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Carbon Fiber vs Aluminium Tripod - which one is better for you?

Manuel Becker Manuel Becker in Tips & Tricks
31.12.2016 · 8 min read
Photo by Manuel Becker

Nearly every photographer needs a tripod, whether the material is carbon or aluminium. Since this is usually a very long lasting type of equipment it’s even more important to chose the right one for you, which therefore starts with the decision about the material.

The easy answer to this question about the right material could be, that a beginner just should get the cheaper aluminium version and an advanced photographer should grab the more expensive carbon fiber tripod. But in my opinion it’s not that obvious, because both have their pros and cons or are just different, not even better or worse.

To have a good way of comparing these two kinds of tripods, I purchased the exact same type made of aluminium I am already using for years in carbon fiber:
Rollei C-5i II Aluminium
Rollei C-5i Carbon

Both came with a predefined ball head (which is of course Arca Swiss compatible) and are nearly same sized with a max height at around 160cm and a collapsed height of around 44cm. The aluminium version has a payload of 10kg, the carbon fiber one can still handle 8kg.

Weight

One of the most important parts beside stability is obviously the weight, because a tripod is only good if you have it with you. This is a very good reason to make sure that you have to carry as less weight as possible with you, because otherwise you will always think about leaving it at home. But this factor is still different for everybody, because it very much depends on the type of photography you are doing. A studio portrait photographer may not care so much about a heavier tripod, but a travel photographer who is on his feet all day long will benefit from less stuff on his shoulders without a doubt. Therefor it depends very much on how often and how long you are underway to the places you are shooting at. In Iceland for example it wasn’t as important as I initially thought to have a very light weight solution, because you will probably drive very big parts of your trip anyway and its very much dependent on if you are hiking a lot or not. In some cases it may be even better to have a heavier tripod due to the stormy weather and powerful rivers, because more weight also results in more stability.

Aluminium: 1.91kg
Carbon: 1.34kg

Carbon Fiber vs Aluminium Tripod - which one is better for you?

If weight is important for you, then Carbon is definitely the better choice.

My advice

Nearly 600g doesn’t sound that much, but it’s a huge difference if you have to carry this all day long on your shoulders. About 1 year ago I switched my camera to a lighter mirrorless one, which is saving me around 500g and this alone was such a great change to me. Sometimes I was walking around cities like New York for 10 days or more in a row, which means to carry all your stuff for 14 hours a day, resulting in shoulder pain after a few days. I even started to leave my tripod at home for some days, but these are always the situations you will need it and like I initially said your equipment will be only helpful if you have it with you.
If you are walking a lot with your equipment, you should definitely get a carbon fiber tripod right away.

Material properties

When it comes to the material itself, there are 3 key properties you should consider for your decision.

1. Corrosion

Carbon is very weather resistant and even resisting corrosion when used in salt water for example. Aluminium tripods are usually protected by an additional layer, but scratches or other damages may result in corroding material when used under humid circumstances.

2. Vibration Reduction / Vibration Absorption

This is something that every seller will tell you about carbon fiber tripods and why you should buy one, but for me personally that’s only a nice side effect and kind of an elusive advantage. The reason behind that is, that there are so many other good and much more important ways to improve the stability of your tripod at no charge: 1. use a remove control to prevent shakes to your camera that are caused by yourself, 2. focus and photograph by using the display of your camera, because this makes sure that the mirror is already flipped up and won’t shake your camera when you start to expose your image (this only applies to DSLRs of course) and 3. attach something heavy to the hook of your tripod (most of the modern tripods have one and you should definitely pay attention to this detail during your purchase decision) to improve the sturdiness even more. Just keep in mind that there are a lot of situations where vibrations come from a source that is preventable in other ways than putting more money into your equipment. This is also true for taking photos in a river, where a heavier tripod may be even better than one that’s absorbing vibrations better.

