In Part 1 of this shootout, I previewed the three tripods I'm comparing and discussed some things I'll be looking at in all three. Part 1 also covered the Velbon CX-300 -- a typical "big box" store tripod that's better than nothing, but just barely. As a reminder, if you're just getting started looking at tripods, Tripod Shopping 101 might also be helpful for you.
In this edition, we'll look at Dolica's AX620B100, which takes a huge leap forward in capability without breaking the bank.
Dolica Proline AX620B100: The best tripod you've never heard of
I'll admit it -- it was a bit of a gamble. I saw the Dolica AX620B100 Proline advertised a couple years ago in a holiday season super-deal-of-the-day on a favorite online store's web site for $40 -- shipped. At that price, I thought it was worth taking a gamble on a brand I hadn't heard of, and boy, am I glad I did. This tripod isn't without its faults -- you can't expect a $40 tripod to beat premium brands costing ten times as much, after all. But for this kind of money, this tripod is an absolute steal.
Compared to the Velbon we looked at in Part 1 of this series, the Dolica gives you independently movable legs, a passable ballhead, a quick-release system, and some really sweet little features that you might not find as standard equipment on higher-end tripods.
Construction and Specifications
The Dolica AX620B100 is a tripod combo consisting of the AX620 legs and B100 ballhead. Both are mainly constructed from lightweight aluminum. It's surprisingly lightweight at around 2.5 lbs (that's better than many carbon fiber tripods, by the way), and it stands 62" tall when extended to maximum height. The leg locks are made of sturdy plastic, and the feet are made of metal and rubber. Despite being a very lightweight design, it doesn't feel cheap -- all of the Dolica's operating parts move smoothly despite the bargain price. This definitely doesn't feel like a disposable tripod.
One of the first things you'll notice about the Dolica is an abundance of "luxury" features that make it feel like it's punching above its class. The three legs move independently, locking at one of three angles, as is common for tripods of this sort. The joints holding the legs to the spider (hub) have hex-head adjustment screws to set their tension. Foam over all three legs is a welcome addition that makes the tripod comfortable to operate in any weather.
The legs feature flip-locks that I personally like better than twist locks. Proponents of twist locks (found on the Induro I'll review in Part 3) point out that you can typically unlock all leg sections with one twist once you get used to operating them, but I find the flip locks on the Dolica to be almost as quick to unlock, and even quicker to lock once the legs are in place. One of the keys for me is that the flip locks offer great tactile feedback to indicate whether they're locked or unlocked -- it's impossible to be confused about whether a given leg segment is locked vs. unlocked, so for me, setting up the Dolica in challenging settings is absolutely stupid-simple. This is an attribute I appreciate in tripods.
At the bottom of the legs of the AX620, you'll find a great feature that's surprisingly absent on lots of "higher end" tripods. The tips of the legs are convertible between spikes (as shown on the left) or rubber feet, just by screwing or unscrewing the feet so that they cover the spikes. This design is so simple and functional, it floors me not to find it on more tripods, but I've actually found this to be a fairly rare feature. The Induro A113, for instance, has rubber tipped feet that can be unscrewed and replaced with spikes -- this is a pretty common design -- but this is vastly inferior to the all-in-one design seen here. Not only is this super-fast to change, there's also no chance of losing a foot or a spike as you're fumbling to exchange on for the other while standing in waist-high grass, or next to a swollen stream, or any of the other inhospitable places you're likely to discover you really want to use spikes. Why this isn't standard on more tripods, I'm afraid I can't explain, but I like it.
The B100 ballhead that comes with the AX620 is functional and light, and the quick-release system works quite well. It features the common one-knob adjustment system found on most compact ballheads, including a slot to enable portrait orientations. The ballhead itself is detachable from the tripod if you want to use a different head, and the quick-release clamp disconnects from the head, as well. The mount for the clamp is somewhat unusual, though, so it's far more likely that you'll wind up just replacing the whole head at some point.
Finally, the two "wings" seen in the photo on the right loosen or tighten the center column, which raises to increase the overall height of the tripod. As is usually the case, the center column should be used only when you really need that extra height, as the stability of the tripod is affected when it's raised. There is a spring-loaded hook at the bottom of this column that's intended to hang a bit of weight to aid in stabilizing the tripod.
Last, but not least, this Dolica includes a very functional carrying bag. It ain't fancy, but it absolutely gets the job done. Once again, it's amazing how many tripods selling for much more than this will charge extra for a bag, so this is a welcome addition.
Compared to the Velbon we looked at last time, the Dolica AX620 is a joy to use. Even if you only use a tripod on even ground and at eye level, you'll likely find this style of tripod to be an improvement. The quick-release feature alone is worth the upgrade. As your photography skills advance, though, you'll come to understand that shooting at eye level doesn't always give you the look you need, and when you start getting creative with your camera position, you're going to need more from your tripod.
