The Manfrotto Element series of aluminum travel tripods have become quite popular since their initial release. Now they’ve updated the line with the new Element Carbon. I’ve had one for the last few weeks, so here are some of my thoughts.
I’m not typically one to go for small tripods. Well, with the exception of the Manfrotto Pixi, those things are awesome. But sometimes I need my camera a little higher up. On location, when I need it to clear ground clutter or foliage, the little Pixi just doesn’t always cut it.
Most of my regular tripods are pretty big. They’re great, but every year, they seem to get heavier and they can be a bit unwieldy on location. They’re wonderful if I’m just hopping out of the car to get a shot or setting up to shoot in the same spot for a few hours. But if I’m trying to stay light and mobile on foot, moving throughout the day, not so much.
I’ve had a brief try several travel tripods over the years, but I never really got along with them. Usually, they were either light but very flimsy (not good for long exposures or timelapse), or they were small but still almost as heavy as larger tripods. Sometimes they were just right on those two points, but wildly expensive.
So, I set on a mission to find a good travel tripod for my needs. Something that’s lightweight and packs up small, but will also extend to a decent height and won’t break the bank.
At the same time, Manfrotto got in touch to see if I wanted to try out the new Manfrotto Element Carbon tripod. Specifically, the smaller of the two sizes they produce. As this was one of the tripods I had already been looking at anyway, I decided to check it out.
So, let’s have a quick rundown of the specs.
- Max height: 143cm (4’8″)
- Min height: 35cm (13.8″)
- Folded length: 32cm (12.6″)
- Leg sections: 5
- Max load: 4kg (8.8lbs)
- Weight: 1050g (2.3lbs)
Seeing how small the box was in which the tripod arrived, my first thought was “There’s a tripod in here? A whole one?”. And when I pulled out the bag containing the tripod, which is obviously a bit smaller than the box, I was curious more than anything else. On taking the tripod itself out of the bag and seeing it for the first time, I couldn’t see how it would be all that useful or practical, but boy was I wrong.
For completeness, the Element Carbon of the “Big” variety has a minimum height of 41cm (16″), a maximum height of 164cm (5’5″), an 8,000g (17.6lbs) load capacity and weights 1400g (3lbs). The Big version also allows you to remove a leg and attach it to the centre column in order to become a full-size monopod.
Ball Head (Arca Swiss)
I’m going to get this one out of the way first.
This is my first and only real complaint about this tripod. It’s not the fact that it has an Arca Swiss compatible head instead of the proprietary Manfrotto one. I love that it has an Arca Swiss compatible head. Many of my other tripods also have Arca Swiss compatible heads, as do my sliders and my suction cup mount. They allow me to quickly and easily switch cameras from one to another. My L brackets are Arca Swiss compatible, too, as is the 3rd party replacement foot I bought for my Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR.
My issue is with the plate itself. Essentially that it lacks a slot to tighten it to your camera with a coin or key. It has the little flippy out D-ring that kills your fingers (like just about every other tripod plate), but if you want any kind of secure tightening, you need to use an allen key.
To their credit, Manfrotto does include a trio of allen keys with the tripod. Two are for when you need to tighten up the legs (very handy!) and the third is for tightening the plate underneath your camera.
But allen keys are so easy to lose and they’re awkward to try to keep in your pocket while moving about. I even have one friend who had the allen keys for his tripod confiscated while passing through airport security when setting off for vacation. I guess they were worried he was going to dismantle the plane mid-flight. They didn’t like it when he asked them if that was their concern.
But a slot is pretty much standard these days. And even with the transition to cards and “digital currency”, who doesn’t have one or two coins in their pocket all the time? Or can easily find one if they need one? Or just keep a washer on their keyring. So, I would suggest hitting up Amazon or something to get a replacement plate, but they’re cheap enough and it’s always handy to have spares.
So, putting that behind us, I love this head. Using it with the Arca Swiss compatible stuff I already have is great. It fits everything perfectly. I can switch a camera from monopod or slider to tripod quickly, without having to swap plates. And with L brackets I don’t have to have the camera hanging off to the side to go portrait.
Overall, I really think the Arca Swiss compatibility is a good choice. It’s certainly scored brownie points with me.
When it came to steadiness there were four main things I wanted to test. There’s three photography techniques where tripod steadiness is really important to me. That’s long exposures, compositing, and timelapse. The fourth is shooting video.
This was a long exposure shot during the recent fireworks display here in Lancaster. ISO100, f/11, 30 seconds with the Sigma sd Quattro & Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Art series lens.
If we put aside the fact that the bulk of the fireworks are blown out for a minute, you can see that the tripod held the camera steady throughout.
If we look close up at a 100% crop near the just below left of the centre where there’s a bit of static detail, there’s no blur at all to indicate that the camera was blowing around. It remained perfectly still the entire time.