3. Temperatures

Something a lot of people don’t know is, that a damaged carbon fiber tripod will behave differently than an aluminium one. The big distinction between both materials is that aluminium will bend first and eventually break. Carbon though is not ductile and will shatter at its deflection limit. Therefor little damages might affect an aluminium version, but the carbon might only bounce back without a scratch. Carbon is vulnerable to extremely cold weather though, which means that if you are going to photograph a whole night the Northern Lights under very cold conditions you should make sure that you don’t strike it with anything hard, because it tends to break faster under those conditions. It’s probably not something that applies to most of the tripod owners, but it’s good to keep something like that in mind.
On the other hand you might even prefer carbon under those cold conditions, because it does not chill your hands nearly as much as aluminium does. However good tripods usually have a rubber casing, so this shouldn’t affect your decision on a large scale.

My advice

As you see there is no real winner in this section when it comes to the advantages of the materials. They are just different and behave distinct in a variety of situations. I would probably give the carbon tripod a little edge here, but it definitely comes down to what type of photography you are doing and what’s important to you.

Pricing

When it comes to the price, the span of different tripods is pretty huge, because it’s not only about the material, but also about the available sizes, the quality, the intended purpose and of course about the different brands. For this reason I am reducing the variety to the 2 tripods I am owning and comparing in this article. There are still plenty other great tripods available, but it just wouldn't help you to list them all here because this article is more about the differences between the materials.

Aluminium: 138,99€ on Amazon DE
Carbon: 249,99€ on Amazon DE

As you can see the range between those 2 prices isn’t that big and comes down to only 111€. Usually carbon tripods are much pricier though, because the target group seems to be the advanced photographers, so those will also often come with a better workmanship. For the 2 tripods from Rollei the difference isn’t that big, but the carbon version definitely feels a little bit more valuable, but it’s also the newer one of the companies product line.

Important side note: Carbon is not more expensive as a material and therefor automatically the better choice. Carbon though needs some finishing steps that need to be done by hand, which obviously results in higher prices. Aluminium on the other hand can be fully produced by machines.

My advice

You probably won’t buy a new tripod every year, because compared with the camera industry there is not so much changing, which makes it even more important to buy a good and sturdy one instead of having to buy a few one until you finally realize that you should have bought the more expensive one in the first place. Seen from this perspective it’s often even cheaper to get the right one straightaway. A valid objection though is if you are just starting your photography career and you are not sure yet that you will stick with this hobby. In this case you might think of starting with an aluminium version, because these are definitely cheaper than the carbon fiber tripods.

Final words

No matter which brand or which type of material you prefer, please make sure that you won’t buy the cheapest tripod you can find on the market. I saw so many people during my travels, having camera gear for a few thousand bucks attached to a 20€ tripod. When your expensive gear gets damaged because you saved some money on your tripod you didn’t save anything.

Carbon Fiber vs Aluminium Tripod - which one is better for you?

Just don't!

The same applies to the quality overall, because tripod definitely isn’t tripod. I tried a lot of them, also started very early with a cheap one and it was a real pain to adjust the camera orientation. It literally destroyed me so many opportunities and images because I had a bad tripod or because I didn’t take it with me because it was to heavy to carry it every day with me. Anything you do in life also has something called opportunity costs, which means that if you experience the most amazing sunset in your life in New York for example and you are not able to capture it, you won’t get this chance as easy again as eating a bagel for breakfast the next morning. It would cost you a huge amount of time and money to come back to this place over and over again, so always keep this in mind and don’t just save a few bucks when the trip itself costs thousands of Euros/Dollars/…

Carbon Fiber vs Aluminium Tripod - which one is better for you?

These Gorillapods seem to be a good way in between, because they are very light, small and still can carry a lot of weight. There are situations when they are good, but there are even more situations when you will curse them, for example when there is a handrail you can attach it to but all the tourists are shaking it for no reason and you won't get a single sharp photo. I payed over 100€ for mine and I can't recommend it, but it's definitely a reasonable option for some situations.

70€ is what I pay each time I fill up my cars tank and every time I am at a spot where my tripod makes it harder to get the photo I want is wasted money you could have saved on staying home, enjoying the evening with other activities. Please remember those things when buying a tripod and get the one that suits you best. I definitely can recommend you the Rollei c5i series I am using now for quite a while and they are not paying me to say this. It’s just a great way to get started with a very good quality and without paying 1000€ or more for your tripod. There is always something that’s better, the question that remains though is if you need this "something".

