For those of you who are just starting out in birding or any other wildlife pursuit, you may decide not to spend a huge amount of money on your first tripod.
And that’s OK.
You’ll be able to do the majority of things with a cheaper tripod that you can do with a more expensive one. Understand there are some limitations though, such as not being able to carry as much weight and not performing as smooth transitions when moving your optical equipment.
The Best budget tripods of 2018
Here's the table with the tripods' data which I'll be using to review them with.
|Rangers 57"||Bonfotto B690A||K&F Concept 62"||Dolica GX600B200||Manfrotto COMPACTACN-BK|
|Material||High-Density Aluminium Alloy||Lightweight Aluminium Alloy||Magnesium Aluminium Alloy||Lightweight Alumium Alloy||Aluminium Technopolymer|
|Max Height(centre column down)||48"||40.1"||52.4"||51"||53.36"|
|Plate Type||Quick-release||Quick-release||Quick-release||Quick-release||Fixed with 1/4-20" screw|
We’ll take these specs and break them down in categories associated with their features.
Stability (Weight + Material + Safety Payload)
I’ve combined the weight and the material of the tripods into a category and named it Stability. The weight of the tripod is important for being able to support heavy optics, such as spotting scopes and long camera lenses. A heavier tripod with wider base will lower its center of gravity and prevent toppling over.
The tripod material dictates in large parts how much it can absorb vibrations. This could be generated internally or from external sources and finding their way to you. Either way, more vibrations is worse for the image quality, especially viewing at higher magnification.
The material determines the weight and strength of the tripod, all of which impact the maximum weight of equipment the tripod can comfortably support. The table shows how much each model can withstand.
Portability (Min height + Max height + max height column down + closed length)
Although weight contributes significantly to the portability of a tripod, I decided it should remain in the Stability category for ease of writing this guide.
Minimum height refers to the tripod’s lowest height whilst legs are still spread and the maximum height when all legs are spread, fully extended with the center column raised.
Two less obvious measurements are the max height with the center column lowered and the closed length. You want your tripod to reach as close to eye level without the centre column raised as possible. If you’re in the field and finally spot the Japanese Crested Ibis after three days of searching, the last thing you need is to be fiddling about with the center column. The closed length indicates how many segments there are in the legs. The more segments, the smaller the closed length and the easier it is to pack away. More segments decrease the stability of the tripod because each one needs a thinner tube to get inside the one above it. There’s also added time needed to set it up, as with the center column adjustment.
Mounting (Head type + plate type)
This category relates to the how the optics attach to the tripod and move about the tripod’s axis. Is it a quick-release plate? Does the head move on a ball joint? You’ll find out when the time’s right.
The mounting is important because it dictates how fast the spotting scope or binoculars can be mounted onto the tripod. The quicker it’s mounted, the faster you can see the birds. Once attached, it’s all about positioning the optics exacting where you want to go.
There are a few different types of tripod head mechanisms. The main ones are ball head, tilt/pan, and gimbal heads.
Ball heads give the most rotation around the pivot and, in theory, they can move 360° but isn’t necessarily the case in reality because of limitations in the way most of them are assembled.
Pan/tilt heads move up, down and side-to-side. The optics can rotate on two or three perpendicular axes, with lockable levers on each one to provide the movement. There a lot of control with pan/tilt heads whilst also enabling sufficient movement for birding requirements. Typically, they’re the cheapest tripod head option.
Gimbal heads are designed to prevent optics from tipping over. It works by holding them in their natural center of gravity, with a base that twists to provide smooth movement, along with pan/tilt movements that won’t risk destabilising the tripod.
Fluid heads literally have fluid within them to provide hydraulic cushioning so the movement is very smooth, without introducing additional vibrations. The increased engineering that goes into making fluid heads, coupled with the improvement in movement, means they’re usually quite expensive.
They’re the head types that most people will be familiar with if they’ve spent time using tripods or, at least, researching them. Next in the Mounting category is the plate type.
Quick-release plates (also known as Arca-Swiss quick-release) are the go-to in modern tripods. The plate attaches to the optics, which is 35mm wide but can vary in length. The plate is attached to the mounting base by being dropped in and locked into place.
