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Here are a dozen of the latest travel tripods that fulfill the time-honored maxim that the best tripod is the portable one that’s in your camera bag, not the behemoth you left at home. It’s no accident that carrying and using a tripod is the mark of the professional photographer. There is no other photographic accessory that will elevate the technical quality of your pictures more easily or predictably. And even in this digital era of image-stabilization systems and astounding high ISO performance, any serious enthusiast or pro who places a high value on image quality should take one along—especially when shooting at slow shutter speeds in, in low light, or with long telephoto or zoom lenses. A lightweight travel tripod is basically any tripod that will fit easily into a camera bag, airline carry-on, or backpack. While none of them will match the rock-like stability of a large, heavy studio tripod, a good one, such as the 12 tripods described and analyzed below, will go a long way toward enhancing the quality of your pictures and expanding your picture-taking opportunities. To help you choose which travel tripod is best for you, we’ll first define the characteristics of the ideal travel tripod, and then present a dozen varied and enticing alternatives for your consideration.
Defining the Travel Tripod: A Personal Point of View
To qualify as a travel tripod, the unit should have a minimum folded length of 24 inches or less (preferably under 20 inches), a maximum total weight of four pounds or so, including the head, and extend to at least 50 inches in height without extending the center column more than three quarters of its total vertical length. Tripods that can attain a true eye-level height of 60+ inches without overextending their center columns get plus points, as do models that fold to 18 inches or less or weigh less than 3 pounds. In general, if you plan to carry the tripod inside your camera bag, the shorter the folded length the better, as long as the tripod provides good stability and leg locks that keep the extended legs securely in position.
Materials: Carbon fiber, magnesium, and titanium are great. All are lighter in weight and typically stronger than aluminum. Carbon fiber is rigid, and easy to grip at frigid temperatures without losing skin. However, all these materials are quite a bit more expensive than aluminum, and their weight advantage, while considerable on larger tripods, may not be that significant when you compare the weights of more compact tripods. By all means, buy a carbon fiber/magnesium/titanium travel tripod if that’s what you want and you can afford it, but a well-designed aluminum tripod can be as stable and may cost far less.
Heads: Many travel tripods come with heads included; with others, the head is a separate accessory. With the latter, make sure to include the head when calculating folded length, maximum height, and weight. In general, ball heads stow more compactly and are lighter in weight than comparable three-way heads with a panning handle, but the latter are usually more convenient for shooting video or panning to follow action. Some ball heads do provide convenient panning action using separate locks for the ball orientation and swivel actions. Check the specs.
Legs: A majority of compact travel tripods have twist-lock legs that are self-adjusting to compensate for wear and ensure maximum compactness when folded, but some have flip-locks that are a little quicker to set up and fold. Most have four- or five-section legs so they can fold to the minimum length possible. According to engineering experts, the more leg sections a tripod has, the lower its inherent stability, but as a practical matter, the number of leg sections has only a minimal effect on resisting deformation by twisting, so this should not be a major consideration. Leg diameter is important, however, and all things being equal, larger-diameter legs do enhance stability.
Center columns: Almost all compact travel tripods have simple sliding center columns rather than geared ones, which are usually heavier and bulkier. Many of these center columns are fairly long to achieve a reasonable maximum shooting height. However, the golden rule of tripods is that the higher you elevate the center column, the more stability is compromised. This consideration is especially critical with compact travel tripods, which tend to have relatively small-diameter legs and center columns. The bottom line: Never extend the center column any more than you have to, especially when shooting with long lenses, and preferably not more than 4-6 inches at most. If this means bending down a bit rather than viewing at eye level, do it for the added rigidity, even if it’s less convenient. If the tripod provides a hook at the bottom of the center column, hanging a weight (camera bag, etc.) can enhance stability considerably, and holding your free hand lightly but firmly on the yoke at the top of the legs at the instant of exposure can also enhance stability.
Other useful features: Tripods with positive leg stops that let you adjust the leg angle at two or three positions are very convenient when positioning the tripod on uneven terrain. Bubble levels on the head and yoke are a convenience when shooting landscapes and architecture. Adjustable leg tips that provide spikes or points for use outdoors and rubber cushions for indoor use are a plus, as is a reversible two-piece center column that provides low-angle grounder capability. Many contemporary travel tripods now have top-hinged legs that pivot 180 degrees on the yoke so they can fold more compactly, a feature pioneered on the exquisite Gitzo Traveler.
