At first glance, the difference between aluminum and carbon fiber tripods seems inconsequential. However, after spending time with them, you will be able to see the pronounced differences.
Carbon fiber versus aluminum tripods. Do the differences matter? Carbon fiber tripods are stiffer, lighter, and more durable than aluminum tripods; they also provide more resistance to weather, scratches, and corrosion. Aluminum tripods are more stable since they weigh more, and they cost less than half compared to their carbon fiber counterparts. So, in short, yes the differences do matter depending on your use case.
When choosing a tripod material, the right answer will depend on your specific needs. Join me below as we go over each attribute of carbon fiber tripods and aluminum tripods to make the most informed decision about which tripod is the right fit for your situation.
Attributes of Carbon Fiber Versus Aluminum Tripods
There is no perfect answer to whether carbon fiber tripods are better than aluminum or the other way around. There are differences on which tripod material is best for you, but that is dependent on your use case.
The best way I know to help you make that decision is to lay out the facts. Here are all of the most important attributes you should look at while you shop for a new tripod.
Stiffness refers to how well your tripod mitigates camera shake when taking photos. This simple yet essential attribute ensures your images will come out crisp and clean when taking your picture. Even the slightest movement will ruin a photo, so having a rigid tripod is a must.
According to DexCraft, the stiffness to weight ratio of carbon fiber is five times greater than that of aluminum. Carbon fiber tripods most certainly exceed that of aluminum in regard to strength and rigidity.
In technical terms, the stiffness of these tripods' materials gets measured in gigapascals (or GPa.) Aluminum is 69 GPa, while carbon fiber scores a comparatively high 181 GPa on average. These numbers mean that for the same size tripod leg, one made of carbon fiber will be roughly three times stronger than one made of aluminum.
However, carbon fiber is manufactured using a highly technical process, and not all carbon fiber is made under equal standards. Different grades of quality exist for carbon fiber, but on average, carbon fiber is much stronger than aluminum.
In the stiffness category, carbon fiber tripods beat their aluminum counterparts hands down.
Vibration Reduction and Absorption
When you smack these tripods against a hard object or surface, you can hear the difference in vibration reduction right away.
When an aluminum tripod hits a hard object, you can hear a loud metallic sound ringing from it. On the other hand, when you bump a carbon fiber tripod against a hard surface in the same manner, you hear a sudden hollow knock sound, but it doesn't give a ringing sound in any capacity.
Carbon fiber does a much better job of absorbing any shock or vibration, allowing for a much steadier shot.
However, if you use an aluminum tripod, you can use free or highly cost-effective means to eliminate vibration, such as a remote control button to snap your pictures. You can also place some added weight at the feet of the tripod to preemptively absorb vibration.
Weight and Portability
If you often travel around on foot, or you climb hills or mountains to take your photos, you will inevitably want to shave some weight off your load. A few grams doesn't seem like much in the beginning. However, the longer your hike or climb goes, the more you start to feel each gram in your gear bag.
For a photographer always on the move, a carbon fiber tripod is a much lighter alternative to the aluminum version. Because of its low weight, you can set the tripod in more places with more ease and take more photos.
However, if the most travel you do with your tripod is from the trunk of your car to a studio or other indoor venue, the weight difference won't be significant enough to affect you in any meaningful way.
In comparison to aluminum tripods, carbon fiber tripods are a fair amount lighter. If you travel around a lot with your tripod, carbon fiber is a sure winner here.
Because carbon fiber is more durable and lighter than aluminum, manufacturers have more freedom to adjust different areas of the same unit to fit their needs. They can strengthen load bearing areas and fix any weak points while barely making the tripod any heavier.
If manufacturers were to follow a similar process with aluminum tripods, the added weight difference would offset any benefit you would otherwise enjoy.
If you abuse your tripod unnecessarily or don't maintain it as you should, it will fall apart much faster, regardless of what material makes up the tripod.
With that said, carbon fiber tripods tend to absorb rough handling much better than their aluminum counterparts. Carbon fiber is a much sturdier material than aluminum, and the body of a carbon fiber tripod will resist damage much more effectively.
Aluminum tripods may not take abuse as well as carbon fiber ones, but that doesn't mean they'll fall apart the first time something smacks into them. These tripods are hefty and relatively substantial. With the right amount of care, an aluminum tripod can do its job well for years.
Unfortunately, even the best aluminum tripods will degrade and corrode over time. Even with the best care, you can expect an aluminum tripod to last between three and five years.
