Best tripod and camera support: 13 tested
24th Jan 2014 | 13:15
Light but sturdy tripods and camera supports tested
A bit of stability in life is always a good thing, especially when it comes to beating the shakes in photography. And while a growing number of cameras and lenses have built-in sensor-shift or optical stabilization, there's no substitute for a sturdy tripod.
Not only is a tripod essential for shooting with slow shutter speeds and long exposures, and for macro photography, but it also helps with composition. Taking a little time to level the camera and to make precise positional adjustments can make a huge difference to the end result. It's true in anything from landscape and architectural shooting to environmental portraits, still life images and extreme close-ups.
Sturdiness is a must. Balance a beefy body and chunky lens on a flimsy tripod and your photography simply won't have a firm footing. For this group test, we've selected tripods that aim for rigid construction and have a maximum load rating sufficient for even the largest SLRs with a telephoto lens attached. That said, nobody wants to lug around a massively heavy tripod when they're out and about, so most tripods in the group weigh about 2kg and can safely support loads of at least 5kg.
Clever tricks often include multi-angle legs, which can typically lock at three alternative positions. Increasing the angle of the legs from the centre column adds stability in medium-level shooting, when you're not extending the legs very much, as well as enabling low-level shooting by reducing the overall height of the tripod.
For even lower-level shooting, most tripods enable you to invert the centre column and shoot from between two legs, using the camera upside down. Some also feature a pivoting centre column, which enables quicker rotation for inverted shooting, plus the ability to use the centre column as a horizontal boom. This is especially useful not only in macro shooting, but also when using ultra-wide or fisheye lenses, where it can cut the risk of tripod feet getting into the shot.
Mix and match
You can often save money by buying a complete tripod kit that includes both legs and head. However, it often pays to be picky and choose the legs and head separately, so that you can ensure getting the ideal combination to suit your needs. There's usually no need to stick with the same manufacturer, but there are some important criteria to bear in mind.
Getting back to legs, the main construction material is an important factor in choosing which tripod to buy. Aluminium tripods are best value and should prove robust, rigid and hard-wearing. For equivalent sizes and maximum load ratings, carbon fibre tripods typically offer a weight-saving of about 25%, but are usually much more expensive to buy. They don't tend to take the knocks quite as well either, as a sharp impact can result in the material shattering. Even so, the reduction in carrying weight with no compromise in rigidity makes carbon fibre tripods an attractive proposition.
Equipment know-how: Tripods explained
1. Mounting platform
Full sized tripods usually have a mounting platform that's between 50mm and 60mm in diameter. A close match to the diameter of your chosen tripod head's base will help stability.
2. Multi-angle legs
Ideal for low-level shooting, or on tricky terrain, multiple leg angles are a real bonus. Most modern tripods have three lockable positions, whereas a couple of the Manfrotto tripods in this group have four.
3. Centre column
Pivoting centre columns are becoming increasingly popular. In most cases, you can lock them at almost any position through a 180-degree arc. In Manfrotto's pivot design, you can only lock the centre column in vertically upright or horizontal boom modes.
4. Leg sections
Legs that are made from three separate sections (two extending) are most common. With larger numbers of sections, there's a risk that the bottom ones may be quite thin and spindly. The plus side is that the tripod folds down smaller for more compact stowage.
5. Leg locks
Clip style clamps are most popular and are generally slightly quicker to operate than twist locks. However, manufacturing precision is required to ensure firm locking when closed, as well as smooth extension of leg sections when released.
Rubber pads work well in most conditions. On very soft surfaces like carpet or loose dirt, spikes can be better as they give a more secure footing. Some designs feature retractable spikes within rubber feet, for ultimate versatility.
As mentioned above, it helps stability if the diameter of the tripod's mounting platform and your chosen head are roughly the same. To aid a secure fitment, grub screws are often incorporated into the tripod platform, which can be tightened to lock the head firmly in place. The main locking screw will either have a 3/8-inch or a smaller 1/4-inch diameter. There's no problem mounting a head with a larger 3/8-inch adaptor on a tripod that has a 1/4-inch locking screw, as adaptors are widely available and are often supplied with the head. However, you can't fit a head with a 1/4-inch mounting thread on a tripod that uses a larger 3/8-inch screw.
