Travel Tripod Troubles

Which tripod to take with you when travelling can be a big decision. Michael Burnham looks at the different options and how to balance the competing factors of cost, weight, size and performance

Let’s start by stating the obvious: it's a big planet. There is so much to see and to photograph. Being a landscape enthusiast photographer means getting out there, away from home, and traveling to near and sometimes far-flung locals to create the image you want.

As any photographer knows, a tripod is an essential piece of equipment. The existential question is which one? Selecting the right tripod for your photography will alleviate most of those problems before they become problems. A few minutes of soul searching about yourself, your equipment, your travel style and the photos you want to take will prevent you from making a buying decision that you might regret later.

First, let’s talk about your camera equipment and what camera and lens combo you use most in your landscape photography. I have a heavy camera body and a heavy, fast long telephoto lens. I don't take them with me if I am going farther than I can drive, it’s that simple. My travel gear is a lighter-weight camera body and a couple of fast lenses, super-wide and standard range zoom, as well as a moderate telephoto (100mm f/2.8) macro lens.

Travel Tripod Troubles

Lately, a mirrorless system has slowly been supplanting the DSLRs, saving even more size and weight. A tripod designed for the weight of a 1Dx Mk II or D5 with a 300mm f/2.8 is far different from one designed for a high-end mirrorless camera with a standard zoom or fast prime lens. Knowing the equipment you plan to actually use on your outing will make a big difference.

Next, what is your travel style for getting to where you shoot? Are you a photographer who drives out into the desert or wilderness and rarely ventures more than 400 meters from the car? By the way, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that if you are. The proof is always in the photos you bring back. How you got there and got them is up to you.

Are you the photographer who takes a jet then puddle-jumps to a remote part of another country, then drives for another day or more and then unloads and hikes for another day and a half to get to a location? Two different travel styles with very different expectations for a tripod. The shortest way of saying that is… do you pack really light or do you load up?

Being honest with yourself and about what you really need will save you a lot of time, money and headaches.

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Now, let’s address some specific travel tripod troubles and the recommended ways of solving them.

If you are traveling, you want the tripod to be as light and compact as possible, while still giving you and your camera the steady support you need for long exposures. When you think light weight and tripods, carbon fiber is usually the first material that comes to mind, and it should. Carbon fiber still has the best strength-to-weight ratio of any material currently being used for tripods. It’s more expensive but, if you need to carry it for a couple of hours, then it’s worth the money.

Let’s face it, traveling, especially if you have to fly, is a hassle. Take my word for it: you want the most compact tripod you can get for easy travel. I have always insisted on traveling with a tripod that can reach close to my eye-level without raising the center column. On every trip I have taken for the past 16 years, whether for business or pleasure, a tripod has accompanied me. Recently I switched to a new SLIK LITE CF-422 tripod because its Rapid-Flip Mechanism legs allow it to be narrower at the collar, meaning the tripod takes up less space. Its maximum height is taller than the SLIK PRO 634 CF I had before but it is about the same length when fully retracted (18.5 in) but narrower, while it only weighs 1 oz. more.

Travel Tripod Troubles

A note about airline security and tripods; in the US, the TSA does state on their website that tripods are allowed in the airline cabin. However, they caveat the statement by stating that whether a particular item will be allowed through security or not is always up to the discretion of the TSA officer on duty. If you are checking a bag, make sure your tripod is in it. On about 40% of my flights I do carry-on only and I have not had a problem. But that means 60% of the time the tripod is in my checked bag.

Twist locks are preferred over lever locks. Twist locks do not have just one setting to them and, unlike lever locks, they can be tightened more if the tripod is getting wet, so the legs are less likely to slip. If you are shooting anywhere that the tripod might get wet, it is best to go with twist locks.

You wouldn’t drive a finishing nail with the sledgehammer, and tripods work the same way; the biggest, heaviest tripod with the most load capacity may very well not be the right tripod for you. So, if you can spend a little time soul searching on exactly what camera gear you are actually traveling with or going to use on a particular photography trip or outing, you will enjoy the experience so much more!

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1 Comment

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    Pro, prosumer or weekend warrior?
    All should take a close and serious look at Sliks offerings. They are an often overlooked tripod in the market and shouldn’t be. SLIK Tripods are a solid and practical choice.

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