DO I STILL NEED A TRIPOD?
If you consistently want tack sharp landscape images in the best light with deep depth of field, you need a tripod. Sure, you can shoot at ISO 6400 handheld with IS/VR/IBIS and just run denoise on everything, right? Ultimately, that is not the best way to get maximum image quality. You want precise framing for HDR, focus stacking, macro? How about night skies or reducing fatigue when shooting with a heavy telephoto for long periods? Yes? Then invest in a good tripod system.
Choosing the right tripod, especially for travel can be quite overwhelming for newer photographers. The number of options is staggering and can make it even more difficult to choose. At the bottom of this narrative, I’ve offered 5 choices of travel tripods. Let’s first start with some important things to consider when choosing any tripod system, not just a travel tripod.
First, there is no such thing as the perfect tripod. One pair of skis doesn’t work for multiple ski disciplines like lift served resorts, alpine or backcountry touring and ski touring. Golfers don’t play with just one club. Tripods are no different. I have 5 tripods and use them all.
The 2 factors that determine the tripod you should have are:
- The environment you shoot in, and
- The size and weight of the gear you will use on your tripod.
It’s easy for many photographers to fall into the trap of putting too much stock into the load capacity claims made by manufacturers and I see way too many new shooters place camera/lens combos on their tripods that are way too heavy. For a frame of reference, my travel tripod has a published load capacity of 22 pounds. The maximum I place on it is 4 pounds. Any more and a slight breeze or the energy of my hand hitting the shutter causes the camera to shake, thus eliminating the very purpose of the tripod!
A TRIPOD IS A SYSTEM WITH 4 MAIN COMPONENTS
From the top down, they include: Plates, Clamp, Head, Legs. For marketing reasons many tripod companies will package “all-in-one” tripods ready to use out of the box. It is OK to mix and match different brands of legs, heads, clamps and plates to get the optimal system that works for your needs.
THE MOST CRITICAL COMPONENTS ARE NOT THE TRIPOD LEGS, but the head, clamp, and plates. These top 3 are much more interactive. Once the legs are up, there is not much more to do with them. If your legs are difficult to extend and secure, or if your camera/lens is difficult to attach and detach to the head and your head is difficult to operate and position your camera with ease and precision, you will find reasons to not use your tripod.
LET’S BREAK DOWN THE 4 COMPONENTS OF A TRIPOD SYSTEM.
Each camera body and lens with a tripod collar should have their own properly fitting plate. I recommend using Arca-Swiss compatible plates. You’ve invested thousands on bodies and lenses. Don’t skimp with tripod plates. Would you share 1 pair of laces amongst 3 pairs of performance shoes to save a buck?
When attached properly, your camera or lens plate should NOT move at all, not even slightly! (Unless I remove them with the Allen wrench.) Rock solid. Metal on metal. (A camera plate does not need a rubber pad.) All my camera and lens plates are from Really Right Stuff and are attached with a standard 3/16 inch Allen wrench.
They are the top part of your tripod head and determine how you attach your camera body or lens. They are like ski bindings. The process of attaching your camera or lens should be quick, easy, and absolutely secure. No movement, no play.
The most common clamp is an Arca-Swiss compatible quick release system. The only company that completely addresses the plate and clamp system is Really Right Stuff. They make the best fitting and most comprehensive line of plates for exact fits on many brands/models of camera bodies and long lenses. Their clamps come in screw knob or lever release. Both are good.
The screw knob clamp is more versatile and will allow a secure fit with other brands of Arca-Swiss compatible plates. Their lever works best with their own plates and is easier to operate with gloves on. I am so confident with my system that for 30 years I don’t think twice about taking a $15,000 camera/lens outfit on a tripod, slinging it over my shoulder and walking with it. I’ve never had a Really Right Stuff plate fall off a clamp.
The most common type of tripod head for general purpose outdoor photography is a ball head that has a main lever, a tension adjustment (for smoother operation with a heavy outfit) and a panning base. All I use is ball heads. If you strictly do landscape or macro photography a well designed 3-way pan and tilt head will deliver more precise positioning. For long heavy lens work, many wildlife shooters use a Gimbal head. They are heavy, not practical for smaller rigs and don’t really fit into the travel class.
Legs are like the foundation of your house. They have to support the load you place on them. If you have flimsy legs that are too small for your head and camera gear it won’t matter how good your head is. You don’t want top heavy tripods.
The size and weigh of your head needs to match your legs. If not, you won’t have stability. Legs mostly determine stability. Head/clamp/plates also contribute to stability but mainly determine performance.
Most tripod legs today are carbon fiber or aluminum and come with either twist lock or flip lock designs to extend and contract legs. I prefer twist lock legs but if you have trouble with loosening and tightening twist lock collars or which direction tightens and loosens the legs then go with a flip lock design. Twist locks are lighter and more compact than flip locks.
The more leg sections a tripod has, the less stability it provides. Extended center columns also greatly reduce stability and prevent your tripod from splaying out close to the ground.
