It pays to have one of the best tripods to hand when you’re capturing images of the night sky. These bits of kit help keep your camera steady when you’re taking your long-exposure shots. Without one, you’ll find that your images become blurred by tiny vibrations from yourself or your surroundings. Even the best cameras for astrophotography can be adversely by this shakiness, which is why you really need a tripod if you’re trying to capture things like the Milky Way.
When choosing the best tripod, the most important factors to consider are weight, stability, portability and price point. The majority of the so-called ‘travel tripods’ are lightweight and typically made from either carbon fiber or aluminum. Carbon fiber is much lighter than aluminum but is also more expensive. With the smaller and more compact models, the difference in weight between the two materials is almost negligible but the bigger the tripod, the more important it becomes. Another key difference to consider is that aluminum gets much colder than carbon fiber which can impact the handling and functioning at colder night temperatures.
Tripods are typically made from between three and five leg sections. Fewer sections means more over all stability but it won’t pack down into something quite as short as those with more sections. If you’re using one of the best zoom lenses for your night sky images, you’ll have to weigh up whether stability for your shots is more important than the tripod’s portability, as telephoto zooms are heavy lenses.
Best tripod overall
Despite its chunky look and feel, the Benro Mach3 9X CF TMA37C is a surprisingly light tripod. It has been built for durability, reliability and to cope well in all weathers. While this is no travel tripod, it has certainly been designed with the portability and flexibility needs of serious landscape photographers in mind and that makes it an ideal choice for dedicated astrophotographers.
The Mach3 series of tripods feature a range of configuration options and come in both carbon fiber and aluminum. At this size it makes the difference in weight between the carbon fiber and the aluminum quite significant though it also makes quite a significantly deeper dent in your wallet if you opt for the carbon fiber model.
You need to buy the head separately, which further adds to the already quite large cost, but it means you can tailor your tripod to your own specific needs and preferences.
The kit does come with a few added extras that other manufacturers would sell separately, notably a set of spiked feet and a shorter centre column for those occasions you need to get very low to the ground.
At this price ($384.95) it’s definitely an investment but the durable build quality and attention to detail means that this is designed to last.
Best for portability
The Peak Design Travel Tripod is as compact a travel tripod as you’re likely to find and it’s ideal for anyone considering all types of landscape photography, not least wide-field astrophotography. It has been very cleverly designed into a super-sleek, neat and compact package with no wasted space once folded up. Its three legs and ball-head collapse to meet together with no gaps which makes it ideal for fitting into either your daypack or your luggage.
Despite clearly being designed for travel, however, it isn’t the lightest travel tripod on the market. The construction comes in both aluminum and carbon fiber versions but the reduction in weight with the carbon fiber one is accompanied by a higher price. We think the aluminum option at 3.4lbs is a better option when it comes to value for money as the carbon fiber model is only a tiny bit lighter a 2.8lbs and not really worth the extra cash.
Despite being made from five leg sections, the fullest height of the tripod is about ten inches shorter than similar models on the market which might pose problems for the taller among you.
The Arca-Swiss quick-release tripod plate is incredibly stable and can carry loads of up to 20lbs but it does require a hex key to affix the camera in place which isn’t so easy to do in the dark. Another neat travel feature the model incorporates is a swivel lever to rotate the ball head and it means there’s nothing protruding and getting in the way.
The Peak Design Travel Tripod is a hugely impressive product for astrophotographers who are after something highly mobile with a fast set-up and takedown, a great performance outdoors, and a compact size when packed up.
Best for flexibility
The star attraction of the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB is its sheer flexibility and the various multiple positions it can be put into. Besides the standard tripod configuration you can splay the legs from upright at 25º all the way to almost 90º to the centre column. Additionally the center column comes out and can be angled at 90º from the now-splayed legs and means the camera can be as low as ten inches from the ground. This gives it much greater stability when capturing star trails with very long exposures.
With only three leg sections on each leg, it means there are only two clips to fix into place when setting up the tripod, which we found sturdy enough to keep the camera still in light to moderate breeze during long exposures. It was easy enough to put up and take down in the dark. The same can’t be said for the connector plate which requires a hex key, though given that two plates are provided with the tripod, the idea is likely that you simply leave it on your camera full time rather than remove it at the end of a shoot.
It’s a good all-round tripod if you dabble in a range of different types of photography but for astro-specific photography, its bulk and weight might make it something you might think twice about setting out with at night, especially if walking or hiking to your chosen vantage point is part of your plan. That said, it’s a great, versatile piece of kit for the price tag.
Best for height
The Brian tripod by 3 Legged Thing is a highly portable travel tripod that incorporates some pretty solid engineering design. It’s simultaneously one of the tallest tripods when fully erect yet also one of the most compact once folded down. While it’s not the lightest of the travel tripods available, at 3.1lbs, it’s certainly something that isn’t too cumbersome to carry around for a day or night. It has a premium feel to it but it also has a more premium price tag than its nearest competitors though, overall, we think it’s worth it.
The construction features tactile bubble grips on the knobs and leg extenders and it’s easy to put up and take down in the dark. The camera connects with a hex key rather than a D-ring which can get a bit annoying but a tool is provided for it and it attaches to the body of the tripod with a carabiner.
The Brian tripod by 3 Legged Thing can carry weights of up to 30lbs and although we discovered instances of the camera ‘falling into place’ once affixed in its compositions with a very long lens we think it’s more about weight distribution than weight itself, it seemed to happily take the weight of a DSLR with a shorter zoom lens attached. But this is really the only small criticism for a piece kit that otherwise meets the needs of an enthusiastic astrophotographer.
