FERDY CHRISTANT - NOV 21, 2014 (12:50:42 PM)
Yesterday we arrived back from a 2 week wildlife trip through Sri Lanka. It has been an awesome, intense and great journey full of adventure. The travel report is too large to fit in a blog entry, therefore I have published it as a PDF, which you can view here.
FERDY CHRISTANT - SEP 29, 2014 (08:50:07 PM)
I'm having a small "gear rush". It started with a new tripod (which I love), followed by a teleconverter (which I returned). This 3rd extension to my kit will be the last for a while. I've had this viewfinder for a few days now, and have used it in-house as well as in the field. I'll hereby share some first experiences.
I've learned that how usable or unusable you find this viewfinder entirely depends on intended usage, therefore I'll describe mine.
When the sun leaves this country, as it is doing right now, I'd like to continue doing macro photography. In absence of insects, I tend to switch to more stationary subjects, like plants and fungi. And this type of photography has posed a practical problem, which I'll illustrate using this example:
I think the idea for this photo is great. Two differently sized fungi in a single scene, showing an interesting perspective. The large fungi is in fact not large at all, but looks like a giant in this scene.
As much as I liked the idea, the actual execution is flawed. The composition is not perfect, there's a lot of clutter in the scene, and the focus and sharpness is not as accurate as I want it to be. It could have been so much better. I have entire series of similar images that could have been better this way.
The reason why these photos are not better is not that I do not know how to execute them better, it's because I can't. These photos require me to lay down flat on the forest floor. Next I have to position my neck in such an akward position that it pains me if it takes more than a few seconds. As a result, I rush the shot, so that I am reliefed again. I simply have no time to accurately compose it, thus I do not see the errors. There's other issues with having to lay down like that, other than it looking plain weird:
- I may accidentally destroy other plants and fungi in the process
- It gets me completely covered in dirt, although that can be prevented
- It puts strain on anything I have in my pocket, like my keys and phone
Hence my interest in this viewfinder. If it works, I don't have to lay down anymore. I only need to kneel, and can then take all the time in the world to properly compose the scene.
The first thing to consider is buying the correct Viewfinder for your camera body, because it depends on the type of current viewfinder you have (round or not). On my D800, this DR-5 should work.
Pre-install, I was very careful about the process, and also a little concerned. I've read reviews beforehand of people complaining about this process, and also the potential damage that can take place when the camera is opened, allowing dust to enter.
At least on the D800, there is no issue at all. The standard viewfinder has a toggle, which closes the viewfinder completely. So you first use the toggle, then remove the rubber ring from the current viewfinder. Next, you unscrew the actual viewfinder. Finally, you screw the new viewfinder in place and open the toggle again. The screwing part is a bit confusing, as the DR-5 has two rotating parts. Both the block and the "tube" rotate. You should rotate the block itself, and not use the tube to rotate the whole thing. Rotate the block until it is secured. It doesn't really matter where you start, as long as you end up with the block secured in any 90 degree fashion.
With a component like this, uninstallation is as important as installation. I believe it is a component that you would typically attach beforehand to go on a specific trip, not something you will change 5 times during a trip. Switching will not be as quick as switching a lens. I'm dissapointed that Nikon did not pay attention to detail here, they could have easily designed a solution where the viewfinder also stores the parts of the normal viewfinder, so that users do not have a zillion small bags in their camera bag.
Usage and observations
Here's some random observations from using this viewfinder. One of the first things I noticed is that it is a lot smaller than I expected. It's not a problem, just an observation. Actually, it can be a problem, depending on how you use it.
After installation, the next thing to do is to tune the actual viewfinder to your eyes specifically, which is as simple as using the dial on the handle until the viewfinder looks sharp to you.
The image in the viewfinder itself looks great, I'm not noticing any loss of light, it really is the same viewfinder you are used to, in a different angle. Upon looking through it, one does have to learn the proper distance. I don't know if other people experience this, but when I look through binoculars, I typically start with seeing absolutely nothing, just huge black dots. Only after aligning my eyes properly and having the right viewing distance, I see the actual image. I experienced the same thing with this viewfinder.
One highly underadvertised feature of this viewfinder is the ability to switch to 2 x mode, magnifying the scene by a factor of 2. All of this is entirely optically, it even works when the camera itself is off. You could argue that live view allows for even deeper zooming, but it will not do it in this angle, plus on the D800 the image quality when zoomed in is quite poor. I find myself a whole lot more accurate in focusing in 2 x mode optically, then I do in live view mode, at any zoom level. It is a wonderful feature of this viewfinder, one that really stands out.
