Tripods for Touring

Nov 27, 2012

Today's guest post is by Russ Roca and Laura Crawford of PathLessPedaled.com.

With the growing popularity of bike touring combined with the amazing lightweight do-it-all cameras out there, everyone is sharing their adventures online. More than before, people are discovering the Great Bicycle Touring Photography Paradox -- how the heck do I get myself in the picture/video?

What is Bicycle Travel? - PathLessPedaled.com from Russ Roca on Vimeo.

Sharing your bicycling adventures with stills and video has never been easier! This was shot with a mix of handheld, small tripod and GoPro footage.

The answer is probably the least exciting of camera gear -- the tripod. Having traveled for the last year and making the slow transition from stills to video, I’ve played with more than a few different tripods in search of THE ONE. Depending on how serious/heavy your gear you’ve got a lot of choices. Here are a few different styles of tripods I’ve used over the years to consider.

From L to R: Mephoto Transfunctional, Mephoto Travel, Joby Gorillapod Focus, Velbon Ultra Maxi L

Gorillapod 

When the funny looking Gorillapod came out a few years it was a class-defining, small, adjustable, travel-friendly tripod. Being a SLR shooter, I opted to get the Gorillapod Focus with ball-head. The Gorillapod Focus is compact and the adjustable ball-jointed legs are of high quality as is the ball head. It’s small enough to fit inside a pannier or strap to the back of a rack and works best with small to mid-sized SLRs and video cameras. The ball-head with quick-ish release (not quite quick since you have a knob to turn before the plate pops out) makes for easy leveling of the camera -- important for stills and videos.

 

It’s quick to deploy (simply spread the legs and level the head), it’s useful for really low-angle shots over bumpy terrain and in a pinch you could use it to afix a camera to your handlebars or toptube (I don’t recommend this with a large setup though). It’s biggest weakness is that you are at the mercy of your terrain. If you need a waistlevel (or higher) shot and there is nothing around but tumbleweed you are out of luck. Also, if you are looking to do any shots that require panning or any camera movements it just doesn’t have the mass or stability to keep from turning with a fluid head.

Velbon Ultra Maxi L and Manfrotto Compact Series

Moving up from an ultra-compact style tripod are small but full-featured tripods. The two tripods I’ve tried in this category are the Manfrotto Compact Series Movie/Photo Tripod and the Velbon Ultra Maxi L. The Manfrotto met a quiet and unceremonious end somewhere in Montana when I set it down during a roadside break just outside of Virginia City on the TransAm route. Both are fairly similar with the major difference being the leg locking mechanism.

The Manfrotto uses traditional flip locks, whereas the Velbon uses an innovative SINGLE twist lock. With Velbon’s single twist lock, you twist the foot to release and adjust the legs, the Manfrotto requires you to adjust the height with the different lever locks. Setup speed definitely goes to the Velbon and if you’re stopping often to take quick B-roll or setup a self-portrait, you will appreciate the Velbon’s locking mechanism.

A great option for P&S cameras as well as the growing crop of mirror-less cameras.

Both come with a photo/video head with a pan arm of sorts. They work best with small cameras such as lightweight DSLRs or mirrorless cameras like the GH2. If you are really serious about smooth camera movements, the stock heads won’t make you happy, but they are great for static shots. With the Manfrotto you cannot replace the head and this is a major disadvantage. With the Velbon you can mount a true fluid head (a bit of a hack but it will work) making it more flexible.
 

Benro MePhoto Tripods

Moving up yet another level to larger tripods are Benro’s MeFoto line. Optimized for travel, the tripods offer great durability in a feature-rich small package. The smallest of the MeFoto line, the MeFoto Travel Tripod when folded is about the same length as the Gorillapod Focus! The slightly larger MeFoto Transfunctional tripod is still compact and has the neat feature of transforming into a monopod (hence "Transfunctional"). The MeFoto line is also unique in that the tripods come in different colors. While this doesn’t affect the quality of your image of course, it is pretty neat to see some tripods with a little personality. All the MePhoto tripods also come with a nicely-padded case, complete with shoulder strap and even spiked feet and hex wrench.