3 Legged Thing X5a Tony Evolution 2
3 Legged Thing X5a Tony Evolution 2, £220
Just when you thought all tripods were basically the same, along comes Tony. Typical of 3 Legged Thing designs, the legs swing up to a vertically upright position, putting the head between the feet to reduce the overall length when folded. In this case, it's just 56cm even with the head fitted (reviewed separately). Another neat trick is that one of the legs is detachable and can be combined with the removable centre column, to form a highly effective monopod.
Considering its big-boy maximum load rating of 12kg, the Tony is fairly light in weight at 1.7kg. This is partly thanks to its main construction material being magnesium alloy rather than the more usual aluminium. In other respects, the tripod is more conventional, featuring three-section legs with twist locks, rather than the clip locks that are more common nowadays. There's zippered comfort padding on one of the upper leg sections and a bubble level on the shoulder to aid levelling, plus the best 'free' tripod carrying bag we've ever seen.
Setup speed is a little slow, as you have to rotate each of the legs and lock the required angle setting before use. The centre column is also at its maximum extension when the tripod is folded down, so this usually needs adjustment as well. However, all adjustments are wonderfully smooth and, once set up, the Tony is extremely rigid.
Benro Versatile Transformer BRA2970F
Benro Versatile Transformer BRA2970F, £100
There's a lot to like about this smartly finished tripod that's made from aluminium leg sections with magnesium alloy castings, and comes complete with a stylish padded carrying bag.
Despite its downmarket selling price, there's no skimping in design or build quality. Trickery includes three-position multi-angle legs and a particularly good pivoting centre column system. The latter is very quick and easy to use, has a full 180 degrees of rotation, and features splines in the locking mechanism to keep the column really firmly clamped in place.
With a 10kg maximum load rating, the tripod is no lightweight and tips the scales at 2kg. It's longer than most when folded down, at 66cm, but extends to a useful 175cm maximum height with the centre column fully extended. A bubble level on the shoulder comes in handy, as does the supplied toolkit, if anything should need adjusting over time.
The clip locks for the three-section legs operate effectively, enabling very smooth leg extension and solid locking. Rigidity is impressive, even at the maximum operating height or when using the centre column as a horizontal boom. The platform to which a tripod head attaches features three grub screws, which further helps to ensure that everything is locked down tight. Overall, this Benro aluminium tripod is a very solid performer and excellent value at the price.
Benro Versatile Transformer BRC2970F
Benro Versatile Transformer BRC2970F, £235
This tripod is almost every inch the same as the Benro BRA2970F model, except that its leg sections are made from 8-layer carbon fibre instead of aluminium. Meanwhile, it has the same magnesium castings and the clip locks, shoulder and impressive pivoting centre column system are identical.
The main attraction is that the carbon fibre tripod is about 25% lighter in weight than its all-metal sibling, at 1.6kg. However, the saving in weight comes at a heavy asking price, as it's more than twice as expensive as the aluminium version. The maximum height with the centre column fully extended is also a couple of inches shorter, at 170cm.
It's good that a padded carrying bag is included because, while comfort padding helps to protect the tripod from knocks, it's only fitted on one of the legs. Naturally, this is only on the upper section but, even then, it only covers half of the length.
The carbon Benro feels an exact match for the aluminium version when it comes to rigidity, although it has a slightly higher 12kg maximum load rating. One annoyance is that, whereas the leg sections extend and contract very smoothly on the aluminium tripod, they're quite stiff and jerky on the carbon model. Taking the considerable extra expense into account, the BRC2970F is relatively poor value.
Giottos Silk Road YTL9383 3D Column
Giottos Silk Road YTL9383 3D Column, £125
One of the recently launched Silk Road tripods, the aluminium YTL9383 features Giottos' new Y-profile centre column. The thinking behind this is that the legs are able to sit much closer together at the shoulder of the tripod, making it a more slim-line package. Giottos claims it saves 30% in the overall diameter although, naturally, there's no space-saving at the bottom end, where the feet meet together.
