Today, most professional photographers using the larger cameras would balk at having to tote a 20- or 30-pound tripod around, not to mention the difficulty of fitting such a beast in with his or her luggage. The tripod usually had to travel as its own piece of luggage.
A quality travel tripod capable of supporting a good-sized camera need not weigh much more than a few pounds, and most of those on the market will easily fit in a suitcase together with clothing and personal belongings. The most important factors in choosing a travel tripod are size, weight, and stability. The price is of some importance of course, and how the camera is to be mounted and how easily an accurately it is to adjust its orientation also needs to be taken into account.
Use the table below to find the best lightweight tripod that works for you.
While the lightweight tripod is a recent innovation, the tripod itself dates back to prehistoric times. The earliest tripods were most likely fashioned from poles lashed together with leather straps and were generally used to support items that hung from the top rather than being situated on the top. In the early days, stability meant not falling over, something that could be difficult when using a four-legged device and next to impossible when only two legs were employed – hence, a three-legged device.
Stability became a significantly important factor with the invention of the telescope, and became even more important as telescopes became larger and more powerful. Size and weight were often secondary, and the larger and heavier the tripod was, the more stable it would tend to be.
The tripod became even more useful with the advent of modern surveying equipment, along with the introduction of the camera. The earliest cameras tended to be large and bulky and it was generally a necessity that the tripods used would be the same. The only thing to be said about the travel tripod was that it was portable and could be carried about by one person.
Anytime you are on the road, smaller is usually better. People who go on skiing vacations will often leave their own skis at home. While they would prefer them to rentals, skis are just too big and bulky to carry around and the technology needed to produce a high-quality, telescoping ski is not here yet. This telescoping feature, along with other factors, is what tends makes carrying a travel tripod along with you no problem. If a tripod can fit into your suitcase, fine. If one can fit in your backpack, that’s even better. There are even models you can carry around in your pocket. A smaller model will not necessarily be any less stable than a larger one, and in some cases it can be even more stable since the closer to the surface your camera sits, the more stable it is apt to be. Bear in mind that when considering the size of one of these tripods, there are two sizes to be taken into account, the size when folded and the size when fully extended. A typical traveling tripod will have a folded size of about a foot and maximum size that is between 5 and 6 feet.
Lighter is also better when you are on the road. There is of course a relationship between size and weight, but more often than not it’s the material involved that makes the difference. Older tripods were often made with legs of wood or steel, as the camera to be supported was usually a heavy one. Weight also tends to add to stability, or so it would seem. Today, one of these accessories can be extremely light while at the same time providing excellent stability. The fact that a telescoping unit requires the upper segments of each leg to be hollow helps to cut down on weight, but it is the material that makes the difference. Steel has in many instances given way to aluminum or titanium. Many of these tripods are made of graphite, which is ultra-light an ultra-strong, and is oriented towards the hiker and camper more so than the professional. A few are made of plastic. Professional tripods may be made of several different materials, typically a combination of steel, aluminum, magnesium and/or titanium. We reviewed one of the lightest travel tripods here. It weighs only 0.26 lbs.
Size and weight are important to the traveling photographer, but if it is not stable, a tripod can be next to useless. A three-legged device is inherently stable, but there are limits. Short and squat is best. A camera mounted on a low-to-the-ground tripod is unlikely to be disturbed by anything short of an earthquake. On the other hand, a heavy camera mounted atop long, spindly legs can move enough due to a gentle breeze to ruin a photo, especially when longer shutter opening times are involved. Elements of one type or another to reinforce the legs are usually a feature in larger units. A sturdy, graphite camera tripod that will fit in a pocket or in a backpack compartment usually doesn’t require a reinforcing element. The stability factor can be important to any photographer, but it is especially important to the professional, whose cameras, with their zoom lenses can be on the heavy side.
As is the case with many other products, you get what you pay for. A travel tripod suitable for use by a professional photographer needs to be small enough to take along, large enough to support the camera, light enough to carry for long distances, and as stable as a three-legged device possibly can be. The sum of this ideal size, minimum weight, and excellent stability as expressed in dollars, can be quite large. The backpacker who has a point-and-shoot camera and uses a tripod to take self photos can get by with a tripod that is small, light and costs only a few dollars. Price is important, but when choosing a traveling tripod, quality is far more important. The best choice is the one that works for you. You can spend over $200 or under $20 on a tripod to get what you want.
Features will vary from a simple mounting screw to a ball-joint coupled with an extendable handle for adjusting the orientation of the camera. The ball-joint, whether it is adjusted by a handle or by thumbscrews is an important feature. You don’t want to have to be fiddling with the segments of the tripod’s legs to get your camera oriented properly, and once you get the camera in its correct position, you’ll need to lock it in that position. Size and weight matter, but don’t overlook how easy or difficult it will be to mount and use the camera.