As a beginner, you may sometimes forget that you're at 2 x mode, and screw up the composition this way. The quick tip to not forget this is that at 1 x mode, the viewfinder is square, whilst at 2 x mode, it is round.
Another observation is that due to the small length of the viewfinder, anything big attached to the hot shoe (like Flash or a Flash commander) may block you partly when looking downward. It can still work, but it's not convenient. A quick solution is to use the viewfinder diagonally instead.
I also noticed that actually securing the viewing angle is tricky. Sometimes the weight of my head/eyes resting on the viewfinder moves it to a different angle. I'm sure there's a way to truly lock it, there's even lock buttons to the side of the handle, but they do nothing for me. I feel like an idiot for not getting it, but the manual doesn't explain how it works either.
At this point in the review, I can conclude that for my intended usage, this viewfinder works great. It does what it says, and the zoom mode is unexpectedly good and powerful. Kneeling down and looking down in the view finder, I can take my time to accurately compose and focus, and that is what was needed. It's great for ground level compositions. Here's an example from the field:
Although it doesn't look that way, this is a ground-level image, pointing slightly up (using a bean bag). In this scene, I was able to accurately compose, and also focus (which was tricky in this case). You don't have to like the image or my choices, the point is that I was able to make these decisions in a relaxed and accurate manner, thanks to this viewfinder.
So I conclude that this viewfinder shines for that purpose: looking down. Other angles are quite doubtfull. First, you can forget about using this viewfinder upwards. A tiltable live view screen (which most entry level cameras have, yet most high level DSLRs lack) can do such a thing, but this viewfinder can't. The distance between the viewfinder and camera body is too short, thus you cannot fit your eyes into it using this angle. I suppose you could again solve this by using it diagonally, but for sure that will only work or be comfortable on a tripod, if at all.
Using this viewfinder at all when not on the ground or on a tripod is basically not really an option, unless you are really handy and steady. I think it is most (and only) useful on the ground looking down, and on a higher tripod position looking down (if the tripod is lower than you) or side ways, in case of a tripod positioned in some corner.
In other words, if you expect this thing to be as flexible as a tiltable, rotating live view screen, you will be dissapointed. It doesn't even come close to that. If you require ground-level or stationary accurate composing and focusing, however, this viewfinder is awesome. It has a few usability oversights that are all to common in Nikon accessoiries, but it does its core function very well.
FERDY CHRISTANT - SEP 26, 2014 (11:14:58 AM)
We're about to enter Q4 of 2014, so in this post I want to give a strategic update regarding JungleDragon, in particular discussing:
- A temporary development break
- A look-back on 1 year of JungleDragon V3
- A peek at what lies ahead, JungleDragon V4
In the past year, I have put a lot of effort into further developing JungleDragon, by means of adding new features, improving existing features and solving bugs. As a result, I think we're now in a feature-rich, stable situation.
Although that does not mean that JungleDragon is done, it is never really is, I am hereby announcing a development break of a few months, in which I will do very little new feature development. This break will likely be until the end of the year, after which I will pick up development again next year.
The reason for this pause is largely practical. In Q4 I will have little time on my hands to do development, due to several other activities, which include travel, education for work and a few side projects. Needless to say, operationally JungleDragon will fully continue, and I'll also organize new contests, I just won't by developing new features for the remainder of the year.
As said, I think we're feature rich enough for this little break. I'm also hoping the break refreshes me in a way to take on new development next year. It's been a very busy year.
1 year of JungleDragon V3
JungleDragon V1 was launched in 2011, essentialy it was a general purpose photo sharing platform that happened to focus on nature. JungleDragon V2 introduced JungleDragon's killer feature: species identifications. To this day, it is the most important distinguishing feature that sets JungleDragon apart from any general purpose photo sharing platform.
JungleDragon V3, about a year in the making, implemented a complete redesign of the entire front-end. It featured a complete overhaul of every aspect of JungleDragon, making it responsive and usable on every modern device with a browser. The design itself was also renewed and photos were displayed larger and better.
