Finding the perfect travel tripod seems to be an elusive task. After traveling for more than 15 years and doing (amateur) travel photography for about 10 of those years, I have tried many tripod options. From the cheapest that can be bought online to carbon fiber and magnesium alloy options. I’ve come to the conclusion there isn’t really  the best travel tripod. It depends on your personal requirements and what you are willing to compromise.

Requirements

The requirements for this post are:

  • Weight should be around 2.2 lb (1 Kg).
  • Collapsed length not larger than 1.5 ft (47 cm). So that it can be stuffed inside a carry-on bag or strapped around most backpacks.
  • Ballhead and quick release plate, preferably a non-proprietary mount.
  • Price below $250.

Nice things to have but not deal-breakers:

  • Included carrying case.
  • Flip locks instead of twist locks as a leg locking mechanism.

Selected Tripods

Based on the above criteria, I narrowed down my search to three tripods:

Collapsed length

Benro IT15, Manfrotto BeFree and 3LT Vyv - Collapsed.
Benro IT15, Manfrotto BeFree and 3LT Vyv - Collapsed.

As seen above, the Punks-Vyv is obviously the smallest of the three when collapsed at 13” (34 cm), followed by the Benro IT15 at 15.6” (39.6 cm), and the BeFree in close third place at 15.7” (40 cm).

The 3LeggedThing offering is easier to carry around as the twist locks make it less prone to get stock when inserting it or pulling it out of a backpack.

Maximum Height

Benro IT15, Manfrotto BeFree and 3LT Vyv - Extended.
Benro IT15, Manfrotto BeFree and 3LT Vyv - Extended.

When fully extended, they reach almost the same height when considering their respective ballheads. The tallest being the Benro IT15 (58.1” / 147 cm), followed by the Manfrotto Before (56.7” / 144 cm) and the Punks-Vyv (55.5” / 141 cm).

Although at this height the tripods wouldn’t reach eye level for most people, 56” is a sweet spot when it comes to travel tripods nowadays as most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are provided with tilting LCD screens, which make it very easy to frame a shot when the camera is at relative low height. Additionally, the closer the camera is to the ground on a tripod, the most stable it is.

Weight

The Benro IT15 is the lightest of the three at 2.8 lb / 1.3 Kg, followed by Manfrotto BeFree (3 lb / 1.4 Kg) and the 3LT Punks-Vyv (3.3 Lb / 1.5 Kg). This came as a surprise, as I was expecting the 3LT offering to be the lightest one. In any case, the weight difference is not big enough for practical purposes, in my opinion. The three of them feel pretty light.

Locking Mechanisms

Leg Extension Locks

There are two types of leg extension locking mechanisms: twist locks and flip locks. Although twist locks make the tripod look cleaner in design, using them can be somewhat frustrating: there is no way to know if they are tight enough and there is no visual confirmation they are safely secured. I have setup tripods with these locks just to find out one of the legs is not adequately secured. In the end, I have to check all twist locks more than once.

That being said, it’s a personal preference and in all fairness, I’ve switched back and forward between these locking modes in the last years. Most of the high-end tripod manufacturers like RRS and Gitzo use twist locks on their tripods.

Leg extension locks are a big differentiator amongst these three tripods. The 3LT features twist locks, whereas both the Manfrotto and the Benro offerings feature flip locks. Even though these last two tripods have the same locking mechanism and work perfectly fine, the implementation is quite different. The flip locks on the Benro IT15 are bigger and sturdier.

Leg Locks

Both the 3LT Punks-Vyv and the Benro IT15 are provided with sturdy and mostly metallic leg stoppers that allow the tripods to be deployed at three different heights.

Benro IT15 Tripod leg locking mechanism.
Benro IT15 Tripod leg locking mechanism.

The mechanism is very intuitive and easy to engage. The Manfrotto BeFree (seen below), on the other hand, is provided with what looks to be a proprietary locking system made of plastic locks. Although they look great, the plastic construction makes them feel cheap. Also, the spring loaded mechanism is somewhat finicky to operate and it only allows to setup the tripod at two different heights.

Leg locking mechanism on Manfrotto BeFree.
Leg locking mechanism on Manfrotto BeFree.

Ballhead

Each one of these tripods come as kit. Meaning, they include a travel Ballhead with them.

Included ballheads. From left to right: Manfrotto, Benro and 3LeggedThing.
Included ballheads. From left to right: Manfrotto, Benro and 3LeggedThing.

The three do a nice job holding the camera steady on the tripod. The Manfrotto ballhead’s locking mechanism is based on their RC2 quick release plate. Although it’s a reliable and sturdy system, it’s a proprietary system, so it only works with Manfrotto plates.

The other two ballheads, on the other hand, use an Arca-Swiss quick release system, which is widely used for photo and video equipment. That makes them more versatile as the head/plate can be used with L-brackets, Peak Design’s Capture and straps as well as other manufacturer’s plates.

Although ballheads can easily be removed and replaced on any of these tripods, there is a limitation associated to the Manfrotto BeFree: when installing other ballheads, the tripod cannot be collapsed entirely. The ballhead it comes with has a couple of cutoffs to allow for the legs to be completely collapsed in. I tried a couple of heads from different manufacturers without success, not even moving the head’s plate to the side and putting it between the legs worked.

As for the other two ballheads, the 3LeggedThing offering is extremely well built (probably the best of the three), but it’s also the largest and heaviest. I would say Benro’s option represents the best balance of quality, size and weight. I especially like the 2-stage twist locking mechanism which allows the camera to be slided in and out without releasing it entirely.

Other Features

A nice additional feature offered by both the Benro IT15 and the 3LT Punks-Vyv, is that one of the tripod legs can also be unscrewed and used as a monopod. This is great for locations where tripods are not allowed.

Also, the center column on those two tripods has a hook to hang a backpack or another counterweight to keep the tripod steadier. None of these features are present on the Manfrotto Befree.

Conclusion

Benro IT15, Manfrotto BeFree and 3LT Vyv - Collapsed.
Benro IT15, Manfrotto BeFree and 3LT Vyv - Collapsed.

After using these tripods for a while and testing them in a wide variety of environments, I have to say the Benro IT15 is the one fitting the best all the previously specified requirements. For that reason, it’s the one I currently either put in my carry-on luggage or attach to my backpack when traveling. Also, it’s the cheapest of the three, which makes it a no-brainer.