Carbon Fiber Tripod Review | Slik Announces VARI CF line – Three Tripods In One!
Today, Slik has announced a new line of carbon fiber tripods, and they might just be the last I’ll ever need- the Slik VARI-CF. Available in two similar versions, the Slik VARI CF-703 and Slik VARI CF-704, they are very unique compared to most other tripods: each is actually THREE tripods in one!
As a landscape and nightscape photographer who does a lot of serious landscape photography, nightscape photography, and timelapse videos, I’m always looking for a better tripod. One that is stronger, taller, lighter… Until now, almost every tripod on the market was either strong and tall but rather heavy, or lightweight and compact, but also short and wobbly.
The Slik VARI CF tripods, with their interchangeable platform design, can offer it all: a ~2.4 lb (~1095 g) ultralight tripod that still offers incredible strength on a rock-solid platform base, or a relatively tall, 64-inch (1635 mm) tripod with a strong center column and 25mm diameter CF legs.
Now, whether I’m shooting from the side of the road or backpacking up a mountain, I’ll be reaching for the same tripod!
Other highlights available on both the 703 and 704 models of the VARI CF lineup include carbon fiber legs, three different types of feet, a center column/platform hook, threading options for both 1/4-20 and 3/8 threads, tools for all possible tripod adjustments and maintenance, and a carrying bag.
We’ve been fortunate enough to have used these tripods prior to their release and put them both through the rigors of a full review. If you’re in the market for one of the best tripods we’ve ever reviewed, (and, we’ve tested literally everything on the market, from junk to exotic!) …then do keep reading!
Slik VARI-CF Tripod Specifications CF-703 | CF-704
- Maximum Height (Center Column): 1635 mm (64.6 in) | 1640 mm (64.6 in)
- Maximum Height (Platform): 1335 mm (52.6 in) | 1340 mm (52.8 in)
- Minimum Height: 170mm (6.7 in) | 145 mm (5.7 in)
- Compact Size: 575 mm (22.7 in) | 475 mm (18.7 in)
- Load Capacity: 10 kg (22 lb)
|Slik VARI CF-703||Slik VARI CF-704|
|W/ Flat Base||1095 g (2.41 lb)||1155 g (2.54 lb)|
|W/ Leveling Bowl Base||1200 g (2.64 lb)||1280 g (2.82 lb)|
|W/ Center Column||1235 g (2.72 lb)||1295 g (2.85 lb)|
- Platform Type: Center Column, Leveling Base, Flat Platform (3/8 & 1/4-20 interchangeable)
- Leg Type: Carbon fiber, twist-lock, 25mm diameter
- Leg Sections: 3 | 4
- Feet Type: Regular rubber, spiked metal, rubber flat-surface gripping
- Materials: Carbon fiber legs, aluminum joints, aluminum, rubber, & plastic
- Price: $499 / $529
Slik VARI CF Tripod Review | Introduction
Before we dive into this review, let’s start off with a little background: I’m a landscape, nightscape, and timelapse photographer, and I use tripods for all of these types of photography. In fact, I frequently use more than one tripod for almost all of my outdoor projects and adventures!
I’m also a wedding photographer who uses tripods at virtually every wedding, because I love making portraits in extremely low light, and I hate having to try to hand-hold such shots. In fact, everybody at the Lin & Jirsa studio owns and uses a tripod!
Over the last 15 years, I’ve reviewed literally every brand of tripod on the market, from the extremely low-budget, cheap ones, to the highly exotic, luxury brands. In fact, I’ve also BROKEN tripods from virtually every brand on the market! I regularly use a tripod on a daily or weekly basis, in some of the harshest conditions you can subject your gear to, from saltwater and sand on the beach, to 100+ degree hot and dry, dusty days in the desert.
I’m telling you this because, spoiler alert, I’m about to tell you how much I LOVE the new Slik VARI CF tripods, as well as the Slik brand in general, and I want you to know where I’m coming from.
This is not a sponsored post, and I pay out of my own pocket for the tripods in my permanent collection. With that in mind, the Slik VARI CF (703) will be joining my permanent collection as soon as possible!