CHOOSING A TRAVEL TRIPOD
What is a travel tripod? Your tripod choice should prioritize functionality and stability on location, where you need it the most, over compactness, price and ease of transport around the airport. A good travel tripod is a compromise that is still light and compact enough to travel with but still performs and provides stability on location. Just where is that sweet spot?
My travel tripod compromise is something around 3 pounds with ball head, with no more than 4 leg sections, that goes up to 48” with no center column. It holds my Canon R5 and 70-200mm/f4 lens (this rig is 3 lbs, 10 oz with L plate and filter) with no vibrations when I slap it. This is the maximum weight I would place on my travel tripod.
Travel tripods have limitations! In order to gain compactness and minimize weight you have to give up something. Here’s what you gain and sacrifice with the most common physical characteristics of a travel tripod.
Gain: Compactness. Sacrifice: Stability and ease of setting up. In order to get a tripod to compact down to 15” or 12” when it’s folded up you need more leg sections. The more sections per leg your tripod has, the less stable it is – not to mention the diameter of the bottom sections becomes really small. They also take longer to set up. Super compact tripods often have 5 or more leg sections and even a 2-section center column. This means you have 12 adjustments to make every time you want to extend the legs. And, they all have to be tight.
Gain: Lightweight. Sacrifice: Working height and stability for heavy gear. In order to get a tripod to minimal weight without sacrificing other things is to limit the size and length of each leg section so fully extended tripods rarely come up to a comfortable level. In order to get a tripod to stay at or under 3 pounds and not sacrifice stability, the fully extended height has to be limited. Center columns also add weight and reduce stability when extended so the best ultra light tripods should have no center column.
The Gitzo Series 0, which is just 2.33 pounds (legs only), extends to only 41” with 4 sections. This means a lot of time on your knees, or bent over, or using your LCD as a waist level finder. With reduced height, you are also limited to where you can shoot which is mostly open country or places where obstructions don’t extend above your tripod height.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR A TRAVEL TRIPOD SYSTEM
I know there are a lot of choices out there. Considering all the advantages and sacrifices of a travel tripod, these are my recommendations. They all have similar characteristics but range widely in price. These are arranged from least to most expensive.
Leofoto LS-284C Ranger series. This model looks like solid choice in the 3-pound, 4-section, no center column department and the price is amazing. They kind of look like Gitzo knock-offs.
Benro Tortoise 14C. (It comes with head that I suggest you change.) This is what I have as my travel/adventure tripod. The build quality is solid and the stability is impressive given its size and weight. But it’s not perfect. Extending and contracting the legs isn’t as smooth as some of the higher-end models. I replaced the head that came with it with a Really Right Stuff BH-25.
Peak Design Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod. This is the number 1 selling travel tripod on B&H. It is a complete package weighing in at 2.8lbs. I’ve used this tripod and although it gets 5-star reviews, I give it a 2.5-star at best. Too many leg sections and it’s not as stable as the other models mentioned here. The head is clunky and has a lot of creep after you lock it down. And, their plates are flimsy. In order to put another manufacturer’s head on these legs (which I strongly recommend you do) you have to get an accessory – their Universal Head Adapter. It’s only $30 but on principle their base model should include the ability to remove the head that came with it like most other tripods do.
Gitzo Traveler Series 1. They still make great tripods and I still have 2 that are both 25 years old. The Series 0 is about .5 pound lighter but only goes up to 41” vs 48” on the Series 1. For me that extra 7 inches makes a huge difference and is worth carrying 8oz more. This is a solid tripod. Gitzo is known for their quality tripods but their head offerings are not as good as others. I would stick with Really Right Stuff heads.
Really Right Stuff Ascend. If money were no object this would be what I would use as my primary travel tripod! I can’t say enough good things about this company. I’ve been using their plates since the early 1990’s when that’s all they made. Now they make a full range of all things camera support.
However, they are the Arc’Teryx brand of the tripod world – quality stuff but expensive. The Ascend with integrated head, if you remove the center column, is just under 3 pounds. My Benro with their BH-25 head is slightly lighter, reaches the same height (without center column) but is a third of the price. At the time I needed this travel tripod the Ascend just wasn’t in the budget and I already had a BH-25 head I’ve owned for years. However, if you can get past the $1,500 price tag, this tripod is undoubtedly the smoothest, strongest and most functional adventure and travel tripod in its class. You can physically see and feel the quality difference. Taken care of it will likely last the rest of your life.
Special Mention: Colorado Tripod Company Centennial 2-Series. I would classify this outstanding set of legs as a bridge tripod. It’s not quite as compact and lightweight as the other travel tripods mentioned above and it’s not quite tall enough (without center column) for me to be my all purpose tripod. These legs are just fantastic, and the price point is less than Really Right Stuff and Gitzo. Legs are waterproof and when photographing in the Narrows in Zion and around rivers in Alaska this is my go-to set of legs.
