Best tripods and camera supports: 15 tested
26th Mar 2012 | 11:22
Light but sturdy travel tripods and camera supports tested
Tripods and camera supports explained
With many of the latest cameras and lenses boasting excellent image quality at high ISO (sensitivity) settings, along with state of the art image stabilisation, it's easy to think that the photographer's three-legged friend is going the way of the dinosaur. And yet, a good tripod is just as essential as ever.
For long exposures that capture movement - when shooting waterfalls, or for evening shots when the sun's gone down - a sturdy tripod is a must.
Even in broad daylight, a tripod not only minimises the risk of camera shake, but also helps you to fine-tune a composition with precise camera adjustments.
On top of that, a tripod enables you to keep the camera firmly in place through a sequence of shots - ideal for time-lapse photography, say, or for creating composite images from multiple, exposure-bracketed photos.
Alternatively, you can keep the camera on the level and pan by precise increments to create a sequence of images that you can stitch into a panorama.
A tripod is also great for macro shots, where even the smallest movement of the camera is likely to cause blurring from focus errors as well as camera-shake. And when you're in tourist mode, a tripod and self-timer combo will help you get yourself into the frame. The possibilities are almost endless.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that a tripod is just three legs with a head on top.
Like most things photographic, however, there's been plenty of revolution and evolution over the last few years. All the models in this test group feature multi-angle legs. This enables you to swing the legs out to alternative angles away from the centre column, which is great for shooting on very uneven terrain, or for reducing the overall height of the tripod for low-level shooting.
Another new trick featured by five of the tripods on test here is a pivoting centre column, which can extend as a horizontal boom. This is a big bonus for macro photography, as well as for shooting with ultra-wide-angle lenses, as it reduces the risk of a tripod footappearing in the bottom of your picture.
The most common construction material is aluminium - or rather aluminium alloy, since there's generally some magnesium or titanium mixed in.
The other main choice is carbon fibre, although this tends to be more expensive. The main advantage is that, for any given size, carbon tripods are likely to be about 25 per cent lighter than comparable aluminium models. Both should be fairly rugged, but there's a danger that carbon fibre will shatter if it gets a sharp knock.
For general use, the main considerations are ultimately how much stability the tripod offers, and the trade-off between maximum load capacity and carrying weight.
Similarly, there's a balance to be struck between the maximum height when the tripod is fully extended, and its carrying length. All the tripods in this group have three sections to each leg, apart from the Hama Omega Carbon II, which has four.
Extra sections enable the tripod to fold down smaller, but stability can be impaired. Not only is each additional joint a potential weak point, but the lowest leg sections can end up being very thin and spindly.
Benro A297EX - £105/$150
From Benro's FlexPod series of tripods, the aluminium A297EX is impeccably finished and presented in a smart and stylish padded carrying bag, complete with handle and shoulder strap.
Thankfully, the FlexPod tag doesn't refer to undue flexing in the Benro A297EX, but hints at flexibility in use. This stems from features that include multi-angle legs and a 180-degree pivoting centre column.
Despite it weighing just 2kg, the tripod's maximum load rating is a generous 10kg, which easily accommodates a hefty DSLR and large lens combination. Little extras include a bubble level on the tripod shoulder for easy levelling on uneven terrain, and a hook fitted to the bottom of the centre column to hang a stabilising weight off.
The Benro A297EX's three leg sections mostly extend under their own weight when the clip locks are released, but sometimes need just a little encouragement. They lock in place very firmly, as do the clamps for adjusting the tripod's centre column. These include a regular height extension clamp, as well as one for altering the angle of the column in pivot mode.
A further locking screw enables lateral rotation of the centre column through 360-degrees when you're using it in pivot mode.
Resistance to flexing is very good, keeping movement to a minimum, and the pivot facility, which can be fiddly in some designs, is straightforward, quick and easy to use.
Read the full Benro FlexPod A297EX review
Benro FlexPod C297EX
Benro FlexPod C297EX - £235/$500
Proving you often have to pay a hefty premium for carbon fibre, the Benro FlexPod C297EX costs more than twice the price of Benro's aluminium alternative, yet has an almost identical design.
The shoulder is the same as on the Benro A297EX, which is no bad thing because it includes the quick and easy leg angle adjustment mechanisms and a pivoting centre column facility. The clip locks for the three leg sections are also the same, so the extra price is justified purely by the carbon build of the legs themselves.
Compared with the aluminium Benro, this carbon tripod is about 25 per cent lighter, at 1.6kg instead of 2kg. And the maximum load capacity increases from 10kg to a class-leading 12kg.
However, the maximum operating height with the centre column fully extended reduces from the aluminium model's 175cm to 170cm, so it's about two inches shorter.