I am still proud of the V3 launch, it took a huge effort, and it has taught me a lot in responsive web development. The launch was 1 year ago, at October 1, 2013. From that moment until now, V3 has been further developed, non-stop. One year of continuous improvement and development has brought a lot to the table. Whilst each improvement may be modest, the combined progress is large.
Therefore, in this part of this strategy post, I'm going through those improvements, to showcase how much has happened in a single year. I warn you that this part will be long, likely only die-hard fans can absorb it :) Here goes...
The Oct 1, 2013 launch finally delivered what I have been writing about on the blog the year before whilst I was still developing it: a new design, a completely responsive front-end, and key improvements in photo viewing.
As the difference between V2 and V3 is so dramatic, soon a few initial fixes were applied. The 2nd update contained additional fixes, but also improved sharing and a brand new feature, OpenGraph support, allowing for richer sharing of JungleDragon content on social networks. The 3rd update applied some small tweaks to existing features. The 4th update restored the Socializer feature (automated sharing to social networks), and provided a few more fixes. These 4 post-launch updates all focused on stabilizing the brand new JungleDragon V3.
The next few weeks were spent on an important improvement: the photo uploader. Where before it was Flash-based, the new uploader was entirely built in HTML5. It beautifully displays the photos even before they are actually uploaded and has a very nice progress indicator. JungleDragon as of then was completely Flash-free, and as a result, all issues related to the earlier Flash implementation were no longer relevant.
In November I wrote a detailed post about JungleDragon's species system. Although it is the most important feature of JungleDragon, it was having problems in several areas:
- There was no identification help
- In case the automated species system (which relies on Wikipedia content) did not work, the alternative manual method of creating species was extremely painful.
- Maintaining species records (editing them) was only possible by me, and only in a very hackish way.
- The species browser had a major performance problem, it did not scale.
It took many many updates to resolve all these issues, and it has been the most painful, and most rewarding improvement throughout the year. It took me until january before I collected the courage to even start on it. However, the first January post was immediately a big one. It explains how through a complete rewiring of the data structure for species, the species browser was made to perform again. In addition, it introduced counters, that greatly aid in species browsing. There was an immediate follow-up post that addressed a few small bugs.
And then came a drastic change of course: I started opening up JungleDragon. The best decision I have ever made regarding JungleDragon. This first moderation announcement introduced a moderation panel and the first "power" given to moderators: the ability to promote photos to the homepage.
This was a revolution in a few ways. It hands out power to key JungleDragon members, improves democracy and reduces the reliability on solely myself. Everybody wins. This post was the ground work for opening up JungleDragon, sharing both powers and tasks with the community.
The 2nd moderation update combined 2 major improvements of the year:addressing issues in the species system and opening up JungleDragon to the community. In this update, moderators were given the power to translate species nodes (navigation entries in the species browser). It is of course an entirely voluntary task, but it is the first example of not only sharing power, but also sharing tasks with the community.
The 3rd moderation update added an even more powerful ability: it allowed moderators to edit species records themselves, any of the many fields that populate a species record. In practice, to this day it works very well, it is heavily used, and I am proud of the moderators for doing so. Finally, this part was not only shared, it also had an actual user interface, instead of just me hacking into a database panel.
The 4th update went even further. It finally addressed one of the most painful processes of JungleDragon: manually creating species (in case Wikipedia automation fails). For the first time, normal users could request manual species creation, and for the first time, moderators could create such manual species themselves. With a proper process and user interface.
The 5th update introduced a new feature: species help. Where before useful species identification sites were scattered across the site, they are now neatly collected and categorized in a single place, called the "Guide". And as with other species management features, this one is open for moderation. Moderators can add sites.
And with that, I declared the new species system complete. The enormous challenges it had were fixed. Above all it is the combination of restructuring those features and opening them up to moderators that saved the day. The combination is powerful and has been running smoothly for months now. It is the greatest accomplishment in the year between launching JungleDragon V3 and now.
But so much more happened in the year. I next start addressing JungleDragon maps features. In the 1st update I addressed the serious performance challenge of showing thousands of markers on the global wildlife map. The 2nd map update integrated maps in a better visual way. The 3rd map update introduced a "near me" feature, showing you wildlife photos around you.