If I were 6” shorter, this would be my primary tripod – easily capable of handling a pro body with a big tele prime lens. The legs weigh 3 lbs without the center column. Their own Highline Small head works good or with a RRS BH-30 head without center column. I really wish they would make a 1-Series version of this. The 2-series is small enough to easily manage in most suitcases especially without the head. If you visit windy and wet places like Patagonia or Iceland and don’t plan on long hikes this is the tripod I would take.
ARCA-SWISS TYPE PLATES:
For camera bodies, the L-bracket is the way to go. I’ve tried other plates from Wimberly and Small Rig and I just keep coming back to Really Right Stuff. I can’t believe they did this but they came out with a universal L-plate that can be adapted to many bodies. Check it out at: Really Right Stuff. L-plates are the only way to go. This is much easier than using the notch in your ball heads to get vertical shots. I still use one of their generic square plates with an anti-twist flange that I’ve had for over 20 years for backpacking. It’s on my R7 and though it won’t perform as good as the dedicated L-plate, it still works for a minimalist, ultra-light backcountry camera set up.
I use ball heads and have used many in my time. I’ve owned Arca-Swiss B1 and B2 (huge) ball heads for years. I’ve also used Foba super ball and mini as I loved their main lever, in addition to AcraTech, Kirk, and Linhof heads. I think the Acratech makes some of the best ball heads in the industry but they are just slightly out of the travel category with their lightest head coming in at 13oz For all around compact, strong and light ball heads I still prefer Really Right Stuff. Lever release or screw knob Arca-Swiss compatible clamps are a personal choice.
For all the tripods mentioned above, I recommend either of these 3:
1. BH-25 with screw knob – basic minimalist and lightest head with only one lever. Weight 6.5 oz
2. BH-30 with lever release – for a few more ounces you can upgrade to this compact size, but more fully functioning head with a panning base. So, if you like doing stitched panoramic images, go with the extra weight and use this head. Weight: 11 oz.
3. Leofoto LH-25 These seem like knock-offs of Really Right Stuff designs. But B&H sells them and they might be a good travel tripod choice for the budget minded photographer. I haven’t tried them but the price point is unbelievable. Just don’t expect ultra smooth operation. And it weighs 6oz. Like the RRS BH-25 it only has one lever and wouldn’t be well suited for panning or doing stitched panoramic images.
My travel tripod. I took this rig to Peru for a 10-day trek in the High Andes and it was the perfect choice. Our trek was in all open country, so the limited height wasn’t an issue. This is the tripod I would use for day hiking, including canyoneering trips, pack raft river trips, or any travel where where space and weight are top priorities.
Legs: Benro Tortoise 14C columnless carbon fiber. Without head, it only folds down to 18.” Not a big deal for me. It’s still portable in a daypack. It’s only 4 sections (3 collar adjustments per leg), my max. I don’t like center columns. They reduce stability and just get in the way of lowering the tripod close to the ground.
Head: Really Right Stuff BH-25. The Benro tripod came with a head that I quickly got rid of. It is clunky and heavy. The BH-25 is Really Right Stuff’s lightest ball head and only has one lever for all adjustments.
Clamp: The BH-25 came with a screw-knob quick release, Arca-Swiss compatible clamp. It’s excellent. But I found a lighter and equally good clamp from Colorado Tripod Company, with an adjustable lever release.
Benro travel tripod set up total weight: 2lbs, 9 oz (1173grams), Max Height to clamp: 51”
My backpack tripod: Old Series 0 Gitzo (not made anymore) with the bottom leg section removed so it’s only a 3-section tripod with Really Right Stuff BC-18 Micro Ballhead. Weight: 1 lb, 11oz (782g). Max height: 33”. Folds to 16” to top of ballhead.
I’ve been backpacking all my life and there is really no such thing as a “good” lightweight backpack tripod. For trips that only last a few days, I will take my “backpack” tripod mentioned above. A 3lb tripod is still a heavy item on an extended backpack trip considering that your camera outfit alone will be another 2-3 lbs. Picking up 5-6lbs for a few minutes is nothing but carrying an extra 6lbs all day for many days in a row is quite taxing. That said, I still take a tripod on off the beaten path photo adventures such as all day hikes, ski tours or river trips.
I am also careful with how much weight I place on my lightest tripod. A Canon R5 with a 70-200mm/f4 RF lens (3lbs, 10oz with filter, hood, L-plate & strap) is the heaviest gear I would place on this tripod rated at 18lbs.
My general purpose tripod: Really Right Stuff TVC-23 Weight: (1678g) 4lbs, 6oz Folded length: 27” Extended height to apex: 53” To clamp: 56.5”. I’ve had this Series 2 tripod with 3 sections (that model not made anymore) and their BH-40 head with lever quick release clamp for 17 years and they all work great. I am not kind to my equipment and this tripod/head combo is looking like it’s been run over a few times and it just keeps going after all the abuse I’ve given it.