9 Best Travel Tripods: What’s the best tripod? The one you take with you!

by Jason Schneider

posted Friday, May 1, 2015 at 4:07 PM EST


It’s a lot easier to shoot sharp handheld pictures nowadays with the latest crop of digital cameras delivering commendable imaging performance at high sensitivities ranging from ISO 1600 to 6400 and beyond, and many systems providing effective in-camera or in-lens image stabilization.

However the tripod is still the greatest photographic accessory ever invented, and any serious enthusiast or pro that places a high value on image quality should take one along or have one available to press into service whenever it’s needed.

A lightweight travel tripod will fit easily into a camera bag, airline carry-on, or backpack. Hikers, boaters, wildlife shooters, travel photographers, photojournalists, and anyone else that hoofs it over fairly long distances with a camera bag on their shoulder will also benefit from having a high quality, lightweight, compact travel tripod. To help you decide which travel tripod is best for you, we’ll first define the characteristics of the ideal travel tripod, and then present eight enticing alternatives running the gamut from basic cheapies to luxury high-tech models.

What exactly is a travel tripod anyway?

While there is no rigorous, ironclad definition of what constitutes a travel tripod I have come up with my own, based on decades of using them and writing about them, so here goes. In my opinion, to qualify as a travel tripod the unit should have a minimum folded length of 24 inches or less (preferably under 20 inches), a maximum total weight of 4 pounds or so including the head, and extend to at least 50 inches in height without extending the center column more than three quarters of its total vertical length.

Tripods that can attain true eye-level height of 60+ inches without overextending their center columns get plus points, as do models that fold to 18 inches or less. In general, if you plan to carry the tripod inside your camera bag the shorter the folded length the better -- providing that the tripod in question provides good stability and leg stops which keep the extended legs securely in position. No travel tripod will provide the Gibraltar-like stability of a large, heavy studio tripod, but that big kahuna in your closet will not do you much good when you’re in the trenches on location.

Travel Tripod Materials

Carbon fiber, magnesium, and titanium are great stuff. All are lighter in weight and typically stronger than aluminum. Carbon fiber is rigid and easy to grip in frigid temperatures without losing skin. However all these materials are quite a bit more expensive than aluminum, and their weight advantage, while considerable with larger tripods, may not be all that great when you compare the weights of more compact tripods. By all means buy a carbon fiber/magnesium/titanium travel tripod if that’s what you want and can afford it, but a well-designed aluminum tripod can be as stable and may cost far less.


Heads for Travel Tripods

Many travel tripods come with heads included; with others, the head is a separate accessory. With the latter, make sure to include the head when calculating folded length, maximum height, and weight. In general, ball heads stow more compactly and are lighter in weight than comparable three-way heads with a panning handle, but the latter are usually more convenient for shooting video or panning to follow the action. Some ball heads do provide convenient panning action using separate locks for the ball orientation and swivel actions. Check the specs.


A majority of compact travel tripods have twist-lock legs, which are self-adjusting and ensure maximum compactness when folded, but some have flip-locks that are a little quicker to set up and fold. Most have four-section or five-section legs so they can fold to the minimum length possible. An engineer will tell you that the more leg sections a tripod has, the less its inherent stability, but as a practical matter, the number of leg sections has only a minimal effect on torsional rigidity (the resistance to deformation by twisting), and should not be a major consideration. Leg diameter is important however, and all things being equal larger-diameter legs do enhance stability.

Center posts

Almost all compact travel tripods have simple lift-and-set center posts rather than geared ones, which are usually heavier and bulkier. Many of these center posts are fairly long to achieve a reasonable maximum shooting height. However, the ironclad rule of tripods (which applies to all size and weight classes!) is that the higher you elevate the center post, the more stability is compromised. This consideration is especially critical with compact travel tripods, which tend to have relatively small-diameter center posts. The bottom line: Do not extend the center post any more than you have to, especially when shooting with long lenses, and preferably not more than 4–6 inches at most. If this means bending down a bit rather than shooting at eye level, it’s a small price to pay for the added rigidity. If the tripod provides a hook at the bottom of the center post, hanging a weight (camera bag, etc.) can enhance stability quite a bit, and holding your free hand lightly but firmly on the yoke at the top of the legs at the instant of exposure can also help.

