Gear Review: The Peak Design Travel Tripod, A Fiddly Evolution in Camera Support

  • Post category:Photo Gear
Always critical to line up your shot.

The first photograph was made with a camera and that camera was probably mounted on a tripod. Tripods—a three-legged stand holding something aloft—predate photography by at least thousands of years. Tripods are depicted in ancient art, as a seat for the Oracle at Delphi, as stands for an animal-like brazier.

Tripods appeared early in human history (and probably in our prehistory) no doubt because of their usefulness. Put three sticks together and the thing doesn’t fall down. It is strong and stable. In wars before the modern age it was common to see three rifles placed together as a tripod. The arrangement is just sort of obvious and so useful.

So obvious, so useful.

But despite this obviousness and usefulness the tripod doesn’t appear in the animal kingdom. There are no three-legged beasts out there. Primates might use two legs and one arm to move while carrying something, parrots may use their beaks to help them climb, woodpeckers may brace themselves against a tree trunk with their tail, but there is no third leg, anywhere. Bilateral symmetry seems to be somewhere at the murky foundation of life itself. If you have a left hand you probably have a right hand, not two right hands. You look like yourself in both profiles.

For much of its early life as a tool for making photographs the tripod was an indispensable part of the making of an image. The cameras then were so large and exposure times so lengthy that every shot was made with a camera affixed to a tripod, with the occasional handheld photograph drawing attention to itself as an innovative technique. The tripod was so integral to the camera that in advertisements you’d usually see the camera affixed already to its stand, as if they were one.

For a while there, when I was growing up, it seemed that photographers who used tripods were one of two kinds—New York studio photographers and Ansel Adams landscape photographers. The New York studio photographers used their silver and heavy looking Bogens or even thick silver poles, called studio stands, that rose to the ceiling, the camera sliding up and down the pole as needed. The Ansel Adams types used anything they could but if they were true devotees they used a Ries, a rather attractive and old-timey looking tripod made of light-colored wood. The Ries was sturdy and lighter than metal and, to readers of photography magazines ogling Adams atop his woody station wagon amidst the majesty of Yosemite, it suggested a different and better way of life.

Using a heavy tripod made my own photos better. As a young man learning the craft I bought a Hasselblad, a much bulkier camera than my Minolta XD-11. The bulkier camera necessitated a tripod and so I carried a thirteen pound Manfrotto 3035 around with me. I walked with it—I didn’t drive because I didn’t have a driver’s license until I was twenty-one—all over my neighborhood in the poorer part of Akron, Ohio and beyond.

In the years since the world of photography tripods has changed. Manfrotto, the maker of the tripod labeled Bogen, its distributor’s name, bought out the other major tripod maker of the time, Gitzo, and then bought Bogen itself. Bogen tripods were really Manfrottos all along and now they say so. Really Right Stuff came to the market with a very expensive ball head that combined innovative engineering, modern CNC tooling, good looks, and, to that same magazine-reading public (now on the Internet forums), a status symbol all into one and suddenly everyone was using a ball head. Then Chinese firms came to market with similar products—by “similar” I mean “copied”. They were good enough in most cases and less expensive. (Footnote: As an aside, Internet Photographers will heatedly debate copyright law and legal protections for their cat photos—it’s one of those red meat topics that trolls like to get going and then sit back and watch the posters grow increasingly hostile to each other—but Internet Photographers don’t care so much if industrial designs or other innovations are flat-out copied. Go figure.)

And now, as the camera market shrinks, every manufacturer is attempting to flee from the tiny, magical cameras in phones, the great excitement is about ultra-small and mirrorless cameras. And for these small cameras—and for your iPhone, too!—you need a small tripod. But small tripods are generally not small enough, they are not rigid enough, they are not light enough, they just don’t work. Small tripods, in the past, were budget tripods, not high-end tools.

But what about re-thinking the tripod at a deeper level?

Thus the Peak Design Travel Tripod. The idea here is to make up with engineering and manufacturing techniques what a tripod lacks in sheer mass, higher mass being a straightforward way to achieve greater stability. Make it small and stable. Make it lightweight and rigid. The goal is a tripod you can pop into the drink holder of your daypack, deploy in seconds, and is rock solid under your camera.

And it succeeds in that goal. The thing is small, little airspace between the legs wasted, you can open all of the lever locks on a leg all at once, it is rigid, sturdy, and you really can use your drink holder (and any sort of tie-down to anchor the top) to carry it around in your backpack. It’s not just a success, it’s smashing success. I bought an aluminum one for a graduation gift for my daughter, encouraged my other daughter’s boyfriend to buy one (he did), and then I bought the carbon fiber version for myself. The aluminum is only slightly heavier (and has certain functional advantages over the carbon fiber–see below) the difference in weight only meaningful when compared to each other–both are ridiculously lightweight.