For composites, the same thing. This 9 shot series of bracketed images cover shutter speeds from 1/8th of a second up to 30 seconds.
Each of these photographs were brought into Photoshop as separate layers in a single image, and then blended manually in post. I saw no alignment issues at all between the nine images, shot over the course of a couple of minutes. They all lined up on top of each other perfectly.
For timelapse, it was a similar story. Set the camera up, start it shooting every few seconds and leave it to it. The resulting footage throughout is smooth and stable. Again, in very strong winds, you’re going to notice a little wobble, but for a bit of a breeze, you likely won’t see any movement at all, especially if the head isn’t extended all the way up. No samples here, my tests were pretty boring compositions.
Video wasn’t a massive factor for me, but in a pinch, I want to know that if this is the only tripod I have with me, that it’ll stay steady when shooting video. As with the tests above, it didn’t really move or wobble at all. While steady, though, this tripod, as well as ball heads, in general, aren’t really designed for video. If you want a lightweight travel tripod designed for that kind of thing, you’re better off going with the Manfrotto Befree Live.
Where it does shine for video, though, is with 360° cameras. I used this tripod last weekend during a Sci-Fi convention with the YI 360 VR and it performed beautifully. It keeps the camera steady, up off the ground a bit below eye level, it’s super quick to level, and the whole thing is light enough to pick up and walk around with to move it to a new spot. This tripod will be going everywhere that my 360 cameras do.
The build quality on this thing is top notch. For as light as it is, it feels very solid and well built.
The legs unlock and lock with ease using a twist lock mechanism. The legs themselves hold rather well, too. They flip out quite firmly and hold their position. They’re not going to all start flopping about as soon as you pick the tripod up. And in the event that they ever do, you’ve got the two allen keys to retighten them.
The head pans smoothly, and the ball moves freely but firmly. It locks onto the plate very well. The tripod head also includes two bubble level indicators, both of which seem accurate. One is in the plate holder, parallel with the bottom of the camera, and the other is in the knob which tightens the plate holder to the plate.
The bag in which the tripod comes also feels well built. It’s a relatively thick and padded canvas type material with a drawstring to open and close it and throw it over your shoulder. Although it will still fit inside your average non-photography backpack, too. And speaking of backpacks, the tripod has a handy hook on the bottom of the centre column for attaching your bag to help weigh it down.
That’s starting to become a common feature on many tripods, although this is the first of mine that has it. Typically I have to use an assortment of bungee cords wrapped around various parts, attached to my bag to help keep it steady. It’s one of those features you don’t realise how handy it is until you’ve got it, and then you miss it when you use a tripod that doesn’t have it. At least, that’s the way it feels to me.
- Good build quality
- Arca Swiss compatible ball head
- Fits inside a regular non-photography backpack (even inside its own bag)
- Super Light (a hair over 1kg)
- Decent load capacity for its size & weight
- Great for 360° cameras when you want to get them off the ground but remain mobile
There’s really only one con, for me, with the Manfrotto Element Carbon. That’s the lack of slot in the screw on the mounting plate. Sure, a replacement plate is cheap, and I would definitely recommend picking one up. There’s plenty of them out there on Amazon. But it would be nice to not have to go to the trouble.
Another one that’s more of just a personal niggle than a real con is the twist lock legs. It’s not really a deal breaker, but I would’ve preferred levers like the Manfrotto Befree range. But, I can live with the twist locks.
Having now used this tripod on a number of occasions, it’s gone from being “on my list” to “top of my list” when it comes to travel tripods. It satisfies every single one of my needs, and while the price might be a little more than I’d normally like to pay, I now feel it’s worth it. If this tripod doesn’t handle the job for at least the next decade, I’d be very surprised. My 15-year-old Bogen tripod (that’s what Manfrotto used to brand as in certain parts of the world) is still as good as new. I would expect no less from this.
As I’m shooting more video than I used to, though, I am still tempted by the Manfrotto Befree Live. I may eventually buy one of those, too, as I do like the idea of levers on the legs instead of the twist-lock. Then again, the twist-locks aren’t that big of an issue, and the Manfrotto Element Carbon is substantially lighter. I could always just buy the Befree Live fluid head, too, as the ball head is removable on the Element Carbon, exposing a standard 3/8-16″ thread.
Ultimately, if you’re looking for a good travel tripod for stills, whether you shoot a compact or a DSLR, the Element Carbon is a good bet. If you fancy the idea of being able to switch it out to a monopod, then get the Big model. If you’re more inclined toward video and can deal with the extra weight, I’d probably suggest the Befree Live.
The Manfrotto Element Carbon tripod is available in two sizes. Small and Big. They’re available to buy now in the UK for £174.95 and £199.95, respectively from the Manfrotto website.