And then, entirely unplanned, I created a brand new crazy feature: daylight planning. With this tool, you can see the light period from any location/time combination on the planet, past, current and future. In addition, you can see the sun's altitude, the moon's altitude, and the moon's period. This is a powerful light planning tool for photographers. It also features a weather overlay and a day/night time overlay on the map. The 2nd update improved this tool even further. It added the ability to pick any date, not just today. And it allows you to save any time/location to your personal calendar. The 3rd update introduced the sun's angle to the tool, as well as a light pollution overlay. The 4th update integrated the tool with actual photos. If your photo features GPS coordinates and GPS time via EXIF, JungleDragon will reconstruct the light situation during the moment of capture! Finally, the 6th update made the tool more usable on mobile.
After the species and maps focus, I focused again on more general updates. The 1st update improved navigation and scrolling on mobile in subtle yet powerful ways. Up next was a more dramatic improvement, a redesign of the homepage. It became simpler and cleaner in layout, yet still features more and bigger content than before.
And still the major restructurings were not completed. I completely redesigned the activity feeds and notification engine in the back-end, leading to much better performance and better maintainability. This was again a very painful exercise, but much needed.
Maps was then again improved with a focus on country maps. This was followed by again a big new feature: newsletters. This brand new weekly newsletter highlights popular content and new species on JungleDragon. It is a very quick glance at the week at JungleDragon.
Then came a general update with design tweaks, further improved maps, and a new notification for species identifications and introductions. This was followed by another "crazy" new feature: ambient backgrounds. This unique design tweak dynamically calculates the background of images based on the actual photo. Full screen photo viewing was further improved in a 2nd update and a 3rd update.
Back to general development, a 1st update drastically improved database performance. The 2nd update contained several small improvements: better activity feeds, guidance for lists, and a brand new notification for photo promotions. This was followed by another performance improvement, and a 3rd update that introduced a new notification for lists, better map zooming, and better Windows 8 support.
1 year of JungleDragon V3 - conclusion
And so we arrive at today, after 1 year of JungleDragon V3 development. I am very happy with what was achieved, particularly concerning the large, painful restructurings in the species system, maps and notifications. On top of that, we opened up key aspects of JungleDragon to the community, whilst also adding great new features, such as the daylight planner, a newsletter, new notifications, and so much more.
I believe JungleDragon feature-wise is in a great place now. It is feature-rich, stable, and the most painful parts have been addressed. It is amazing what can be done in a single year.
Therefore, I hereby declare JungleDragon V3 completed. As said, I will take a break from developing features for a few months, and then start on JungleDragon V4.
JungleDragon V4 - what lies ahead
JungleDragon will never be completed, so after V3, naturally there will be a V4. I already have a pretty significant list of ideas. Unlike the major release changes between V1, V2, and V3, V4 will not be a radical departure from the previous version. I have no plan for a major overhaul of the design or the main systems and functions of the V3 platform. There will be no major shock for users.
What will V4 be about then? My list of ideas surrounding V4 are very dynamic, but many gravitate around further improving JungleDragon's already existing unique strengths: context. A photo in JungleDragon is not just a photo, it has meaning and context. It has a species which I can further explore, a location I can discover, a photographer which I can follow, and so on.
I like to build on this idea even further. For example, I can detect the season in which the photo was taken, showing more photos from that season. And I could better detect the camera (and hopefully lens) used to capture the image, showing more photos made using the same equipment.
Although difficult, I'd like to add more context to species as well. It would be great if I could see the habitat or behavior of a species, and navigate to more species of that same habitat or species having the same behavior.
That is the direction I am thinking of: adding even more semantic meaning to content. Moving even further away from just photos, and moving even more in the direction of context.
And, I can already announce a cool new feature part of V4: a map showing every national park and zoo in the world! Yes, this will happen.
Such is the ambition of V4, of which I expect to start working on early next year. As final words, I hope you agree that JungleDragon V3 is quite good and complete as it is, it came a long way from 1 year ago. Not only due to improved and new features, also due to a community picking up the new moderation capabilities.
Thank you for reading and supporting JungleDragon. Above all I want you to use it.
FERDY CHRISTANT - SEP 21, 2014 (10:18:35 PM)
On last year's trip to Tanzania, I enjoyed the magnificent combination of a D800 and the new 80-400mm I purchased before it. However, coming from a 150-500mm on a crop sensor (D7000), which effectively is a 750mm, I did notice the loss of range in specific situations. This can be partly compensated by cropping photos, since the D800 produces huge images, but this only works when you shoot sharp down to the pixel level, which is very hard.