Thank you for reading this article about Carbon Fiber vs. Aluminium tripods. I talked so much and now I would love to hear your opinion about this topic! Which kind of tripod are you using? Let me know in the comments below.

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Comments (10)

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Frank Dietrich
Frank Dietrich 02.01.2017
I actually own 2 tripods: an older Manfrotto 055 and a low weight, low cost Sirui T-005 traveller tripod. I completely agree to Manuel that there are some simple methods to reduce vibrations and an expensive, heavy one is not always necessary. Therefor most of the time I am using the Sirui tripod and the Manfrotto stays at my home. But I must admit that one time in a stormy weather condition I was not able to take photos with the cheap Sirui. But anyway the most simple tripod is always better than having no tripod.
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 13.01.2017
Ha, that's awesome. I also have the Sirui T-005 traveller and bought this one with my aluminium one from Rollei, because I wanted to have one for travel and one heavier one for anything else. To be honest I stoped using the travel one though, because the difference in weight wasn't worth losing so much stability - but that's just what worked out for me. You are definitely so right with your last sentence dear Frank and if the Siriu works for you, well then it's perfect and the weight of this one is definitely awesome! :) Thank you very much for your opinion, I really appreciate it!
Frank Dietrich
Frank Dietrich 2 days ago
My Sirui has to carry just a Fuji X-E2 :)
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 2 days ago
Oh then it's probably perfect!!
Björn Hoffmann
Björn Hoffmann 02.01.2017
At the moment I am using an aluminium travel tripod for my landscape photography, but I am aiming to get a tripod soon with a height of ~170cm so that I can look through the viewfinder while standing straight. Carbon is my material of choice, but I am also looking for a good price. As much as I would like to buy a Gitzo tripod, that's not nearly possible for me. I am still struggling between all the other choices, maybe Rollei or the Calumet Carbon tripod..
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 02.01.2017
Yeah, I was thinking of getting a higher one too, because I really don't like to always have to use the middle part of the tripod to get higher, because this also results in lost stability. Did you take a look at the Rollei C6i Carbon? A friend of mine is using this as the Aluminium version and he is pretty satisfied for the cheap price. It's at 1.62kg, which is still fine I think for 171,5cm height. The best way is probably to compare both of them in a local store I guess. I've unfortunately no experiences yet with the Calument tripod, so I can't tell you something about the quality.
Holger Pleus
Holger Pleus 31.12.2016
Well I myself tend to rely on an old Manfrotto MA 144. It is made of Reynolds tubes (steel), thus having a certain weigh (3,1 kg). In harsh weather conditions on the other hand, this comes in as an advantage. This thing literally stands like a rock in the surf. I'm not shy to call my 60D with the Sigma 18-200 mounted my "lightweight equipment". And i tend to carry it all day long. You see: to get good shots may turn out as some kind of hard work but it definitely pays off. ;-)
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 31.12.2016
Hehe, I guess this tripod + camera combination saves you the costs for the fitness studio then, so you are probably even saving money ;-) But I am just kidding, that's definitely my point for Aluminium or in your example the even heavier steel tubes. Especially during windy days or in streaming water this combination is a great choice and worth the effort! Thanks for sharing your thoughts Holger, I really appreciate it!
Jason Protheroe
Jason Protheroe 31.12.2016
I've gone through various tripods before finding what really fitted to what I required. The first was very small compact and cheap, which meant that it was too short, not stable, and fell apart. Another was purchased after getting advice from a photography shop that was more interested in selling old stock. Although it wasn't a bad tripod, it was light weight and stable, it just wasn’t that stable for longer exposures. After some time, I chose to go with the Gitzo Systematic series 2. With the plate system, I’m able to easily change heads from ball to gimbal. It’s not as light weight as others, but I prefer the stability and also saved some weight moving to mirrorless! I currently have a GT2542LOS and a GT4542LS
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 31.12.2016
Hey Jason, thanks for your opinion about this! Seems like a lot of photographers are having the same experiences until they found a good tripod that fits their needs. Gitzo is definitely a great choice too. Cheers from Cologne and wish you a happy new year! Manuel

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