Recently after attending a meet of area wildlife photographers, and seeing some VERY nice carbon fiber tripods being used by some in the group, I decided that carbon fiber was something I was "in need" of :) I started my research on the net for carbon fiber tripods big enough to handle a Canon 500mm F/4IS L Lens. One thing I've learned over the years when using heavy equipment and tripods; go big or go home. While I knew this already, I tried to find some way out of spending $1000 on a Gitzo and then another $500 on a head. I read article after article on luminous landscape, Fred Miranda, et al. trying to find a cheaper alternative. While I know the BEST thing to do would to have been do it once and do it right, I just didn't have the money for a $1500+ set-up. After reading some very good reviews on Benro Tripods, I thought I'd give one a try. I then started my hunt for an acceptable head and a good deal on the two. Over the years, I have purchased photography equipment from several locations but one place I have always found would give me the "one on one" customer experience and has always taken care of me and many other photographers was Arlington Camera. The owner, Mr. Porter is a photographer himself and if you do an internet search on them, you'll find Arlington Camera is old school when it comes to taking care of their customers. So I gave Mr. Porter and company a call asking for their thoughts on Benro and what set-up I would need for the equipment I had. They highly recommended Benro , recommended a set-up and made me a very good deal on it. I purchased the set-up about 4 months ago and have been putting it through it's paces since then.
This review should probably be two separate reviews; one for the Tripod and one for the ball head. So I'll try and focus on the tripod legs in the first portions of this review and do a short review on the tripod head below. It should also be noted that the current Benro tripod that replaced the C-358EX is the C3580F. The only difference I can tell between mine and the newer model is that ithe newer model is a bit shorter.
TRIPOD LEG REVIEW
For the past several years, I've been using an aluminum Bogen Manfrotto 3001BN with a 3030 head. I have literally beaten the Manfrotto to death and it kept on ticking. So I wanted something that I could count on like the Manfrotto that would not fail me in the field when I was out in the middle of no where. I knew Gitzo's reputation and that it would be dependable but I wondered if I could get by with the "knock-off" and get the same build quality. When the Benro arrived at my house from Arlington Camera I was admittedly a bit nervous wondering if I had done the right thing. Upon taking it out of the box however, my fears greatly subsided. This tripod is a beast! It came with a nice carrying bag, an adjustment allen wrench (which conveniently snaps onto an attachment on one of the legs), and spikes for the feet which can be interchanged with the rubber feet. I immediately fully extended the tripod in my living room. I am 6'1" and fully extended, it's much taller than I am. I really don't think I'll ever use the extendable center column. I may even replace it with the available short one.
The flip lock legs where as nice as any I've seen or used and allowed the legs to open and close smoothly. While there are no longitudinal grooves in the legs, they do not rotate (good thing). The Carbon Fiber Weave is a little different than the weave I've seen used on Gitzo. I do think the Gitzo just looks better for some reason. The "spider" holding the three legs together and center column is made of magnesium just like it's more expensive counterparts. The adjustable leg angle locks are another Gitzo copy. These pull out so you can adjust the legs in three locking positions by pushing the lock back in. You can really adjust these legs to an infinite number of positions as long as you don't need to lock them.
I did not notice any loose play in any of the legs within their "glued" sockets. The included allen wrench allowed me to adjust the allen head screws to my preferred tension which I thought was a nice touch.
This tripod weighs in at just under 5 pounds and I've carried it all day long shooting birds without a problem. For the size of this tripod and as strong as it is, it is very light. An aluminum tripod in the same size, would be like toting around a small building. Thank goodness for Carbon Fiber.
The ultimate test of a tripod and head is will it hold your camera and lens steady when you shoot your photo. My heaviest lens at the time of this writing is my Canon 70-200 F/2.8 IS L II. I have mounted this lens on my 40D along with my 580EXII and it holds everything rock solid. I have been very impressed. I purchased this tripod with the plan in mind to buy the Canon 500mm f/4 IS in the near future. I borrowed a friends 500mm and mounted it on this tripod and was pleasantly surprised at the stability. I am very satisfied with the stability of this tripod and head together. I think it will be even better with a Wimberly head.