Other new features include calibrated length markings along the bottom leg sections, and a redesigned multi-angle lock which is very quick and easy to operate. This enables three lockable angles and you can also swing the legs upwards to a nearly vertical position. The maximum height with the centre column fully extended is a towering 183cm but, with three-section legs, the tripod only folds down to a fairly lengthy 68cm, without a head attached.
Giottos claims that its new QEL (Quick Easy Lever) locking system delivers speed and ease, while offering maximum rigidity when locked. However, leg extension lacks smoothness and the locks themselves feel quite fragile compared with older Giottos tripods. There's also a little more flexing in the legs when fully extended. On the plus side, the pivoting centre column works really well, with a similar spline-based locking mechanism to that of the Benro tripods.
Giottos Silk Road YTL8354 3D Column
Giottos Silk Road YTL8354 3D Column, £225
This carbon fibre tripod reaches a respectable maximum height of 171cm at full extension, yet folds down the smallest in the group, at just 54cm. That said, the 3 Legged Thing has a slightly shorter carrying length once a head is attached. Even so, it's rather slimmer, thanks to the same Y-profile centre column that's used in the aluminium Giottos Silk Road tripod on test.
The reason that it folds down to a travel-friendly stowage length is that it has four sections in each leg, rather than the usual three. It's relatively light to carry as well, weighing 1.4kg and therefore shaving about 500g off the weight of the Giottos aluminium tripod. Again, the closeness of each clip lock means that you can still just about open and close each set of locks in one swipe, if you have big hands, as there are three per leg rather than two.
In its favour, the leg sections extend and contract much more smoothly than in the Giottos YTL9383 aluminium tripod. However, the extra set of clip locks required by the four-section leg design introduces a bit more unwanted flexing when all sections are extended. Coupled with the fact that the bottom sections are quite thin, the Giottos is a little lacking in outright rigidity at or near its maximum operating height.
Induro AT214 Alloy 8M
Induro AT214 Alloy 8M, £135
Like the Giottos carbon tripod on test, this alloy Induro is based on four-section legs. As a result, it folds down to a space-saving 55cm in length yet reaches 170cm in height with the centre column fully extended. Being aluminium, it's noticeably heavier than the Giottos but still entirely manageable at 2kg. It's maximum load rating is twice that of the Giottos carbon tripod and it feels rather more robust.
Unusually, and like only the 3 Legged Thing tripod in this group, the Induro features twist locks rather than clip locks on its leg sections, but they operate smoothly and efficiently. It's very easy to fasten or release all the locks in one action, when the legs are fully contracted.
The tripod comes in a smart bag, complete with a tool pouch that includes a set of spiked metal feet that you can use as an alternative to the rubber pads that are fitted. A bubble level on the tripod shoulder makes for easy levelling on uneven ground. Some photographers may miss a pivoting centre column facility, which is lacking in this model.
As a necessity of the four-section leg design, the bottom sections are quite thin but the tripod is still reassuringly rigid, even at maximum extension. The leg section locks to a good job at resisting any flexing, which is a good job as there are nine of them in total.
Manfrotto 190 MT190XPRO3
Manfrotto 190 MT190XPRO3, £180
Manfrotto's popular 190 series tripods have had a major revamp. It's claimed that the new 'Quick Power Lock' clip fasteners on each leg section are easier to use, with closer positioning for one-handed, simultaneous operation of pairs of locks. Even so, the locks aren't any closer together than in the Manfrotto 290 series.
Up at the top end, the pivot mechanism for the centre column has been redesigned. The new version fully retracts into the tripod shoulder when used in regular upright mode, shrinking the carrying length by 7cm. However, the maximum operating height is also diminished, the tripod stretching from 59cm when folded to a modest 160cm at full extension. Multi-angle leg locks give quick access to four separate positions. The top surface of the mounting platform is styled with Italian flare, although you never see it once a head is attached. The platform also features a bubble level.
Everything on the new Manfrotto operates smoothly and efficiently. The leg sections free fall under gravity when the locks are released but lock very firmly, aiding the impressive overall rigidity. It's very easy to flip the centre column into pivot mode but, unlike most competing systems, you can only use the centre column in fully upright or horizontal modes. It therefore lacks 180-degree rotation.