Carbon fiber tripods, on the other hand, can last decades. Carbon fiber tripods win this round.
Aluminum can be produced to be as robust as carbon fiber, and vice versa, but carbon fiber is 40% lighter and ten times more durable than aluminum per unit of volume. If an aluminum tripod were made to be as robust as its carbon fiber counterpart, you would have to drag it with two hands because of how heavy it would be.
Another aspect to consider is the kinds of internals installed in your tripod, regardless of the build material of the tripod's body. For example, what types of leg locks does the tripod have? If its legs come with flip locks, the tripod will typically cost more than one with twist locks due to its improved reliability and security once locked.
If you do most of your photography work indoors, you won't have to worry too much about corrosion on your tripod, regardless of its material. However, if you do a significant amount of shooting in the great outdoors, you run a much higher risk of corrosion becoming a problem (especially in humid environments).
Unprotected aluminum surfaces that don't get maintained will start to corrode. This corrosion will come in the form of a white or gray powder substance called aluminum oxide. If your aluminum tripod is scratched up, moisture and salt can wedge into these damaged areas and damage your tripod at an accelerated rate.
You can tell the corrosion level in your aluminum tripod based on how fineness or coarseness of the aluminum oxide is coming off of it. If the powder has the consistency of cooking flour, you still have a few years of life left. When the powder feels coarser, like salt or sugar, your tripod is running on borrowed time. Upgrade your tripod immediately when it reaches this point.
Carbon fiber conducts electricity, so it can suffer from what is called galvanic corrosion. Galvanic corrosion happens when you use carbon fiber to bind two types of metal together. However, since you most likely won't be tying any metal together with your tripod, you won't have to worry about galvanic corrosion.
Though aluminum has some corrosion resistance, it doesn't hold a candle to carbon fiber.
Carbon fiber tripods can take a significant beating. You typically won't need to worry about your carbon fiber tripod falling or dropping on the ground, as they have much better structural integrity than aluminum.
Aluminum is a much more malleable material than carbon fiber. A sharp blow could bend an aluminum tripod, but there's a chance you can still use it or even bend it back. However, if the blow is strong enough, multiple parts of an aluminum tripod will be affected. This blow could ruin your entire tripod, and you would need to buy a brand new one to replace it.
If a carbon fiber tripod takes a strong enough blow, it will crack and possibly shatter. However, only one point will break with a severe blow to the tripod. If your carbon fiber tripod does suffer a crack or a full break, you can swap that broken piece out. Once you do this, your tripod will be good as new.
A strong enough impact can still damage the tripod's internals, whether it is made of aluminum or carbon fiber. The internals of a tripod aren't made up of the same materials as the rest of the body, so your tripod's internals will fail much sooner than a tripod's legs will. You still want to make sure you don't bang up your tripod or subject it to unnecessary abuse.
Both types of materials have equal and opposite weaknesses in regards to damage resistance.
- Aluminum is more malleable but can most likely still be used after the damage is done.
- Carbon fiber is harder, but as a result, it will crack or shatter if struck hard enough.
If you are shooting in a hotter or colder environment than usual, the aluminum tripod will amplify the heat or chill that touches it. This temperature absorption can make handling an aluminum tripod incredibly uncomfortable in more extreme temperatures. If you use an aluminum tripod in such temperatures, use hand protection such as a glove, if possible.
Carbon fiber doesn't transmit temperature as readily as aluminum. No matter how extreme the temperature may be, a carbon fiber tripod will be comfortable to handle with your bare hands as it won't absorb the heat or cold as readily.
Unfortunately, carbon fiber becomes incredibly brittle in freezing temperatures. If you're in such an environment and smack a carbon fiber tripod against something, you run a genuine risk of shattering your tripod like glass.
99% of photographers won't need to worry about this risk in their daily work, but if you have a job that takes you to such a place (like going to photograph the Northern Lights) you will want to keep this risk in mind should you bring your carbon fiber tripod.
Because of their weight, aluminum tripods can hold their ground much better than a carbon fiber tripod. As long as you plant an aluminum tripod effectively, you won't need to place anything at its feet to add extra weight; their bulk is usually more than enough to stay stable and take a clear photo.
If you are shooting outside in somewhat inclement weather, you want a tripod that can resist shaking in that or falling over in that environment. If your tripod is too light and you didn't support the legs in any way, it runs the risk of falling over with a slight gust of wind.
Carbon fiber tripods are much lighter than aluminum ones; they're also top-heavy. If you perch a big camera on top of a carbon fiber tripod, you can kiss all stability goodbye if you don't weigh its feet down.