The Benro C297EX's spiral-patterned carbon fibre leg sections extend and contract smoothly and are held in place firmly by the clip locks. There's little protection when carrying the tripod around, however, because only one of the upper sections is padded, and only for less than half its length. At least the padded carrying bag should absorb knocks.
Stability is on a par with the aluminium Benro so, despite its extra load capacity and its 400g weight saving, it's hard to justify the extra £130 asking price.
Giottos MTL9251B - £85/$128
A little on the small side compared with the bigger Giottos tripods, the Giottos MTL9251B stretches to a modest maximum height of 161cm with the centre column fully extended.
The leg sections are also thin, which at least makes the carrying weight quite light at just 1.5kg (100g less than the Benro C297EX). This also has an impact on load capacity, however, which is a distinctly average 5kg.
There's no pivot facility for the centre column, but at least it's easy to invert the column, which comes with a rotating ring on its base to avoid accidental removal. Overall build quality is high, as expected with Giottos, and the tripod comes with a tool pouch for making any necessary adjustments to the tension of locks and adjusters over time.
The Giottos MTL9251B is reasonably firm, and flexing is quite restrained given the thin leg sections. But, as is typically the case with thinner legs, they catch a bit when telescoping and lack smoothness when sliding in and out.
The simple push-pull mechanisms for selecting any of the three adjustable leg angles work well, and the rotary clamp for locking the centre column is equally simple and effective. A bubble level on the tripod collar aids levelling.
Even so, unless you need to travel light, the bigger Giottos MTL9361B offers much better value for money.
Giottos MTL9361B - £100 (about $160)
Standing tall at up to 174cm (without a tripod head), the Giottos MTL9361B is 9cm loftier than the cheaper Giottos tripods. Despite only costing £15 more, it has a much beefier maximum load capacity of 8kg too, thanks to sturdier legs.
It also features a pivoting centre column facility (entirely lacking on the cheaper Giottos MTL9251B), which offers a full range of 180 degrees vertically and 360 degrees horizontally.
The pivoting system is simple to use but, uniquely in this group, it gives you an extra option for low-level shooting. The tripod comes with a low-angle adaptor, which replaces the centre column altogether, so you can splay the multi-angle legs without worrying about fouling the centre column on anything.
The Giottos MTL9361B's chunky legs are stable at all operating heights, with minimal flexing, and they also extend and contract smoothly.
The multi-angle leg mechanisms and centre column's pivoting system are similar to those used on the Benro FlexPod A297EX and Benro FlexPod C297EX, except that the Giottos features a more purposeful, circular locking ring for horizontal rotation in pivot mode, instead of a locking screw. Adjustments are intuitive, quick in use and firm when locked off.
This tripod is a star performer with great versatility. It's unbeatable value for money, and a cut-price kit is available, which includes the MH5001 head.
Read the full Giottos MTL9361B review
Giottos MTL8271B - £290 (about $460)
This carbon fibre giant is the tallest tripod on test, and also the most expensive. The Giottos MTL8271B's maximum height of 185cm (without head) is all the more remarkable when you take into account the short centre column.
Shorter centre columns can add stability, at the expense of the collapsed length if the legs are made longer to compensate. It's a sizable 72cm in this case.
Being carbon fibre, the tripod is fairly light at 1.9kg, which is some 300g less than the smaller Giottos MTL9461B. Maximum load capacity is increased from 8kg to 10kg. Less impressively, this carbon model lacks a pivoting centre column or low-angle shooting adaptor, despite being almost three times the price of the mid-range Giottos MTL9361B.
The clip locks for the chunky carbon leg sections lock very securely but, because the legs are so long, there's noticeable flexing as you approach the tallest operating heights. Extending and collapsing the legs is also quite a performance, and there's no silky gliding to enjoy. Instead, telescoping is a somewhat stiff and jerky affair, which is disappointing, considering the tripod's steep asking price.
Unless you really need the extra height (about 15cm, or 6 inches), this carbon fibre tripod offers pretty poor value compared with many of the aluminium models in the group.
Hama Omega Carbon II
Hama Omega Carbon II - £195
For a full-sized carbon fibre tripod, the Hama Omega Carbon II looks great value as a set of legs. Better still, the price includes a head - a sturdy ball head that equals the 4kg maximum load rating of the legs. It also features an additional, adjustable friction damper and pan-only lock.
The maximum operating height of 174cm is pretty respectable, although this does include the additional height of the head.
Potentially more of a problem, the maximum height is achieved by extending four sections in each leg, rather than the usual three. As a result, the bottom sections are quite thin and flimsy and, when you need to extend them, the whole tripod becomes a bit flexible.