But the funny thing about having a highly engineered piece of gear, where it’s obvious that the designers cared, that they lost sleep over all of those little details, is that you start to worry about all of those little details yourself. Whereas in the old days I’d just grab the Bogen if I was heading out or if I needed something ultra-stable I’d drag out my Majestic with the geared head, now I’m pondering all the little ways—and there are many—that the Peak Design design could be improved.

It’s nit-picky stuff, I know, but the designers are nitpickers, too, and part of the reason for buying this $600 tripod ($350 for the aluminum) is that they are nit-picky and that this tripod won’t be like the old Bogen or the Majestic (or the Benro, or the Fiesol, or the Gitzo). It’s nit-picky stuff but the nit-picky stuff matters. It matters to them and, because it matters to them, it now matters to me.

So then, where do we start? How about the bottom—the bottom of the center column.

Hiding here—but not hiding all that well since this is one of the tripod’s most touted “secrets”—is a removable hanging hook that hides a surprise. The hanging hook itself is used to add mass (e.g. your backpack) to the tripod to increase its stability, a standard feature on many tripods, done to facilitate the reversing of the center column to allow the head to be placed between the legs of the tripod, an ungainly but useful way to shoot ultra low-angle or close up images. Peak Design has the hanging hook, allows it to be removed so the center column can be reversed, but takes this one further and hides a little treat in the bottom of the center column, a small, folded device that at first looks an awful lot like a compact bottle opener. It’s a holder for your iPhone.

I lost the hanging hook the first time I used the iPhone holder. The tripod is touted at being fast to deploy—it’s a cliche that many great photos were made “just in time” but it is true, you find yourself in that situation often. But the hanging hook requires a dexterous hand to reattach—the fingers having to push and pull at the same time—and being in a hurry I failed to mount it—and so just put it in my shirt pocket while I made the image. At some point later I pulled my glasses out of my pocket and now the attachment point rests in the sand in Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

I think I see it.

The iPhone holder itself is small and folds up even smaller. But it is strange. On discussion boards, people who purchased the tripod during the Kickstarter campaign complained that the iPhone holder was made of plastic and prone to break. Mine may be one of those early versions, though I purchased the tripod new from B&H in July of 2020, long after the Kickstarter campaign. The stem is metal but the arms seem to be made of some sort of plastic. The strange part is that the lower cutout where the edge of the phone rests is not directly below the upper cutout–it is about twice as far from the vertical stem of the gizmo, causing the iPhone to have a pronounced forward tilt when used. You can correct this tilt, of course, by using a compensating backward-leaning tilt of the ball head, but why? Photographs of the new, all-metal version on their site show that the mystery tilt feature has been removed and the iPhone holder has cutouts in the correct locations.

One is not the same as the other.

One interesting advantage of their phone holder design is that you can partially release the iPhone holder so that the bottom plate remains attached but the stem is released. The result is that you can fold the top arm down, tilt the stem forward on the head, and still have the holder attached in the mount. Very convenient for when carrying or temporarily storing the tripod–the holder can stay attached but you don’t have a fragile (and dangerous-looking) point sticking out.

Now the legs. Open the levers and extend the legs—you can open all of the levers on a leg at once. Easy! Except on the carbon fiber version the legs do not slide out with gravity. Some will partially extend, some won’t. You have to pull them out. They do not slide back in if you invert the tripod. (The aluminum version? No problem. The legs slide in and out with ease.) Most fiddly, you have to make sure you open the levers all the way. There is no spring mechanism in them so it is easy to have them almost all the way open. And if they are only almost open the leg will jam and you may be puzzled as to why that leg section is jamming. The problem does not seem to be as pronounced on the aluminum version. It’s fiddly.

The head has to be raised for the head to work and the head works well, allowing even small movements of the camera with no fuss. This is most welcome—many ball heads (and many three-way heads) will sag just a little bit when they are locked. This can be quite frustrating when the edges of an image are critical. For example, my RRS BH-40 will often shift vertically as it is locked. With longer lenses I try to anticipate this and use the lock as a sort of variable lift, locking the ball partially or fully depending on my needs.

The head has difficulty when pointing up or down at larger angles. For example, the camera will point straight down easily enough, but only if the tripod is level. You do not have full freedom to point the lens more rightward (from the camera’s point of view) if the tripod itself is not level–the movement will be blocked by the construction of the head, by the way the head platform mounts to the ball. Sometimes you can alleviate this by rotating the tripod legs but often you will have to adjust the legs to level the tripod before you can aim the camera where you want. Fiddly, fiddly, fiddly.

Not its best moment.

Speaking of the legs, my unit, after two full days of constant use in near 100-degree heat with high humidity started to discolor. Portions of the legs, including almost the entirety of one middle portion, started to exhibit a sort of milky translucence on their surfaces. I wish I had photographed it then because now that I am back at my home in coastal California the milkiness is gone.

