How to choose a tripod

I am looking for the lightest and best travel tripod. Thanks.

— Linda L.

Manfrotto tripods and heads at PhotoPlus Expo 2013.

There are way too many tripods on the market -- and at PhotoPlus Expo. Even within any one manufacturer’s portfolio, I’d argue there are way too many options.

I wandered into one booth and asked the salesperson to suggest his best travel tripod. He glanced over his shoulder at close to 20 different models and paused. He wasn’t sure.

“It depends” is the right answer. But even when you know what it depends on, you can still find plenty of options that fit the bill.

I’ll do two things for Linda. I’m going to make a recommendation, and then I’ll tell you how to choose for yourself.

My recommendation for Linda: 

Manfrotto Compact lightweight tripod for travel photography

Linda has taken a couple of my workshops, so I remember that she likes nature and travel photography. She is out in the great outdoors and probably doesn’t want to drag around any more weight than necessary. She also won’t want to skimp on quality with her photos.

Manfrotto’s travel tripod is a good balance of those priorities. You will find it is amazingly light and flexible, yet sturdy. You can set it up and break it down quickly, so you can keep moving without the tripod slowing you down.

I chose Manfrotto primarily because of familiarity. I have known them to be a brand that has produced great tripods for years. Their quality has never disappointed me. 

Here's the manufacturer's description:

Befree is a new and innovative tripod dedicated to photographers who love to travel. Compact, light and portable Befree is the ideal travel companion.

A high quality tripod that fits into carry-on luggage and backpacks; it’s a dream come true for any photographer on the go. Thanks to the unique folding mechanism the legs fold perfectly around the head and quick release plate attachment. In the closed position it is only 40 cm long.

Its small size and portability don’t mean compromise on sturdiness and image quality. T

The Manfrotto Befree delivers sharp images by keeping your camera steadily locked in the desired position. Its new aluminum ball head is solid, quick and simple to operate. 

The Manfrotto Befree has a maximum payload 4 kg (8,8lb), guaranteeing stability and sturdiness even with longer zoom lenses. 

The new patented leg angle selectors quickly allow you to select between two inclinations offering maximum versatility for camera positioning. Premium Italian design and finishing make Befree stand out from the crowd. The perfect accessories to express each photographers individual unique photographic style.


And promotional video

If that one doesn’t work, choose from any of the Manfrotto 190 travel series.

How do you choose on your own?

Here are questions you should ask when you evaluate a tripod. There are no absolute right or wrong answers, just what may be right for you.

What is the total height of the tripod? When all the legs are extended, how tall does it stand? I saw some great looking tripods that extend just under five feet. I’m six feet tall, so I’d have to bend over to look through my viewfinder with them. That would get old fast. I need something taller. That size might be perfect for someone else.

What is the total height when the middle column is fully extended. This is your total functional available height. While you might be able to hoist your camera an additional six to 12 inches, in some conditions that might not be a good idea. It will amount to less stability. Long exposure shots on windy days would be frustrating.

What is the lowest level you can use the tripod? You might be able to extend all three legs outward to let you get a sturdy base just inches off the ground. If you shoot lots of flowers or macro, this could be appealing for you.

What is the total weight of the tripod? When you have it all packed up, how much weight do you really want to cart around?

What is the size when it is all folded? Can you attach it to your camera bag, or does it need its own separate container? This might be important if you intend to go hiking.

How much weight can it sustain? This is one of the more important issues. If you purchase a large DSLR and then attach a heavy 70-200 f/2.8 lens, please make sure your tripod can comfortably hold that weight. It doesn’t make sense to skimp on a light tripod and put $5,000 of gear at risk.

Is it made of aluminum or carbon fiber? Both can be sturdy, but the carbon fiber will be noticeably lighter.

Are the legs made up of three sections or four? How many sections will you extend when the legs are all down? Four sections usually means you can collapse to a smaller, easier to carry size. Three sections will be a little longer carrying size, but it will be more sturdy when you are shooting.

What kind of resistance do you get to moving the tripod legs? When you hold the tripod horizontally, just gripping one of the legs, does the other one drop easily on its own? If so, you might want a little more resistance.

Are you shooting more stills or video? If I'm shooting stills, the compact models might work. If I'm planning for video, I'll want something more sturdy. 

Tripods are one of the essential camera accessories when you start to take your work seriously. Which one you pick up might be the difference between whether you are driving straight to your shoot or hiking several miles up a mountain to get to it. Choose wisely.