The Thing About (Travel) Tripods

In GEAR, Travel by David32 Comments

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 GT28303 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 GT3542LS4 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.

TWO MORE

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.

Comments

  1. I bought the Manfrotto 190QCB years ago. It’s heavy but solid. I have tried various other “travel tripods” but none of them preform like my 190. It took me a long time to figure out that it’s worth the extra weight. I had missed long exposure opportunities.

  2. Great write-up David. Like you I started with Manfrotto (a lowly 055) and it served me well except for the weight. Recently I updated to a Gitzo Basalt GT3830 and I’m in love all over again.. it’s simply brilliant; tall enough for me without the need for extension and sturdy.

    I’m still on my grail quest for the perfect ballhead however. The GH3781QR head I bought with the tripod is very good and probably the best I’ve had thus far.. but, well…. the jury’s still out on that one.

  3. Author

    Ewen – Look at the Really Right Stuff ballheads. I don’t think there’s a better one out there. Either the medium or the large, depending on your needs.

  4. I can highly recommend the Induro CT-014. For me, it’s the Holy Grail of tripods: Sturdy, light, and compact. I can fit it into my carry-on bag easily. Rock solid for a Canon 5D with a 70-200IS II (a heavy lens). Longer or heavier that that, I’d go with something larger. I’ve traveled all over with my Induro and it’s held up beautifully. Match that with a Markins Q3 ballhead and it’s a great kit. Oh, the tripod is also half the price of the Gitzo equivalent. I’d have bought it even if it was the same price as the Gitzo.

    Mark

  5. Good stuff. FWIW, my Gitzo tripods spend a lot of time in the surf & mud with no issues. I just pull them apart at the end of trip, clean & dry them well. Seen no need for the special waterproof model.

  6. i found an older Manfrotto 190 on craigslist for $50, with a Manfrotto ball head on it.
    It’s been a great tripod and is more manageable than the other monster Manfrotto that a friend has ‘lent me permanently’.

    Great guideline for tripods and people should keep their eyes open on used sites for these, as people often sell them for much less than they are worth.

    C

  7. Author

    Mark, thanks for the intel. I’ve heard from several people that like the Induro line.

    Fernando – Same here. In fact I take my larger tripods into the water much more because of the stability needed. Take them apart in the shower and rinse them off, a little lube once they’re dry, and they’re good as new. Although the salt water does not favours to some of the harder-to-reach pieces.

  8. Author

    Chris H – GREAT recommendation! If you have the time, browsing Craigslist or eBay might get you a killer deal.

  9. Also check out Kirk Enterprises ball heads. Super sturdy with beefy construction, but by some accounts (I’ve not used one), the RRS head might be more fluid in its movement. My tripod, an aluminum Manfrotto 055, is excellent for the mere pennies it cost.

  10. Hey David – Sage advice. What I like best is that you share with us your THINKING about these things – the teacher in you comes out strong, and is so much more valuable than just telling us what you have…

    In my lifelong quest for the perfect vest (and bag) – may I ask what vest you are wearing in this dynamite photo above? (I’m sure the dashing gentleman wearing it is what gives it panash – but I don’t recognize that vest…)

    Cheers!

    Greg

  11. I had a three-section, 2-series leveling Gitzo tripod, which was great, but an ungainly 26+ inches collapsed. For a nearly month-long trek to the Kingdom of Mustang in Nepal last summer, I bought a RRS TVC-24 tripod with an added center column. I love, love, love this tripod. 3.2 lbs, holds 40 lbs, 18.7 in. collapsed, 49.2 in tall w/o ctr column. Very large diameter CF legs. Super stable. It’s spendy at $910 + $88/9 oz. for 9.4 in of ctr column extension. After trying four different tripods of progressively higher cost, I’ve finally found what for me is the perfect compromise travel / trek tripod. Highly recommended if you have the coin. Ditto for the BH-40 RRS ballhead. Just FYI, my largest rig to date is a Nikon D300S body + Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens with a TC20III teleconverter. Very solid, especially with added leg spikes and a center weight.

  12. A timely post David! Or rather it’s a bit late for me as I’ve pulled the trigger already, but on a combination you recommend – GT3542XLS & RRS BH50. I was on a Bruce Percy workshop recently and sorting out some news legs was something he highly recommended, and comparing my Manfrotto 055 w/ 498 head to the other sturdy platforms on the trip I understood why! Can’t wait to get away from having to predict the sag on my old ballhead…

    These things are expensive but if they’re not solid they’re no good. No point having the best gear and sharpest lenses (and a Zeiss 21mm was what I could have bought :() if they’re bouncing all over the place. A solid long term investment I think (though hope to avoid collecting them like you have! :)).