Other useful features

Tripods with positive leg stops that let you adjust the leg angle at two or three positions are very convenient when positioning the tripod on uneven terrain. Bubble levels on the head and yoke are a convenience when shooting landscapes and architecture, and a compass can be handy. Adjustable leg tips that provide spikes or points for use outdoors and rubber cushions for indoor use are a plus, as is a reversible two-piece center post that provides grounder capability. There are now a number of ingenious tripods with top-hinged legs that pivot 180 degrees on the yoke to achieve considerably more compact dimensions when folded, a concept pioneered by the superb (and expensive!) Gitzo Traveler.

Travel Tripod Roundup

Davis & Sanford Traverse TR553-P228

This versatile new ultra-portable fits easily in virtually any camera bag or backpack, folding to a mere 12 inches by pivoting its legs back 180 degrees over its easy-glide center post.

Weighing in at only 2.6 pounds complete with Dual-Control ball head with calibrated base and Arca-Swiss-compatible quick release, this aluminum tripod extends to 53 inches and has a robust carrying capacity of 10 pounds, perfect for consumer DSLRs, mirrorless, and point-and-shoot cameras.

Its sturdy 23mm-diameter five-section legs have freeze-proof rubberized twist locks, three-position independent leg-angle adjustments, foam-cushioned insulators and rubberized leg tips. Other features include aluminum alloy construction, a durable black anodized finish, and an included, padded carrying bag.

Users say: Most users say that they’re very satisfied with the performance of this compact tripod and ball head. Frequent comments are that it provides a stable shooting platform, attaches firmly to the camera, and that its robust head provides an extensive range of motion for travel, landscape, and portrait applications and  night photography.

Bottom line: A really great deal on a very solidly-made and super-compact travel tripod.

List price:
$115 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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Gitzo GK1580RQR5 Series 1 Traveler 6x Carbon Fiber Tripod with Magnesium Center Ball Head

This Gitzo Traveler is the ultimate travel tripod for those who demand the best. It’s the latest version of the tripod that started the whole compact travel tripod revolution years ago, and is extremely sturdy and rigid and with a princely price to match.

Its folded length is only 13.8 inches thanks to its 5-section twist-lock legs, but it extends to a nearly-eye-level 58.7 inches and gets down to 11.8 inches with its legs spread in their shortest position. It weighs just 2.6 pounds complete with Center Ball Head with QR plate and smooth-operating PFTE-treated ball and bushings, and has an impressive load capacity of 12.1 pounds.

Other features include a reversible center column, anti-leg-rotation system, counterweight hook (hang a weight from the center column, to increase stability and damp vibrations), removable rubber feet, independent leg-spread adjustments, and advanced vibration-absorbing 6x carbon fiber construction.

Users say: Word of mouth on this tripod is very positive, approving of its high quality, compact lightweight folding design, convenience, and stability.  It’s most commonly used for travel and landscape photography, and occasionally for shooting video and night shots.

Bottom line: If you're looking for the ultimate travel tripod, the Gitzo Traveler Series 1 is probably it!

List price:
$900 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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Sunpak VideoPro-M 4 Video Tripod

Featuring a two-way fluid-effect pan head designed for video shooting, this sturdy, economical aluminum tripod is also suitable for shooting still images. It has four-section, 1.15-inch-diameter flip-lock legs, extends from 23.1 inches to an eye level 65 inches, folds to 24.4 inches for storage, and features a geared center column with hand crank, bull’s-eye bubble level, self-leveling rubber feet, a spring-loaded video indexing pin, and radial leg braces. It provides a load-carrying capacity of 11 pounds and weighs in at four pounds on the nose.

Users say: Comments on this tripod are generally favorable, with users saying it’s a good value, easy to set up, and extends to true eye level height. Some noted that the panning action of its fluid-effect head is not nearly as smooth as a true fluid head with variable damping, but that its tilting action is very smooth. The consensus is that it’s a good, budget priced all-rounder for shooting stills and occasional video.

