In the second article in the Series, How to Choose a Tripod, I discussed the various criteria to use in choosing any tripod, including one for travel.
So what makes a Travel Tripod different than any other tripod, and why might choosing a Travel Tripod require us to make compromises, and force us to rank our criteria by their importance to us?
When choosing a Travel Tripod there are two criteria briefly mentioned in the second article in my Tripod Series which makes the choice difficult. A Travel Tripod has to be easy to pack and take on your trip. In addition, presumably on most trips, you’re going to be carrying it around for long periods of time, so it needs to be very light weight.
My main tripod is made of carbon-fiber. Even so, it weighs about 6 lbs with the head. Carrying it around for several hours at a time can be very tiring. Folded it won’t fit in my carry-on, no matter how it’s positioned.
I chose the Gitzo GK2580TQR Travel Tripod (legs), using my criteria from How to Choose a Tripod. This is how I went about it:
- I’m about 66” tall. When I put my Nikon D200 atop the head, on the legs, it adds about 3” to the tripod’s height. My eyes, like most adults are about 4” or so below the top of my head. To use the tripod without raising the center column, Therefore to be comfortable for me, I prefer the tripod to be at least 50” high with the legs at their smallest angle setting with the center column down.
- While I can’t attach the head to the legs without the center column, I can purchase a shorter center column to replace the current one, so the camera can be on the tripod even lower to the ground than I can get it now (16”).
- The tripod legs are unbraced.
- The tripod legs are made with carbon-fiber, using the pultrusion method of manufacture, which has the best weight to stability ratio.
- The tripod legs weight 3 lbs and with the head/clamp I chose, just under 4 lbs aggregately, better than I hoped for.
- Folded Size, is the 2nd critical criterion specific for travel tripods. Considering the size of my allowable roller carry-on, and the size of my camera/computer backpack, I was very pleased that my tripod is just under 17” long folded, and less than 4.5” wide.
- The tripod must be able to easily carry the weight of my D200, and more. The tripod must support the camera, the heaviest lens I will use with it, my flash with bracket, head/clamp, and the plate on the camera to which the clamp holds on. (More on that in a moment.) The tripod legs support 15.4 lbs, which is sufficient.
- The diameter of the tripod’s legs are a critical specification for maximizing the tripod’s resistance to torque. I plan to use my Nikon 80mm-400mm lens with this tripod. It’s length at 400mm, and its weight are somewhat less than a typical 300mm prime lens, so I chose to use legs which have the first leg section at a diameter of 28mm. I’ve now tested the tripod. It holds my equipment very steady, enough for long exposure shots.
- The tripod head, which sits atop the legs is what allows you to move the camera to compose your photographs. For the purposes of this article, it’s enough to say, in my opinion, the ball head is the best choice for Point and Shoot, SLR, and DSLR cameras (mine). In my opinion, the best ball heads are manufactured by Markins and Really Right Stuff (RRS). I’ll have an article on ball heads on the Blog soon. I chose the RRS BH-40 LR ball head.
- As mentioned in the second article of the Series, the best clamp for SLR/DSLR camera/lenses is an Arca-Swiss style clamp. It allows quick attachment and detachment, and provides a solid, secure base and connection between the head and your camera/lens. I chose an Arca-Swiss lever style clamp by RRS, which allows for instant release of the camera/lens compared to the screw knob style. A point and shoot camera can use a direct screw attachment successfully.
- Point and Shoot cameras, and lenses need only a flat plate for a clamp to grip. Point and Shoot cameras are light, and flopping them in the ball head to obtain a vertical orientation will not noticeably affect their stability. Long lenses used with an SLR or DSLR camera are usually attached to the head, via a collar, instead of the camera the camera. The camera/lens is rotated in the collar to change orientation. The lens is attached to the head for balance. Otherwise, an SLR/DSLR with lens is attached to the tripod via the camera. I prefer to use an “L” plate with the camera. To vertically orient the camera, you use the short side of the “L” plate keeping the camera/lenses weight directly over the tripod’s central axis, instead of flopping the camera to the side in the head’s slot which substantially diminishes the stability of the tripod. I’m using a RRS flat plate for my long lenses and and “L” plate for my D200.
The compromise one must make, when choosing a Travel Tripod is stability (weight capacity, and resistance to torque) versus folded size, and tripod weight. It’s extremely hard to find a combination which works.
My quest was successful. The Gitzo GK2580TQR tripod meets my varied specifications, and the head and other parts by RRS fit the bill perfectly. By the way, in my opinion Gitzo makes the best tripods. Manfrotto tripods are also excellent, and there are other brands which are highly serviceable.
Please note, however, that if I wanted to use a longer lens, such as a Nikon 500mm telephoto lens for birding, the GK2580TQR legs would not have the necessary stability.