The scissors-like tool that attaches to the inside of the leg in a sheath seems like a good idea. Always have your hex wrench at the ready. I used it to remove the little bolts that stick up on the head which are there to prevent your camera or iPhone mount from sliding out sideways—but which when in place are too closely spaced to allow almost any other Arca—Swiss mount to fit. The tool fit the bolts perfect and was easy to turn but later I kept noticing that it had worked loose in its holder as I hiked. I clicked it back in place a few times but then one time it was gone. It’s now joined its distant cousins—unexpected company for the hundreds of thousands of lead balls in the Bloody Cornfield in the Antietam National Battlefield. My daughter’s boyfriend reported that the tool on his unit came loose frequently. I just opened the case and took out my daughter’s aluminum unit. Yep. The tool was loose in its holder. It’s a bad design.

One of my worries when I purchased the tripod was whether I could carry the tripod when the legs were extended. Peak Design engineered the legs to close tighter to each other than any other tripod—they made them non-circular rather than tube-shaped to accomplish this—and I wondered whether there would be room for my hand to hold one of the legs when in the open position, or would I be required to collapse the tripod when I wanted to walk with it a bit, closing each time and reopening it again.

I’m happy to report that it is very each to carry. I could wrap my fingers comfortably around the whole thing, all three legs at once, since they were spaced so tightly together. Nice.

It almost carries itself.

With my Fuji camera and one of the Fujicrons it balanced very well, the point of equilibrium about a foot below the camera with no sense that the balance was “tippy” at all. Very comfortable to move about.

The Peak Design Travel Tripod is an attractive proposition. A lightweight tripod that packs up small that has been engineered, engineered like an iPhone has been engineered, with every detail fussed lever, every aspect rethought at a deep level. And the videos, featuring young #vanlife millennials, the warm possibilities of adventure underwritten by daddy’s trust fund coloring everything, a Wratten 81B over everything, speak to some inner insecurity, promising fulfillment at last.

With the purchase made and the physical unit in your hand, the overall impression that pervades everything about the tripod is that it is so highly engineered that it is fiddly. The head is a bit fiddly, the legs are a bit fiddly, even the simple act of putting the tripod in the case is fiddly.

I had to watch a video on Peak Design’s web page to figure out how to get it to fit—after several tries I was completely flummoxed. When my daughter tried to put her own tripod in its case I came to the rescue but couldn’t remember the method in the video—it was simple, just line up the knob with the seam—but I had to watch the video again to remind myself. My advice: watch the video. Otherwise getting that tripod into that case just won’t seem possible.

Peak Design products are made in Vietnam and China and the tripod is made in China. That’s a demerit. The question of country of manufacture is raised on Internet forums all of the time and many posters will bemoan that too much is being made of a product being made in China, that political or environmental considerations shouldn’t play a role in the shopping experience that many people confuse with a photography experience. Nonsense. We are maybe not yet at the point where we should completely avoid products made in China but we should very much be at the point where we are seeking alternatives and encouraging manufacturers to be seeking alternatives as well.

So what’s the bottom line? Is it a good travel tripod?

Well, yes, it’s fine. It does what it sets out to do–it is small, rigid, lightweight, works well enough and gets the job done. I’d guess it is the best tripod in its category as I write this in August of 2020. It’s got a lot of fiddly aspects that can be frustrating and a few design flaws that should have been obvious to Peak Design early on and a few perplexing design choices (tilted iPhone holder?). Yes, it was nice to use versus my heavier carbon fiber Gitzo and even lighter than my Feisol Tournament, and didn’t break. It held the camera and my phone steady, even with wind–although in one case I was concerned that the flat surface of my phone would act as a sail and the tripod and iPhone, perched at the very edge of a cliff with the one leg stupidly placed at the very edge of the edge of the chasm, would shift ever so slightly and everything would just tumble out of sight. But it didn’t.

The only real rival in my mind is the Really Right Stuff Ascend-14, a carbon fiber travel tripod with an integrated head, just like the Peak Design Travel Tripod. It was originally touted in the RRS catalog in January but then didn’t appear as expected. I wrote to RRS in April and they kindly said that things had been delayed due to COVID-19. They said it would be out in late May or June. Great. I planned to buy one. I wrote again in June–I was playing with my daughter’s tripod by then–and was curtly told that I’d know when it was out because it wouldn’t be a secret. Well, well well. I wonder if the delay isn’t just due to the virus but perhaps there is a re-design underway at RRS in light of the success of the Peak Design model?

Small, lightweight, rigid, fiddly. The Peak Design Travel Tripod is far from the ultimate travel tripod but it’s worth the money, at least for the aluminum version.

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