A Dozen Great Travel Tripods: Pick the Ones that Work for You
Gitzo GK1580RQR5 Series 1 Traveler 6x Carbon Fiber Tripod with Magnesium Center Ball Head: This is the ultimate travel tripod for those who demand the best. It’s the latest version of the tripod that started the compact travel tripod revolution and it is extremely sturdy and rigid. Its folded length is only 13.8 inches, thanks to its five-section twist-lock legs, but it extends to a nearly-eye-level 58.7 inches and provides grounder capability down to 11.8 inches. It weighs only 2.6 pounds, including a Center Ball Head with a quick-release (QR) plate and smooth-operating PFTE-treated ball and bushings, and has a load capacity of 12.1 pounds. Other features include: reversible center column, anti-leg-rotation system, counterweight hook, removable rubber feet, independent leg-spread adjustments, and advanced, vibration-absorbing 6x carbon fiber construction.
Davis & Sanford Traverse TR553-P228: This versatile new portable tripod fulfills its mission effectively, folding to a mere 12" by pivoting its legs back 180 degrees, over the easy-glide center column, to fit easily in virtually any camera bag or backpack. The tripod weighs only 2.6 pounds, including a dual-control ball head with a calibrated base and an Arca-type-compatible quick-release plate. It extends to 53", and has a robust carrying capacity of 10 lb, ideal for consumer DSLRs, mirrorless, and point-and-shoot cameras. Its sturdy 23mm diameter 5-section legs have freeze-proof rubberized twist locks, 3-position independent leg-angle adjustments, foam-cushioned insulators, and rubber feet. The aluminum-alloy construction features a durable black anodized finish.
Manfrotto BeFree Compact Carbon Fiber Tripod (Black): This tripod is more than just a good looker—its 4-section flip-lock legs provide a maximum height of 48.4" without extending the center column, and it gets up to 56.7" with the column extended. It also provides a useful minimum height grounder setting of 13.4" and folds to a portable 15.75" for easy packing. The BeFree provides a load capacity of 8.8 lb, despite weighing only 2.4 lb, and it has independent leg-spread positions at 25 and 51°. The ball head is made of aluminum alloy and includes a 200PL quick-release plate. The rapid center column is 3-faceted to resist unwanted twisting and it’s a hefty 22mm in diameter. A slightly heavier aluminum version is also available.
Sunpak VideoPro-M 4 Video Tripod: Featuring a two-way fluid-effect pan head designed for video shooting, this sturdy, economical aluminum tripod is also suitable for shooting still images. It has 4-section, 29mm diameter flip-lock legs, extends from 23.1 to 65", folds to 24.4" for storage, and features a geared center column with a hand crank, a bull’s-eye bubble level, self-leveling rubber feet, a spring-loaded video indexing pin, and radial leg braces. It provides a load-carrying capacity of 11 lb and weighs 4.2 lb.
Surui T-025X Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10X Ball Head: A compact, lightweight tripod with reverse-folding 8X carbon fiber legs, the T-025X folds to a mere 11.8", extends to a maximum height of 54.5", and has a load capacity of 13.2 lb. A removable center column allows for low-angle shooting at a minimum height of only 10.2". The ball head has a separate knob for panning, and it includes an Arca-style quick-release plate. Other features: 5-section, 4-stage legs and a feather-light weight of only 1.7 lb. The Sirui T-025X comes with a fitted soft case and a set of tools.
Davis & Sanford TR654C-36 Traverse Carbon Fiber Grounder tripod: This popular compact travel tripod, which has a few iterations in aluminum, is now available in a carbon fiber grounder version that extends to 65". This 4-section grounder folds to 18.5" for optimal storage and transport, has twist-lock legs with 3 independent leg-angle positions, a foam-cushioned leg grip, and an Easy Glide center column with a separate short center column for grounder shooting. Convertible rubber-to-spike feet allow for indoor or outdoor shooting. It has a minimum shooting height of 9" and a ballast hook for hanging equipment or adding weight to increase stability. Its total weight with ball head is 3.25 lb, and it has a load capacity of 12 lb, sufficient to support a pro DSLR with a long lens.
