Big leg support with a small footprint
A tripod is either a must-have accessory or a necessary evil, depending on what you’re shooting and how far you have to carry one. For travel and location shoots, a sturdy tripod gives you the support needed to maintain low-noise ISO settings, creatively blur motion with slower shutter speeds, or maximize depth-of-field with smaller apertures. If you’re on a tight budget, “sturdy” usually equates to heavy, and the benefits you get from a heavy tripod must be weighed against the hassle of carrying it, the space it takes up and the extra price you may incur for shipping it to various locations. On the other hand, smaller, lightweight tripods made of carbon fiber offer a superior weight-to-support ratio than metal models, but a decent one can cost you an arm and three legs.
A more affordable, compact and sturdy alternative is the Benro Travel Angel. This innovative aluminum model folds down to a mere 14.9-inch length, yet can be extended up to 59.6 inches tall. It’s also rated to hold a typical medium-sized DSLR with a zoom lens up to 8.8 pounds. For a recent overseas assignment, I paired the aluminum version with a Benro B-series Ballhead B-0 (this combo available as kit TRAB169 for $231, and holds up to 17.6 pounds) as the support system for a new Panasonic DMC-GH1 camera system. Since the GH1 is one of the lightest interchangeable-lens cameras on the market (and one of the best dual-media cameras with full 1080P HD recording), I didn’t need the extra weight capacity of a larger tripod or the carbon fiber version of the Travel Angel (model TRCB169, $440 street, folds to 14.1 inches, extends to 58 inches high, and can support up to 17.6 pounds).
All Images ©Michael J. McNamara 2009
At 3.3 pounds (without a head), the aluminum Travel Angel only weighs a half-pound more than the carbon fiber version. When folded, it’s only 0.8 inches longer, and easily fits into most checked or carry-on bags. To squeeze so much capability into such a small footprint, Benro designed an inverted-leg mechanism that lets you fold the legs back 180 degrees. Once this is done, you simply push the part of the tripod attached to the ballhead down into the area between the legs and you’re ready to roll. When opening the three support legs, you can independently lock each leg at either of two angles, allowing you to spread the legs over a rough terrain or support a camera on a rocky hill or along side of winding stream (see photo.) With all legs locked in the upper (approximately 80-degree vs. 24-degree position), the camera system can be placed closer to the ground with full support.
Leg extension and adjustment takes some practice until you get used to the direction that the rubber locking grips must be turned in order to loosen or tighten the legs. While I prefer snap locks for quick leg extension, I must admit they often get caught on other objects, wear out over time, or trap dirt. For the long haul, the rubberized locking rings on the Benro Travel Angel not only provide shock protection while carrying the tripod, but include anti-dust and moisture seals. They also loosen or lock tight with just a short half-turn in either direction.
When tightened up at full 59.6-inch extension, the Travel Angel provides stability on par with many heavier tripods, and its rubber leg tips grab hold on just about any solid surface. Remove these tips, and optional stainless steel spiked feet can be screwed in for use on slippery ground or grass lawns. In addition, a spring-loaded metal hook at the bottom of the main stem allows you to attach a sand bag or weight for additional stability. Unscrew it, and you can reverse the main column so that the camera can be set up all the way down to ground level (or actually below the plain of the legs when they are all set to the 89-degree extension angle). That’s an amazing amount of versatility in a system that is so small and lightweight.
While the standard 3/8"-16 head mount thread size on the tripod allows you to swap with tripod heads from other manufacturers, Benro ballheads come in a variety of forms and capabilities and sport similar materials and complementary designs. The B-series Ballhead B-0 offers separate locking and drag knobs to control of the ball’s tilt and swivel, while the 360-degree knob on the bottom controls rotation. Panoramic shooters will also appreciate the useful graduated panning scale, and video shooters may enjoy the fluid-like feel to this system when it’s adjusted properly. Another nice feature; the lock and drag adjustment knobs have scales on them so you can mark down your favorite settings for each camera and lens combo you use.
My biggest complaint with this head is its Universal Quick Release System. It takes some getting used to, and I prefer a variety of other quick-release mechanisms, including those with a quick tightening lever. Benro claims that the removable camera plate and attachment mechanism are fully compatible with those found on Arca-Swiss quick-release tripods; but if you don’t have one of these in your repertoire, that’s not a bonus. I do like the fact that there are two screws at each end of the plate (on the bottom) that stop the camera from sliding out of the holder if the locking knob on the side comes loose. Unfortunately, this happens a bit too often if you’re carrying the camera around while attached to the tripod and you happen to rub the locking knob against your clothing.
The camera plate also attaches to the camera using a hex bolt, instead of a bolt with a standard flat head screwdriver slot (which also works with a dime, penny, or quarter). A hex wrench is supplied, but if you forget (or lose) yours and you’re not near a hardware store, there’s no way to tighten it. Hopefully, Benro will replace this bolt in the near future with something more user-friendly, or supply an optional one for U.S. shooters. Otherwise, the tripod itself is well-designed, sturdy, and a great accessory for photographers on the go or shooting with a medium-sized DSLR system.