Buyer’s Guide – Travel Tripods

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Let’s get back at our journey through the wonders of tripods that I started some weeks ago. While I stated what the tripod is and what it’s used for, you may now want to actually get one. This article will guide you through the most important features to look for in a tripod at the time of purchase, especially through the lens (no pun intended) of travel and outdoor scenarios.

1 – Type

Tripods come in three big categories: regular, monopods and flexible. Regular tripods have three (surprise!) rigid legs, thus being able to hold themselves straight, and the camera, without outside intervention. Monopods have a single leg, so they’re easier to deploy BUT they require you to hold onto them. Think of them as “sturdier selfie sticks”. I must confess I’m prejudiced against monopods though. Despite reducing camera movement a bit, the fact that a human being, whose body eventually moves, still has to secure it, makes it useless for me. Lastly, we have flexible tripods. They’re generally much smaller (and handle less camera weight) but you can attach them to many surfaces and harder to reach spots. My preference is clearly for regular tripods. If you have the chance to take a flexible one, it might be useful too.

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Example of a small tripod with flexible legs.

2 – Size

Flexible tripods are, because of their very nature, generally smaller than the rest. However, one can get the other types of tripods in a variety of different sizes. It’s important to notice that a bigger size doesn’t always mean a more expensive tripod (please see the next feature). Also, while size encompasses many dimensions, for me the most important on a tripod is clearly its “height when fully extended”. That is the value that will make sure you can use it in as many situations as possible. Regarding size alone, my advice is very simple. Buy the tallest tripod you can get, as long as its collapsed size fits in your travel luggage. This factor alone will immediately limit your options when purchasing a tripod, since it’ll exclude all bulky studio tripods which are very large and strong.

3 – Weight

Unlike sheer size, the weight of a tripod is more of an indication of its quality. A stronger tripod will not only hold a larger camera body weight, it will also hold itself unshaken against the elements, especially wind (their price tags are steeper too). However, walking around with a heavy tripod can have a big impact on your endurance. Not to mention that really large tripods can take a huge chunk of the allowable luggage weight. The ideal scenario is to get a strong and capable tripod that is built with light-weight materials, such as carbon fiber. And of course, capable of actually holding your camera with your heaviest lens. That way you get the best of both worlds, i.e. lightweight on the gear but strength for your camera.

4 – Head

If you look at a tripod, you can see that it’s divided into two main parts: head and legs. The head is what you interact with in order to place your camera the way you want it to take the shot. There are mainly two types of tripod heads: ball and 3-way / tilt-pan. I have used both and, for traveling, I believe that ball-headed tripods are better. That’s because travel photography requires you to be fast and flexible, and ball-heads are faster to deploy and to adjust to your needs. They’re just simpler to work with. Three-way heads, as the name says, allow you to finely-tune each of the three dimensions of the head’s position. That’s useful for well-prepared shots and complex compositions (studio). However, I just can’t see it working in outdoor situations better than a ball-headed option.

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Example of a tripod with a ball-type head.

5 – The small things

These are the little extras or special features that can help you decide between two or more models. Please keep in mind that there are still many others.

For example, the spread angle of the legs can make a difference if you need to use the tripod at short heights. Imagine you’re putting the tripod on top of a ledge which is itself high. You want to use the tripod but be able to interact with the camera at your eye-level. Therefore, the more you open its legs, the lower the camera will be. Another example is when you want the camera to be at the ground level as much as possible.

For the opposite situation, many tripods feature a center column. That means sort of an extra leg, placed in the middle of the main ones, that can be extended to give you that extra height on some special occasions, i.e. when the maximum height of the regular legs is not enough for you. It does reduce the stability though, since the camera is instead held on top of the tripod by a single column.

Physical levels may also help you in making sure you’re taking your shots properly leveled. Of course, you can always use a real-world object for that or do that in post-editing. Although that’s not a major problem these days, check if the connector plate between the camera and the tripod supports your camera model. Check the sturdiness and stability of the base of the legs and make sure they’re gripping, such as rubber.

And this is my basic guide to purchasing a tripod essentially for air travel and sightseeing walks. Keep checking for the review of my own tripod very soon!



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