My Manfrotto tripods have served me well over the years, and with their height, stability and quick release ballheads, were perfect for my DSLR cameras. Moving to a smaller camera system (to reduce the strain on my back!) has highlighted just how heavy these tripods are, and increasingly I’ve not wanted to carry a tripod at all when out walking. So perhaps it was time to look for something smaller and lighter, and I was attracted by the new style of travel tripods weighing around 1kg and folding down to just 30cm (12″) or so long – small enough to go inside a backpack.
There are at least 6-7 brands that all look quite similar – they all have legs that fold back on a centre column, a small ballhead, and are typically around 130cm tall when fully extended. Prices run from about £80 to £140. The first I tried was the MeFoto Backpacker at £119 from Amazon. It had received very good reviews so seemed a good buy. First impression was indeed very favourable – 1-2kg in weight, 130cms tall extended, a fixed centre column with a rising inner column, a ballhead with an ARCA-Swiss style quick release, and twist lock legs. There is a hook in the centre to hang a bag or weight for extra stability, and it all comes in a carry-bag.
Considering how light it is, it was remarkably stable, and easily took the weight of my Fuji X-T1 with zoom lens. Several observations from the outset –
1. The centre column is fixed in position, so there is no option to use the tripod with the ballhead sitting immediately on top of the legs – its most stable position. This also means that if you want to carry the tripod on the side of a backpack, it is around 50cms tall with the legs retracted, but in the unfolded position. Likewise the column cannot be reversed for ultra-low shots.
2. There is no means of retaining the legs closed together, so any tripod holder needs to take account of this. Also, with 4 sections to each leg, that means a total of 12 twist actions to both unlock, and then relock the legs – miss just one when you are retightening the legs, and the tripod will collapse to one side. I prefer the flip locks on my larger Manfrotto tripod. There are only two ‘in use’ positions for the legs, a fairly upright position, and the usual very splayed position for low level work.
3. By far the biggest problem for me was the camera mounting plate – fitted to my Fuji X-T1 it obscured the access to the battery compartment, so when out shooting in a muddy field I had to remove the camera from the tripod, then remove the plate and re-attach it, just to change a battery. This isn’t a fault of the tripod/ballhead – it occurs on all quick release heads because of the proximity of the battery compartment to the tripod bush on the Fuji. I tackled this issue by getting a Fuji X-T1 Small Grip Plate – essentially a flat plate that screws onto the bottom of the camera (but doesn’t obscure the battery compartment) and provides an ARCA/Swiss style dovetail mount which fits perfectly on this tripod. Problem solved!
However, the points above caused me to look around, and I dropped on an Amazon ‘lightning deal’ for the Hahnel Triad C4 Tripod and Head, for an amazing £39.99 (usual Amazon price £72.00, and on sale at Wex for the RRP of £99.99). What a steal! This is so similar to the Mefoto tripod it’s untrue – one is definitely a copy of the other. Given the much lower price, I wasn’t expecting much, but its equally good (with one exception below…) The height and weight are much the same, the centre column is adjustable and removable, so great for low level work, and slightly better stability in the fully ‘down’ position. There is also an intermediate position for the width of the legs – great on a windy day, or or uneven ground
The problem however is that the ARCA/Swiss ‘style’ camera plate is some 5mm wider than the standard 37/38mm standard for these. No problem if you just use this plate, but remember I now have the special camera plate – you guessed, it doesn’t fit this ballhead. Not great. After trying a different ballhead, I sourced a replacement plate and clamp to fit the original Hahnel ballhead for approx £5.00 (from China). It needed a new 6mm countersunk bolt to fit it, and a little Araldite to take up some slack in the mount, but it really works a treat. So, job done, and total cost of this new setup is just £45.00. What a bargain!
Bottom line is that for a very modest price, it’s possible to buy a lightweight tripod good enough for most travel shots, and that weighs less than half of a conventional tripod. Definitely a good investment…
EDIT: This tripod is very much my ‘trekking’ tripod – if I’m close to the car and don’t mind the extra weight and bulk, one of the larger Manfrotto units is clearly more stable, but this one definitely has it’s uses.