However, some carbon fiber tripods come with a hook at the bottom of its base where you can hang a heavy bag. This bag may help a little with stability, but if you're taking a photo in a windy environment, your bag might also swing in the wind and defeat the purpose.
Though carbon fiber tripods are much easier to travel with, its portability comes at the cost of stability. Aluminum holds a substantial advantage here.
If all things were equal, aluminum would win by a mile in terms of cost. Carbon fiber is significantly more challenging to produce than aluminum, and its historical pricing reflects this difficulty.
Though decent aluminum tripods aren't cheap, they're usually only 50 – 70% the price of their carbon fiber counterparts on average.
With that said, entry-level options for carbon fiber tripods do exist. Some of these models can run for close to $100, making them affordable for almost everyone.
Advances in carbon fiber manufacturing technology, which allows for improved material quality and more streamlined processes, have helped drive costs down. These cost cuts have been passed on to the consumer in the form of these entry-level tripods.
Roughly five years ago, your only choices of carbon fiber tripods were priced between “expensive” and “I left my gold bar in my other pants.” Today, that's no longer the case. With the advent of entry-level carbon fiber tripods, photographers enjoy a wide variety of sizes, lengths, and pricing.
However, aluminum tripods remain the cheaper option by far.
Also, as you can tell from the attributes above, price doesn't tell the whole story. Depending on how you plan to use your tripod, you could save a lot of money in the long run if you buy a carbon fiber tripod, even though they can be more than twice as expensive upfront as aluminum ones.
You could pay more than double for a carbon fiber tripod than an aluminum one, even if they are the same model but with different build materials.
However, if it lasts you four times longer than an aluminum tripod, you will save yourself money in the long run. You wouldn't need to buy a replacement carbon fiber tripod as early as you would with that aluminum tripod.
If you're a beginning photographer or you're just dabbling, a lower-priced aluminum tripod may work just fine for you. All you would need is a cost-effective tripod you can use to practice your developing photography skills. If this situation matches where you are in your photography career, a cheaper aluminum tripod will work best for you.
Look at your specific needs. If you don't travel around a lot with a tripod or go outdoors much for your photoshoots, aluminum tripods will be your best bet for less than half the price of carbon fiber tripods.
If the price is your biggest concern when getting a tripod, please resist getting the $20 knockoff tripod on Craigslist. This mistake is a prime ingredient for disaster, and this decision will end in tears in less than a week. You may save a couple of nickels on a tripod, but you more than pay for it when your tripod's internals fail, the tripod falls over, and the fall breaks your camera into tiny pieces.
Whatever price point you need to hit, give yourself enough of a budget to afford a reliable tripod that will keep your gear safe and your shots steady. When it comes to camera gear, few things will cost you more money in the long run than “cheap” equipment.
Other Questions About Carbon Fiber and Aluminum Tripods
Which Is Stronger, Aluminum or Carbon Fiber?
Carbon fiber is roughly ten times stronger than aluminum; it has a tensile strength of 11.719 times that of aluminum.
Is Carbon Fiber More Expensive Than Aluminum?
Yes, carbon fiber is much more expensive than aluminum. Aluminum costs $0.88 per pound, while carbon fiber costs $10 per pound.
Why Is Carbon Fiber So Strong?
Carbon fiber is made up of incredibly strong and thin crystalline carbon filaments. The resulting fiber is five times stronger than steel and twice as stiff.
What Are the Best Carbon Fiber Tripods?
While carbon fiber tripods are known for their overall exceptional quality, most of them have additional features that help them stand out even more.
Here are some of the top carbon fiber tripods on the market today.
INNOREL RT-90C Heavy Duty Carbon Fiber Bowl Tripod
The RT-90C Carbon Fiber Bowl Tripod is built for maximum versatility.
- This tripod can handle a maximum load of 88 pounds. You can load your DSLR camera, telephoto lens, and stabilizing weight under the center column to add stability to your shots.
- This tripod carries a maximum leg diameter of 40mm, and a minimum diameter of 29mm, making this tripod extra stable.
- It's anodizing mounting pan, complete with oversized weight hook and set screw, allows you to lock down your tripod head securely.
- This tripod is exceptionally portable. It's only 23 inches long when compact, and it extends all the way out to 63 inches when fully extended. This portability makes this tripod an excellent choice for outdoor and travel shooting.
- You can switch out the tripod's feet with spikes or rubber pads. These replaceable feet allow you to shoot perfectly still pictures by using the terrain to your advantage.