Bottom line: A good choice if you're looking for an entry-level tripod with smoother panning ability for video, but that comes at the cost of increased weight and bulk. If panning for video is less of a concern and you can afford the ~$40 street price difference (as of this writing), the excellent Davis & Sanford model at the top is much lighter and much more compact.

List price:
$100 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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Manfrotto BeFree Compact Carbon Fiber Tripod (Black)

This cool looking, high-style travel tripod is more than just a good looker. Its 4-section flip-lock legs provide a maximum height of 48.4 inches even without extending the center column and it gets up to 56.7 inches with the column extended.

It also provides a useful minimum height setting of 13.4 inches and folds to a portable 15.75 inches for easy packing. The BeFree provides a load capacity of 8.8 pounds despite weighing it at only 2.4 pounds and has independent leg spread positions at 25 and 51 degrees.

The ball head is made of aluminum alloy and includes a 200PL quick release plate and ¼-inch x 20 threaded stud. The rapid (sliding) aluminum center column is 3-faceted to resist unwanted twisting and it’s a hefty 22mm in diameter.

Users say: People who’ve used this tripod are favorably impressed with its lightweight compactness, and ease of use, and most say it’s a very good choice for travel, landscape, and wildlife/outdoor photography. One user did feel that it was too heavy, though (at only 2.4 pounds?), and that the ball head was not up to supporting a heavy DSLR with a long lens.

Bottom line: The Manfrotto BeFree is a great choice for a lightweight carbon fiber tripod from a manufacturer with a long history and solid reputation.

List price:
$350 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
A slightly heavier all-aluminum version is available at a list price of $200.
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Davis & Sanford TR654C–36 Traverse Carbon Fiber Grounder Tripod

This popular compact travel tripod, which has a few iterations in aluminum, is now available in a carbon fiber grounder version ("grounder" refers to a tripod able to get down to very low shooting heights) that extends to full eye-level height. Designed to accommodate DSLR, mirrorless, and point & shoot cameras this four-section grounder folds to 18.5 inches for optimum storage and transport, has twist-lock legs with three independent leg angle positions, foam grip cushioned insulated legs, and an Easy Glide center post with separate short center post for grounder shooting, and rubber-to-spike feet for indoor or outdoor shooting.

It has a maximum height of 65 inches for eye-level shooting and a minimum shooting height of only nine inches, plus a center post hook for hanging equipment or adding weight to increase stability. Its total weight complete with ball head is 3.25 pounds, and it has an impressive load capacity of 15 pounds, sufficient to support a pro DSLR with long lenses. A padded carrying bag is included.

Users say: Users like this compact, lightweight tripod's ease of use, robust construction, and suitability for supporting large pro-caliber DSLRs. At the same time, they note that it's versatile enough for shooting landscapes, family photos, and travel pictures.

Bottom line: An exceptional deal on a carbon-fiber travel tripod with super-low "grounder" capability, but you do gain some weight relative to other, more expensive models.

List price:
$200 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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Surui T–025X Carbon Fiber Tripod with C–10X Ball Head

An attractively styled compact lightweight tripod with upward-folding 8X carbon fiber legs, it folds to a mere 11.8 inches, extends to a maximum height of 54.5 inches and has an impressive load capacity of 13.2 pounds. A removable center column allows for low-angle shooting at a minimum height of only 10.2 inches, and the ball head includes an Arca-style quick-release plate and has separate knobs for pan and tilt functions.

Other features include five-section, four-stage legs and a feather-light weight of only 1.7 pounds. The Sirui T–025X comes with a fitted soft case and a set of tools.