For this reason, to get back some range, I started investigating converters. Nikon carries a 1.4 x, 1.7 x and a 2 x converter. I started out greedy, investigating the 2 x option. However, having read a lot about it, it probably would bring too many focus issues and too much loss of light. Recommended by many, I went for the safe and conservative option of the 1.4x converter, where the 3rd edition has only just been released.
Besides my primary reason of getting more range on the 80-400mm I also was thinking of a 2nd advantage, it would also increase the focal length of my 105mm macro lens, which I use a lot. This would make it a sweet win-win deal. I needed that justification, as the price at 550 EURO is incredibly steep.
Now, if you're expecting before and after shots in this review, I'm going to have to dissapoint you. I was in the process of doing that, but the more I tested this thing, the more frustrated I became. I ultimately returned this item, asking for my money back. Instead of a detailed review, I'll tell you what happened instead.
I received the package on wednesday, but only got my hands on it after work. It was already dusk, so the light I needed to test it was fading. I figured I'd just do some very slopping testing, seeing if the thing fits, and the effect of the focal length increase.
I first attached the converter to my 105mm macro lens. Whilst attaching it, I couldn't help but notice how delicate of a process this is. With this I don't mean that it is difficult, just scary in that it comes so close to the back of your expensive lenses. This is not something to attach with haste.
With the converter added, I started doing some macro shots of in-house objects. I was very impressed with the increased focal length, 40% extra is a lot more than I imagined. Note that this converter does not magnify more, it increases the focal length. For macro this means that I can keep more distance than before, whilst still getting the same magnification results. Very useful for insects.
Next, I took a shot of a car way down the road, focusing on the license plate, on my 80-400 without converter. Then I did the same thing with converter. And again I was deeply impressed. I was expecting a little more range, but the 40% makes an enormous difference. My first impression of the converter was very good. To add to that, Nikon is very conservative in mentioning whether auto focus works on your lens with this converter attached. I found no issue with it, even on my "slow" 80-400mm during dusk, at focal length 400mm (or 560 with the convertor), I could auto focus in fading light. Awesome. The thing fits, the extra range is great, and everything seems to work.
It wasn't until friday that I could do some serious testing. I've spent about half a day in our garden, trying combinations with or without converter, on a tripod or by hand, on both lenses. The thing is, I can't make a sharp photo with it. Not even close.
At first, I thought it was just me. I must be doing something wrong. But I tested over and over again, excluding all parameters. As an example, I've used my macro lens handheld at a well-lit spider in our garden, and there was no wind. I create 10 shots of it in sequence. Normally, I would miss a few of them, but I will always know when I hit it (the focus and sharpness), and in these favorable conditions, I would hit at least half of those 10. Reviewing my shots, not one of the 10 images is sharp. I don't mean a bit off, I mean way off, also in cases where I was sure I got it.
I then tried the same thing using manual focus, perhaps the converter screws up auto focus? No, same result. Next, I tried manual focus on a tripod, zooming into live view. You can't get more sure than this. And the result did not get better.
I was still thinking it must be me having a shaky day, so I then did the same sequence without converter. And bam, I am back to my normal performance. Sharp images where I knew I hit it. Predictable behavior.
I repeated the macro test 2 more times fully, as I really wanted this converter to succeed. But the results were the same. More testing using the 80-400 showed disturbing focus and softness issues, particularly from hand, and slightly less from a tripod.
By this time I was sure of it, this converter does not only not meet my expectations, it ruins my photography. Predictable focus accuracy and acceptable sharpness are key in photography. If that part does not work, extra range will not do anything.
I ultimately had to let go of this toy and return it. I'm very dissapointed that at this price point, it is such a failure. What I am still not sure about is whether I received a faulty converter, or whether it just sucks this way in general. I'm not going to be able to find out, since I asked my money back. I don't trust a 2nd copy will fix it.
Reading more reviews about this still-new converter, I see mixed ratings. A majority seems to like it, yet a sizable minority has also returned it. I am thinking that perhaps one day I will give a converter another try, to be sure whether my experience was incidental or structural, but if I do so, I will be doing it from a store.
Ultimately, I cannot recommend this product for now, all I recommend is that you test it thoroughly before purchasing it. It is a great product in theory, the range increase is a lot better than you may think, but whether it works in practice is something you will have to find out yourself.