- Its four-section column legs come with quick-release flip locks and angle adjustment buckle to help you adjust your tripod to your choice height and angle.
- A two-year warranty backs this tripod.
The INNOREL RT-90C Heavy Duty Carbon Fiber Bowl Tripod is the perfect choice for outdoor photographers who want portability without sacrificing stability.
Peak Design Travel Tripod (5 Section Carbon Fiber)
This carbon fiber tripod goes above and beyond to be the best tripod for travel photography.
- When fully compressed, it's roughly the same size as a small water bottle. When fully extended, it comes out to a maximum of 60.2 inches with the center column fully raised.
- Deploying this tripod is effortless and lightning fast with its fast-locking, low-profile leg cams. You can waste less time messing with your tripod and more time snapping your next masterpiece.
- The tripod's legs can also spread almost flat, allowing you to shoot a steady image with your camera mere inches off the ground.
- This carbon fiber tripod can support up to 20 pounds, so it can easily handle a full-frame DSLR camera with a telephoto lens.
- It also boasts exceptional vibration damping comparable to most other tripods in its class, so you can be sure you will take crisp, clear photos without worrying about vibration ruining the shot.
If you want a solid carbon fiber tripod that will take up almost zero room in your gear bag, the Peak Design Travel Tripod is easily the best choice.
What Are the Best Aluminum Tripods?
Since aluminum tripods come at a much lower price than their carbon fiber counterparts, you can get a relatively high-quality tripod while saving money.
Here are some aluminum tripods that will give you the best bang for your buck.
ESDDI 79 Inch Aluminum Camera Tripod
The ESDDI Aluminum Tripod is an incredibly versatile aluminum tripod system.
- It comes with a large ball head and 360-degree panorama capabilities, which will allow you to get a perfect shot from any angle you can dream of.
- This tripod sorts a two-section telescopic center column, allowing you to extend your tripod's maximum height to 78 inches.
- This large and rotatable ball head will keep your camera steady as you shoot from all angles.
- The 24mm aluminum alloy legs come with twist locks to provide the tripod with more stability for your DSLR camera.
- The bottom spring hook at the bottom of the center column lets you add more weight to the center to increase your stability further.
- This aluminum tripod can support up to a maximum of 17.6 pounds, easily handling a full DSLR with a telephoto lens.
The ESDDI 79 Inch Aluminum Camera Tripod gives you versatility and stability in a package that is easy on your wallet.
MACTREM 62” Professional Camera Tripod with Phone Mount
The MACTREM aluminum tripod is the perfect travel option for photographers who are always on the move.
- This tripod weighs only 2.9 pounds and collapses to a minuscule 17.5 inches.
- This tripod can support up to 33 pounds. It offers a high level of stability, so you can focus more on snapping your photo and less on worrying if your hand is shaky.
- With the attached swivel ball head, you can take 360-degree landscape photos with ease. Just connect your DSLR or phone on the ball head and slowly rotate for crisp, stable 360-degree images. You can even switch out a different ball head if you need to do so.
- The MACTREM tripod takes seconds to set up. With rapid releasing flip locks, you can adjust your working height up to 62.5 inches in seconds.
- The quick-release plate lets you make quick transitions between shots to move from place to place with speed and ease.
- Invert the center column to take close-up macro shots when your subjects are close to the ground.
If you want reliability and versatility, the MACTREM 62” Professional Camera Tripod with Phone Mount is a great tripod system that won't break the bank.
Is a Carbon Fiber Tripod Right for You, or Is an Aluminum Tripod the Smarter Choice?
Your tripod is a vital tool in any professional photographer's arsenal; it keeps your gear safe, and it enhances the quality of your shots when you use it right. Because of the critical role a tripod plays, you want to choose your tripod carefully.
If you are going into photography as a long-term career and you plan to travel a lot with your tripod, the carbon fiber variant will typically win hands down. If you don't travel a lot, you mostly shoot indoors, and you maintain your tripod regularly, an aluminum tripod may be a smarter choice.
However, not all aluminum or carbon fiber tripods are created equal. Depending on your needs, a high-quality aluminum tripod could be a much better purchase than a lower-quality carbon fiber tripod.
Take a look at the tripods available to you, and go through each one with a fine-tooth comb. Compare your needs directly to the options in front of you, and make the best possible decision based on your research. Who knows, you may decide to get one variant of each. Either way, your tripod should last you for years or even decades, so it's best to buy a quality one either way.