NOTE: In this review, we’re going to frequently reference tripod categories by weight. For all of you who have never memorized four numbers before, try to do it now…
2 lbs = 907 grams, and 3 lbs = 1360 grams.
Got it? OK, please, no comments about Imperial vs Metric!
Slik VARI CF Tripod Review | Pros
I’ve been a fan of Slik tripods for many years now, from their heavy-duty “indestructible” line of affordable everyday tripods, (I have the Slik Pro AMT 700DX) to the lightweight backpacking models. (I own four of these, the newest being the Slik Lite CF-422.)
However, there has always been a missing gap in between these two extremes of delicate, the ultralight hiking/travel tripod, and the heavy-duty “indestructible” tripod. I’m talking about a tripod that is lightweight, but still big and strong. I was about to fill that gap with a tripod like the Slik Pro CF-733 or the Slik Pro CF-833, which are an admittedly great value at $253 and $299 respectively.
I had not pulled the trigger yet, though, because I was also interested in the even stronger, stiffer designs of flat-base tripods, the design that has no center column, just a flat platform for maximum stiffness. Slik didn’t offer one of these.
Then, the folks at Slik headquarters informed me that they were about to release a new design, and would I like to try it out? (The Slik service center, which is the same company as Tokina an Hoya, is 30 mins from my house, and I’ve been getting my tripods and lenses serviced there for years.)
Now, we come to the Slik VARI CF tripods. They’re exactly what I’ve been looking for, actually, to be fair, they’re even more than I expected! The fact that I could buy one tripod, and get all three platform options included, was very exciting. And so, I took both the 703 and 704 models out for a spin.
Three Tripods In One
Simply put, no other tripod out there offers this. All tripods that have a built-in center column are going to be a slight compromise in stiffness. All tripods that have a fixed platform are going to be at a slight disadvantage in terms of maximum height, especially the lightweight models.
Either way, the VARI lineup stands alone. If you’ve ever wished for a tripod that could do both of these things, then all other options on the market will require you to buy a leveling base or a center column attachment as an aftermarket accessory, and literally zero makes/models that I know of will offer all three options like the Slik VARI CF models do.
That alone makes them worth the slightly higher cost compared to other good-quality tripods in the $300-400 range, but don’t forget that not only are you getting three tripods in one, you’re also making a long-term investment that will last you multiple lifetimes of the really cheap carbon fiber tripods.
Ultimate Strength and Rigidity For Rock-Steady Photos
I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a tripod this lightweight and capable, that delivered image results this perfect. When mounting a ball head directly on the base platform, or when mounting a telephoto lens’ tripod foot directly on the leveling base, I achieved some of the most flawless video and timelapse footage I’ve ever seen.
Seriously, both the 703 and 704 models were infinitely more stable than any other tripod I’ve ever had in the ~2 lb lightweight class, in fact, they’re more stable than most of the 4+ lb tripods I’ve tested! Not bad for a 2.4-2.9 lb (depending on the model and configuration) setup.
If you do a lot of photography in any amount of wind, or if you do any landscapes or nature/wildlife work at telephoto focal lengths, then you absolutely need a tripod like the Slik VARI CF 703/704 that allows you to mount your camera or lens directly to a solid, strong base. Center columns absolutely ruin telephoto image sharpness, especially if there is any wind. Now you can get amazingly stable results without lugging around a 4-5 lb tripod!
Every Accessory Is Included
One of the biggest critiques that some people have about the more expensive brands is that not only are they pricey, but they also charge extra for virtually every accessory. Want spiked feet? That’ll be $30-60. What about flexible flat feet? Want a center column hook? Want a leveling base? All of it could add up to $100 or more in accessories.
The Slik VARI CF tripods include virtually every accessory you could think of, from interchangeable spiked and “stable platform” feet to a carrying bag and the wrenches you’d need to service the tripods.
Just about the only major thing left out is, of course, a tripod head. That, and some people like “tripod leg warmers”, as I call them, which can be nice for protecting that beautiful carbon fiber pattern, but personally I’m happy without them.
