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Travel Tripod Selection – January 2018

 

The Bachelor: Tripod Edition

by Rick Zeleznik

So, from a backstory perspective, I’m currently prepping for a trip overseas and it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit tripod selections.  I rarely write about anything, let alone shopping endeavors, but a couple of the tripods that I was focused on didn’t seem to have a ton of press and I figured that sharing what I was seeing might be useful to someone, somewhere manically pouring over specs and amazon reviews – just as I’ve been.

Like many, I’d made a choice several years ago that “my” tripod would be a travel tripod.  I certainly had access to a larger setup, but I knew that it was too impractical to trust that id have it when I needed it – barring VERY specific outings.  So, when I was shopping for my “go to” tripod, I was looking explicitly at those that on the larger side of the travel pods at the time… sort of splitting the difference.  Granted, this was several years ago and I wasn’t looking to spend a lot of money.   Now, a decade or so later, I have a much better sense of what I wanted and didn’t want, but I still wasn’t interested in dropping a fortune on a tripod. That’s a subjective datapoint, but I was definitely intent on spending less than $300.

My high-level criteria were:

  • Small enough to take in a carry-on bag
  • Tall enough to comfortable in extended-use (for my height / 6’)
  • Reliable ball-head to support a Nikon D750 & a variety of lenses
  • Light enough to give me a sense that I was getting something lighter than my existing tripod (kind of abstract, but it’s what was in my head)

I wasn’t necessarily concerned with shopping for ball-heads as I’d done in the past because the stock heads on the ones I was looking at would (probably) be sufficient and I couldn’t go to crazy with heads since it would affect the ability to fold the tripod up on its center column.  That said, I did intend to use my Really Right Stuff clamp / quick-release (B2-40-LR).  I fell in love with it a little while ago and it seems to add a very real sense of stability and mental comfort to whatever ball-head I put it on.  I also wasn’t fixated on the monopod aspect of many of these tripods – I get the trend and I get the design coolness of baking into the tripod, but – for me, more than 90% of what I do is long/longish exposure work and a monopod isn’t conducive to that.

Blah Blah Blah… eventually, I narrowed it down to this short-list that I was trying to pick from.

In the order of exclusion:

Manfrotto 190Go

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - Manfrotto 190Go!

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - Manfrotto 190Go!

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - Manfrotto 190Go!

Manfrotto 190go!

Price:  $369

The carbon fiber Manfrotto looks like a really nice piece of gear, but at 3.9 lbs. it was also one of the heaviest tripods I’d considered.  That, combined with a (comparatively) low load weight rating of 13.2 lbs. and a hefty $369 price tag, got it voted off the island pretty early on.  All of the other tripods I was looking at had much higher weight ratings - and I realize that the max load numbers of the Manfrottos lean towards the lower side.  It makes me want to trust it more, but I just wasn't feeling it.

Since the deck seemed so stacked against it, I didn’t even end up playing with it in person.  B&H had a sale earlier this week that offered the 190Go! without the head for $269.

I also looked (briefly) at the BeFree line, but the aspect of it that I was most interested in, bit me - literally.  The rotating switch at the top of each leg to adjust leg angles looked like it might be the easiest to use vs. the mechanisms on the other tripods.  My conclusion was that it must be one of those things that I would have to get used to - all I know is that the first time that I tried to intuitively adjust the legs, I ended up pinching my finger pretty good.  Other than than, it seemed to share many of the issues that I had with the 190Go!.

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - MeFoto Roadtrip Air

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - MeFoto Roadtrip Air

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - MeFoto Roadtrip Air

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - MeFoto Roadtrip Air

MeFoto Roadtrip Air

Price:  $175

The Roadtrip Air was the most compelling on paper.  At 2.5 lbs., it was the lightest tripod in consideration.  I have friends that have had good experiences with the “Classic” variant of the MeFoto Roadtrip, and this looked like its newer, better brother.

Aside from the weight, the other thing that I was super interested in was the “HyperLock” leg locking system.  The proposition of having a single lock to play with per leg would be a coup when it comes to on the go shooting opportunities.  I figure 1-3 seconds per lock, going down to a single lock per leg could be the difference between getting the shot and not.  It seemed too good to be true… and (for me at least) it was.

The Roadtrip Air was crazy light and folded up to a very dainty 11.4”.  The stock ball-head seemed more than capable and the fit & finish was pretty nice.  It, like many include the ability to unscrew one of the legs and attach it to the center column directly as a monopod, but they also include a little Bluetooth remote so you could use it as a selfie stick.  Always a fan of added utility... but it’s not something that I saw myself using.