MeFoto Travel (left) works best as stills tripod,
but the MeFoto Transfunctional (right) is a cable compact video shooter.

The MeFotos come stock with a matching high quality ball head that works well for still photography and video shots that don’t require any movements. You can also replace them with a fluid head to be able to pan and tilt. If you plan to shoot mostly stills and some video, the smaller  MeFoto Travel Tripod is a good choice. If you plan to shoot a lot of video, then the larger MeFoto Transfunctional is the better choice since you can have a taller tripod without extending the center column, therefore making a more stable base and reducing camera shake. Another thing to consider is that the MeFotos are a little heavier than the other options, but are also a bit more stable.

The MeFoto Transfunctional with the Velbon Velflo fluid head. Compact and light-ish.
 
More to consider: Leveling Tripods and a lightweight Fluid Head
 
Perhaps the biggest omission of all these tripods when compared to “real” video tripods are that they lack a way to quickly level the camera. Video tripods often have an adjustable bowl in the center so you can level the camera without futzing with individual legs. Tripods with bowls tend to be larger and probably won’t be what your average bike tourist will be willing to carry, but there are some possible options.
 

Manfrotto Leveling Base

While sort of a hack, you can retrofit any tripod to have leveling capabilites with this Manfrotto leveling base. It doesn’t quite give you the same range of leveling as a dedicated bowl tripod, and at about a pound it's quite heavy, but it’s a possible solution.

The Manfrotto base lets you add leveling features to tripods you already own.

Manfroto MDEVE Line

In response to DSLR shooters transitioning into video and wanting a good cross-over tripod, Manfrotto has launched the MDEVE line. The Manfrotto 755XB uses standard tripod legs but has a special center column with a bowl leveler included.  While I haven’t had a chance to use these first hand, and there is actually very little written about them, they seem to offer the best of both worlds.  For the weight conscious, they of course come in carbon fiber (but at a price!).

Budget Fluid Head - Velbon VelFlo If you’re serious about your fliming you’ll want a fluid head for those silky smooth pans of your buddy tearing down the mountain. Most fluid heads are expensive and big. I’m not going to go in-depth into all the options (that’s a whole different post) but want to mention one fluid head in particular which has become something of a cult classic among DIY filmmakers -- the Velbon Vel-flo head.

The $40 cult classic of indie DSLR filmmakers.

At only $40 you get a fluid head with adjustable drag on pan AND tilt (Manfrotto’s entry level 701 head at over $100 doesn’t even have that). It’s made up mostly of plastic so you probably won’t be handing it down to your grandkids in two generations, but the upside is that it's fairly lightweight as far as fluid heads go. Also, did I mention it’s only $40? If you accidentally drop it in the water during one of your epic river crossings on tour it won’t break the bank.

In the end, it all really depends on what your priorities are for your videos when traveling. If your videos are just for fun and you’re not super obsessed with perfect camera movements, then you can get away with a smaller tripod (or no tripod at all!). But, if you’re pretty serious about your video production, then it’s worth the investment in weight and money for a better tripod since you'll never be able to restage those memorable moments on your tour again!

Photos by Russ Roca

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In 2009, Russ Roca and Laura Crawford sold all their belongings to travel by bicycle and began PathLessPedaled.com. They traveled for three years and gave presentations to inspire others to travel by bike along the way. Currently, they are calling Portland, OR home and have switched hats from being active bike travelers to advocating for bicycle tourism and travel. Follow their adventures on PathLessPedaled.com.

Comments

Rico

Hiya kids! Long time no see for some reason. I completed my E12 5-country ride in Europe this Spring. Worst weather in UK history so I'm told. And I missed the bad parts!

Anyway, I found a similar item to the Gorillapod to work well. That wrap around flexibility allowed for all kinds of things.

December 13, 2012, 2:57 PM
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