In 30+ years of photography, I never bought or even used a tripod or monopod. I know that there are uses for them, but I photograph sports hand-held only. I'm good at it, except when I have the challenges of low light, and image quality fades, as well as my ability to focus manually. Thankfully, most cameras have trouble focusing manually in low light, so I don't feel so old or feeble. :-D Plus, my Panasonic GH3 focuses down to EV -4, and the EVF is quite useful in darker conditions, where a dSLR, like the two I have, can be quite difficult to use.
Toward the end of summer 2013, I went to the camera store to participate in Olympus' social gathering for the presentation and group use of the soon-to-be-released E-M1 and 12-40mm f/2.8 lens. While I was there, I bought a tripod. The salesperson asked what I wanted to spend and my upper limit of US$300 was brought down to about $200 with the Manfrotto 190XPROL, 804RC2 combination. I felt satisfied that I'd got a good combination. The center post could be used horizontally, which meant that food photography was very easy and stable. I would normally hand hold the equipment and re-position myself a few times to get what I wanted. I never did the top-down shots because they would not be even. (I also don't really care for top-down shots because they don't prompt much desire for the food the way my head-on shots seem to work.)
That was Thursday, I believe. Monday, I was tweeting with the store about the new 190 series. They were not informed yet. A few tweets and one phone call later, I learned that the new series equivalent was US$150 more. Holy shhhhhhh!!!!
Being that I've used the tripod a totally of 30 shots, I think the cheaper but fantastic combination was the better choice for me. I could have bought fancier equipment and if I was a landscape photographer or doing video on a tripod, I probably could use better equipment, and pay for the extra cost quickly.
I was shocked, though, that the initial combination was only about US$200 for Manfrotto. That's not much more than you pay for the cheap brands. The 3-way head is very, very adjustable, and the legs have a lot of height and at the same time, great stability. The ability to use the center column in horizontal and vertical orientations seems incredible at the price.
Except for using the tripod to show off some lenses, I've only used it outdoors in the complete darkness to photograph a star, since most of the time I've had it, it has been chilly. My Panasonic GH3 will auto focus in that amount of light, but instead I used the Olympus E-5 and 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 since it had further reach. I thought back to using the Bulb setting, when there was actually a flash bulb, and held the shutter release and counted. It worked out well enough and it was chilly enough that I didn't want to be outside long anyway. Now that spring has sprung, the nights will be warmer--and I'm moving to a warmer climate than here.
I could have bought a Pro-Optic or whatever brand, but how much is my equipment worth? As with my Crumpler bags, I don't want to damage my equipment by something that can't handle the load. Imagine a US$2500 lens falling to the ground and being destroyed. Mine fell from about 12 inches and was fine, and so was the attached camera body. Four times that height would likely be too much.
I'm pleased to say that I have a good brand, and even more than that, a good tripod combination. Now, if I will always remember to turn off the image stabilization while using it, I'll be set.
Here is a review of the new 190 series: http://www.dpreview.com/articles/4361312796/manfrotto-190-series-carbon-fiber-tripod-review