Best aliminum tripod
Small carbon fiber tripods may be the lightest around, but being mid-size and made from aluminum, the Manfrotto BeFree Advanced Travel Tripod keeps to both a reasonable height as well as price tag. Photographers after the perfect tripod to take out at night require three things: a lightweight tripod that is easy to carry, fixings that make it quick to set up and take down, and a solidity and rigidity that can be relied upon to keep your camera steady even in windy conditions. The Manfrotto Befree Advanced Travel Tripod has all of that, being one of the the lightest aluminum travel tripods we’ve tried, though perhaps it is not the most efficiently designed for transit as it takes up a lot of space in luggage. But it’s exceptional build quality and reliability in the field make it a sound choice.
It has an unusual fold-down configuration whereby the three legs fold through 180º to meet the ball head. It seems fiddly to begin with but it’s easy to do in the dark once you’ve got the knack.
The four section legs are fixed into place with soft twists and it can be erected to a full height of 59 inches. The camera connects to the plate with a D-ring and it’s compatible with both the RC2 and Arca-Swiss plate attachment.
The same model is available in carbon fiber and weighs a little bit less at 2.75lbs.
Best for quick assembly
The Manfrotto 190 Go! tripod series was launched at the end of 2017, but it proves to be enduringly popular with hobbyists and advanced photographers who need a lightweight yet sturdy base for their camera.
The range includes several models: you can choose from either a carbon fiber or magnesium construction, several different heads and number of leg sections but every 190 Go! tripod is defined by how quick it is to operate. The highest end model is probably too expensive for amateurs or casual photographers but the aluminum version is cheaper.
The easy assembly is thanks to an “M-lock” mechanism, a super speedy twist lock that allows you to unlock the leg and set the right height up in just a few seconds. Other key features include a versatile 90° central column that can swing out into a horizontal position, plus a Link attachment for adding extra accessories. The leg positions can be held at 25°,46°,66°, or 88°.
The whole combo weighs 4.1 lbs and supports a maximum load of 14.3 lbs.
As well as making for a speedy setup, these unobtrusive M-locks mean that the legs themselves are streamlined, with no protruding parts that might catch on a bag when you want to pack the tripod away. The rubber grips on the locks themselves are easy to get hold of even in the dark.
Best for studio photographers
The Manfrotto MK055XPRO3 BHQ-2 is designed for studio photographers who often go out on shoots. Made from aluminum, it has the weight and sturdiness of a studio tripod but is portable enough to pack away neatly and carry for short periods. Although it’s primarily designed for mirrorless camera systems, tests suggest that it can also happily carry a medium format rig too.
The legs are extended and secured with a new power lock system that uses flip locks rather than leg twists. One of the key innovative features of this model is the Easy Link connector which is designed to attach arms, holders, lamps and reflectors. Again, things that are much more useful to a studio photographer working outdoors than an astrophotographer but if you’re planning on using lights creatively with the backdrop of the night sky, this could well be the tripod for you.
Best value for money
You can’t beat the Benro Slim travel tripod for those nights of trudging between vantage points or those days when you might need a tripod but don’t quite know what the day holds in store. This lightweight and well crafted tripod has been designed with travel and movement in mind and has everything a beginner landscape or astro photographer needs to get started in long exposure photography.
Although the Benro Slim was developed for the increasing popular mirrorless systems, it can also handle the weight of a DSLR and zoom lens remarkably well too. Not only that, it offers the impeccable build quality from a trusted brand but at a price point that won’t break the bank. It’s stable, reliable, compact and, crucially, lightweight enough to just always have it with you in your camera pack.
It’s available in both carbon fiber and aluminum versions which differ only in weight and price point; the aluminum one is slightly weightier but slightly cheaper. It’s very easy to put up and take down and features anodised aluminum leg twists that secure into place with half a twist. It uses a standard Arca-Swiss connector plate that slides in easily and is secure enough for a range of mirrorless and DSLR lenses.
Best for awkward spots
The Joby GorrillaPod 5K Tripod is quite a different beast to most tripods because it’s made of articulated ball joints and doesn’t have extendable legs or the complicated knobs and levers of a bigger product. It’s small and compact at 20 inches in length and a total weight of 1.6lbs which makes it very portable and versatile
It’s designed to be fixed in place by twisting into shape around railings, trees, just about anything in the urban landscape as well as rocks and craggy natural landscape features. It can also be used free-standing but it isn’t quite as stable in this configuration.
It’s made from aluminum, plastic and stainless steel which makes it strong enough to carry the weight of a DSLR plus zoom lens as well as lighter equipment and smartphones. The main drawback, however, is that you’re dependent on what you can affix it to in order to create your composition so it doesn’t have quite the same level of versatility as a standard designed tripod.
It’s a great option if you’re just starting out with long exposure photography but for those who are more into it, it’s more of a great addition to your kit for those ‘just in case’ moments rather than a replacement for a full-sized tripod.
As you can see from our selection, there’s a lot to think about when investing in a tripod. But they’re essential if you’re combining them with any of the best cameras.
Some people argue that travel tripods don’t always offer enough height for easy camera operation but that depends entirely on how tall you are and it’s not quite so important for star trail photography. Most of the models we’ve reviewed here have splayed legs that allow the camera to be set up quite close to the ground which is a far more stable spot for long-exposure night sky photos.
Tripod feet are generally made from a thick rubber that has good traction on an array of surfaces and many – but not all – are designed with the option to unscrew them and attach either spiked or clawed feet for better purchase on rougher ground.
Tripod legs are extended and secured with either flip or twist locks. The twist lock design tends to be more secure but some manufacturers, notably Manfrotto, have devised some particularly secure flip locks.
Along with this, you should keep in mind the weight, stability, portability and price of your tripod. If you’re prioritising one of the features, you might have to sacrifice on some of the others.