Enter the Dolica. For less than $50, you get legs that independently lock into one of three positions, with each leg extending independently as well. For landscape photographers, this is a huge upgrade over the more restrictive style used by the Velbon. I can't tell you how many times I've done something like the setup seen on the right here in order to work around uneven terrain. As you can see, the center column is something of a limiting factor as far as the "how low can you go" factor on this tripod. You can position your camera only as low as this column is tall, though you might be able to squeeze out another couple of inches by laying it over on a bit of an angle. Higher-end tripods have some ways to address this, but this is indeed one of the areas where this Dolica shows some limitations.
Operation of the flip locks and convertible feet is a breeze. I've had zero problems with either of these, if you discount a couple rare occasions when water froze in the locks at temperatures well below zero. Even then, the legs were frozen in place, and continued to work just fine until I decided to pack up the tripod for the day, at which point, I was able to warm the locks up and collapse the tripod. I've got no qualms whatsoever about this level of performance at any price, let alone at this sort of price point.
Speaking of cold-weather operation, the foam leg warmers are a great touch, though honestly, in freezing weather, I'm likely to have gloves on. Personally, I appreciate the grips every bit as much in warmer weather, when the grips help keep sweaty hands from slipping on the legs. In any event, they add very little weight, and they're a welcome touch.
Moving on to the B100 ballhead, things aren't quite as rosy. The good news is that the head is easy to adjust, and the quick-release mechanism is a joy to use. The bad news is that this ballhead just doesn't do a great job with weights on the order of most DSLR / lens combos. I typically found that my viewfinder sagged several degrees after I tightened the adjustment knob, which makes framing a shot much more difficult than it should be.
As is typical for one-knob ballheads, the ball is either loose or tight -- this is the main idea behind its quick adjustments. Ironically, though, since the center column rotates, it can pan from side to side in order to help you shoot a panorama. Most higher-end tripods actually lock the legs and center column to prevent rotation such as this.
The ballhead is obviously one of the areas where Dolica saved a few bucks, and in hindsight, I'd love to see what sort of improvements they'd have been able to pull off for a few bucks more. It's entirely possible that given a slightly better ballhead, I might never have considered upgrading from this kit at all. If you find yourself in a similar spot, though, remember that you can separate the tripod and ballhead of this unit (as shown on the right), allowing you to upgrade the B100 to something just a bit nicer.
Remember - the #1 job of a tripod is to create a stable platform for you to shoot from. If the only platform you're interested in is at eye-level, then something like the Velbon CX-300 might be just fine, but most photographers demand more from their tripods. The Dolica's vibration resistance is similar to the Velbon's under most conditions, but it's able to support your camera in many more positions than the Velbon can. You will notice a bit of spindly behavior when all the legs are extended and splayed out, but remember this is a position you can't attain at all with the Velbon.
As you might have guessed, I don't baby my tripods. I've drug the AX620 through woods, trails, streams, mud, snow, ice, and everything in between. Through it all, the AX620 keeps on going. I've experienced no problems with dirt or sand buggering up the joints, and although the convertible feet now show a bit of corrosion on their threads, they still operate just fine -- and far more quickly than alternative designs that force you to completely change out feet for spikes. The legs of the AX620, being made of lightweight aluminum, flex if they're stressed with a side-force, but they're plenty strong lengthwise. In fact, I've used this tripod on more than one occasion as a light-duty walking staff with nary a complaint. The leg joints managed to loosen very slightly over the course of a couple years of hard work, but the attachment points were easy to tighten back up again. In short, durability wise, this tripod performs way better than it should, given its price.
Again, if this tripod has an Achilles heel, it's the ballhead. As a byproduct of all my tripod shopping, I'm looking to replace the ballhead of the AX620 and keep it around as a spare, but if I were shopping for a new tripod in this range, I'd give serious consideration to the Dolica GX600B200 Proline 60-Inch Tripod Combo, which seems to carry over the features I love about the AX620, but upgrades the ballhead a bit. The extra $15 or so would be very well spend, in my opinion.
There's no such thing as a free lunch. Spending more on a tripod gives you better construction and more features. If you're on a budget, though, I think you'll have a hard time beating the value in Dolica's tripods, based on the AX620B100. This is a no-contest upgrade over the Velbon CX-300 -- do not pass "go", do not collect $200. In part 3 of this series, I'll look at a more upscale "brand-name" tripod in the Induro A113, which is honestly better than the Dolica in a couple areas, but stacks up surprisingly well overall. I'll give you a hint about how I feel about these two, though, in advance of publishing part 3 -- I'm going to be selling the Induro and keeping the Dolica.