I REALLY REALLY wanted to love this tripod (for the reasons just listed), but I found myself unable to trust the HyperLock leg system.  With a mirrorless camera, I could easily imagine being more comfortable with it, but I felt like I was constantly worrying that my D750 would take a header into the pavement if I wasn’t HyperCareful.  Granted, I never actually had the legs collapse on me while using it, but I did notice the legs loosening by themselves when the tripod was collapsed.  Best I could figure, even that only happened when bumped while handling.  But… it only takes one time if there’s a camera on it and it would turn into a REALLY bad day.  In the end, it just wasn’t a risk that I was willing to take.

Its a shame.  This tripod was nicely made and as travel-ready as any tripod I've ever seen.  MeFoto deserves props for trying something new with the leg system.  As I said earlier, if they can pull it off, it would be an absolute coup for on-the-go shooting, but I just don't think they're there quite yet.  Innovations like this will change the landscape a lot - I'm just not ready to trust it yet.

Given its size & weight, I was tempted to keep this tripod around to serve as a very capable light stand, but at $175, it just wouldn't have made sense.

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - 3 Legged Thing Punks Corey

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - 3 Legged Thing Punks Corey

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - 3 Legged Thing Punks Corey

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - 3 Legged Thing Punks Corey

3 Legged Thing Punks Corey

Price:  $199

The Punks Corey was the 2nd to last tripod that I had delivered (importance of that fact to follow).  The brand isn’t huge, but my sense (from their site and some videos that I had found) was that they were doing some pretty cool things.  The strange nomenclature to their product line was quirky and truth be told, probably added to the difficulty in finding reviews of specific models.  There definitely didn’t seem to be a high number of comparison videos or in-depth reviews and the reviews that I did find weren’t exactly glowing.

Specifically, the comparison of a different / more expensive 3 Legged Thing by Tony Northrup (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p37OLkOSN70) to a couple other more main-stream tripods, gave me real hesitation and honestly made me re-think my willingness to go away from the clasp/lever type leg locks.  I started to fixate on the idea.  I’ve always had those locks and they do give a sense of absolute certainty – they’re either open or closed… no grey area - whereas any twist lock has to be verified with touch, that clasps could be confirmed visually.

By the time I got my hands on the Corey, I was actually pretty excited to see it in-person.  I’d gotten past my leg lock fears and the specs appeared to be perfectly suited for the city-wandering that I was about to do.  What I found was that 3 Legged Thing makes a product that they really really care about.  Fit & finish was remarkable for the $199 price tag and it just felt ultra-double-happy solid.  I couldn’t stop playing with it, every aspect feeling incredibly engineered.

The 5 (total) leg sections allow it to be VERY small when folded up.  At 13.7”, it felt tiny.  The color scheme was funky and all of the 3 Legged Things have their patented “Tri-Mount Plate”, which gives you 3 built-in mount points at the base of the center column.  Whether it would be throwing a carabiner on there to hang it from a pack, mounting a carrying strap to or hanging accessories from it – I was convinced that it was something that I wanted in my life.

3 Legged Thing doesn’t include the other feet-types (spikes, claws, etc.) like some of the other brands in that price range, but I didn’t find myself to put off by that.  To me, the rubber feet that come stock represent the lion-share of the types of shooting that I find myself doing – and generally speaking, I can usually find something environmental to make my setup work.  If you’re a freelance ice road trucker on a budget, this might be a compelling reason to buy something else - or just pay the money for the accessory feet, but I couldn’t care less.

Even though it’s a little smaller than what I’m used to, the stock ball head (AirHead Neo) felt more than adequate with the D750 on it armed with a 70-300mm lens.  Throughout this ordeal, I’m making a concentrated effort to be open minded about ball size, since the mobile/trustworthy sweetspot seems to be taking me down a road where I'm at the mercy of stock heads – at least without spending a lot more money for something I’d pick explicitly that would also conform to the shape/sizes of things when the tripods are folded up (for those that fold up onto the center column).

I really loved this tripod, but… the max height when the center column isn’t extended was just too low for me.  At 6’ I think this tripod would have meant way more time bent over than I’d prefer.  It also wasn’t as light as I’d hoped, but this thing felt soo nice in the hand that I was willing to overlook that – but I just couldn’t get past the height.

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - MeFoto Roadtrip Classic

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - MeFoto Roadtrip Classic

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - MeFoto Roadtrip Classic

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - MeFoto Roadtrip Classic

MeFoto Roadtrip Classic

Price:  $165-$199 (depending on color)

This was the first tripod that I tested.  The relatively low price of $189 combined with the aesthetically awesome orange color scheme had me totally psych’d.  The brand has been around for a few years now and I know people that use them.   The 15.4” when folded made it more than happy in a carry-on bag and easily stowable otherwise.  My first impression when I took it out of the box was that it was the one for me.  Hell, at that point, I had no intentions to try anything else.

