The Thing About (Travel) Tripods
Me. And my tripod. Iceland 2010. Photo by Dave Delnea.
In the last few years I’ve done a complete 180 on how I think about tripods. I used to lug one around because I should, but never used it. I used to call my tripod unsavory names. Frankly, we were not on the best of terms. But I’ve owned a tripod or two (Gitzo over the past 6 years, and Manfrotto before that) since I was 14.
One of the most popular posts on this blog is called “The Best Travel Tripod?” and that tells you a lot about how my thinking has changed. There is no such thing as the best travel tripod. There is only the best tripod for your needs, and that you are putting it into a suitcase is not the most important consideration. If it was, you’d get a GorillaPod and be done with it.
What the most important considerations are is for you to decide, but I’m going to guess it’s a compromise between tripod-specific needs (how heavy is the camera and lens, how tall do you want it to be, how long do you need your camera to be perfectly still?), budget, and the size of luggage and or strength of the back lugging it. A landscape photographer going to Iceland with so-called pro gear, and a tourist traveling to Paris for a weekend, will choose differently, and that’s before the issue of price raises it’s ugly head.
Here are my current top picks, plus two more – one for car travel and one for budget. All of these, but one, are Gitzo, but you’ll find similar features in the Manfrotto line and other brands as well. Quality will differ, but so will price.
From L to R, Gitzo Ocean Traveler, Basalt GT2830, GT3542LS, GT3531LSV
Gitzo Ocean Traveler - 4 sections. 3.08lbs. Holds 8.8lbs. Folds to 17.1″. Max Height of 4.9ft w/out centre column.
I love this tripod. It’s small, fairly light, and water resistant. It’s also insanely expensive, and I’d recommend one of the Gitzo Travelers that is not decked out in Stainless Steel, if you want to save a few (a lot) of money and won’t be routinely dunking it in water. I like these sticks because they fold small enough for a light trip and fit into a smaller duffle. The compromise is that it’s feeble at full height, and a long lens will exaggerate the camera shake noticeably. So I usually keep it as short as I can stand to, to keep it more rigid.
The Gitzo Ocean Traveler is $995. The comparable Gitzo GK2580TQR is $774. Both come with a ballhead, but I’d get a better one, like the small ballhead from Really Right Stuff. This is your teeny tripod option, and there are definitely sturdier sticks out there, but I’ve traveled the world, literally, all seven continents, with this tripod.
Gitzo Basalt GT2830 – 3 sections. 3.4lbs. Holds 22lbs. Folds to 24.61″. Max Height of 4.4ft w/out centre column.
This is a noticeably larger set of sticks, made from volcanic basalt instead of carbon fibre, though I’m not sure there’s much more than marketing behind that distinction. It doesn’t come to full height for me, but it’s close and it’s much more stable. $599
Gitzo GT3542LS – 4 sections. 4.3lbs. Holds: Not specified. But it’s a lot. Folds to 1.9ft. Max Height of 4.8ft w/out a centre column.
I love this one, and if there’s any way I can take it, I will. I’ve got snow baskets for the feet, too. And it’s killer sturdy for the size. The thing about the smaller ones is that if you need a 30 second exposure and there’s any wind, you’ve got next to no chance of making a sharp image. That’s why I don’t think of these as “travel” tripods. Because it’s not the traveling that I need it for. It’s the making sharp photographs. And if the tripod doesn’t do that, what good is it? This one retails for $950 at B&H and you’re going to want a $400 head (I like the Acratech or the RRS Large Ballhead) for it.
Gitzo GT3531LSV - 3 sections. 4lbs. Holds 39.7lbs. Folds to 26.4″. Max Height 4.9ft
It’s big and beefy and with the centre column comes easily to eye height and is still quite solid. I keep this one in the Jeep most of the time. Price at B&H Photo – $830, but right now you can get it for $699 (price without a centre column or head). If I could take one tripod with me, it would be this one. But it’s pretty big and hard to pack/carry, so it’s my overland tripod.
Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 - 3 sections. 2.8lbs. Holds 11lbs. Folds to 22.8″. Max Height 4 ft.
This one gets my vote for best starter tripod. Did you see the weight? Without the head it’s 2.8lbs. This is the CF version of the aluminum 190 I carried around for years. It’s no frills, but it’s sturdy enough for daily use, if not for the heaviest pro gear and longest exposures. And it’s only USD $277, which leaves you money for a good ballhead and that plane ticket to Iceland.
When it comes to buying your next tripod, my only advice is don’t skimp to save a few bucks. Get exactly what you need. What gear will you be using? If it’s too big will you just never use it? If it’s too small will even be useful? Look, I know these are pricey, but don’t spend $200 on junk that won’t serve you. And don’t skimp on the ballhead. Great sticks with a lousy ballhead that won’t stay sturdy or locked in wasted money, too. A couple more things – centre colums add vibrations, so don’t count on them for added height. The more sections you have, the tighter it packs but the less rigidity it will have. If your budget is lower and you need more tripod, then your compromise has to be in weight – go for aluminum instead of carbon and you’ll save a lot of shekels. Don’t go with a no-name tripod, and don’t get one with spreaders between the legs or a pan-head – those are for video and they’ll likely frustrate you.
Right now, if a beginner was asking for a great all-purpose tripod for a decent price, I’d tell them to get the carbon fibre Manfrotto 190, a solid medium ballhead, and go use it to death, then start looking at the larger Gitzos when the need for something sturdier becomes apparent.