The Travel Tripod market has become it’s own sub-market of it’s big brother the standard size tripod. So it can be a little, if not a lot of work just to find the right one. From the relative new kid on the block Mefoto, to the always fun Joby Gorillapod and the old standard Manfrotto. We know there is a tripod out there that will fit all or most of our needs, but just what are those needs? I want to help, that’s what I do! I dabbled into the market and started thinking of what I would narrow down to being the 10 best tips for choosing a travel tripod.
I know that so far in my journey with photography there is one gear item I rarely leave home without, other than my camera and that is my all sturdy tripod. The tripod is essential to giving us the best chance to capture the sharpest image possible. That is the end game right? Sure we can find a bench to rest the camera on or a garbage can, even the ground for that unique perspective. If you’re like me though and enjoy a good cup of coffee our hands are hardly steady enough to handhold anything under 1/60 of a second. Traveling presents a whole different set of hurdles when it comes to tripods because regular tripods tend to be big and cumbersome and in some cases heavier than a Rottweiler. When we go on vacation or take a trip to the backcountry, the point is to be pack as much into our smallest bag as possible. Space is at a premium and that is where travel tripods come into play.
One of the first checkpoints when it comes to choosing a tripod is “how much does it weigh?” Important for many reasons but knowing how much it weighs can be especially helpful for people going on hikes or backpacking trips where pack weight is a very big concern. Take into account what material the tripod is made of, with carbon-fiber being lighter than aluminum alloy. For example the two Mefoto models that you can get in carbon-fiber are at least .5 lb less in weight yet hold the same amount as the aluminum alloy version. The importance of weight can be twofold though if you think about how much weight you can put on it. The Joby Gorillapod website gives a fantastic illustration of what I am referring to. Some of us use our phones yet others use big DSLR’s that can weigh up to a 2500 grams (5.5 lbs) with the lens attached.
Extended height is something to consider when looking at sacrifices you might make in a travel tripod. I am a generally tall person, about 6’3” so I often have a hard time finding tripods that will meet me at eye level. Whether you are tall or “vertically challenged” in general travel tripods will not (just because of their nature) extend past 60 inches without losing some of their portability/stability. A quick thought for the maximum height of the tripod which is measured with the center column fully extended. Keep an eye on the thickness and build of that center column because they tend to be the weakest point of the tripod and can become quite flimsy in just a minimal breeze.
But Wait!!! Is it more important to consider how short the tripod can get? If a travel tripod’s main function is to travel, you’d better look at how compact they get too. Mefoto has done a fantastic job of producing a unit that folds down to an amazing 12.6 inches (32cm). That should fit nicely in your carry on. B&H has a great write up on these little wonders of engineering.
Size or Maybe Girth is a better word
I can almost read your mind at this point you’re sitting there just took a sip of your favorite article reading drink and said Huh?! He just talked about weight and height aren’t those the “size” of the it. The girth or thickness of the tripod can have as much to do with how it packs as the weight and height. If you fold it down 6 times into a rectangle it is wonderful height wise but maybe not so great packing into your carry on luggage.
Is it Stable?
Often overlooked until you are out in the field or standing in front of the Eiffel Tower on a windy day. Will this tripod that folds down to 12 inches be stable enough to hold my camera steady while I throw it on self-timer and run out front for that epic selfie! Stability is the reason for having your camera on a tripod in the first place. Look at the thickness of the legs and the material used to help determine stability. There are a lot of tripods with skinny legs that are stable. When we look at stability, we look for wobbliness and how much weight the tripod can hold without shrinking. Legs made of iron would be incredibly stable yet woefully heavy. Carbon fiber is light as a feather but expensive. The number of leg joints can make a big play as well, manufactures use more joints to help with compactness but in my opinion more joints decrease stability.
A Head of the Class
While some travel tripods come with a nice ball head to set, rotate and manipulate your camera into position. Some of the nicer (ie more expensive) legs do not come with a head. If purchasing a tripod head separately keep in mind it also has an impact on how much weight the tripod will hold in general. Make sure the head will accommodate the weight of your camera and lens or anything else you can think to attach to it. Another idea could be to take the head off of your stay near home tripod and take it with you when traveling. Remember that you can remove, in most cases, the head from the tripod while packing to increase the compactness of the entire unit.
Oh Yeah the Features!
I would hate to have written this article without going over some features common in tripods that become even more indispensable in its younger sibling the travel tripod. If you're like me protecting your gear is always at the top of the list so a carrying case is almost a must. When backpacking in the great outdoors it can be especially handy to have metal spiked feet but when in the depths of the concrete jungle of New York city those spikes will do you no good at all. Have a look at the feet and different options for different terrains. You know a level horizon is preferable most of the time so a built in bubble level (or two) will help keep it from tilting stage left. A handy quick plate for your camera to attach to makes light work of the mount and dismount in a pinch. This can be really handy for getting a camera view on the scene without the need to tear down and set up your tripod again and again. It’s important to determine which features are best suited to you and what you want to accomplish. Then you can make those a priority to find.
Something to seriously consider is cost and it has less to do with how much you can spend and more to do with what you want out of your gear. I find it helpful to make a list of attributes you absolutely need and ones that may not apply to your situation. Then research the best tripod(s) with all the features you need which are also in your budget. Something off the wall to think about is renting one for your vacation or trip. Check out what your local camera store has in stock or what the online rental houses have to offer like lensrentals.com.
To Twist or Flip
This one is completely personal preference but something to think about nonetheless. The flip style can be a sturdier lock and quicker to manipulate in a hurry. However they require more finger strength and seem to be harder to use with cold hands. The twist type take a little longer to lock or unlock but you can use your whole hand when twisting. Most well known photographers go with the twisty tripods rather than the flip style. Completely personal but something to consider.
Does it Break Down
We all want our investment to last as long as possible, keeping the components and moving parts clean is essential to just that. Some of the moving parts also need to be regreased from time to time. You may have just one component go bad too and want the ability to replace the part if needed. How easily it can break down for cleaning and regreasing can have an effect on which one to choose.
We live in a real world where mistakes are made and sometimes unfortunately products fail. A good warranty can go a long way in curbing the frustration that comes with that situation. A reputable company with a good warranty can have you back on your feet in no time. So make sure to check out the warranty period and what it covers. It could save yourself a headache in the future.
In the End
Every person is different and every situation is unique. Being able to figure out what features and attributes are going to match your needs is key to finding the best travel tripod. Ultimately portability is going to be the first thing on the list but after that there are a bunch of things to think about. For me in doing the research for this article and considering my own preferences, I fell in love with the Mefoto line. Jim, on the other hand, likes the Feisol CT3442. The Fiesol doesn't have a center column so that is can get closer to the ground, it's light-weight, and it's just sturdy. However, if you are looking for a less expensive but still great quality tripod, we recommend checking out the Induro tripods. They have the features, portability and reliability we would look for in a travel tripod for backcountry packing trips.
Let me know any features or thoughts you would add to the list, it doesn’t have to be just 10!
Article written by Grant Meyer