Irrespective of any of the words that follow - this is an unmistakably respectable piece of gear.  The build quality was pretty great.  Everything felt solid & well put together.  It came with extra spiked feet (even if I wasn’t looking for it, I’m not gonna pass up a freebie) and it also did the built-in monopod thing.  Did I mention is was orange?  The heights felt right and it was plenty sturdy - I had absolutely no reservations with the D750 / 70-300mm sitting on top of it.  But, when I started doing side-by-side comparisons with my old Calumet tripod, I was finding their weights to be roughly the same in the hand.  It was certainly several inches shorter, but that would only “really” matter when it’s in my bag.  To spend a couple hundred bucks, my sights were set on something that would have more impact… something more, whether it was speed in setting it up, weight, clever features… I just felt like I needed something more if I was going to spend the money.

That’s where my strange game of “The Bachelor: Tripod Edition” started.  I set out to get my hands on more and more tripods, convinced that each one would be "the one", and each time, I found myself going back to this MeFoto Roadtrip.  Regardless of the specific pro’s & con’s, as a total package - the Roadtrip was winning out.

At the end of the day, it probably WOULD have won out if it hadn’t been for the 3 Legged Thing (3LT) Corey (insert Scooby Doo villain voice-over here). Even though I’d pick the Roadtrip over it, the 3LT Corey made such an impression on me that I wanted to try one last tripod…

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - 3 Legged Thing Punks Billy

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - 3 Legged Thing Punks Billy

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - 3 Legged Thing Punks Billy

Travel Tripods Review - Rick Zeleznik - 3 Legged Thing Punks Billy

3 Legged Thing Punks Billy

Price:  $279

As I said, the Corey made an impression… like it made me feel less cool to imagine going with the MeFoto – as if I’d be making the pure "function over form" decision for something as petty as not wanting to a sore back.  Might as well break out the pocket square & trade in my car for a beige sedan.  Unwilling to accept that fate, I started to look at their other offerings and centered on the Billy – named after its spirit animal Billy Idol (no kidding).

At $279, it was more money than I was planning on spending, but I had a some “B&H bucks” in a drawer.  The Billy is carbon fiber, which brings the weight down to 2.9 lbs. – feeling very noticeably lighter than the Roadtrip Classic or the 3LT Corey.  When folded, it comes in at a little over 17.5” which makes it a bit longer than the other tripods I was considering, but not so much so that it couldn’t just as easily be stuffed in a carry-on bag.  The specs say it has a max height of 65”, but height specs are one of the things that started ignoring.  The “real” question was at which height would I want to use a given tripod – hitting the right combo of settings/configurables where a tripod would “feel” stable/reliable – starting from the obvious default of center column not extended at all.  What I’ll say is that the Billy hits that spot for me (at 6’).  If I were 5’4”, the Corey would have probably won due to its overall tighter package – maybe… probably, but likely because I wouldn’t have wanted to spend the extra $100.

The truth is, this 3 Legged Thing Billy is everything that I set out to find.  At a glance:

  • Its super light (considerably lighter than what I’d been using for the last several years)
  • Its short enough when folded for plenty of travel options
  • It feels strong/sturdy with the D750 on it (citied to give folks a sense of comfortable weight supportability)
  • I trust the legs, locks and the included ball head
  • It includes that funky Tri-Mount plate for fun use-cases.

As I mentioned before, specific reviews for this one were pretty limited, but I did find this video by Craig Skinner to be pretty helpful & entertaining (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBeU4_XCQgY).   He's showing off the "Travis" model, but (as far as I can tell) it is the same tripod as the Billy, but without the carbon fibery goodness.

Pretty much all tripods have the little hook at the bottom of the center column to suspend a weight from, etc., but that hook is closed on 3LT tripods.  That makes it much more conducive to using that as a mount point for straps, etc.  Now, you may be thinking, “yeah, but if its not an open hook, how would you easily hang things from it” – well, 3LT includes their “Toolz” multitool with each tripod.  This multitool is a carabiner that makes hanging bags/weights a snap and it has an allen wrench & screw driver built in.  This little wonder also has a bottle opener built into it.  We all have the loose allen wreches in our bags, but they’re never handy when you want them… let alone a flat head screw driver if you ever have to switch out the mount plate on the bottom of the camera.  In theory, I won’t ever have to think about those things again – it’ll always just be there hanging form my fancy new Tri-Mount plate on the center column.

The only change I made was to add my Really Right Stuff arca-swiss clamp to the 3LT ball head.  There’s a chance that I would have been just as happy (maybe) with the 3LT lever clamp, but I love the increased footprint of the RRS clamp.  Once I got my hands on it, I get the sense that it’ll probably migrate to whatever ball head I’m using in perpetuity... and having an RRS piece (however small) in my setup makes me feel fancy. #fancy

But seriously, the 3 Legged Thing Billy rocks as much as its namesake - couldn't be happier.

I'll put together a specific post reviewing this tripod more fully after I get to know it better.

Hope this helps someone :)

@rickzeleznik

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