The benefit of this kind of head plate is how fast you can lock and load if you spot something you want to view it in the shortest time possible. The worst thing ever is a bird flying away before you get the spotting scope out.
Alternatively, plates can be screwed into place. A screw is poking out the tripod head and the optics have to be spun around to tighten on the thread of the screw. As you can imagine, it’s a fiddly process and takes too much time not to become annoying.
This last category is a small one, and is just looking at the style of the tripod. This is typically the color the manufacturer has opted for, but it can also be the shape and design - does it suit being in the kind of environments birders find themselves? Do birds fly away as soon as they see you? Blame it on the tripod.
The Best tripods under $100
Now it's time to review the tripods based on the above criteria.
Stability (Weight + Material + Safety Payload)
It’s time to assess the stability of the best budget tripods. Because these models are towards the cheaper end of the tripod spectrum, we should assume that the materials used aren’t going to be as effective at absorbing vibrations as those towards the higher price ranges.
This is important to note because the increased weight will help to reduce those vibrations naturally, because it takes more energy to move them. There is, of course, a trade off between how much you desire the best quality images when you’re looking through your binoculars, spotting scopes or cameras and how light you need your equipment to be during travel.
This is the stability round. The differences in weight aren’t extreme and so every added 0.1 lbs counts towards fewer vibrations. Therefore, the heavier the better.
The K&F Concept 62” is the heaviest at 2.99 lbs, it wins. It’s closely followed by the Rangers 57” at 2.89 lbs but after that, there’s a drop off in weight. Third, and bang in the middle, is the Manfrotto MKCOMPACTACN-BK at 2.64 lbs alongside the Bonfotto B690A at 2.60 lbs - They’re both pretty close to one another but coming in last is the Dolica GX600B200 at 2.5 lbs. A featherweight amongst the big boys.
I’ve already mentioned the quality of the material not being the best, which is alright. Not everyone needs the best infield and when you’re ready you’ll look into them.
All of these models are made out of aluminum. There tends to be a technical word interjected into the description to try and confuse you into believing there’s more to it than that. For example, let’s glance towards the Manfrotto MKCOMPACTACN-BK. As well as stating the legs are made from aluminum, they also throw in technopolymer.
I had a look at the definition of technopolymer and Wikipedia comes back with - “any plastic material used to fabricate something usually made of metal”. So, basically, they covered parts of the tripod in plastic. Much less glamorous. It’s similar to shampoo adverts when they bombard us with the science to bewilder our brains into buying it.
I’m going to take an educated guess and assume they’re all roughly the same durability and strength - it’s a draw for everyone in the materials.
Both the weight and the materials contribute to the safety payload. How much can the tripod hold without it disrupting the structural integrity of the equipment? The more weight it can hold the better.
The Rangers 57” can nearly hold an elephant, it’s so strong. With a safety payload of 26.5 lbs, there’s a decent margin between this in first place and second. The K&F Concept 62” can hold 22.04 lbs, which leaves another gap to the middle of the pack. At 17.6 lbs and 15.00 lbs, respectively, the Bonfotto B690A and Dolica GX600B200 aren’t outstanding by any means but they’re wonderous compared to our last place. The Manfrotto MKCOMPACTACN-BK has a payload of just 3.30 lbs which is simply pathetic.
It could seem I’ve written a typo, I mean, its safety payload is 23 lbs less than first place Rangers 57”. I doubled checked the tripod specifications and even asked a Manfrotto employee for clarification, who confirmed the number was correct. I have no idea why it could be as bad as it is. It’s firmly in last place for the safety payload without hesitation.
Let’s conclude the Stability category.
We technically have a draw. The K&F Concept 62” was the heaviest if you remember, a weight of 2.99 lbs, all of the materials were aluminium-based and judged a draw, and the Rangers 57” had the largest safety payload at 26.5 lbs.
However, because the Ranger 57” came second for the weight but had the best safety payload, it wins the Stability category.
WINNER OF STABILITY ROUND - RANGERS 57”
Portability (Min height + Max height + max height column down + closed length)
When the legs are open and the center column remains down, how high does the tripod reach? That’s what we’re looking at here.
