I’m not a proponent of checking my bags when I’m traveling for a video shoot. But for those of us with a tripod that’s a bit beefy, you’re faced with replacing it with a smaller tripod that likely won’t shoot quality video or checking the bag with the other cargo. This article will focus on the travel tripod I’ve been able to carry onto an airplane, which didn’t degrade the overall video quality I needed to shoot.
The below focuses on video tripods as opposed to photo tripods. Most photo tripods aren’t meant to support the weight of a decent size video camera with a few accessories attached. And overall, a photo tripod isn’t intended to dramatically pan the camera from left to right.
If you’re buying your first tripod, you might not know that many higher-end tripods sell the tripod legs separately from the head. Given the legs are what give a tripod system most of its length, the legs of the tripod are what I’ll be focusing heavily on for this article. That said, in order to travel with a tripod onto an airplane, I’m going to suggest the head be take off the tripod legs to shorten the overall length.
Here is the video tripod I recommend you travel with and to carry on … in 5 minutes.
Read this first
It’s a bit counter-intuitive to look for a tripod that both shoots video well and travels easily. Video tripods are meant for set-up—not run-and-gun—shooting. And yes, trying to bypass the need to check a bag counts as run-and-gun. Video technology is evolving rapidly and it’s not radical to hope that the footprint of a tripod could shrink while the shooting quality remains the same. The examples I highlight in this article show this is coming to fruition.
With that out of the way, here are the size restrictions for what you can carry onto an airplane.
What are the carry on rules for most airlines
The TSA clearly states you are allowed to bring a tripod as a carry on item. The kicker is the tripod must abide by the carry on size guidelines set by the Carrier. Here is the complete sizing chart for what you can expect the carry on rules to be for most domestic airlines.
|Airline||Length (inches)||Width (inches)||Height (inches)||Checked bag cost|
|Southwest||24||16||10||Free (for first 2 bags)|
|Frontier||24||16||10||$30 (pre-paid) |
$50 (at airport)
|Spirit||22||18||19||$21 – $50|
Why you want to spend a premium on a good travel tripod
Many people assume that anything with three legs will work fine enough for their camera. But outside of shooting in high frame rates or filming in low light, smooth tracking shots from a high-end tripod are a great way to add production quality. It also sounds obvious, but a well-built tripod will shake less than a $100 tripod. As great as some editing programs‘ stabilization features have become, an obvious camera shake can ruin a perfect shot. How much is that worth to you?
Unlike camera technology, tripod systems hold their value very well over time and can be a great investment. If the first thing you buy is the camera, the second should be a high-quality tripod.
What to look for in a good video tripod
Here are the features you should be looking for in a good tripod:
- A stable base and thick legs that can handle a load of at least 20 pounds. Note that the thicker the legs, the more stable the tripod will be when shooting with longer lenses.
- It is lighter in weight (ideally less than 5 pounds) and sturdy (ideally carbon fiber). The difference between a high and mid-tier tripod can be 2-3 pounds. The materials making up those pounds will also determine how well the tripod holds up over time.
- A pan/tilt head that has a bowl mount as opposed to a head mount.
The benefits of a tripod bowl mount vs. a flat head mount
Tripod heads with a bowl mount will allow the camera to be located closer to the legs than on tripods with a rising middle column, often found on a head mount. The further the camera is from the legs, the less stable the camera, causing more shaking to occur. The bowl head will also allow for a quick level adjustment of the camera without having to raise or lower the tripod legs (notice the handle at the bottom of the bowl (left) above). This functionality can also be achieved by adding a ball head to a tripod without a bowl, but you will likely lose some stability with this feature as it will distance the camera from the legs.
A bowl mount will be harder to fly with due to its larger size. But given the benefits, it is still preferable to most flat head mounts.
Is Manfrotto a good tripod system?
You could spend anywhere from $200 to $2,500 on a Manfrotto tripod system, so it’s difficult to say universally if they are “good.” Most relevant for this article, Manfrotto does not currently make a video tripod that folds up short enough to travel with into an airplane. The closest tripod to do so would be the Manfrotto MVT502AM, which folds up to 24 inches without the tripod head.
The best travel tripod for shooting video is…
The Gitzo Standard Systematic Series 4 Carbon Fiber Tripod Legs are a great option for carrying on. The tripod legs fold to 1.5 feet, which is incredibly compact for a high-end tripod. The bad news is this model has a max height of 53.5 inches.
At around $950, it is more expensive than many of the mid-tier tripods on the market. And this is “just” for the legs. For some, this might seem egregious as their camera might not have cost twice that much. But this is the point—I’ll bet a nickel these legs outlast the utility of your camera in the long run.
If you’d like a more affordable option, the 3 Legged Thing Jay Tripod system exists for around $700. I’ve never shot with it, but it is a relatively new offering that presents an intriguing hybrid (photo/video) tripod. It comes with the legs and head included. Note that not all of their models fit under the required 22-inch restriction when it comes to carry on length.
What about the tripod head?
Note the good news with the Gitzo Series 4 Legs is they can fit a bowl mount adapter, allowing you to fit a professional bowl mount tripod head. Budget $500 at least to complete your tripod system with the tripod head and an adapter. Personally, I use and prefer the Nitrotech head from Manfrotto.
Simply put, if you want a great tripod, you should go out and buy a great tripod and not consider whether you can store it in an overhead bin. That disclaimer aside, being able to travel easily with a great tripod for shooting video is a huge benefit. The Gitzo Series 4 System is one of the best items that can do the job while fitting in a camera bag. For those who have given up on finding a legit travel tripod that can still shoot quality video, hopefully, you found the above edifying.