Manfrotto 294 MT294C3
Manfrotto 294 MT294C3, £200
With an asking price of just £20 more than the new Manfrotto MT190XPRO3, this 290-series tripod has a carbon fibre construction and is 400g lighter in weight, at 1.6kg. The maximum load rating is also reduced from 7kg to 5kg. The 294 retains the same three sections per leg but, while it's only 2cm longer when folded, it's 9cm higher when fully extended, at a more respectable 169cm.
The small increase in price, compared with the new 190 series tripod on test, makes sense when you get into the details. Whereas the 190 is fairly feature-packed, the 294 is more of a bare-bones affair. There's no pivot facility for the centre column although, as usual, you can remove and refit the centre column upside down for extremely low-level shooting. And where the 190 has the availability of four different leg angles, the 294 only has two. At least the mechanism for switching between angles is incredibly straightforward. Another notable difference is that whereas the 190 has chunky rubber comfort pads on two of its legs, the 294 has none at all. It's easy to feel you're missing out on little extras but, then again, their absence helps to keep carrying weight to a minimum.
The 294 is a remarkably quick and easy tripod to use, but that's mostly down to the basic nature of its design. It's very lightweight to carry, yet offers very good rigidity. Overall, performance is very good but it's not particularly great value for money, given the lack of advanced features.
Manfrotto 055CXPRO3, £250
Weighing in at 1.65kg, the carbon fibre 055CXPRO3 is a mere 50g heavier than the Manfrotto MT294C3, yet has a greater maximum load capacity of 8kg instead of 5kg. Its carrying length is 4cm longer but it also reaches a loftier maximum operating height of 175cm, compared with the 294's 61cm and 169cm respectively. The 055 has a sturdier feel to it, with slightly wider diameters to its three-section legs. It's also much better endowed in the clever tricks department.
There are four separate leg angles on offer, via a spring-loaded clip. It's not quite as fancy as the lever on the new 190 series tripod, but is still very quick and simple to use. The pivoting centre column system is also an older generation design but, again, is very speedy and easy in operation. It lacks the automatically retracting section of the 190 but the payoff is extra centimetres at maximum operating height. There's a useful bubble level on the centre column platform, which also features three grub screws for firm attachment of a head.
Rigidity is excellent, even when the legs and centre column are all fully extended. The locking clips for each leg section are slightly further apart than in the other Manfrotto tripods, but it's still possible to release and close them simultaneously with one hand.
Slik Pro 700DX Complete
Slik Pro 700DX Complete, £170
Compared with basic aluminium, Slik claims that its AMT (Aluminium Magnesium Titanium) material gives a 40% increase in strength to weight ratio. That has to be a good thing, with the promise of stronger legs that are also lighter in weight. As it turns out, however, the legs are the heaviest of any in this test group, at 2.7kg. That's a full kilogram heavier than the 3 Legged Thing legs, which have a greater maximum load rating of 12kg compared with the Slik's 11kg. Moreover, the tripod is usually sold as a complete kit, including a 3-way head, which brings the combined load rating down to a modest 6.8kg.
The head is easily removed, revealing a 50mm diameter mounting plate with standard 3/8-inch locking screw, so it's simple to fit an alternative, more heavy-duty head if you wish.
The design incorporates a latch for locking the legs in any of three different angles from the centre column. Very low-level shooting is helped by the fact that the lower half of the centre column can be unscrewed and detached, or you can invert the centre column completely. The centre column also has an adjustable friction damper but lacks any pivot facility.
Rigidity is very good and, overall, the Slik feels solid and well built. It's a good performer but a little basic, and particularly heavy to lug around.
Vanguard ABEO Pro 283AT
Vanguard ABEO Pro 283AT, £205
The most obvious, standout feature of the ABEO Pro is its huge feet. Look a little closer and they turn out to be easily detachable snow shoes (or sand shoes if you prefer the beach). They're not necessary for most surfaces and are easily detachable to reveal regular rubber feet beneath. You can also pull these pads off to reveal metal spikes. Vanguard calls them '3-in-1 All-Terrain Feet'.