Oben CT-2431 Carbon Fiber Tripod and BE-108 Ball Heat Kit: This sturdy 6X carbon fiber 4-section tripod kit has non-rotating twist-lock legs and comes with a BE-108 Arca-type compatible lightweight aluminum ball head with quick-release plate, a separate panning knob and a notch for setting it to portrait orientation. It folds to a length of 21", extends to a maximum height of 57.7", provides an 8.8-lb load capacity, has 3-position leg lock settings controlled by push-pull tabs, and provides grounder capability down to a minimum height of 8.4". Other features include: two-section reversible center column with counterweight hook, two bubble levels, and retractable spiked feet with rubber caps.
Vanguard Alta Pro 284 CT Carbon Fiber Tripod with SBH-100 Ball Head: This robust carbon fiber tripod is ideal for applications requiring a high load capacity—it holds up to 18 lb—and it also extends to a height of 63". Constructed of 6X carbon fiber, it weighs 3.8 lb and folds to 21.1". The SBH-100 fluid head is 4.1" tall, weighs only 15.9 oz, and will support equipment up to 22 lb. The tripod’s 4-section quarter-twist-lock legs can be independently positioned at 25, 50, and 80°, and have retractable spiked feet. The center column can also be moved from 0 to 180° for shooting at low or high angles. Other features: Panning lock and two QS-39 camera plates are included.
Benro Aero 4 Video Travel Angel Tripod Kit: While optimized for video shooting, thanks to its video head with separate pan and tilt adjustments, this rugged aluminum tripod with 3-section flip-lock legs is also suitable for still photography. It has an integrated leveling platform, three adjustable leg-stop angles, spiked or rubber feet, a slide-in QR6 video quick-release plate, a bubble level, and one leg that’s easily removable for use as a monopod. Its height can be adjusted from 21.9 to 65.2", and its folded length is 21.7" for easy transport. The Aero 4 weighs 5.8 lb and it comes with a padded carrying case and strap.
Sirui T-2250X 5-section Carbon Fiber Tripod: This lightweight travel tripod has an impressive load capacity of 26.5 lb, folds to a portable 14.6", extends to a maximum height of 56.9", and weighs only 2.6 pounds. Its 8X carbon fiber legs employ silicone twist locks, incorporate an anti-leg-rotation system for quicker setup, and can be locked independently at three different angles. A forged aluminum yoke ensures robust stability, a short center column allows for grounder shots at a minimum height of only 5.3", and its retractable spiked feet can be optimized for indoor use or outdoor use on loose terrain. An anodizing treatment is applied to the surface of all metal parts for added corrosion resistance. The Sirui K-20x Ball Head is an ideal complement to this tripod, providing separate knobs for pan, tilt, and tension, a 55-lb load capacity, and an Arca-style quick-release clamp.
Slik Sprint Mini II GM 4-section tripod with SBH-100DQ Ball Head: Weighing a mere 1.7 lb, complete with ball head, this well-made travel tripod has 4-section flip-lock aluminum legs with 3-position independent angle settings and angled rubber feet. Foam-covered upper leg sections are designed for cold weather operation, a 2-part sliding center column provides for grounder operation down to 5.9", and the compact ball head has a mini quick-release plate. The Sprint Mini II folds to 13.8", extends to 42.9", and has a maximum load capacity of 2.1 lb.
MeFoto Globetrotter Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod Kit (Titanium): This travel tripod, which extends to 64.2" on its 5-section twist-lock legs, folds down to 16.1" and has a high maximum load capacity of 26.4 lb. A foam-cushioned leg, removable without tools, attaches to the center column, allowing it to be used as a full-sized monopod, and the sliding center column also has a twist lock. Other features include: two-position leg angle stops, spiked feet with removable rubber covers, recessed center column hook, anti-rotation leg locks, and a matching aluminum-alloy ball head with Arca-type quick-release plate, panning lock, -45 to +90-degree tilt range, bubble level, and panning lock. An aluminum version is also available.