Checks All The Boxes In “What To Look For In A Good Quality Tripod”
Besides all the additional accessories, The Slik VARI CF tripods’ core design elements and specs are exactly what you should be looking for in a good all-around tripod. The leg grip rubber isn’t that cheap stuff that starts slipping after a few days in the hot sun. The leg angle locks are the spring-loaded type that make changing the leg angles a breeze.
Some of it is a personal preference, of course, such as preferring twist-lock leg joints as opposed to lever-lock. Slik used to offer both twist-lock and lever-lock joints on their older Pro CF lines of tripods, but, honestly, all the high-end tripods have twist-lock legs, and it’s the stiffest, reliable option. Not only that, but Slik’s design for their internal shims and the lock-down mechanism is one of the better designs I’ve seen. (And, in my experience with innumerable broken tripods, it’s the tripod leg shims that fail the most often!)
Superior Stiffness Versus Other “Travel” Tripods
Bottom line- If you’re looking for a tripod that weighs less than 3 lbs, most other tripods won’t come close to the strength and quality of the VARI CF line. In fact, many of the lightweight “travel” tripods out there aren’t even that light, a lot of them are wel over 3 lbs, and yet they’re shorter and far more wobbly than the VARI design!
Why is this? One of the major drawbacks of “travel” tripods is that they usually have 5-section legs, or 4 locks per leg, and this makes each leg far less stiff overall. Also, many lightweight tripods “cheat” on their maximum height by having 2-section or even 3-section center columns, meaning they’re almost like putting your tripod on the end of another leg that is pointing straight up! Some of these designs are downright unsafe and could result in your gear falling over and smashing on a rock.
How To Test A Tripod’s Rigidity
One of the ultimate tests of a tripod’s strength or rigidity is to simply shoot photos at super-telephoto focal lengths, and see if they turn out sharp! Usually, a 70-200mm lens at 200mm is more than enough to perform this test, because most lightweight tripods will really start to have a difficult time holding up such heavy lenses at such a modest telephoto focal length.
In the case of the VARI CF tripod, though, it was an absolute champ when mounting the heaviest 70-200mm ever, the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 Sport, as you’ve seen in previous photos. Thankfully, I had some extreme telephoto focal lengths at my disposal, the Nikon Coolpix P950. (REVIEW HERE) It reaches the equivalent of 2000mm, and what you see above is an un-cropped photo of the moon from that camera. Needless to say, the Slik VARI CF 703 still held the (relatively lightweight) P950 rock-steady, allowing me to create this pretty cool video… (May the fourth be with you!)
Slik VARI CF Tripod Review | Cons
It’s hard to be critical of a product that is already good quality, relatively affordable and offers two-in-one or three-in-one functionality. I honestly can’t find much that I’d like to see improved upon…
No Foam Leg Covers
This is a bit of a nit-pick that isn’t a really big deal at all, to be honest. Some landscape photographers like to have padded covers on their tripod legs, to make carrying the tripod a little more comfortable, and of course to protect the nice looking carbon fiber.
You can just get aftermarket leg covers, if you’d like, but it’s really not necessary.
Limited Bowl Angle Adjustment
The Slik VARI CF tripods are already above the competition (literally!) with their assortment of platform configurations, however, those tripods which do offer a “bowl” configuration and aftermarket leveling bases, usually have a bit more range in their leveling ability. The VARI bowl adjustment is about 10 degrees, while most others will offer either 30 degrees or 45.
Carrying Bag Size/Fit
This is a rather petty nit-pick, but I’ve been spoiled by the perfectly snug, form-fitting padded tripod bag that my Slik Lite CF-422 came in. The bag that comes with the VARI CF tripods is a rather large, loose-fitting bag. There’s more than enough space for the tripod and all the included accessories, in fact it’s almost as if there’s room for two tripods! Maybe that’s the idea, but personally, I’d have rather had a smaller, snug-fitting case that has relatively tight-fitting compartments for the tripod, the center column, a head, and the rest of the accessories/tools.
