For the last many years, I’ve been an avid fan of the burgeoning travel tripod market, mostly because my aging back has demanded it.
As the current style of travel tripods didn’t exist early in my photo career, I often found myself lugging my trusty Manfrotto 190 into the field, weight and size be damned. When the carbon fiber version came out and shaved a little over a pound off the same style frame, I was ecstatic. I bought one of those too.
This was after purchasing a string of cheap Best Buy-issue Sunpak photo/video tripods that just wouldn’t hold up to heavy use. It’s worth it to spend $100-$200 more for the “real thing.”
Which brings me to the current crop of travel tripods in this roundup: in one corner are two professional tripods in the $200-$250 range, the MeFoto RoadTrip Travel Tripod, and the Manfrotto BeFree Travel Tripod, and in the other is the Peak Design Carbon Travel Tripod, coming in at a hefty $650 price tag. Does the same theory of spending more to get a little more apply at this scale?
I’d argue that it does. Read on to find out why.
In the name of full disclosure, I’m comparing a slightly older aluminum version of Manfrotto’s BeFree line that I purchased in 2016. The most comparable design that Manfrotto offers today is the Advanced, which retains the much more functional (in my opinion) lever-lock design of my model.
The RoadTrip travel tripod in this review is the Classic Leather edition I reviewed here in 2018, and the newer models are largely the same, minus the leather and with some changes to the adjustments on the heads under parent company Benro.
Peak Design recently sent me the carbon fiber version of their travel tripod launched via Kickstarter in 2019. There’s also an aluminum version for $380. The RoadTrip tripod, in fact, was compared to the Peak Design in that Kickstarter and appeared to be more stable.
It’s understandable that some would say these are apples-to-oranges comparisons, but the main point to drive home is you’re looking at two entirely different classes of tripods in these products, and making a decision on whether those differences are worth the price tag. Let’s dive into the differences.
Interestingly, despite having the same broad strokes for design, the money that nets you a carbon fiber tripod in MeFOTO flavor only gets you an aluminum version from Manfrotto. Carbon fiber is often preferable for tripods because of the weight savings associated with the lighter material. It might not seem like much, but when you’re walking around all day, there is a difference between the Manfrotto’s 3.6 lb weight, the MeFoto’s 3 lbs, and Peak Design’s 2.8 lbs. That’s almost a 25% weight difference between the lightest (Peak Design) and the heaviest (Manfrotto). The carbon fiber version of Manfrotto’s tripod comes in at the same 2.8 pounds and $300, but you don’t have the option for lever locks, and it has what I would consider a less useful design than Peak Design’s tripod. I’ll explain.
The most popular design of the travel tripod category is the reverse-folding design, wherein the center column is extended to its full height, and the legs fold up and surround the center column. What this means in practice is that to get the tripod into its usable form, you have to pull the legs all the way around and then lower the center column back in place. It’s a time-consuming and clunky operation, and while it saves space on transport, once it’s opened up to normal position, the space savings is largely gone. It’s a hassle when walking through an environment to have to fold the legs back up and around the column just to save the space, and often I found myself leaving my tripod set up in the less travel-friendly way. Both Manfrotto’s BeFree and the RoadTrip tripod share this design.
In contrast, the Peak Design requires no such gymnastics to set up. Because of the non-cylindrical design of the legs that fold around a center column that matches that design, everything tucks in neatly and the Peak Design Travel Tripod opens up just like a “normal” tripod. The kicker here is that the entire package is also smaller than either of the competition’s tripods. A lot smaller. Part of that design is the custom-designed ball head, which features Peak Design’s Arca-compatible plate system and tucks into the crevices between the legs themselves. It’s really brilliantly thought out.
The designs all end up about the same place: the Manfrotto tripod I have goes to 56” (the newer ones go to 59”), the Peak Design is at 60” and the MeFOTO is at 61”. The Peak Design has a removable center column, however, which enables it to get much lower to the ground than the other two, which I appreciated.
The Peak Design and Manfrotto tripods are rated to hold about 20 lbs of gear to the MeFOTO’s 17.6, which is worth noting.
On paper, they all fold down to about the same size, between 15.4 (MeFOTO) and 15.75 inches (Manfrotto), but the Peak Design’s folded-up mode requires less steps to get there and is thinner overall.
The Manfrotto BeFree is what I would consider a “no-frills” travel tripod. It has everything you need and nothing you don’t. That said, for the same price, here’s what you get with the other two:
The MeFOTO and the Peak Design add a center column hook so that you can add weight to the tripod (i.e., hang your camera bag off of it if needed to stabilize things). Not a dealbreaker, but a “nice to have” feature. I’ve just hung my bag off the column/legs, much to the same effect. There are also bubble levels on the MeFOTO and Peak Design, though with modern cameras including electronic levels, these are superfluous, and after years of use I’ve mostly broken every bubble level I’ve had on tripods.
MeFOTO adds the ability to turn one of the legs into a monopod, and while I tried it once in my initial review, I’ve never used the feature since. The use cases where I’d take out a monopod versus a tripod are very different, and I already have a dedicated monopod, and so taking apart my tripod for this feature is never something I found an actual use for in the field. It’s a neat party trick, but ultimately of limited usefulness. Photographers playing in this price class probably already have a dedicated monopod.
The MeFOTO also has twist locks vs. the lever locks of the other two. It’s purely a personal preference, but I’ve always hated twist locks; they are hard to tell at a glance if things are locked down, and for me, that slows things down.
A couple of other party tricks from Peak Design: The center column is reversible so you can shoot directly down at something in the middle of the tripod legs, and there’s a cell phone mount hidden in the center column. As someone who compares mirrorless cameras frequently to cell phones in the course of his job, I truly appreciated this.
That said, if I had to offer one gripe about the Peak Design way of doing things, it’s the need to use hex keys to attach the plate to the camera, or to remove the center column. Yes, there’s a spot on the tripod itself to hold these things, but I’m afraid I’m going to lose it all the time. Having tools that I just need my hands for would be a welcome change.
Which One Is Right for You?
As I’ve owned the Manfrotto the longest, I have a soft spot in my heart for all the adventures I’ve taken it on. However, objectively speaking, it’s definitely been surpassed.
While the MeFOTO added some neat features to Manfrotto’s very standard setup, ultimately, the size was about the same, and so while I enjoyed it when I reviewed it, it didn’t differentiate itself enough to make me prefer one over the other.
The Peak Design Travel Tripod hits different. It’s an entire rethink of the travel tripod category and it’s pushed the design far enough that it’s enough to make me push aside the previous models I’ve been using.
I previously mentioned that it was worth it to spend on a solid tripod. Cameras come and go, but a tripod will stay with you for much longer. Some of my oldest ones are going on 15 years old.
While $650 may seem like a lot for a tripod, given the lifespan of a camera support, it’s worth it for the weight and space savings that Peak Design brings to the table. While my Manfrotto had a good run, it’s been outclassed by the competition that has a few more features. For the same money, I’d go for the MeFOTO, but given the advancements made with Peak Design’s Travel Tripod, I’d say it’s definitely worth the extra spend over any of those.
If cost is a concern, I’d still consider the $380 aluminum version of the Peak Design tripod, which brings all the design advancements, minus the weight savings.
What do you think of these travel tripods? Do you have a recommendation of your own? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.