Best tripod under £200: 8 reviewed
16th Nov 2011 | 16:29
The top affordable tripods and tripod heads
The latest DSLRs and lenses stretch the boundaries of handheld shooting. Cameras such as the Canon EOS 1100D, EOS 600D, EOS 60D and EOS 7D and Nikon D3100, D5100, D7000, and D300S offer low image noise at very high ISO ratings, enabling faster shutter speeds in dull lighting conditions, and many recent lenses boast 4-stop optical stabilisation to help fend off camera shake. So why buy a tripod?
For the ultimate in image quality, you just can't beat sticking with your camera's base sensitivity setting, typically ISO 100. And image stabilisation can be hit-and-miss, especially with long telephoto lenses or in very dull lighting conditions. With a sturdy tripod, you're assured of a stable shooting platform. But that's just the start of the story.
Positioning your camera on a tripod can help nail shot composition for best effect. Tripods are also essential when you want to keep the camera locked in place through a sequence of shots, in time-lapse photography or when taking a number of exposure-bracketed shots for creating a single HDR (High Dynamic Range) image.
Another option is to level the camera and take a series of panned photos, so you can stitch them into a panoramic image. And when you want to get into the picture, using a self-timer, a tripod comes to the rescue.
Tripod build and design
When it comes to construction, aluminium or carbon fibre are the main choices. Tripods with aluminium legs often have a little magnesium or titanium in the mix, so are technically aluminium alloy. They should be solid and dependable, provided that the legs aren't too thin.
The obvious advantage of carbon fibre tripods is that, size for size, they can be about 25% lighter than aluminium models, although this isn't always the case. They're reasonably rugged, but a sharp knock can shatter a carbon fibre leg. Both the carbon fibre tripods in this group test - the Hama Omega Carbon II and the Jessops Major - come with padded carrying bags.
Carbon fibre tripods and monopods are typically more expensive than their aluminium cousins for any given size and feature set – but bear in mind that they're steadier, too. The flexibility of the mesh-like material means they absorb vibrations, helping you get sharper shots.
Most manufacturers offer complete tripod kits, which include legs and a head. The Hama Omega Carbon II, Jessops Major, Slik PRO 500 DX Complete, Vanguard Alta Pro 263AGH and Velbon Sherpa 600R fall into this category.
Buying a kit can save you a bit of money but restricts your choice. If you buy the legs and head separately, you can get exactly the combination you want, even if it means buying the separate parts from different manufacturers.
Tripod legs and locks
Most tripods in this group have three leg sections, although the Hama Omega Carbon II has four sections. Each joint between sections is a potential weak spot that can introduce extra flexing in the leg, so fewer sections can aid stability.
With extra leg sections, the bottom ones also tend to end up being quite thin and spindly, and you need to operate more section locks when extending the tripod to its full height.
The flip side is that more leg sections enable the tripod to collapse to a smaller length for carrying. Less substantial 'travel tripods' often have four or five sections, so they can fold down really small.
For clamping each leg section during adjustment, the two choices are twist-locks or clip-locks. The latter have become far more popular, as they tend to be quicker and easier to use. The only real problem with them is that locking action firmness can be lost over time.
The ability to swing each leg out to multiple angles from the centre column is now featured on most tripods. In this group all tripods enable three different leg angles, apart from the more generous Jessops Major and Manfrotto 055XPROB + 496RC2 head, which give you four.
Multi-angle legs are great for shooting on very uneven ground or for reducing shooting height.
A neat feature of the Benro FlexPod A-297EX + BH2-M head, Giottos MTL9361B + MH1311-652 head, Manfrotto 055XPROB + 496RC2 head and Vanguard Alta Pro 263AGH tripods is that they have pivoting centre columns. This enables you to extend the column to its maximum height and then rotate it. It's great for macro shooting, as well as for ensuring you don't get tripod feet in the picture when using an ultra-wide-angle lens.
Tripod height and heads
To extend for a natural eye-level perspective, all the tripods on test give a maximum height of at least 1.61m and some stretch to around 1.9m. They also have minimum shooting heights with the tripod legs set at their normal angles, but there are cunning tricks you can use to enable really low-level shooting.
By opening the leg sections to wider angles, you can reduce the shooting height to just the length of the centre column.
To go even lower, the Slik PRO 500 DX Complete and Velbon Sherpa 600R have centre columns in which the lower sections can be removed. In all cases, you can remove the centre column completely, invert it, and shoot from ground level, with the camera upside-down, looking out from between the tripod's legs.
To save removing and refitting the centre section upside-down, the 180-degree pivot facility of the centre column in the Benro FlexPod A-297EX, Giottos MTL9361B and Vanguard Alta Pro 263AGH enables ultra-low shooting with ease.
Even so, for landscape orientation shots, you'll still end up needing to shoot with the camera upside down.
Conventional three-way heads are useful for making precise adjustments in architectural shots and photographing interiors. You typically get separate locks for pan, tilt and swivel, which enable you to make adjustments in one plane while the other two remain locked off. However, for general purpose shooting or when you want to react to situations quickly, they can be a bit fiddly and time-consuming.