FERDY CHRISTANT - SEP 20, 2014 (12:05:37 PM)
A popular statistic in photography is that people on average buy 3 tripods before buying the one that works for them. It is very difficult to buy the right tripod for yourself. They are nearly impossible to compare online. Height, weight, sturdiness and flexibility have to be experienced in real life, not from a web page.
Another reason is the hunt for the perfect tripod, which does not exist. Requirements often conflict with each other. Here's 2 examples of such conflicting requirements that apply to my personal needs:
- Folded, I like the tripod to be short enough to fit into a suitcase, so that I can travel with it. Yet unfolded, it must be very tall, since I am very tall myself (1.93m).
- It must be very light and flexible, yet still be able to support substantial weight (heavy body + heavy lens)
A purchase becomes even more complex if you're versatile in photography styles, for example wanting to do both macro and tele photography.
The two before
Before reviewing this new Gitzo, a quick look on the 2 tripods before, both of which I still own. I started out with the Manfrotto 055XDB, as part of my total switch to the Nikon system a few years back. I was then still at the beginning of my photography hobby and did not have a clear picture of my actual needs. The Manfrotto is extremely stable, and very usable for top heavy setups. In combination with the Manfrotto M393 gimbal head, operating a very heavy combination can be done with the touch of a finger. It is absolutely awesome for that purpose.
The trouble is, it turns out I don't do that kind of photography very often. I would love to hide a full day in the bushes to do some birding with such a setup, but in reality my agenda does not allow such devotion. As for the type of photography I do quite often, macro photography, this setup is not usable. It weighs a ton, can't get very close to the ground, the leg locking system is slow, and it is overall too inflexible. I accept these limitations, and will not sell it. I consider it something lasting my entire life for occassional use.
The 2nd tripod I have was more of a travel choice, it concerns a GorillaPod. Although easy to transport, I'm not particularly excited about it. Sure, you can do things like hanging it on a tree, but I find little practical use for that. And for normal positioning, such as in landscape photography, I find it very hard to level it properly. To me, the Gorillapod is the choice in situations where I really don't want to bring a tripod, in the sense that it's easy to bring, and still better than nothing.
Note: I am leaving out one more "tripod", a bean bag that I occassionally use.
The new Gitzo
So let's talk about the 3rd tripod, the Gitzo GT2531EX Explorer. I have spent a great deal of time investigating options, both online and in stores, to arrive at this choice. My main requirements were for it to be light, flexible enough for macro photography, quick to set up and sturdy enough for some heavier gear. As secondary requirements, I had the wish for it to fit into a suit case and for it to be tall enough to match my own height. These secondary requirements were nice-to-haves.
Before continuing, note that I bought this tripod along with the Gitzo GH2750QR Serie 2 Off Centre Ballhead, which looks like this:
Let's have a practical look at some of the qualities of this combination:
Compared to the Manfrotto (2.9KG, much more with the gimbal head), the Gitzo is at least 1KG lighter, more due to the lighter head on it. This makes a substantial difference in carrying it around. It is still by no means feather light, just a much more managable weight. Besides weight, the carbon fiber material is also more comfortable to handle, it's not as slippery or cold (on cold days) as the Manfrotto is. What can I say, once you experience carbon fiber, you will never want to go back.
The speed at which you can set up a tripod to me is essential. Not just because of personal impatience, it just shouldn't block the creative process of photography. Furthermore, in situations where I do not photograph alone, I experience time pressure, and a tripod that does not cooperate only increases frustration.
Coming from the Manfrotto leg system where I have to unscrew and rescrew each joint of each leg, I was now facing this:
And it is spectacularly convenient. Using my large hands, I wrap my fist around all three locks, twist in one go, extend the legs and twist each joint again. As I have long arms, I can do all of this whilst standing up straight. It takes 3-5 seconds to handle one leg, which is fast. I'm very happy with this locking system.
This isn't all there is to say about setting up this tripod of course. In particular macro setups, where this tripod excels at, you'll also want to set up the off centre column and the off centre ballhead. The speed of that highly depends on the situation you find yourself in, but even after a few field trips I'm already getting better at it.
This feature of the tripod alone I consider a killing feature. It severely increases my acceptance of bringing and using a tripod at all. It takes away hurdles.