CONCLUSION ON THE LEGS
The question most people have asked when they see this tripod in the field is, "Is it as good as a Gitzo or Manfrotto ?" That is a difficult question to answer. What I can say is that the Gitzo/Monfrotto looks a bit better in my opinion, has a better earned reputation, and (the Gitzo) is much more expensive. The current Benro model C-3580F can be purchased for under $500 new online while the comparable model from Gitzo runs over $800. From Gitzo, you get years of proven quality and reliability, a life time warranty from a company that has been in business for a long time and should be there for a long time to come. What you get from Benro is a tripod with very similar components, apparent good build quality from a company that has been getting very good reviews in most cases. It appears to me that Benro is looking to be a serious player in this market and to do so they have upped the ante to play catch up with the "big guys". To me this tripod is a very good indicator of their serious intent. What Benro has done in my opinion is fired a shot across the bow of Gitzo and to a lesser extent Monfrotto. In the C-358EX, they have created a VERY nice set of tripod legs. The fit and finish are VERY good in my opinion and as more people see the Benro in person the more will buy them. Durability is a question that has yet to be answered for me but most have reported very good results. Is Benro as good as its Monfrotto or Gitzo counterparts in the small details? Probably not. Will you ever notice the fine details that make Monfrotto or Gitzo better? Probably not. Gitzo and Monfrotto make GREAT tripods, I think that is a given. Any photographer worth his salt immediately recognizes a Gitzo or Manfrotto tripod. Will Benro ever have that same name recognition and/or reputation for quality? Thus far, things are looking good but time will tell I guess. I have used my Manfrotto tripod for the past 8 years and have abused that thing like an ugly stray dog yet it takes it all and asks for more. Will the Benro follow suit? Time will tell; and give me a reason for a followup in a year or so :)
UPDATE 8-8-16: Well after a few years with these legs, I'm happy to report, they have done their job well. I've had them in the snow, submerged in lakes and rivers and in the hellish south Texas heat. The glue has held up well and the motion of extending/retracting the legs is still fairly smooth. The screws and nuts holding the legs in place do have to be adjusted fairly often as they tend to loosen but it hasn't caused me to miss any shots. I just use the provided allen wrench that is clipped on the leg to give them a quick tighten and I'm good to go. The screws on the flip locks have required some adjusting as well as the legs have slipped on occasion. I don't know if this happens with the Gitzo's or not but it's been a minor inconvenience to me. I have just learned to put a little pressure on the legs prior to mounting my equipment to insure the flip locks are holding. 95% of the time, they're solid. Would I buy these legs again? yes...I'm satisfied.
BUILD QUALITY: 9/10
WARRANTY: 5/10 (1 year compared to Gitzo's Lifetime and Mofrottos' 2 year)
UNABASHED COPYCAT: 10/10
BENRO B2 BALL HEAD
The Arca Swiss Z1 runs anywhere from $390 to $420 while the B2 can be found for less than $200. The Benro B2 will do most anything the Arca Swiss can do; so is the slight F&F advantage worth the extra $200? For me it wasn't worth the cost difference. The Benro B2 suits my purposes well.
UPDATE 8-8-16: After owning and using this head for a few years now, it has served it purpose. The pros are that it has held up well and has done what I have needed. The cons are that the multiple knobs making adjustments too finicky and I have found myself many times having to look at the knobs to make and remake the fine adjustments needed for smooth operation. Many times, this has meant a missed shot. On my friends Markins Q10, he makes his adjustments once or maybe twice while we are setting up for shots and it holds those adjustments. On my Benro, the fine adjustments just do not hold in place and I find myself readjusting way too often. So my search begins for a new ball head. I'm thinking Acratech GP, Markins Q10, Really Right Stuff BH-40 or even a Benro G3 (better design in my opinion). Would I buy the Benro B-2 again? Unfortunately no. It's not a necessarily quality issue but a design issue of too many similar knobs and that I just need something a bit more stable/robust for my larger lenses like the 70-200 2.8L when combined with a 1.4X or my 400mm. With these lens mounted, the B2 holds them fine but the vibration and /or shaking through this smaller head is just a bit too much. Sometimes I have to wait for all the shaking to stop before I can take the shot just a little to long. If you have shorter length (or even up to 200mm without the 1.4x) lenses, this head just might be what you're looking for. The fact remains that for the price, you're getting a good quality ball head.
BUILD QUALITY: 7/10
WARRANTY: 5/10 (1 year compared to Gitzo's Lifetime and Mofrottos' 2 year)
UNABASHED COPYCAT: 10/10
USER FRIENDLY: 6/10
ARLINGTON CAMERA WEBSITE