If you’re like me, you will go through a series of tripods before finding the ones that work for you. This is the journey I took over about ten years as a traveling videographer.
I started off with the inexpensive plastic variety. The kind you can pull off the shelf at Target or Walmart. They typically have twisty pan handles that control tilt. They work fine if you are not using a particularly long lens or for locked down shots. The minute you start panning you hear the plastic creaking and know this is no good.
Next I go to the other extreme with the heavy duty aluminum Manfrotto variety paired with something like a Manfrotto 501 head. They are rock solid. However, after carrying it around it starts to wear on you. This combo comes in at a whopping total of 7.2 pounds (3.5 lbs and 3.7 lbs for the legs and head, respectively).
Now you are prepared to pay a premium for carbon fiber, which is lightweight and strong. The catch is for travel size tripods, this is not going to save you substantial weight over their aluminum counterpart. Weight savings vary drastically depending on manufacturers too. Cost of carbon fiber is not worth it for saving weight in travel tripods, get carbon fiber for vibration reduction in larger tripods.
Manfrotto 3001N, Gitzo GT1530, and even a wooden tripod.
At some point I even tried a wooden tripod. Wood is actually supposed to transmit less vibrations but this was more of an experimental project that I turned into a side table by tapping a 1/4″-20 tripod thread to a sheet of acrylic. Add that to a tripod dolly and it made for a nice little laptop cart.
Finally you are looking for that happy medium between lightweight and decent stability. Sadly, there is no single right answer. After an exhaustive search, I have settled on the following combination and been happily using it for several years now.
Velbon Luxi Legs
The Velbon luxi has been my favorite travel tripod for a while. It expands to almost eye level and folding down to a mere 14 inches. The reason it can do this is because of the unique twist lock legs. Unlike traditional twist locks where you have to unlock at each joint, you just twist the ends one click for each section you want to pull out. It is the quickest deploying tripod I used. One caveat though is that there’s no telling which leg section you unlock with each click which can be problematic if you are only opening it part way.
It also falls short in some niceties. There are only rubber feet and no option for spike feet. There is no hook under the center column for hanging a bag for added stability. This was easy remedied by drilling a hole in the center column cap and adding a third party hook. The Oben Counterweight Hook Assembly for small tripods OB-1011 was the perfect size.
The Oben hook mod (left) and the leg locks (right).
The are three leg angles and the center column can be separated into two sections for lowest angle. Sadly, Over time all the legs lost friction and would not holds its angle. It just flops down to the collapsed position. There’s a hex nut around the center column that is supposed to control the friction but I threads have worn. It is still usable but cumbersome. Sadly these loose legs are putting this tripod out of commission and have me searching for the next best thing.
Gitzo G2180 Head
Gitzo G2180 Head.
I was searching for the smallest fluid head and Gitzo was unmatched. It is a pricey tripod head but I was fortunate enough to have my employer flip the bill the first time. I liked this so much though that even after I returned the tripod to the company, I bought one myself afterwards.
The Gitzo head is incredible low profile measuring a mere 85mm tall but a stout mm wide. If it is still too wide for you, the pan handle can be removed to save space. I frequently use it without the pan handle and use the counter balance knob as a substitute.
The controls are simple with only knobs for tilt, pan, and counter balance. It uses Gitzo’s square quick release plates. They are awesome because you can easily insert your camera the other way for Dutch angle or portrait mode without additional bracket. In addition, it is compatible with the popular Manfrotto 501PL plates.
The big question is how smooth is it. It is a fairly small head so it is easy to overload the 8.8 lbs load capacity. I found the tilt to be fairly unreliable. The counter balance helps but it is just too easy to throw it off balance. Pan is pretty smooth when stay within the load limits. It is importance to pair it with a tripod with locking screws so it does not detach from the legs when making counter clockwise pans. If your tripod does not have that, then keeping that pan knob loose helps. For a tripod head this small, it is reasonably smooth.
The Gitzo head ticks all the right boxes for me: low profile, highly compatible quick release plates, and fairly smooth. It is also built like a tank and expect it to last for years.