5 Lightweight Tripods

With the increasing availability of image stabilization, many of today’s photographers may overlook the positive benefits that using a tripod can bring. Among these are:

  • Tripods hold a camera steady so longer exposures aren’t a problem. This means you may be able to shoot at lower ISO settings (for higher image quality) than you’d be forced to use if handholding the camera. You can also use smaller apertures (which lead to slower shutter speeds) for greater depth of field.
  • A tripod will hold a camera steady for very long exposures (up to 30 seconds or more), which allows you to shoot star trails, fireworks, or blur flowing water.
  • A tripod allows you to locate the camera in a position that might be awkward for handholding, such as very close to the ground.
  • A tripod holds the camera very steady. For macro work this means that you can use manual focus to precisely set the focal plane. This can be difficult when holding the camera by hand and using autofocus.
  • Using a tripod, you can set up the camera pointing at a subject (e.g., a bird feeder), then wait for the right moment to trip the shutter without worrying about aiming and focusing the camera.



4 second exposure—with the camera on a tripod, of course!

Cost and weight can understandably be issues for many photographers. So, in this review I’m going to look at 5 full size tripods, all of which cost under $90, and two of which cost less than $50, a price just about any photographer can probably afford. In addition, all are lightweight, weighing between 2 lb. and 3 lb., and all are capable of adequately supporting a small DSLR and lens at a height of at least 5 ft.


The five tripods in this review are, from left to right:

  • bogen-manfrotto_compact-action-tripod
  • benro_a150exu
  • slik_sprint-pro-II
  • slik_sprint-150
  • D&S_Vista-Voyager-Lite

Before looking at each tripod in turn, let me first define some of the parameters used in tripod specifications.

Folded Height. This is the minimum length of the tripod with the legs retracted and folded for travel. This is shown in the illustration above. For scale, the longest tripod measures about 21" when folded. Except for the Manfrotto Compact Action Tripod, the ball heads can be removed to further shorten the length for travel. With the Manfrotto tripod, the center column with the head attached can be removed.

Maximum height. This is the distance from the ground to the top of the quick release plate when the center column is fully extended. In the tangle of tripods shown below, the tallest measures about 64". Without the center column extended (which increases stability), all these tripods are in the region of 50" high.


L to R: Manfrotto, Benro, Slik Sprint Pro II, Slik Sprint 150, and Vista Voyager Lite

Center column sections. The center column is sometimes split into two sections, one short and one long, that screw together. The short section on its own can be used to mount the camera as low as possible if the tripod legs can be spread out as shown below. Of the tripods reviewed here, only the Manfrotto has legs that can’t be fully spread.


Reversible center column. This allows the camera to be mounted upside down between the legs. This can be useful to get the camera low or when shooting macro subjects on the ground.


Load Capacity. This is a tricky one to define or measure. It’s a manufacturer-supplied estimate of the maximum weight the tripod can carry without compromising stability too much. Although, what constitutes “too much” stability loss is open for debate. It is not the weight at which the tripod will collapse. Presumably it’s the rating with the tripod fully extended. However, few manufacturers specify the conditions under which they determine load capacity. I’ve heard it said (perhaps jokingly) that the load capacity is half of the weight that will collapse the tripod and twice the weight that it can actually hold stably!

Note that you need higher stability to shoot with a long telephoto lens than you do to shoot with a wideangle lens, even if they weigh the same. Note also, however, that stability increases if the center column is not raised and further increases if the legs are not fully extended. There’s no rule that you have to shoot with the camera at eye level, so if shooting with a heavier and longer lens, don’t extend the tripod legs if you don’t have to.

Spiked Feet. Some tripods simply have rubber pads on the feet, while others have spikes with rubber surrounds that can be screwed out to cover the spikes if you’re using the tripod on a surface that the spikes could damage. The spikes might increase stability in some surfaces by making sure the feet don’t slip.

Ball Head. A ball head uses a plate attached to a ball for camera support. The ball can rotate and tilt up, down, and side to side so it allows a great degree of freedom in pointing the camera, and the camera can be rapidly positioned. With 3 axis heads (“pan and tilt”) each axis has to be adjusted and locked separately, so they are slower to aim. Expensive ball heads have variable friction so that you can smoothly adjust the camera position and not have it flop over when you let go of it. However, small, inexpensive ball heads like the ones used in the tripods in this review tend to be locked or unlocked with nothing much in-between. Expensive ball heads also often have a separate rotation control so that the ball can be locked in position and then the head can be rotated right and left (i.e., for taking panoramic shots). Again, the inexpensive ball heads on the tripods in this review do not have this feature.