Ball-and-socket heads enable freedom of movement in all planes simultaneously, with a single locking screw. This makes wide-ranging adjustments very quick and intuitive.
Some, like the Giottos MH 1311-652 head and Hama Omega Carbon II ball head, go further still with a separate lock which can be released to enable panning, while keeping tilt and swivel functions in the ball head locked. It's particularly useful for taking a series of photos that you want to stitch into a panorama image.
Another bonus, featured on all but the Benro BH2-M ball head in the group, is an adjustable friction damper, which makes the head easier to use with differing weights of camera and lens combinations.
A more modern alternative is the joystick head, often called a pistol-grip head. This is basically a ball-and-socket head with a hand grip and trigger action for releasing and reapplying the clamp. It's featured in the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AGH head on test.
Benro FlexPod A-297EX + BH2-M head
Benro FlexPod A-297EX + BH2-M head - £170/$150
Benro probably isn't the first name that springs to mind when you think tripods, but they're well engineered and immaculately finished. The combination on test isn't available as a kit but can be purchased separately as a FlexPod A-297EX aluminium tripod and BH2-M ball and socket head.
With a maximum load rating of 10kg and 8kg respectively, they're a good match and fit perfectly. Three grub screws that adjust with an allen key via the bottom of the tripod platform ensure a tight fit.
Any tripod with the word 'flex' in its name might sound a bit off-putting, but the Benro proved very solid and resistant to flexing in our tests. The three-section legs are secured by high-quality clip-locks and there are bubble-levels in tripod and head to aid levelling in setup.
It's easy to remove and invert the centre column for low-level shooting but there's no need to do this, as the pivot facility enables the centre column to swing through a complete 180-degree arc.
The mechanism for splaying the legs to any of three angles from the centre column is also quick and easy to use. There's no friction control or separate panning lock on the head but it's nevertheless solid and well built.
Giottos MTL9361B + MH1311-652 head
Giottos MTL9361B + MH1311-652 head - £160 (about $250)
Quality components and clever design combine in the aluminium Giottos MTL9361B tripod. Its maximum load rating is a hefty 8kg, so we teamed it up with the heavy-duty Giottos MH 1311-652 ball-and-socket head, which actually has an even higher load rating of 10kg.
The three-section legs have comfort padding on the top sections and feature dependable clip-locks. Build quality is excellent, with great stability even at the class-leading maximum height of 190cm, with
the centre column fully extended.
There's a bubble level on the tripod collar for easy levelling, and two spirit levels in the ball-and-socket head, which has friction adjustment and separate panning lock.
The Giottos spoils you for choice in terms of low-level shooting. As well as quick access to three leg angles, you can invert or pivot the centre column, the latter operating through a complete 180-degree range.
And if you dislike the thought of using your camera upside-down, just remove the centre column completely and use the stubby low-angle adaptor instead, although this does require detaching the platform from the centre column and refitting it to the adaptor, using the supplied allen key.
Hama Omega Carbon II
Hama Omega Carbon II - £180 (about $285)
Carbon fibre tripods are rare in this price bracket, but the Hama Omega Carbon II comes complete with a chunky ball-and-socket head – though the combined load rating is a meagre 4kg. That's the joint-lowest in the group, along with the Velbon Sherpa 600R.
The only tripod in the group to have four- rather than three-section legs, the Hama folds down to a fairly short 69cm for stowage, yet extends to a respectable maximum height of 174cm.
The trade-off is that the bottom leg sections are quite spindly, with a diameter of 16mm, and flexing is quite noticeable with the legs fully extended.
As with most tripods in the group, you can set the legs to any of three different angles, but the centre column lacks a pivot facility. There's a handy compass as well as a bubble level on the tripod collar, but no bubble or spirit levels in the ball-and-socket head to assist with levelling the camera.
The head features adjustable friction damping and a panning lock, but there's no D-ring on the quick-release plate, so you need a coin to fasten it to the camera. Connection to the camera's base plate relies on two fairly thin strips of rubber, the result being that it feels a bit wobbly in use.
Jessops Major - £80 (about $125)
Extending to a modest maximum height of 161cm, the Jessops Major just about qualifies as a full-sized tripod but is nevertheless very travel-friendly. Unlike the surprisingly weighty Hama Omega Carbon II, this carbon fibre kit weighs in at just 1.8kg including the supplied three-way head. That's about 1kg lighter than most tripods in the group.
A main factor in weight-saving is that the three-section carbon fibre legs are also quite thin, ranging from 22mm at the top to just 17mm at the bottom. The upshot is that the Jessops Major is very prone to flexing. In fact, the Hama is almost as tall as the Jessops with its bottom leg sections retracted, in which case the Hama is rather more solid.
One bonus is that the four-position multi-angle legs can be rotated to point almost vertically upwards, which is great when you need to shoot from very close to a wall. However, there's no pivot facility in the centre column, and the bubble level in the head merely duplicates the action of the one on the tripod collar.
The Jessops Major is a real weight saver, but the legs and head both feel much less stable and sturdy than of the other tripods in the group.
