Five Things To Look For In A Travel Tripod

To me, a tripod is an absolute necessity.

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Unless you’re a really avid photographer, a tripod might not be something you think you need when travelling. The flavour of the moment seems to be ultralight travel; one bag, a few articles of clothing, as little extra gear as possible. Which is fine, if that’s what you’re into. But my background is in photography, and there’s no way I’m not taking my camera with me… and I recognize that not having the stability a tripod offers will seriously limit my photos. Good, sharp night photographs, handheld? Good luck!

To me, a tripod is an absolute necessity. I have a large, high quality, super stable Manfrotto tripod that I use for my photography work. I’ve even carried it on location, provided I’m not hiking for hours to get to a shoot. But there’s no way I’m bringing my 3.5 kg (~7.5 lb) tripod with me to China; it’s too heavy, and it’s way too bulky, as it’s a full 28″ long when folded down.

So, a month ago or so, I started looking into small, travel-worthy tripods that would still be able to handle my DSLR and its big, heavy lenses. I looked at the extremely popular MeFOTO line, looked into Manfrotto’s befree travel collection, briefly toyed with splashing out some serious cash for a Gitzo or a Really Right Stuff tripod, and — when the search really started to mess with my head — even started considering the AmazonBasics Carbon Fibre tripod, before I came to my senses and realized it was probably not a great idea to trust $5000+ of camera gear on a $100 tripod.

Ultimately, I went with a tripod I’d been eyeing since the very beginning: the Sirui T-1005X tripod and Sirui G-10X ball head. The final decision was based on five factors:

1. Size

This factor actually has two points to it: collapsed size, and extended height.

Collapsed size is the length of the tripod when it’s fully collapsed. Without the ball head attached, I wanted to keep the overall collapsed length below 16″, so that I could be sure the tripod would fit inside a loaded daypack. The Sirui T-1005X, even with the head attached, measures under 14″. Perfect.

Oh hi there, tiny tripod!

The extended height is pretty obvious; it’s the maximum height that you can open the tripod up to. Here, the Sirui I chose gets into a bit of trouble. This model only extends up to 44″ with the centre column down, and even with the column up, only gets to 51.5″ (plus the 3.5″ for the head, gets us up to 55″). Other options (including the T-2005X) extend higher, but given that I mostly shoot with a wide lens, I’m not super worried. If it turns out after this trip that the 51.5″ height wasn’t enough, maybe I’ll upgrade to the carbon fibre T-2205X before future travels.

2. Stability

Even when fully extended, the Sirui is remarkably stable.

What’s the point of a tripod if it’s not stable?! Part of this is the tripod’s load capacity (which I’ll cover later on), but a big part of the stability of a tripod rests on its construction.

Right of the bat, carbon fibre has an edge on aluminum; the wonder material doesn’t just make for lighter legs, it also helps dampen microvibrations that can cause longer exposures (again, one of the reasons you’re buying a tripod) to look fuzzy. Sadly, my T-1005X doesn’t check this box (the cost was just too much for me at this point).

Build quality also affects the stability of a tripod. Aside from maybe that AmazonBasics tripod I was briefly eyeballing, all the other tripod options I listed up top have no issues with build quality. I liked that the Sirui also has a hook at the bottom of the centre column that lets you hang a bag, or a water bottle, or some kind of weight to help stabilize the whole apparatus.

Finally, it’s important to note that a tripod is always more stable with its centre-column all the way down. That point is what steered me away from the MeFOTO Backpacker Classic, since it looks like the centre column is not actually retractable.

3. Weight

Even more so than size, this was the factor that told me my usual Manfrotto wouldn’t work for travel. The dang thing weighs nearly eight pounds!

Folded down, with my average-sized hand for reference.

The rationale for wanting a light tripod is the same as wanting anything to be light… the less weight you’re schlepping around in your bags, the less your back, knees, shoulders, and feet will hate you. Even with the ball head attached, the Sirui is under 3 lbs. Score!

4. Load Capacity

This is the factor that knocked a whole bunch of otherwise promising tripods out of the running; many of them had recommended maximum loads of under 10 lbs! A Nikon D800, like mine, with a Sigma 35mm lens attached tips the scales at nearly 4 lbs. It may seem like there’s a lot of leeway there, but the closer you get to a tripod’s maximum capacity, the greater the impact against stability. Having so much weight up high on an ultralight tripod, with a low capacity, is a recipe for instability, and thus, blurry photos.

The Sirui does fine on this count; it’s rated for 22 lbs, and the head is rated for almost double that. No worries about overloading it.

5. Price

And finally, the price of the tripod; the nail in the coffin of those fancy RRS and Gitzo tripods. The build quality, weight, and stability of those high-end tripods is phenomenal, but you definitely pay for it. If you can afford to drop $1000+ on a tripod in one fell swoop, do it… you won’t be disappointed —I had the opportunity to borrow a friend’s carbon fibre RRS tripod and have been intensely jealous ever since.

I went with a fairly inexpensive Sirui ball head. It’s pretty basic, but it’s lightweight, solid, and gets the job done.

The Sirui, while certainly not the least expensive option, was still extremely affordable; the entire package cost significantly less than my Manfrotto tripod.

In the end, I wound up picking up my lovely little Sirui. I bought it online from B&H, and it was at my doorstep three days later. I’m looking forward to putting the thing through its paces, but I have a feeling it’s going to hold up nicely (pardon the pun).

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