Trying to make a light-weight travel tripod

Posted on 5th November 2017

These days I use a single 5 foot Innorel RT80C carbon fibre tripod which is great. You may be surprised that I only have the one, as most nature photographers will usually say they have 2 or 3 quality tripods. I have no idea why they do, maybe they collect them!

30 years ago I shipped home my, then aluminium tripod with a load of other kit that I was tired of lugging around the USA. From there I travelled around the world taking photographs without a tripod. Didn’t use one again until 3 years later, and then I only seldom used them.

I guess for most people they have the tripod in their kit and feel they have to lug it around where ever they work just because they have it, or because they think it’s vital. Well guess what! It really isn’t. Especially these days with wide lenses and cameras with fast shutter-speeds and incredibly large ISO speeds. But also because it’s really not too difficult to rest your camera on a nearby rock or tree and shoot with a cable release. Of-course you want to try to protect your camera with something soft on the rock first. It’s not the exact view that you first saw and wanted to shoot but you’ll be surprised how often the obscure view from the rock is a better one.

I have several devises like bean-bags and clamps that I use to mount my camera which I’ll write about a little later on. But recently I had the idea to purchase one of these smaller carbon fibre travel tripods with the view that I might be prepared to carry it in the mountains. Well I can tell you now that I’m not, but this post is all about this tripod and how I tried to make it work.

I had a rough idea of what I was looking for - It had to be light and therefore carbon fibre, ideally expanding to about 4 feet (120cm) tall, collapsing to as small and compact as possible, and most importantly it had to be reasonably sturdy to hold my expensive kit safely. That last prerequisite proved to be the most difficult one to suffice.

Well I found this one in China. Not sure of the brand and that’s not important anyway. This seemed not bad and I got it for £50 on offer. I notice it’s now £90.

Mini travel tripod

It came with that little ballhead with an Arca Swiss style plate. This was removed straight away as I have my Benro ballhead and various other attachments that I would use. Nevertheless that little balhead was quite nicely made with a smooth movement. I sold it on an auction site for £14.

The collapsed length of the tripod without the head is 35cm, which is nice, and the weight is 960g, which is okay. When fully extended, the legs, despite being very thin at the bottom were quite sturdy. They vibrated a little if you tap them under load, so I guess you wouldn’t use this in a strong wind. The biggest problem is the centre column, being carbon fibre and so flimsy there is no way you could ever mount a heavy camera & lens on it when extended up. It’s an absolute pointless addition to have a centre column, and the tripod could only ever be used with the column fully down and locked, so why have one! The centre column is designed to slide out and attach to a removable leg to form a monopod. What a stupid idea that is! I know some people like monopods and use them a lot, I think they’re a good way to slow down picture-taking reactions, a trip hazard and a good way to smash your camera. This centre column was also telescopic and would extend to become doubly wobbly if you wanted.

I looked on-line and found a short 17cm centre column made of 25mm aluminium for £15. So took the original centre column out and threw it away. The new shorter column is sturdier, and I could, if I really needed to extend it up, but in reality I would probably never do that and the whole reason for replacing it was to lighten the load and remove redundancy. The new shorter column also has a retractable hook for hanging stabilizing weight like the original had, so that’s good. Ironically though because the new shorter centre column is aluminium the total weight is still 960g.

The question is – would I ever use this tripod? I haven’t yet. I’ve hiked out with a tripod several times since and every time I’ve taken my 5 foot Innorel RT80C carbon fibre tripod. I really feel that if I don’t want to carry the Innorel then I’ll take a bean-bag or something else.

So I said I’d write about alternatives. The obvious one is a bean-bag. I know some people who’ve made their own, but they’re not expensive to buy and I get them with a camouflage pattern just because. The idea with these is that you fill them up with dirt or gravel when you arrive at your destination. I can tell you there are problems with that, firstly, you can’t import soil into foreign countries and a dirty bag counts as just that. And more to the point, you didn’t want to carry your tripod because of the weight so why would you want to lug a couple of kilos of dirt around? I fill mine with polystyrene packing beads, which provide a sturdy enough base if you push the camera or lens well into it. The type of bean-bag I use are the double pouch type which will sit comfortably on an open car window.

window clamp

As I’m sure you know a car can quite often make a good wildlife hide, and a better alternative to the bean-bag if you’re going to use it for longer periods is a window clamp. These can be clamped to almost anything, including trees. You might find one of these quite difficult to find, few places offer them. Manfrotto make something similar for silly money. But I use this simple clamp.

As you can see it only has ¼" mounting screws so I also have this ¼" - ⅜" adapter.

adapter screw

So now with this you can mount your favourite ballhead or what I like to do is mount my Benro GH2C carbon fibre gimbal to use my big lenses. All well and good for use in a car, but I still more often than not rest on a rock when hiking out.