Slik VARI CF Tripod Review | The Competition
There aren’t many tripods that can offer such versatility. Most other tripods that are as big and strong as the VARI are, quite a bit heavier and often 50-100% more expensive. Oppositely, most other tripods that weigh under 3 lbs are just uselessly wobbly in a light wind with a telephoto lens.
Simply put, there’s very little competition here, and even if you do get a different tripod, (say, an ultralight or a heavy-duty one) …the chances are you’ll still want a Slik VARI in your bag, too, because most others just don’t match its combination of strength, height, and weight.
Slik VARI Versus Other “Travel” Tripods
Fellow landscape photographers, let’s be brutally honest: when a tripod has the word “travel” in its name, that usually means it’s hopelessly wobbly and frustratingly short. There are only a few tripods out there that weigh less than 3 lbs, and yet offer the height and stiffness of a heavy, expensive tripod.
In fact, the only one worth mentioning is the Feisol Tournament series, because it’s the only one I’ve seen that weighs less than 3 lbs and comes in a flat base form, but also has an optional leveling base. Unfortunately, although the $409 Feisol is indeed both strong and tall, the leveling base is an aftermarket item that will cost another $84. Furthermore, there’s no center column option available; for that you’ll have to buy a completely different Feisol “Traveler” model. To Feisol’s credit, their aftermarket leveling base offers 30 degrees of leveling, versus the Slik’s 10 degrees.
But, the Feisol isn’t “travel size”, in fact, it’s rather large despite being ~2.4 lbs. If you really want a “travel” tripod, you want one that is both lightweight and as compact as possible. Such tripods are usually a major compromise in your support capability, meaning you will have a terrible time getting sharp photos at telephoto focal lengths and/or if the conditions are windy.
My favorite tripods in this ~2 lb range are all other Slik tripods, actually, such as the Slik Lite CF and AL series, the Slik Sprint series, and the Slik Pro CF 634. These all weigh very little and are portable enough to fit inside an airplane overhead suitcase, however, none of them are nearly as strong as the VARI CF tripods. So, even though I’ll still be bringing one or two Slik Lite or Sprint tripods on my backpacking trips where I need 2-3 tripods to film timelapse and BTS footage, …the VARI will be my go-to lightweight travel tripod.
Slik VARI versus other big, heavy-duty tripods
If you want something even taller and/or stronger than the Slik VARI CF tripods, you’ll have to pay a lot more money to get something of the same “exotic” quality. Competitors like Really Right Stuff and Gitzo will usually start at a mere $600, and can quickly jump to $800-1200 or more, just for a set of tripod legs with no head!
My personal preference? Instead of spending a fortune on a giant, heavy-duty tripod that I’m probably going to avoid using unless I absolutely have to, I’d rather invest the most money in a tripod like the VARI, which I’m likely to always want to use, …and then just go the affordable route when it comes to a big-and-heavy model- A Slik AMT 700DX is just $99, is nearly indestructible, and will serve you well as a roadside “beater” tripod for when you just want something heavy-duty.
Whatever your budget, though, the point is that since most of these tripods are rather large, and weigh 4-5 lbs, a serious adventure landscape photographer is likely to still want a lightweight tripod too. Unfortunately, you’ll probably be unhappy with the more flimsy, wobbly travel tripods in the ~2 lb range that we mentioned a moment ago.
A Slik VARI CF tripod in its most basic platform configuration weighs just 2.4 lbs, making it one of the tallest and stiffest tripods in that weight class. So, in other words, even if you can one day afford an exotic $800-1000+ tripod that weighs 4-5+ lbs, a Slik VARI CF tripod is still the best investment you could make for when you need something that weighs half as much but is still as strong as possible.
Slik VARI CF Tripod Review | Conclusion
For $499-$529, you can’t find a better, more capable tripod. The fact that the design and included accessories can perform triple-duty makes them even more valuable!
If you’re really serious about landscape photography, and adventure/travel/wanderlust, then your best long-term investment is the Slik VARI CF-703 or Slik VARI CF-704. Whether you’re shopping for something ultralight and decently portable, or you’re in the market for something strong and tall that will last a lifetime, I highly recommend the Slik VARI CF tripods.