3-Way Head. None of the tripods reviewed here have a 3-way head. A 3-way head has individual controls for up/down and left/right motions, as well as clockwise/anti-clockwise tilt. That means that there are three locks to unlock and relock if you want to re-aim the camera. A ball head has just one lock/unlock control and so is much quicker to use.


Manfrotto Compact Action Tripod

The bogen-manfrotto_compact-action-tripod is unique in this group of tripods in that it’s the only one advertised as a “Photo/Video” tripod. Of course any tripod can be used for video, but the Compact Action has a “pistol grip” ball head that’s particularly suitable for video, where panning to follow action is often required. This can be easier with a pistol type ball head than a regular ball head. The Compact Action’s head has a feature that can be engaged that stops the head tilting from side to side, allowing only “up and down” and “left and right” motion. While there is some play in the mechanism, it may nevertheless be useful for video panning, and the handle of the grip gives better control than holding the camera.

As a tripod, the Compact Action folds to the shortest length of the tripods reviewed here due to its five section legs. (The other tripods reviewed here all have four section legs.) The downside of more sections is that stability is reduced slightly. The Compact Action has the lowest rated load capacity of 3.3 lb.

The legs of the Compact Action are limited to one position, 21 degrees, and so cannot be splayed out to lower the tripod (and because the center column is one piece, even if the legs could be splayed out, the center column would have to be extended). The angles can be individually adjusted between zero and 21 degrees, which means they can’t be splayed out to lower the tripod height. In turn, this means the camera can’t be positioned close to the ground without reversing the center column and hanging the camera upside down from the head. In this position the pistol grip would be more difficult to use.

As far as I can tell, the head cannot be removed from the center column, so you can’t make the length shorter for travel by removing the head and you can’t change the head if you prefer a more conventional ball head or 3-way head.


Benro A150EXU

The benro_a150exu seems to be a well built tripod. It has a two section reversible center column for low level work and the legs can be opened to any angle, with three fixed stop positions. There’s a bubble level on the head and the feet have spikes with retractable rubber covers. The QR plate locks into position firmly and is easy to attach to a camera. It doesn’t come with any type of carrying bag, however, which all the other tripods reviewed here do. The ball head can be removed should you want to change it or to make the tripod smaller for travel.


Slik Sprint Pro II

The slik_sprint-pro-II is the lightest tripod in this group, but only just. The legs can be opened to any angle, with three fixed stop positions. The center column is two sections and reversible. The QR plate is held firmly by the locking mechanism of the head, and overall the tripod feels well built. The Slik Pro II comes with a non-padded carrying bag. The ball head can be removed should you want to change it or to make the tripod smaller for travel.


Slik Sprint 150

The slik_sprint-150 is actually pretty similar to the Slik Sprint Pro II. It’s slighty heavier and slightly longer when collapsed. The head has a slightly larger QR plate and has dual axis levels, and it’s also slightly larger than the head on the Sprint Pro II. The whole tripod is rated to carry 0.2 lb. more (4.6 lb. vs. 4.4 lb.). It’s also about $30 less expensive than the Sprint Pro II.

The legs can be set to any angle, with three fixed stops, and the center column is two sections and reversible. The Sprint 150 also comes with a non-padded carrying bag. The ball head can be removed should you want to change it or to make the tripod smaller for travel.


Davis & Sanford Vista Voyager Lite

The D&S_Vista-Voyager-Lite is the largest and heaviest tripod in this group, but it is still small enough and light enough not to be too much of a burden to carry. It’s also the tallest by a very small margin and has a load rating of 10 lb., more than twice as much as any of the other tripods. It has a larger leg diameter than the others, which probably accounts for both the higher load rating and the higher weight. Be cautious about the weight rating, though. Even though an EOS 5D Mark III plus an EF 500/4L IS II USM weigh about 9.7 lb. and the Vista Voyager is rated for 10 lb., it would not be a good choice of tripod. It wouldn’t collapse, but it wouldn’t be capable of holding such a long lens and camera adequately steady.

The leg set has a bubble level and a compass in the boss, plus another bubble level in the head. The leg angle is continuously adjustable, with three fixed positions, and the center column is both reversible and two section, so the camera can be mounted close to the ground with the legs splayed out and the short section of the center column in use. The legs have spikes with retractable rubber covers.

The head unscrews from the center column (1/4-20 thread) if you either want to change it or minimize the tripod length for travel. A padded carrying bag with a full length zipper and adjustable shoulder strap is included with the tripod.


Conclusions

All of these tripods can be used to support a small digital camera, video camera, or a small DSLR with a moderate lens. If the center column isn’t raised and the legs aren’t fully extended, the weight load can be increased, though the small ball heads might not be able to lock a heavy off-balance load at an angle. That means there’s really no “wrong” choice. All of these tripods will hold your camera steadier than you can (even with image stabilization).