  13. Wow! Thank you! This is what I need to save a lot and get the right thing for me! Great!

  14. The 190XB was my first tripod (yes, yes I am a late starter) though very often I would leave it at home because it didn’t fit in the bag I generally take when travelling for less than 2 weeks, and it was heavy (hey, I AM a girl).. It was good, but only if we had a rental car I could throw it in the back of! Towards the end of our relationship, more often than not, I would leave it at home and just improvise; using cars, trees, fences, rocks, garden furniture, (or anything else that wasn’t moving) to stick the camera on if I needed to. We ended up not speaking to each other after an incident in Wales and the love finally died shortly after.

    When I went to Mexico last year, I finally upgraded to a Giottos carbon fibre travel tripod. My criteria: does it fold up really tiny and does it weigh almost nothing? Does my butt look big in this was third on the list, and, since no-one would give me a straight answer to this question, I bought it anyway.

    This one goes with me almost everywhere I take the camera. I wish I’d done as you are suggesting and spent a bit more money at the beginning!

    Can you do a camera bags post next? I could do with some help… I know you like the Think Tank gear…

    I am looking for the ‘one camera bag to rule them all’ and husband tells me there’s no such thing, but I’m a believer so I live in hope…. 🙂

  15. Great post and very relevant for me right now as I’m fed up with my current set-up and dread hauling it along. One concern for me is the minimum height, as I seem to enjoy getting down and dirty. Any wisdom in this area?

  16. Pingback: The Thing About (Travel) Tripods « National-Express2011

  17. with this post you got me back

    unsolved topic of mine for ages, lugging around a small tripod in my backpack where it ends up conveniently as a suppport for my back, but taking it out and use it … a different story

    so food for thought ans maybe a “new” look on my old (& mostly never used before) travel tripod

    thomas

  18. You should check out FEISOL too.

    http://www.feisol.com/

    They have some great carbon fibre tripods that are not as expensive as some of the more well known brands. I started with a Manfrotto but found it too heavy to lug around when I was travelling and it didn’t collapse very small. Someone recommended Feisol to me and I got one of their traveller carbon fibre tripods and haven’t looked back.

    Although they are based in China they do ship internationally and some countries have local distributors too.

    PS: I’m not affiliated with them. I just use one! 🙂

  19. I am an outdoor photographer and use a tripod for 99.99% of my work. Although I agree that holding the camera steady is job #1 for a tripod, my main motivation is not preventing camera shake. Mine is to allow me to slow down and nail the composition. Spending 10 minutes or more on an image, ever making finer & finer tweaks to the composition, is impossible when hand holding.

    Just my 2-cents.

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  21. Another vote for Feisol, I have it (my second), not too expensive and great quality. I also use their ballhead.

  22. David, any recommendations on tripod heads? I’m leaning towards the RRS 45 as kind of an intermediate weight/stability/portability choice.

  23. for some reason, knowing David and I shoot on the same tripod – Basalt GT2830 – puts a very big grin on my face. Love that tripod . . . am currently packing it up for my first trip to the UK!

  24. Would love to see your pic’s Paul. It always interests me how foreign people see this country.

  25. Great information David. It amazes me how expensive Gitzos can be.

    I have a carbon fiber Manfrotto 055PRO4 tripod with Manfrotto’s 498RC2 ballhead. You can see the tripod here – http://bhpho.to/HJEOoE

    The tripod has 4 section legs which collapse to about the same size as the 190CXPRO3 you recommend. The 055 also holds more weight and expands quite a bit taller. Its great for taller photographers (I’m 6’7″) or those having to work with heavier lenses.

  26. I have a Benro travel tripod (A1190T) and love it for it’s size. It’s not as solid as my Manfrotto (if it was windy the camera might have some shake) but it folds FLAT and fits in my carry-on! I have the cheaper aluminum version but they have a (probably) better carbon fiber too – which is probably stronger.

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  28. I still have my Manfrotto 055. It serves me well, but is too big and bulky for long walks up big hills. So now I’m torn between something lighter but not that small, sometime light and small (the Manfrotto BeFree), or maybe something like a Feisol which lacks centre column but in doing so reduces weight.

  29. Hi David

    I am reading your book and find you’re writing inspirational but also reassuringly pragmatic.

    I have a dilemma. I am going to Iceland in the summer for 10 days. Somewhat of a photographic trip of a lifetime. We are going round the circular route and have a car. I have two tripods. A Manfrotto 055X heavy but amazingly sturdy and a Manfrotto Travel Bee black https://www.wexphotovideo.com/manfrotto-befree-travel-tripod-black-1538436/

    I am a keen enthusiast and take long exposures of water 10-60 seconds. You can see an example on the homepage of my website.

    I do struggle with weight a little with a minor back issue but have coped so far in the UK. I do not want to make the wrong decision. Do travel tripods cope with long exposures and potentially beach-like conditions or will I be disappointed with the image sharpness?

    Please advise

    Thank you in advance

    David

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