List price:
$240 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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Vanguard Alta Pro 284CB 100 Carbon Fiber Tripod with SBH–100 Ball Head

This robust carbon fiber tripod is perfect for applications requiring a high load capacity -- it holds up to 18 pounds -- and it also extend to a full eye level height of 63 inches. Constructed of 6X carbon fiber (six layers of carbon fiber material), it weighs in at 3.8 pounds and folds to 21.1 inches. Its four-section quarter-twist-lock legs can be independently positioned at 25, 50, and 80 degrees and have retractable spiked feet. The center column can also be moved from 0 to 180 degrees for shooting at low or high angles. There's also a panning lock, and an SBH-100 ball head plus two QS–39 camera plates are included. The SBH–100 Ball Head features a lightweight magnesium housing, is 4.1 inches tall, weighs 15.9 ounces, and will support equipment up to 22 pounds.

Users say: Most shooters who bought this tripod were very impressed with this tripod’s field performance, noting its fast, convenient setup, strength, stability, and portability, and were pleased it came with a bag and a second quick release plate. A few said they would have liked separate knobs for locking the ball and panning motion, and noted that the bubble levels are obscured when the camera is mounted.

Bottom line: A very sturdy compact, high quality tripod with a range of ball heads available.

List price:
$400 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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Benro Aero 4 Video Travel Angel Tripod Kit

While optimized for video shooting thanks to its robust video head with separate pan and tilt adjustments, this rugged aluminum tripod with 3-section flip-lock legs is also suitable for still photography.

It has an integrated leveling platform, three adjustable leg stop angles, spiked or rubber feet, a slide-in QR6 video quick-release plate, a bubble level, and one leg that’s easily removable for use as a monopod. (A great "twofer"!)

Its height can be adjusted from 21.9 inches to an eye level 65.2 inches, and its minimum folded length is 21.7 inches for easy transport. The Aero 4 weighs 5.8 pounds and comes with a padded carrying case and strap.

Users say: Although the word of mouth on this lightweight, compact tripod  is overwhelmingly positive, praising its high value, ease of use, pro-level quality, and compatibility with a variety of camera sizes and types, there were a few complaints about the difficulty of fitting the monopod back into the tripod, and the build quality of the head.

Bottom line: The video head and extra stability cost you in terms of weight and bulk, but if you're looking a great travel tripod for video shooting at an affordable, the Benro Aero 4 is a great choice.

List price:
$380 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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MeFoto GlobeTrotter Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod Kit

This impressive lightweight travel tripod has a folded length on only 16.1 inches and weighs in at a portable 3.7 pounds including the ball head, but its five-section legs allow it to extend to an eyelevel 64.2 inches and it supports up to a hefty 26.4 pounds, sufficient to accommodate a large pro DSLR with a long lens or a pro camcorder. The legs have two-position angle adjustments, and the aluminum alloy ball head provides separate ball and pan locks, a 360-degree panning index, an integral bubble level and an Arca-Swiss-style quick-release plate. Other features include a bottom hook on a rapid center column that lets you add stabilizing weights, quick twist rubber lock grips, anti-rotation leg system, a removable leg with rubber grip which can be used as a monopod, and a tilt range of -45 degrees to +90 degrees. And... it comes in colors! The image above is of the blue version, but it also comes in standard black as well as green, red, and titanium. :)

Users say: Highly rated by end users who say it’s easy to use, durable and quick and easy to set up, enhancing its advantages of compactness, portability, and low weight.  It’s primarily used for travel, landscapes, and nature photography but also by pros for covering sport and events. A few noted that its ball head was not up to shooting with long telephotos and suggested adding a large ball head if that is your primary application.

Bottom line: A sturdy, compact tripod that gets to a true eye-level height of 64.2 inches. It may not quite be up to the challenge of a big tele, but for the weight and price, it's sturdier than many travel tripods. Plus it has a bit of style, available in five colors. :)

List price:
$400 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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Now that you have a good selection of the latest travel tripods to choose from, by all means pick the one that best meets your needs, and then use it! You’ll be amazed at the technical transformation of your still images and videos, because of the little secret that’s well known among pros -- practically any image other than an action shot on the fly can be improved by using a tripod.

It will also give you enhanced flexibility when shooting videos in low light, at lower ISO settings for better image quality, or when setting the aperture and shutter speed combination you need to give you the precise results you want to achieve.