The dilema of choosing the right travel tripod could turn into a ticket for schizophrenia therapy. As a photographer, you want a tripod that is sturdy and solid. As a traveler, you want a tripod that is light and compact. So one thing is clear: unless you are traveling with bunch of Himalaya Sherpas, you have to compromise. Let's find out how to find the best option for you and even save some money!
1. Define your realistic expectations
I covered some tips on why you may need a tripod in my article "10 reasons why to carry a tripod...". But whatever is your reason to get a tripod, make sure your expectations are realistic. You may like some of the professionally looking tripods, but how often will you really carry it? If you are lazy like me, you may actually realize that a bulky tripod ain't much fun for EDC. And why to have a tripod when you will look for excuses to leave it at home or in a trunk of your car?
Also consider what type of photography you are in. The needs of a bird photographer differ from an outdoor adventurer. My tip is to define your needs based on your current photography habits. Don't think you will change your style and behavior, just because you buy an over-engineered tripod "just for the case".
2. Avoid the traps and save money
As much as I advise to be realistic in what you really need from your tripod, I also encourage to go just one step above when it comes to your budget. Sounds contradictory? Let me explain! People seem to tend buying a camera that is slightly over their original budget (they want the better stuff), while saving on lenses and tripods. The tripod is just a camera support, right? Wrong! The cheap gear is cheap for a reason. And I admit I went that path too - shame on me! I purchased my first tripod just to realize it's not stable enough. Sold it and bought better legs - to find out that the ballhead was a nightmare to operate conveniently. So by selling useless gear and buying new one, I didn't save anything, just on the contrary. My piece of advice: don't waste your nerves, time and money and go straight for the best quality gear. It turns out to be cheaper :-)
3. Calculate your payload
A wobbly tripod is a useless tripod. Period. It may be funny to observe Japanese tourists arranging their cameras on tripods that resemble the Salvador Dali's elephants on long thin legs, but you won't get sharp photos that way. Though calculate carefully the weight of the gear you will put on the tripod: camera, battery grip, your heaviest lens, filter sets, any mic's or lights etc.? And the ball head! My rule of a thumb is you should look for a tripod with 1.5 - 2x payload. Remember, it may be windy outside. And the more you extend your tripod, the less stable it becomes. Speaking of which...
4. The center columns are for pussies
No matter how well is the center column made, it serves just two purposes: it adds weight and shakes when extended. You do not need any of these features on your tripod. Fortunately, there are tripods without this unnecessary add-on. If you need a higher tripod, just look for a model with more leg sections. Or even better - look for a higher spot on the location to place your tripod.
5. The leg sections: less is usually better
More sections may increase the overall ground height of the tripod and also make it more compact for carrying around. However they compromise the stability, unless made of sturdy material. Generally, I found three sections are not enough while five are too shaky. I recommend four sections as a reasonable compromise. In real life, I even do not extend the last section on my tripod if not really necessary, as to increase the overall stability under my Nikon D800 beast.
But if you carry lighter camera, e.g. some mirrorless system, the well made five section tripod can provide sufficient support and be easy to fold and carry. On the other hand, if you are into birds or wildlife, it's not a fun to crouch behind too short tripod a whole day.
6. The material
One thing is for sure, no matter if you are beginner, enthusiasts or semi-pro: just avoid the aluminum. It's quite heavy, not stable enough and when not coated, shines for miles. I have all the best experience with carbon fiber. It's rock solid, lightweight and easy to maintain. The only downside , it's more fragile than aluminium. But as I wasn't in a need to smash some thief's head with it, no issues so far...
7. The leg locking mechanism
This overlooked feature may ruin your satisfaction. Most tripods come with the clasps to open and lock the leg sections. I hate them. Damn too easy to hurt your fingers when you lock them back. And operate them during cold days in gloves ain't easy too. Also I find them not very precise when fine-tuning the legs either. And when the tripod is folded, the clasps are increasing its physical footprint.
I fell in love with the rotating locks. They are safe and easy to operate in any conditions, the leg extension is precise yet secure. And they keep the profile of the folded tripod nicely slim. Give them a try and you will love it too.
8. Right head on top
The tripod will work flawlessly only with the appropriate head attached on top of that. Some of the above rules apply similarly to ball head selection. But as this topic would deserve it's own article, I will cover it separately soon :-)
The good tripod may help you to take fantastic pictures that are impossible hand held. Its key feature is the stability even in rough weather conditions, which you need to balance with its size and weight for easy carry when traveling. So make your choices smartly, considering how you really plan to use it and how much lazy you actually are :-) And if you want to save your back and reduce the weight, rather buy more expensive lightweight construction than compromise on the quality and features.
P.S. What is on my back
After many years in photography, I settled with Systematic series carbon fiber tripods from Gitzo. The built quality is just state of the art, packed with well thought-through features. And if something breaks (hasn't happened to me yet), it's easy to buy spare parts and replace.