When it comes to purchasing things, I am a deliberator. Before I can bring myself to spend money on something, I spend countless hours researching it, scouring the Internet for points of view, weighing pros and cons and occasionally spread sheeting product specifications. My fastidiousness is agnostic to the amount of money being spent. I went through the same amount of effort researching various pour-over coffee set-ups as I did for my first DSLR camera. If you’re anything like me, the prospect of purchasing a tripod can be daunting. Countless Internet rabbit holes lead to ever-more-expansive tripods. Pretty soon the logic becomes $1,000 tripod or bust. Well-regarded photography blogs posit the seed that a big, sturdy, high-end tripod and ball head is table stakes for real photography.
I’m writing this blog to rebel against that notion, and to suggest that, for my use cases, the most important criteria is weight, and you don’t have to pay a fortune for a highly functional lightweight travel tripod.
The first tripod that I purchased, and the one I’ve been using over the past four years, is the ProMaster XC525. I bought it the same day I bought my first DSLR, a Nikon D800, when the guy at the local camera shop pointed to a shiny blue one in the middle of the floor plan, very confident in his pairing of camera and tripod. It has served me excellently, surviving months trekking in Nepal, over a dozen East and West African expeditions, and countless skiing and rock climbing trips back home in the mountains. It was nearly always by my side, in a backpack, accessible, ready for any shoot.
This tripod seemed to be the best value for the money four years ago, and after a second bout of tripod due diligence, it still seems to be the best value tripod I can find. Let me show you what I’m talking about.
Here are the specs for the ProMaster XC525, which costs $169.99:
• Weight: 3 lb 7 oz
• Max load: 22 lb
• Folded length: 15 ½”
• Max height: 59”
• Min height: 6 3/8”
As a point of comparison, here are the specs for an oft-cited ‘best travel tripod’, the Gitzo Series 1 Traveler tripod, which costs $989.99:
• Weight: 3.2 lb
• Max load: 22 lb
• Folded length: 16.7”
• Max height: 64.4”
• Min height: 12.6”
The XC525 is roughly the same across the board but less than half the cost. That’s good value. One of the more compelling arguments for a higher end tripod is that the build quality will make it that much faster/easier to set up and take down. This swayed me at first, but then I timed how long it takes to setup the XC525. It takes me about ten seconds. Perhaps as low as 5 seconds if one tried to do it ultra-fast. Considering cost differences, the idea of shaving a few seconds, seems a bit fruitless. Also, there’s no guarantee that you will operate the tripod that much faster, so it’s worth trying different tripods out in a camera store to see what feels natural for set up and take down.
Time Saving Set Up Trick: Try to avoid individually turning each tripod leg segment, instead use one hand motion to quarter turn each segment of the tripod leg simultaneously, when the leg is still compact. With that method, you can quickly setup any twist-type travel tripod.
Picking the right tripod depends upon the use-case. What do you want to shoot? For me, as a travel and adventure photographer, I frequently shoot hand-held, but need a tripod for certain specific shots. The majority of my best shots are taken on a tripod in low-light situations, and because of this I always have a lightweight tripod with me. Here are some examples from my travels that I’ve shot with my XC525:
All nighttime photography requires a tripod. In this first example, I had just ended a long ski-tour in Grand Teton National Park about 3 hours later than expected. The sky was pitch-black, but with my ProMaster tripod and a long exposure, I was able to pull out the stars and create a nice feel.
Here’s another long-exposure shot taken in Mustang Nepal while on a month-long archaeological expedition. The moon was on the other side of the valley, lighting up the clouds. A bit of headlamp magic was used to light the mani-wall and tents.
An image I captured with my XC525 from the ‘Shipton Camp’ up on Mt. Kenya.
A final starry night photo from Portrero Canyon in Mexico.
This photo was shot in a very low-light situation with a long lens. Long zoom lenses 300mm and up rarely go below f/5.6. As a result, dawn or dusk photos with a long lens fully extended often requires the use of a tripod.
Here’s another low-light/long lens example image, this one taken in the Pedras Negras range of Angola, Africa.
I rarely use HDR editing techniques, opting for a less computerized style, but sometimes a subtle HDR edit can really bring a scene to life. It’s possible to go hand-held with exposure bracketing and a high frame rate camera in the daylight, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Tripods greatly increase success rates when exposure bracketing.
HDR techniques were used to pop the colors and contrast in this image, taken from an Airbnb deck in Havana, Cuba.
Here is another example of exposure bracketing while using a tripod. When combined using HDR software, the multiple exposures create a more dramatic effect in the sky, as the clouds from each image are layering on top of each other with slightly different positions from frame to frame. When editing an image like this, the drama comes from the layering, and so I try to refrain from bumping any of the effects too much.
In this image, which was taken in the remote Nepalese village of Nar, the tonal range between the foreground, mid ground and background was too great for my camera to handle. Exposure bracketing on my tripod allowed me to bring in each element of the image while maintaining a consistent tonal range.
How do you take a photo of yourself while all alone? Or a group photo with you in it? Well, a tripod of course. I brought my XC525 on a solo-climbing mission up Mt. Sill in the high Sierras, and took this photo for posterity.
Regardless of the technique or the gear used, the most important thing is to be at the right place, with an interesting composition, at the right time. My philosophy is that if you go further than most, and you can reach places that others can’t, then you will capture more unique and compelling images. Having a versatile lightweight travel tripod like the ProMaster XC525 suits this purpose perfectly.