On the plus side, the extra leg sections enable the tripod to fold down quite small for carrying, to 69cm including the head.
Using just the three fatter, upper sections of each leg, the Hama Omega Carbon II is reasonably solid, and stability is only compromised when all sections are extended. Telescoping the legs is a bit stiff and jerky, but smoother than with the carbon fibre Giottos MTL8271B.
The multi-angle facility for each leg works in the same way as on the Benro and Giottos tripods - simply and effectively. There's no pivot facility and the various clamps and other adjustments are adequate, not impressive, in terms of build quality.
Read the full Hama Omega Carbon II review
Manfrotto MT294A3 - £95/$120
The larger and heavier model from the new Manfrotto 290 series, the MT294A3 is nevertheless quite travel-friendly. It's 60cm long when collapsed, and lightweight at 1.9kg.
That's still a little heavier than the similarly sized Giottos MTL9251B, which also has a maximum load capacity of 5kg. The Manfrotto MT294A3 extends a little higher, to 169cm, as opposed to the Giottos' moderate 161cm.
There's no pivoting centre column, and the Manfrotto MT294A3 is altogether quite basic, lacking a weight hook at the bottom of the centre column and the almost ubiquitous bubble level on the shoulder.
Even the multi-angle leg mechanism only enables two angles, where most tripods offer three.
On the plus side, the newly designed angle selection lever is clever, requiring just a quick flick of a thumb from one side to the other. It's faster than the push-pull arrangement on the Benro, Giottos, Hama and Slik tripods we tested here.
Typical of Manfrottos, the leg sections drop out in freefall when the clips are released, so don't need any coaxing. This makes the legs easy to extend one-handed, but the flip side is that a little extra care is needed when collapsing the tripod, due to the looseness of the sections.
The Manfrotto MT294A3's stability is pretty average for a lightweight tripod - about the same as the Giottos MTL9251B.
Manfrotto 055XPROB - £110/$170
Costing a little more than Manfrotto's newer MT294A3, the venerable and sophisticated Manfrotto 055XPROB has more to offer.
A weightier and more substantial proposition, this tripod feels a lot more rugged, has a greater maximum load capacity of 7kg and extends 10cm higher to 179cm.
Additional features lacking on the more basic 290-series Manfrotto include a pivoting centre column, a bubble level and adjustable leg angles with four, rather than just two, positions.
There's still no weight hook on the bottom of the centre column, but the one built into the shoulder serves equally well.
Like the cheaper Manfrotto, the Manfrotto 055XPROB's legs drop out on their own without any encouragement, once the clips are released, so there's no need for wrestling when you're extending or contracting the legs.
The push-button mechanism for selecting different leg angles is very quick and easy to use, as is the pivot system for the centre column.
The only drawback with the latter is that you can only use it in vertical or horizontal mode, so it lacks versatility compared with pivoting systems on other tripods, which enable 180-degree rotation in small increments.
Read the full Manfrotto 055XPROB review
Slik Pro 500DX
Slik Pro 500DX - £120/$127
Slik proudly proclaims that the Slik Pro 500DX's aluminium magnesium titanium (AMT) construction offers a 40% increase in strength-to-weight ratio, compared with basic aluminium.
That's not much to shout about though, since other tripods of the same weight have a higher maximum operating height and a greater load rating. Indeed, at 167cm, including the supplied three-way head, the Slik is a bit short, and the 4.5kg load rating is unimpressive.
There are three leg angles, but in other respects the Slik Pro 500DX is quite basic. There's no pivoting centre column, bubble level or weight hook, but the comfort padding on all three legs is generous. The head feels a bit flimsy compared with those we're reviewing separately.
You can remove and replace it, but the platform at the top of the centre column is small compared with most tripods, and has a similarly small 1/4-inch rather than 3/8-inch mounting stud, without any extra grub screws.
The Slik Pro 500DX is pretty solid even at its maximum operating height, with the centre column fully extended. The centre column itself is in two sections, so you can unscrew the lower part for easier low-level shooting without the need to invert the whole column.
Overall, it's a good performer, but is outclassed by most of the competition.
Read the full Slik Pro 500DX review
Vanguard Alta+ 203AP
Vanguard Alta+ 203AP - £85/$100
Only slightly larger and heavier than mini 'travel tripods', the Vanguard Alta+ 203AP weighs in at just 1.4kg, complete with the supplied three-way head, and collapses down to 57cm. It certainly gets around the problem of leaving your tripod at home because it's too big and heavy, and not having it with you when you really need it.
Despite the lightweight build, there are some nice design touches. The downsized three-way head is firm and solid, and attached to its mounting platform with the addition of three grub screws for solidity.
