe to care for my Gitzo carbon fiber tripods.
Whenever I'm out shooting in the rain or put the leg sections in fresh water, I will extend the legs out and either leave the tripod horizontally on the floor or set up overnight so gravity will cause the water to run down the legs to the floor and it can dry out completely.
If I ever shoot in salt water, as soon as I get home I wash all the legs off with fresh water, wipe them dry, then do the same thing as with fresh water which is to extend the tripod out and let it dry overnight.
On average once a year, I will completely disassemble the tripod, wash off all pieces in fresh water, wipe the gunk out of the leg locks and associated pieces, then put fresh grease on the leg lock threads. When I can find it I use marine grease but also use regular automotive grease. The grease both lubricates the threads and protects them from the entry of gunk, sand, and corrosive salt water. If I shoot a couple times in salt water I will do this process more frequently than annually.
Based on my experience with two Gitzo carbon fiber models, I believe going forward I will completely remove the top leg section, wash out the hollow tube with fresh water, then leave the tripod sitting without any legs inserted so it can completely dry. I suspect that will help to prevent corrosion forming on the aluminum inside the legs.
Something I may look into is a long spade-style drill bit with a perfectly flat head sized the same as the interior diameter of those top tubes. If I can find that I can use it to scrape off the corrosion on the inside of the aluminum at the top of the tube and restore the full capability of the legs without the $200 per leg cost of a replacement. I tried something similar with a wire brush shoved up the legs and spun around on the G1348 and it helped but didn't fix the problem.