It’s very hard to measure the stability of a tripod, so it’s not really possible to rank these tripods in order of stability. The Vista Voyager Lite may be slightly more stable than the others since it uses a larger leg diameter and is slightly heavier than the others (which is reflected in it’s higher rated load), but the other four tripods seem to have very similar stability. None of these tripods is “rock solid” when fully extended—which is consistent with their weight and price—but all are certainly adequate for a small camera and offer much higher stability than handholding. It also depends on what you are using your tripod for. If you are looking for the best tripods for landscape and night photography for example, then sturdiness and lightweight matter even more.

So the most stable tripod and the one with the highest rated load capacity (10 lb.) is the D&S_Vista-Voyager-Lite, though that comes at the expense of the highest weight and longest collapsed length. If you have a heavier camera and lens, it might be the best choice if size and weight aren’t an issue. It has a hook attached to the bottom of the center column from which you can hang a weight to further increase stability. It’s also the only tripod with bubble levels on both the legs and the head. Plus it has a compass built in, which may help you if you’re carrying it and get lost in the woods . . . Lots of features for under $50.

The bogen-manfrotto_compact-action-tripod might be a good choice if you have a fairly light camera and shoot mostly video. For still photography the one position legs and one piece center column make it significantly less versatile than the others, and personally I don’t really like the pistol grip head for use with still cameras (though it can be useful for video). The head on the Compact Action can’t be changed.

The remaining three tripods, the benro_a150exu, the slik_sprint-pro-II, and the slik_sprint-150 are very similar in size, weight, and stability. There’s really not a difference between them on those grounds. If I had to make a choice, personally I’d go with the Slik Sprint 150. It’s the least expensive, has a 2 axis level on the head, has the largest QR plate, and has the largest ball head. It doesn’t have spiked feet, so if you really want that feature, the Benro would be the alternative. The Slik Sprint Pro II is very slightly smaller and lighter than the Slik Sprint 150 or the Benro, but it’s significantly more expensive and has a smaller area QR plate and smaller ball head.

Full Specifications of these 5 Tripods

  Manfrotto Compact Action Benro A150EXU Slik Sprint Pro II Slik Sprint 150 D&S Vista Voyager Lite
Street Price $69.88 $66.00 $89.95 $59.95 $49.88
Measured Weight 1172 g (2.58 lb.) 988 g (2.18 lb.) 954 g (2.10 lb.) 1058 g (2.33 lb.) 1368 g (3.02 lb.)
Folded Height 17.8" 20.5" 18.5" 19.9" 21"
Max Height Extended 61" 63.19" 63.6" 64.3" 63"
Load Capacity 3.3 lb. 4.4 lb. 4.4 lb. 4.6 lb. 8 lb.
Removable Head No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Quick Release Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Boss Material Plastic Metal Metal Metal Metal
Head Type Photo/Video Grip Ball Ball Ball Ball
Leg Sections 5 4 4 4 4
Leg Positions 1 (21 degrees) 3 3 3 3
Center Column Sections 1 2 2 2 2
Reversible Center Column Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Leg Locks Flip, plastic Flip, plastic Flip, plastic Flip, plastic Flip, plastic
Level on Legs No No No No Yes + compass
Level on Head No Yes, bubble No Yes, dual axis Yes, bubble
Carrying Bag Included, padded No Included Included Included, padded
Spiked/Retractible Feet No Yes No No Yes

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    • It is possible to measure stability of tripods in terms of whacking the combination (e.g. a weight on a string, attached to the tripod head, drop the weight from a fixed height) and then measuring the time it takes for the image to stabilize.

      I did something very similar when I put a telescope and equatorial mount on top of several tripods. It was fairly easy to measure stability.

      The takeaway I had was that the Chinese tripods (even the upmarket ones like Sirui) overstated their rated loads compared to Gitzo and Berlebach.

      Also, the quantitatively "best" tripods in terms of performance, weight, and length are those from Gitzo. The 5-series Systematics are particularly impressive, with their 50+ lb rated loads and sub-5 lb weight. They unfortunately have equally impressive prices. But you really do get what you pay for.

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    • It would be possible to devise a "stability" test as you describe, but probably not worth it for $50 tripods. I've done something similar in the past for measuring mirror induced vibrations. I glued a mirror to the camera and reflected a laser off the mirror onto a linear photodiode array which measured the beam deflection as a function of time. Giving each one the same "standard impulse" would need some thought. There are also two factors to be measured, total deflection and damping. Both would depend on the weight of the camera/lens combination which was mounted on the tripod, so it's not just a simple single measurement.

      For these tripods I just mounted a camera and lens and made visual estimates of the stability, all of which looked much the same. If I was comparing two $1000 tripods it might be worth the effort of setting up a rather more complex measurement system.

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