Gadget Bag: Beyond The Tabletop

Ultracompact tripods are good for much more than point-and-shoot cameras
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The image on the opening page is simulated, but shows how these small tripods can be used very effectively by nature shooters. Some tabletop tripods come with small heads and some come without heads at all. Adding a normal-sized ballhead or an L bracket makes a powerful, solid package.

Once considered an inevitably endangered species because of built-in image stabilization, tripods have emerged just as important as ever. Using a tripod can potentially improve every shot you take—that’s something you can’t say about any other accessory. If that’s so, why don’t we always use one? Sometimes it’s just too inconvenient—tripods can be large, slow to engage and attract unwanted attention. However, portable tabletop and specialty tripods aren’t big, or slow to set up, or inconvenient to maneuver. In fact, for nature photography, a tabletop tripod can be a very steady and useful platform in the field when used properly.

One way you can make tabletop tripods useful is by adding a full-sized ballhead. The tiny ballheads one usually sees on mini-tripods are fine for tiny point-and-shoot cameras, but by adding a full-sized ballhead, many of these diminutive tripods can easily accommodate a hefty DSLR. Also consider adding an L bracket, which will keep the rig balanced for vertical shots. With these additions, you still have a very compact setup, and as long as you get sufficient spread on the tripod’s legs, this kind of rig can give you rock-solid support.

Giottos QU 305B

There’s no shortage of sizes, styles and special features. Just make sure that the tiny tripod you select will support the weight of the camera and lens combination you’re most likely to use. A tripod that’s left at home in the closet doesn’t do anyone any good.

Three tools in one, the Giottos QU 305B convertible mini-tripod can be used as a tabletop tripod, mini-monopod or handheld monopod. The short center column can be detached from the tripod legs, providing a minimum working height of only 4.6 inches. Fully extended, the maximum height is 16.2 inches. Load capacity is 11 pounds. When purchased with the Giottos MH-1004 mini-ballhead, the combination provides flexible, reliable support even for moderately large cameras. Constructed of aluminum alloy, it’s built to last a lifetime.

ikan Bendable Tripod

The ikan bendable tripod is small and can be bent into just about any shape. Ideal for holding a small camera or a flash or an LED panel, the unit can be wrapped around an object to hold it in place. The tripod weighs very little, and it can be added to any gadget bag. Such tools often prove to be indispensable in the field.

By now you’ve seen the Gorillapod, the tripod with the colorful, flexible legs that can be wrapped around a branch or post for stable, secure support. Joby offers an entire family of Gorillapods, selection enough for any application. One of the most useful is the Gorillapod Focus, which measures 11.4×3.6×3.6 inches and weighs scarcely over 1 pound. Made of machined aluminum and synthetics, it will support up to 11.1 pounds (for comparison, a Canon EOS 7D without battery or lens weighs less than 2 pounds). Add a Joby Ballhead X to enjoy full 360º panning and 90º tilt. Although designed with the Gorillapod Focus in mind, it’s compatible with virtually any small tripod and features a unique X-shaped mounting plate that connects to your camera for quick attachment.

Reminiscent of the classic Leitz tabletop tripod, the Kirk mini table model will support a whopping 100 pounds. Standing at 4.5 inches, this all-aluminum and stainless-steel beauty weighs only 9 ounces and quickly spins into action when you rotate the three stacked legs into their locked position. Supplied with a standard ¼”-20 mounting stud, the Kirk mini is the perfect match for a serious ballhead.

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Manfrotto 209

Manfrotto is synonymous with the word “tripod,” so it’s no wonder that the Manfrotto 209 tabletop tripod is a favorite among photographers. Made of lightweight, heavy-duty aluminum, model 209 will support up to 4.4 pounds. The matching Manfrotto 492 micro ballhead elevates this to a must-have accessory. Add the 10-inch Manfrotto 259B center column extension for even greater versatility.

Novoflex Micropod

Tamrac TR404 ZipShot

Weighing in at a miniscule 1¾ ounces, the Novoflex Micropod supports up to medium-format cameras. Its three legs extend from the hemispherical base and connect the unique O-ring mounts. About 5.4 inches when folded for transport, the Micropod has a minimum height of 2.8 inches.

The Tamrac TR404 ZipShot mini-tripod is only 9 inches long when folded, but springs to life like magic and stands at a maximum height of 28 inches. It features an integrated metal ballhead and lightweight aluminum legs. Checking in at merely 9 ounces, it’s very portable and easy to stow. The ZipShot mini tripod supports up to 3 pounds safely.

Velbon Ultra MAXi Mini

The Velbon Ultra MAXi Mini aluminum tripod, available with the QHD-51Q ballhead, is a serious system that weighs just 1.3 pounds, but supports up to 4.4. It reaches the maximum height of 18.8 inches when all five aluminum leg sections and two center column sections are fully extended. The divisible two-section center column is convenient for low-angle or close-up photography, and delivers a minimum height of just 5.4 inches. When folded for travel, the Ultra MAXi Mini is but 7.7 inches long. The included QHD-51Q ball socket head is constructed of die-cast aluminum and includes a QB-3B quick-release plate. The durable legs feature Velbon’s unique single-twist leg locking system for fast deployment.

Vortex Summit Shooting Stand

The Vortex Summit Shooting Stand is a lightweight (1.5 pounds) tabletop tripod with a unique two-way head with micro-adjustable focus dials that make it especially suited for macro and copy photography. Maximum height of this single-leg-section tripod is 13.3 inches and maximum load is 5 pounds.

The only wooden tripod offered in this roundup, the Berlebach 50031 tabletop tripod offers three-position independent leg spread and leg locks that are unaffected by dirt or water. Wood is said to absorb minute vibrations better than aluminum and some other materials; it’s also naturally lighter in weight and more comfortable to handle when the temperature plummets. The load capacity is a respectable 17.6 pounds and maximum extended height is 13.8 inches. This Berlebach model weighs only 1.3 pounds and folds up to 10.6 inches. Berlebach, whose name is widely known in Europe, has been producing handcrafted products for over a century. Match a professional-level ballhead like the SLIK SBH-320 with DQ-L Quick Release to create a versatile and useful system.

Flashpoint Table Top Tripod

The 4-section Flashpoint Table Top Tripod extends up to 21.3 inches and folds to 8.6 inches for easy storage. Unique in this category, it has a removable center column and a hook for a weight bag (which is a huge benefit on any windy day). Made of machined aluminum, the Flashpoint Table Top Tripod accommodates a maximum weight load of 8.8 pounds and weighs a sparse 1 pound itself. It’s highly recommended because it’s extremely portable and will accommodate fairly large rigs.

SLIK Minipro V

The SLIK Minipro V weighs just a hair over 12 ounces, but supports more than 3 pounds. The two-way pan head facilitates precision camera adjustment. The two-stage legs can be extended about 1.25 inches for added stability with heavier cameras. The Minipro V collapses to less than 8 inches for easy storage. The unique center column has a suction cup that will attach to any flat, smooth surface—like a car window, for instance. The unit also can be used as a “chest pod” by raising the center column and positioning the legs against your torso.

Talk about small! The Sunpak Mini Flat Tripod folds completely flat into a shape that’s only about 5 inches long, and it easily slips into a purse or jacket pocket. You won’t be setting your Canon EOS 5D Mark II on this support, but it’s great for a compact camera or camcorder. Rubber-tipped feet help the tripod hold its ground.