When I travel by plane with my camera gear I usually check a larger bag with my mid-size Gitzo Mountaineer carbon fiber tripod packed inside, and then I bring my camera and lenses on the plane with me. This system has worked well for years. The tripod is protected, sandwiched between layers of clothing. As long as my luggage isn’t lost I arrive with a sturdy and somewhat light tripod capable of handling anything. However, at the eleventh hour while preparing for a light weight trip to Costa Rica, I discovered that my usual strategy wasn’t going to work.
For this trip I wasn’t going to need much clothing and would also be moving about frequently through rugged terrain on various modes of transportation with limited space so I decided that I would use a single, carry-on back pack to carry all my possessions. Three days before the trip I decided that I should probably do a test pack to make sure I had everything and that the carry-on backpack system was going to fly (pun intended).
I found that I had plenty of room for all my clothes and could also pack my camera, lens and other photo gear in a small f-Stop padded cell inside the pack. I was somewhat stunned, however, to discover that while my carry-on approved pack was about 23 inches long, my tripod (with ballhead removed) was 26 inches. There was no possible way to fit the tripod inside. I considered strapping it to the outside. I have done this successfully in the past when carrying on smaller camera bags. Since not all air lines will allow carrying on an attached tripod and since the pack was already pushing the carry-on dimension limit anyway, I decided that I didn’t want to risk it.
Scrambling, I quickly got online and searched B&H and Adorama for small tripods. Most of the tripods I could find that would fit in my pack were of the super cheap aluminum variety. I have tried these before and found that they aren’t sturdy enough to be useful with a heavy SLR, don’t have independent legs and don’t have any way to attach a ballhead with a 3/8 inch thread. Finally I found an aluminum/magnezium tripod that was just under 18 inches long and appeared to be somewhat well built. It was from a company I had not heard of before called Benro. If at around $80 it turned out to be lacking in strength or quality at least I wasn’t breaking the bank. I had it shipped over night.
When the Benro A0580F arrived just hours before my departure I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much. But taking it out of the box I was pleasantly surprised. The build quality, materials and features were quite excellent, especially for the price. The leg angles could be adjusted independently. The quick locks on the leg segments were built well and worked as they should. The ballhead mount was sturdy and secure. It even had several nice features that don’t always come on much more expensive tripods such as a bubble level and compass, interchangeable metal spike and rubber feet, a reversible center column, padded foam grip and padded carrying/storage case. Most importantly, it easily fit inside my carry-on.
During the trip I successfully used it to take long exposure images at twilight, deep in the cloud forest and even at night. Admittedly it isn’t the same as having a full sized tripod. While it proved sturdy enough to hold my Canon 5D Mark III with a 24-105 mm lens, at full extension (especially with the center column extended) there is some tendency for shake if you aren’t careful. Using a cable release mitigated this issue in all but very windy conditions. Also, the trade off of a tripod that collapses to less than 18 inches is that, when fully extended (without the center column) it only elevates my camera to about chest height. Bending over to look through the view finder wasn’t ideal, but seeing the live view mode on the rear screen was no problem.
In the end my last minute emergency purchase turned out to be a good one and I’ll be keeping the Benro in my line up for future use as well. I’m completely happy with the quality and features, and the fact that it can deliver sharp images despite it’s minimal size will prove it’s worth many times in the future. In addition to fitting inside a carry-on pack it only weighs 2.6 pounds, just a little more than half as much as my 4.65 pound Gitzo Mountaineer. This makes it very attractive for lightweight backpacking trips as well. Benro even makes a carbon fiber version that shaves the weight down to 2.1 pounds.
When I returned home I was so happy with my purchase that I decided to see what else Benro had to offer. All of their tripods are small and light. The largest has a collapsed length of just 24 inches (still smaller than my Gitzo) and a weight of about five pounds (for aluminum). Most intriguing is their line of Travel Flat tripods. These lay flat when folded, to even better fit within luggage, and they are just as short and even lighter than their traditional tripod designs. Perhaps on a future trip I’ll have another “emergency” so I can try one of these out.
I’m sure there are other good small and light tripods. If you have a travel tripod that you love please share in the comments below.