As Video Cameras Get Smaller, the Tripod Market Heats Up

Video camera tripod market is highly competitive. Once Canon introduced the DLSR in 2008, still photography and videography began to merge. The demand was for much lighter gear and the door opened for new competition against the entrenched European tripod makers.

In the 1960s, tripods for photographic and film cameras were big, heavy wooden or metal contraptions that were cumbersome to use on location. It was the same bulky standard for lighting stands, booms, utility clamps and other support accessories. There had to be a better way.

At the time, Lino Manfrotto was a photo reporter in Bassano del Grappa, Italy, for the Il Gazzettino and Il Giornale di Vicenza newspapers. He was also an industrial and advertising photographer. His daily work made him a victim of having to deal with heavy camera and lighting support hardware.

Manfrotto took on the challenge to produce lighter, more functional gear that he could better work with on location. After getting his first significant order from a Swiss distributor, Manfrotto’s garage became a production workshop — though his capacity was immediately insufficient to meet the wide and growing demand for his products.

In 1972, Manfrotto met Gilberto Battocchio, a technician working for a Bassano mechanical firm. The pair made a great team, and within two years they introduced the first Manfrotto tripod. It was innovative, light and versatile — and immediately achieved success. The pair expanded to 11 production sites in Italy within two years.

Lino Manfrotto (left) and Gilberto Battocchio combined talents to launch the Manfrotto brand of tripods in 1972.

Lino Manfrotto (left) and Gilberto Battocchio combined talents to launch the Manfrotto brand of tripods in 1972.

Manfrotto made quality paramount is designing his gear. His equipment could withstand extreme use, rough atmospheric conditions and handle high load capacities. Finally, someone had built a better tripod.

In 1989, Manfrotto sold his company to the British Vitec Group plc, a multinational company listed on the London Stock Exchange. At the time, it was operating in the broadcasting sector with American, German, English and French subsidiaries.

In France, Gitzo was also building top-level camera support gear to compete with Manfrotto. In 1992, Vitec purchased Gitzo. A year later, they purchased Bogen, a specialist in the distribution of photographic equipment in the United States. Then they expanded to purchase a series of other brands in photography and video production.

Soon, Vitec’s combined brands became the largest manufacturer of tripods and support gear in the world. They targeted a range of separate photo and video users with tripods, fluid and ball heads and a host of other camera support accessories.

The French Gitzo brand was purchased by Vitec in 1992 and with other purchases, Vitec was soon the largest manufacturer of camera support gear.

The French Gitzo brand was purchased by Vitec in 1992 and with other purchases, Vitec was soon the largest manufacturer of camera support gear.

Gitzo, considered a premium product and nicknamed by some as the Ferrari of the tripod business, would compete at the top of the market. At first, Manfrotto tripods were marketed in the U.S. under the Bogen name, but in 2010 the brand was retired and Manfrotto took over the mainstream tripod market, also making some high-end camera support gear as well.

Here comes the DLSR

In 2008, a major shift occurred in the tripod market. Canon introduced the first DSLR camera capable of shooting high-end video. Soon, still photography and videography began to merge. There were demands for much lighter gear and the door was opened for new competition against the entrenched European tripod makers.

Today, brands like Slik, Rocketfish, Flashpoint, Sunpak, Benro, Velbon, Induro, Fiesol, Libec, Vanguard and Giottos compete in the middle and low-end of the tripod market. High-end brands like Miller, Cartoni, O’Connor, Sachler and Vinten compete at the top of the market.

Now, a Chinese company, Sirui, has begun to give the established tripod manufacturers additional competition. Founded in 2001, Sirui is located in Zhongshan, the southern part of the Pearl River Delta and the center of the three economic circles of Guangdong, Macau and Hong Kong. A German photography magazine recently tested all the major brands of tripods in the world and rated Sirui as among the best.

“Sirui’s whole philosophy is make it small to stand tall. Make it light to hold a lot of weight and make it so people can take it with them wherever they go,” said Marty Lipton, national sales manager for Argraph Corp., Sirui’s U.S. distributor, based in Carlstadt, New Jersey.

While Chinese tripod manufacturers were late to the show, Sirui has been highly successful against its venerable competitors.

While Chinese tripod manufacturers were late to the show, Sirui has been highly successful against its venerable competitors.

What differentiates Sirui tripods is the use of forged aluminum and advanced carbon fiber manufacturing, which makes them lighter yet stronger, said Lipton. During the forging process, the deformation and recrystallization of metal causes the structure of the metal to be more welded together and compact — greatly increasing its strength-to-weight ratio.

“The spider — the part that holds the tripod’s legs — is made of forged aircraft aluminum. They press it and press it and press it until they get rid of the air bubbles. So they make a very strong piece to hold the weight. They do the same thing with the legs using carbon fiber with eight layers for better load capacity.”

Distributed in the United States for only four years, Lipton said sales of Sirui tripods have exploded. “They have created a tripod that people can take with them. Most models are between 12 and 18 inches long when folded. We have 18-inch long tripods that can hold up to 33 pounds.

“You no longer need these colossal heads anymore to do a job. Portability is the essence of what Sirui does. When you take a trip and want to take a backpack, you don’t want to carry 30 pounds. This is why they became so successful so quickly. They looked at what the industry needed and designed products that work.”

Paul Zakrzewski, director of marketing for Manfrotto in the United States, handles the entire line — including both the Manfrotto and Gitzo brands which are made in the same factory in Northern Italy near the company’s headquarters at Bassano del Grappa.

“There is a lot of competition around the world in tripods and there are competitors that are coming from different directions. They are now of better quality than has come out of that region (China) in the past,” he said. “We continue to manufacture all of our professional products in Italy and we will continue to do that. We are one of the recognized brands in the world and we continue to market from the quality perspective and the heritage of what we bring to the table.”

Traditional manufacturers adapt

He acknowledged the melding of video and still photography users in the marketplace and said Manfrotto brands are adapting to the trend. Last year, he said, Manfrotto revamped two of its most popular lines by improving leg locks, leg angle adjustment and adding a new 90-degree center column mechanism that increased the weight handling capability of the tripod while decreasing the overall weight.

“We also continue to innovate with the carbon fiber that makes the walls of the tripod thinner and lighter,” he said. “In our Gitzo line, we moved to Carbon eXact, a thinner, stronger, stiffer and lighter type of carbon fiber.”

One thing that has all but disappeared are the differences between video and photographic tripods. “There is no difference between a photographic tripod and a video tripod,” said Lipton. “All of our tripods have a set screw (to lock the head). That’s because people do panning. For the other manufacturers who still differentiate between video and photographic users, I say ‘that’s their problem.’ Sirui puts the set screw on all its tripods to lock the head on. That’s it.”

Any quality difference between Sirui and other premium products like Gitzo has now been completely erased, Lipton said. “Gitzo is charging too much,” he added. “It’s just branding. They are not producing a better product. Look at what they are charging. They are a third more expensive than Sirui and basically on the same level.”

Competition within the tripod business is now hotter than ever.

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