There’s a new front runner in the Dolica GX600B200 as it sits at 21.5” off the ground, followed closely behind by the Bonfotto B690A at 20.5”. The last the models are very close to one another thereafter with only 2.3” between them. Third place is the Manfrotto MKCOMPACTACN-BK at 17.3”, fourth place is the 16” K&F Concept 62” and bringing up the rear is the Rangers 57” at 15”.
The maximum height of the tripods is when the legs are spread and the center column is raised to its maximum level. This is essential. You need to feel comfortable when you’re looking through your optics because you could be there for hours at a time.
Taller people need taller tripods, it’s as simple as that.
It’s interesting that the maximum heights of the tripods we’re reviewing don’t necessarily correspond with their minimum heights. If in the future you only find one measurement, don’t assume the other.
The tripod is the tallest maximum height is the K&F Concept 62” at 61.61’’, remember it came fourth in the previous height comparison. The Manfrotto MKCOMPACTACN-BK and Dolica GX600B200 models are very close behind the K&F Concept 62” - 61.02” and 60”, respectively.
There’s a drop off for the remaining two models, a minimum of 5”. Fourth place Rangers 57” has a maximum height of 55” and gone but not forgotten is the Bonfotto B690A at 53.5”.
Maximum height when the center column is lowered causes first and second place to switch, with the Manfrotto MKCOMPACTACN-BK coming out on top at 53.36” and the K&F Concept 62” being 52.36”. The remaining tripods stay in the same order after that.
Closed length is all about trade off between stability and portability. The shorter the closed length, the more segments it suggests are in the legs for them to collapse in on themselves. This decreases the stability as thinner metal for the legs is needed for each new segment. This is the portability round though so we’re concerned with how easy it is to transport and assemble in time to catch the wildlife in action.
The shortest of the tripods I’m testing is the Rangers 57” at 14” followed closely by the Bonfotto B690A which is only half an inch longer than the Rangers 57”. It’s nearly neck and neck in the middle of the pack is the Manfrotto MKCOMPACTACN-BK at 17.83” and the K&F Concept 62” at 18”. Last, unfortunately, is the Dolica GX600B200 at 21”.
There we have it - the portability round which is an important factor to many people when they’re searching for tripods. It was a mixed bag in terms of front runners for the category. This is probably down to wanting the best of both worlds. When the tripod is closed and it’s being packed away you want it to be as small as possible. Alternatively, when you’re using it, you want it to be as close to your standing height as possible to avoid back ache. I’m going to put more emphasis in my scoring towards the models which have a greater overall height compared to those which stow away.
In the two sections with the heaviest weighting (max height and max height with the center column down), both the K&F Concept 62” and Manfrotto MKCOMPACTACN-BK come out as victors. The next important section is minimum height and the K&F Concept 62” is placed higher and so wins the overall category of portability.
WINNER OF PORTABILITY ROUND - K&F Concept 62”
This is a simple category really as it’s only the Manfrotto MKCOMPACTACN-BK which breaks the mold. Each of the other models rotates their head on a ball and they have plates which attach to the optics via Arca-Swiss quick-release mechanisms.
The Manfrotto MKCOMPACTACN-BK, however, has a joystick head as well as needing the optics to be screwed onto the tripod in the absence of a quick release mechanism. These are both negatives counting against the Manfrotto MKCOMPACTACN-BK and, rather than the other tripods winning the category, the Manfrotto MKCOMPACTACN-BK has surely lost it.
WINNER OF MOUNTING - Rangers 57”, Bonfotto B690A, K&F Concept 62”, Dolica GX600B200
This is mostly a personal opinion but I like to think of myself as a style guru.
Having a bit of color on the tripod improves the look of it a huge amount. The Rangers 57” strikes the best balance between making the tripod pop and being too glaring to view wildlife. Remember a lot of tripods are made for photography with humans as the subject and most of the time they aren’t going to be scared away.
In fairness, the Bonfotto B690A has very similar style, the neck of the tripod is has flashes of colour in the same positions. The K&F Concept 62” still has colour but there’s noticeably less than the other two. However, that’s certainly better than the last two models on the list. The Dolica GX600B200 is just one color and it’s a very cheap looking build, particularly the legs. My least favorite is the Manfrotto MKCOMPACTACN-BK and that’s predominantly down to the lever needed to pan the head of the tripod around. It reminds me of a boat rudder.
WINNER OF THE STYLE ROUND - RANGERS 57”