Manfrotto 055XPROB + 496RC2 head
Manfrotto 055XPROB + 496RC2 head - £185/$220
The heaviest combination in the group, albeit by only 100g, the aluminium Manfrotto is rugged and robust. The three-section legs have clip-locks that are ultra-firm when closed yet enable practically zero friction adjustment when released. There's very little flexing even at the maximum operating height of 187cm, very similar to the Giottos MTL9361B + MH1311-652 head.
With four leg angles to choose from, each leg can be raised to horizontal if required, courtesy of a simple push-button release. But this versatility isn't matched by the pivoting centre column arrangement where, unlike the Benro FlexPod A-297EX, Giottos MTL9361B and Vanguard Alta Pro 263AGH, there's only 90, rather than 180 degrees of rotation.
Another minus is that the centre column can only be used in vertical or horizontal positions, not at angles in between. To raise the column high enough to enable pivoting, there's a push-button release built into the bottom of the column. The trade-off is that there's no weight hook under the centre column, but a small hook is moulded into the tripod collar.
The 496RC2 ball head has an adjustable friction damper, although there's no panning lock. Even so, it's a particularly solid, high-quality head that's a great match for the tripod.
Slik PRO 500 DX Complete
Slik PRO 500 DX Complete - £130/$130
The Slik PRO 500 DX Complete's shiny metal legs are of an 'exclusive' Super Aluminium-Magnesium-Titanium construction. Slik claims this gives a 40% gain in strength-to-weight ratio, compared with standard aluminium. Even so, the tripod isn't any lighter than other aluminium-based tripods in the group, despite only offering a fairly modest maximum height of 167cm.
Build quality feels robust and the three-section legs resist flexing at all lengths. The conventional three-way head supplied in the 500 DX kit is similarly sturdy, and more convincing than the one supplied with the Jessops Major. In both cases, you need to unscrew one locking arm and screw it into the other to fit the tripods into their carry bags.
There's no pivot facility, but you can split the centre column by unscrewing its bottom section, albeit with many turns. Combined with the three-position, multi-angle legs, this enables shooting from as low as 32cm, from the base of the camera to the ground. If you need to go lower than this, the only option is removing and inverting the centre column.
The Slik PRO 500 DX Complete is well made and its 4.5kg load capacity is sufficient for most photographers, but it feels a little basic and dated at the price.
Vanguard Alta Pro 263AGH
Vanguard Alta Pro 263AGH - £195/$260
The Vanguard Alta Pro 263AGH kit is based on the excellent Velbon 263AT's legs but also includes Vanguard's GH-100 'pistol grip' head. The tripod includes all mod cons, such as three-way multi-angle legs and a pivoting centre column that rotates 180 degrees. There's a simple push-button release for switching between leg angles, and the pivot facility works extremely well.
Maximum height is a useful 175cm and, with its three-section legs, the Vanguard folds down to 73cm for carriage. There's a bubble level on the tripod collar and one on the pistol grip head, though it's placed beneath the quick-release plate, so you have to remove the camera to view it.
The pistol grip feels insubstantial compared with the tripod, despite having a 6kg load capacity. We had to tighten the adjustable friction screw as far as possible to avoid heavy cameras slipping when shooting in portrait orientation.
And while the grip offers a full range of movement, this entails removal and replacement of the quick-release plate at any of four alternative orientations, making operation rather fiddly.
Velbon Sherpa 600R
Velbon Sherpa 600R - £85/$140
Compared with the latest tripods, the venerable aluminium Velbon Sherpa 600R lacks features. There's no pivoting centre column and the operating mechanism for the three-position, multi-angle legs looks slow and antiquated, although it works well enough.
The complete kit is supplied with an old-school three-way head – with a twist. Pan and tilt mechanisms are both operated by a single locking handle, which can be a time-saver. It also avoids the need to unscrew one of two handles when packing the tripod into the supplied carry bag.
Like the Slik PRO 500 DX Complete, the Velbon's centre column can be split as well as inverted for low-level shooting. When combined with wide leg angles, you can shoot from as low as 26cm without inverting the column, keeping the camera the right way up. That compares favourably with 32cm for the Slik, but the inability to use the centre column as a horizontal boom for ultra-wide-angle or macro shooting is still a letdown in both of these tripods.
Despite being lighter in weight than most tripods in the group, at 2kg, the Velbon still offers stable support with a maximum load rating of 4kg, making it well worth the low-budget asking price.
So which is the best budget tripod available?
Most of the tripods impressed us by giving sturdy, stable support without being monstrously heavy to carry around. The Jessops Major carbon fibre tripod was rather flimsier and more prone to flexing than others but, then again, it's much lighter than most.
The only other carbon fibre tripod in the group is the Hama Omega Carbon II, but this is surprisingly heavy and lacking in advanced features, such as a pivoting centre column.
The Manfrotto 055XPROB and 496RC2 ball head proved extremely stable, but the pivoting centre column facility was comparatively limited, meaning you can only use it in vertical or horizontal orientation.
We really liked the legs of the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AGH kit, but found the pistol grip less flexible than other head designs.