Simple, push-button locks enable three alternative leg angles, there's a removable weight hook to enhance stability and the centre column can be easily inverted for ultra-low-level shooting.
The addition of a bubble level on the camera platform, just behind the quick-release plate, makes it easy to level the camera itself.
The lightweight build impacts on the maximum load rating, which is a mere 2kg. Even so, and despite the spindly legs, stability isn't too bad. It can't match the big boys in the group, but it's still adequate for a DSLR with a standard zoom lens or budget telephoto.
For thin legs, the ease of extending and contracting each section is also very good. If carrying weight is a big issue, the little Vanguard Alta+ 203AP eases the load.
Vanguard Alta Pro 263AT
Vanguard Alta Pro 263AT - £125/$150
A big step up from the smaller Vanguard Alta+ 203AP, the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AT is a full-sized tripod and, despite only weighing an extra 600g, has a much greater 7kg maximum load rating.
It's also packed with advanced features. A similar push-button mechanism enables easy selection of three leg angles, and the legs themselves are a lot chunkier and more heavy-duty.
Like the Benro FlexPod A297EX, Benro FlexPod C297EX and the Giottos MTL9361B, a simple yet easily operated pivot system gives you the option to swing the centre column through 180 degrees in the vertical plane, in small increments, as well as rotating 360 degrees horizontally.
A sprung weight hook in the bottom of the centre column retracts when you don't need to use it, and a bubble level on the platform aids set up on uneven ground. Tools are provided for fitting and removing tripod heads, as well as for making adjustments to the clamps and fasteners.
The leg sections are a little on the stiff side, and don't extend merely by the power of gravity like they do on most Manfrotto tripods. However, their action is clean and smooth, without any jerkiness or annoying sticking points.
Sturdiness is equal to the best-performing tripods on test, but the asking price is higher than the similarly proficient Benro A297EX and Giottos MTL9361B, so it's not quite such good value for money.
Velbon Sherpa 600R
Velbon Sherpa 600R - £95/$140
Like the Slik Pro 500DX, the Velbon Sherpa 600R comes with a three-way head, but the complete kit is 400g lighter, at just 2.1kg. The maximum load capacity also drops from the Slik's 4.5kg to 4kg.
The three-way head is unusually quick to adjust, because it has only one locking lever that clamps both pan and tilt. Just one separate lock is fitted for switching from landscape to portrait orientation.
To continue the Slik comparison, the Velbon head supplied isn't sufficiently impressive that it's something you'd buy separately. And if you remove it and replace it, the centre column's platform is rather on the small side.
Other features of the Velbon Sherpa 600R include three-position multi-angle legs and, while the selection mechanism looks quite cumbersome, it's quite speedy in use and works effectively. You can also split the centre column for low-level shooting, although there's no pivot facility so you can't extend it as a horizontal boom.
As with the Manfrotto tripods we tested, the leg sections drop out under gravity when you release the clip locks. Pushing them back in is a similarly free-gliding process.
The legs aren't that resistant to flexing, especially at maximum extension, so overall stability is acceptable rather than impressive. Overall, the Velbon Sherpa 600R lags behind the best tripods in the group.
Read the full Velbon Sherpa 600R review
Other camera supports
Joby Gorillapod SLR - £25/$34
Each of this tripod's legs consists of a series of flexible joints ending in a rubber foot, so you can wrap it around anything from branches to railings. The 'SLR' version comes with a mini ball head and built-in spirit level, but the maximum load of 800g is only suitable for lightweight SLRs.
SteadePod - £25/$25
After screwing the business end of the SteadePod into your camera's tripod socket, you pull out a length of spring-loaded cable and lock it off. The cable has a flat plate at its end, which you stand on, pulling up on the camera so the taut cable keeps it steady. It's a neat idea that works well.
Tamrac ZipShot - £40/$50
Adjusting leg clamps can be a chore, but the ZipShot has none at all. Just release two short cords and the legs spring out and lock in seconds, although collapsing the tripod takes longer. However, while the tripod weighs just 312g, it also feels flimsy. We would worry about loading it to its maximum 1.35kg capacity.
Verdict: Best tripod
The £100 (around $160) Giottos MTL9361B offers proof that you don't need to spend top dollar to get great kit. While light enough for easy carrying, it's also robust and has excellent stability, even at its maximum height with the centre column extended.
Advanced features work well, including a pivot system that enables the centre column to swing through 180 degrees vertically and 360 degrees horizontally, multi-angle legs and a low-angle shooting adaptor. It's rugged, versatile and really easy to use.
The carbon fibre tripods are relatively poor value for money.
Overall, the Giottos MTL9361B wins. It offers a perfect blend of sturdiness and well-implemented features, at a great price.