The three-section aluminium legs and extending centre column rise from 66cm when folded, to a maximum height of 160cm. The legs are almost as heavy as those of the Slik 700DX Pro, at 2.5kg, but have a smaller maximum load rating of 8kg. Vanguard's 180-degree pivot system for the centre column has been slightly refined, with a simplified lever for locking and releasing the pan mechanism. Three-position, multi-angle legs have similarly simple push-button locks, and there's a bubble level on the shoulder.
The tripod is quite resistant to flexing on the whole and the centre column pivot system is quick and easy to use. It has splines to enable secure locking, but isn't quite as firm as in the Benro and Giottos systems. There's worse news when it comes to the leg section locks. On our review sample, the lower sections contracted when applying fairly low pressure, even with the clip locks fully closed. The only way we could stop this happening was to tighten the adjustment nuts very significantly, using the supplied spanner.
Velbon Sherpa 450R Complete
Velbon Sherpa 450R Complete, £90
Considering that the aluminium Sherpa 450R costs just £90 for a complete kit, including head, it's a relatively inexpensive option.
It's quite lightweight at 2.3kg, folds down to 68cm and extends to 173cm, with a maximum load rating of 5kg. There's a geared mechanism and handle for adjusting the height of the centre column, complete with adjustable friction damper. However, that's pretty much the only trick feature in the tripod. The legs look as if they should have a multi-angle facility, but it's not included on this model. Likewise, there's no pivot facility and the centre column can neither be split nor inverted, ruling out the possibility of very low-level shooting.
The head is like a combination of ball and 3-way in operation. As such, a single locking arm controls both pan and tilt functions, while a separate locking screw enables swivel for portrait-orientation shooting. If you change the head, you'll need to know that the mounting platform has a 40mm diameter and uses a 1.4-inch locking screw.
The aluminium legs can feel cold to the touch in wintry weather, as there's no comfort padding. At least a carrying bag is supplied with the tripod. Rigidity is pretty good and the leg sections adjust smoothly. The clip locks are positioned very close together, making for easy simultaneous release and fastening. Ultimately, it's a very basic tripod kit but this is reflected in the price.
Photographers tend to be very demanding when it comes to tripods. We want something that's easily portable and doesn't weigh us down, yet offers rock solid support when in use. A few fancy features are always nice to have as well.
The Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 ticks all the right boxes. Its lightweight 1.65kg carbon fibre construction is easy on the back, the stylish design is easy on the eye, it's really rigid and comes complete with four-position multi-angle legs and a pivoting centre column. However, it's also the most expensive set of legs in the group.
For £30 less, the magnesium alloy 3 Legged Thing X5a Tony Evo 2 is only a few grams heavier than the Manfrotto and has the advantage of easily converting into a fully fledged monopod. The quirky design enables a relatively small carrying size, the only real drawback being that it takes a bit longer to set the tripod up for use.
For a top budget option, you can't go wrong with the aluminium Benro BRA2970F, which offers an astoundingly complete set of features and excellent build quality for just £100.
1st: Manfrotto 055CXPRO3
What's good: Lightweight carbon fibre construction, wide-ranging features and excellent rigidity.
What's bad: Pivoting centre column can only be used in upright or horizontal modes.
Our verdict: An excellent performer that's well worth its expensive asking price.
2nd: 3 Legged Thing X5a Tony Evo 2
What's good: Innovative design, magnesium alloy build, works as a tripod or monopod.
What's bad: Takes longer to set up than most competing tripods.
Our verdict: A very sturdy and well made tripod that dares to be different.
3rd: Benro BRA2970F
What's good: Fully pivoting centre column and wide-ranging features, very good stability.
What's bad: At 2kg in weight, it's a little heavier than most carbon fibre tripods.
Our verdict: A superb tripod that's refreshingly inexpensive to buy, it's unbeatable value.
4th: Induro AT214 Alloy 8M
What's good: Compact carrying size, good rigidity despite thin bottom leg sections.
What's bad: No pivoting centre column, four-section legs take slightly longer to operate.
Our verdict: It's a very good value buy, and particularly travel-friendly.
5th: Manfrotto MT190XPRO3
What's good: New design features work well, especially the retracting pivot mechanism.
What's bad: Still only offers Manfrotto's usual vertical or horizontal centre column options.
Our verdict: A bit expensive so soon after launch but prices may come down after a while.