Wouter Willemse , Oct 01, 2009; 05:42 a.m.
Carbon fiber and $200 = No. Sorry.
My tripod is around €200 (so should be around $200), so it should be representative for what you can get on that budget. It's Manfrotto (Bogen in US) 055DB aluminium tripod, with a 488RC2 ballhead. It is not exceptionally good, not very light (~2kg) and in winter it is very unpleasant to touch (aluminium gets very cold) - but I feel it's about as good as it can get for the money. It can carry around 6 kilos, and without raising the centre column its height is good for me (around 6'0"). Especially the height of the tripod without raised centre column is a big plus for me.
The main issue for me is the ballhead; it is indeed way faster to use than a 3-way head (I used to have that), but this one is kind of hard to set precisely when there is a serious load on it (= D300 w/ 300 f/4 and TC14). For panning, the ballhead is fine. I think better ballheads will pay off - but the pricetags of those are already way beyond $200.
The second, more obvious, issue is the weight. Carbon fibre would be much nicer, but expect to pay double over aluminium.
For macro, look for a centre column that can be reversed, so you can hang your camera upside down.
So special features that will justify spending more: quality geared ballheads and light-weight tripod. If you expect to use yours very often, it is very much worth investing more. If you'll be an occassional user (like me), the set I have is good quality for the money as long as you can accept the compromises.