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As a travel journalist, I used to spend months at a time taking more than a thousand photos daily, writing thousand-word reviews and traveling across hundreds of acres with over 50 pounds of gear on my back. And I couldn't have done it without a lightweight but quality tripod.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out I’d be lost with a tripod, and a steady one, but I also needed it to be light enough to keep my back in tact and compact enough to fit in my already strained backpacks. So I started looking into tripods by Manfrotto, an Italian company started by a photojournalist in the 1960s — one I’d noticed other travel photographers seemed to favor. I ultimately decided on Manfrotto’s Befree Advanced Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod. Dozens of countries and 100,000 or more miles later, it’s still in my core kit of photo equipment.
SKIP AHEAD Other travel tripods to consider
There’s a trade-off when it comes to tripods: The lighter it is, the less weight it can hold and the more it sways when there’s stiff wind or nearby motion. Manfrotto solved this by offering a carbon-fiber alternative to the usual aluminum for the Befree line.
I often had to shoot 360-degree panoramas with an 8 mm fisheye lens that had to remain perfectly still for shots in all four directions lest it misalign and require a total reshoot of every shot in the series. With the aluminum tripods I originally started off with, I’d have to count down the seconds after each slight breeze before the metal stopped thrumming and I could safely shoot. Once I switched to the carbon fiber Befree, the tripod stopped vibrating in a fraction of the time and I could get my work done that much more quickly — no small thing when I still had 1,400 shots to get through and 800 more acres to see before moving onto the next site.
As for a tripod’s weight capacity, when I was outside Lincoln, Nebraska, shooting the 2017 North American solar eclipse, I mounted it with my Canon 5D Mark III, a 70-200 mm telephoto lens, 2x extender and solar filter, about 6.5 pounds in all. That was certainly not light, but it was well under the Befree’s impressive maximum recommended payload of about 18 pounds. And it was never especially unwieldy even when the tripod was fully extended to about 59 inches.
The carbon fiber Befree itself weighs about 2.7 pounds, noticeably less than aluminum tripods, and slides down to just over 16 inches. I can’t fit it inside my camera backpack, but I can easily strap or bungee it to the outside, and I have never minded its weight even on the longest, hottest shoots. It’s also sleekly designed, without unnecessary doodads that can catch on straps, get stuck in foliage or gather dirt or sand.
The ball head is easy to use and fairly universal to standard camera mounts. It’s maneuverable and stays where it’s supposed to. Each of the legs is separately adjustable, allowing me to use it in pretty much any kind of terrain and at most practical angles. Generally, I prefer snap locks to twist locks to extend and contract tripod legs — on earlier tripods I had, the twist locks always managed to loosen up exactly as I was about to take a perfect shot, and they were close to impossible to tighten up enough in cold climates or when it was raining. But Manfrotto’s proprietary M-locks do the job and are fast enough to use, even if they aren’t as speedy as snap locks.
I don’t really travel for work anymore — who does right now? — but the Manfrotto carbon fiber Befree tripod is still strapped to my camera backpack, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Other travel tripods to consider
There are a lot of lightweight tripods out there, and often it just comes down to finding the right one for you and your unique needs. If you’re looking for a travel tripod that packs down really small or don’t mind the extra weight of aluminum, then consider looking at these alternatives.
If you’re looking for something that folds down even smaller, the Peak Design Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod is as light as the Befree and can carry as big a load. It’s pricey, though, and uses an unusual head design that can be confusing. It has an average of 4.8 stars from over 800 reviews at B&H Photo.
The GT XPRO has the many of the benefits of the Befree Advanced Carbon Fiber, such as M-locks, easy-to-use ball head and sleek Manfrotto aesthetic, but it has a higher load capacity (26.5 pounds), extends an additional 5 inches and has independently adjustable legs. It weighs almost 4.5 pounds, though. It has an average rating of 4.8 stars from 35 reviews on Amazon.