Flexibility is what this tripod is all about. As you can see from the opening photo, the vertical column isn't between the 3 legs, it is next to it (off centre). Consequently, you can position that column as it is (vertically), but also horizontally or diagonally. This means you can bend it into very strange positions, and when combined with the off centre ballhead, basically in virtually every position.
In the above shot from the field, you can see how I used to centre column horizontally. As you can see, this doesn't mean the camera is positioned sideways. Due to the off centre ball head, you can still position it horizontally.
The 2nd part regarding flexibility concerns the leg angles. Where most leg systems have predetermined angles in which you can snap the legs, this tripod allows you to set them to any angle. To lock them, just use the big black levers on them.
All in all, the combination of the off centre column, flexible leg angles, and an off centre ballhead make this tripod as flexible as it gets. There really is nothing more to wish for. This includes bringing the tripod to the ground level, it can be placed entirely horizontally.
It is important to know though that this doesn't just make it a "macro tripod". It does its job equally well on flat surfaces and in normal positions and heights.
Such a light, speedy and flexible tripod may bring some compromise as to what it can endure in terms of heavy gear. To my surprise there is hardly any compromise here either. In the photo above, the combination of a D800 and Nikkor 105mm already is a pretty heavy combination, especially with the weight being off centre. But the tripod deals with it flawlessly. There is no creep at all.
Let's put that test to the extreme:
Here I am using a heavy 80-400mm. In a way, this tripod isn't really designed for this use. I expect it to fail. But it hardly does. In this very top heavy arrangement, there is some creep. After locking position, the ball head will tilt downwards slightly. But not as much as I expected, in fact, I expected the whole thing to tip over. Note that I am testing with the normal plate here. I also have a long quick release plate, which would balance the lens better, probably removing almost all creep.
As said, I'm surprised by what the combination can carry. The tripod has no problem with it either way, it is the choice of (ball) head that matters in this case.
So this gitzo scores extremely well in my primary requirements (weight, speed, flexibility, ability to handle heavy gear), what about my secondary requirements?
My main purpose for this tripod is macro photography, but it would be nice that in normal stand up conditions, I don't have to strain my back much to look into the view finder. With the center column fully extended upwards, and using live view with some distance, I can stand up normally without aching my back, again I am 1.93m tall.
That is good enough for me. A centre column is of course less stable than the normal tripod legs themselves, but I figure this compromise is good enough for many people. Only when you require wind-tested stability in an upright position and are very tall yourself, this may be a critical point to review.
Fits in suitcase?
Folded without head this tripod measures only 54cm in length. A small travel suit case, the one you may take on a weekend trip, measures at a minimum of 50-60cm. This thing will likely fit even in the smallest suitcases, and most definitely in normal-sized suitcases.
Is there really nothing bad to say about this tripod (not taking into account the price)? I have yet to find any issue with it. The only small concern I have is in its durability. Although I cannot test this in a few weeks only, I noticed that the leg locking system works with grease. I wonder what will happen over time when sand mixes with it. I don't know the answer to that, time will tell. I do see that some high-end Gitzos have special weather-proof features, assuming this one doesn't have those, I wonder what that means.
I started out this post by saying that the perfect tripod does not exist, and that requirements conflict with each other. After having used this tripod for a few weeks now, I'm coming back to that statement partly. Whilst there is some compromise between features, in this case they are tiny. I am deeply impressed by how this tripod finds a balance in weight, speed, sturdiness and flexibility with such small downsides. As such, I don't consider it a macro tripod per se, it performs well across many situations. I cannot find any serious feature that it lacks.
Finally, some words on what this means to me personally. Basically, I don't like working with tripods. They slow me down and make me less flexible, plus I have to carry it. For this reason, I hardly ever brought one.
But the advantages of a tripod in particular situations are enormous. This tripod has build a bridge between those two opposites. Whilst I still rather not bring one, if I bring one, I love working with this one. Instead of bringing a tripod along 1 in 20 trips, I now bring one in 1 of 2 trips, and that is entirely due to the qualities of this tripod.
At the same time, I also recognize that the constraint of a tripod also brings good things. Whereas I normally am a too rushed photographer, a tripod forces me to think more about composition and light. Instead of making dozens of so-so photos, I may make less, that are better, or at least better prepared.
To end this review: Yes, I would 100% recommend this tripod. It is quite frankly awesome. If you hate tripods, this will make you hate them less. If you like tripods, this is probably one of the most flexible and versatiles combination in this price range, and perhaps any price range.