Tripods are probably my least favourite thing in photography. For me a tripod is a necessary evil, a piece of gear that needs setting up, wasting shooting time, and takes up valuable space and adds too much weight to my bag. Sometimes I wish I did’t need to carry a tripod at all and indeed sometimes I can go a whole day walking in the mountains and not use it once, yet there it is, on the side of my backpack weighing me down and making me resent it bitterly.
Of course, sometimes my tripod is my best friend and for that reason I always have one with me, but, I refuse to allow a tripod to take over and for that reason I only use travel tripods and my search for the perfect travel tripod has now brought me into a relationship with the Benro FTA18C Travel Angel. But, have I finally found my perfect partner? Well, before I answer that, let’s talk about the tripod itself.
The first thing you notice when you unpack the FTA18C from the packaging is that it oozes quality. From the blue anodised finish on various parts through the magnesium castings to the sure feel of the twist locks this feels like a classy piece of gear. It comes in a bag that is inside another bag that has a detachable handle. That’s all I’m going to say about the bag(s). If you are the sort to carry your tripod in the bag it comes in then you now know it comes in a bag, 2 bags in fact. I, however, carry my tripod on the side of my backpack and therefore the bags will never be touched by me again.
Being a grumpy old curmudgeon who doesn’t want to carry a tripod this one feels like all others I have ever lifted, too heavy. However, pop it on the scales and the figures that pop up make a liar out of me. Weighing in at just 1.5kg complete with ball-head this is a light tripod thanks to its predominantly carbon fibre construction. Sure, I have owned lighter tripods such as the Sirui T-005BX that I have reviewed previously, but the thing is those lighter, smaller tripods are not proper tripods. What you gain in weight saving you lose in stability. The Sirui becomes pretty much useless in a bit of wind, something that is not the case with the Benro. Make no mistake, this is a proper tripod that can stand up to all but the strongest of winds and whilst it may feel too heavy to me when I pick it up, once it is attached to my backpack I don’t even notice it.
The FTA18C is simply a joy to use with a quality, reassuring feel and some nice features to make the tedious necessity of owning a tripod just that little bit more bearable. Thanks to the legs folding back on themselves 180 degrees it compacts down to just 44cm in length meaning that it will fit nicely in most photography backpacks. One small thing that is nice about this feature is when you swing the legs round and extend them the tripod is already at its maximum height of 154.5cm with the centre column already extended. Just pop your camera on top and even a six footer like myself is looking straight through the viewfinder without having to bend much at all. Even with the tripod in this fully extended position it feels stable and solid. The centre column is rigid and I could detect no lateral movement of the camera due to it being extended, but, if you do need to retract it this is achieved quickly and easily using a twist grip release and once retracted the tripod still stands at a very respectable 130cm.
The bottom of the centre pole features the obligatory spring loaded hook. Personally I simply do not understand the concept of these. I understand that the idea is you can hang a heavy weight on it such as your bag to aid stability in windy conditions, but I have never felt the need to use one and I can’t help thinking that if it’s windy your weight will blow around and cause more problems than it solves. Any, whatever the pros and cons, the Travel Angel has one if that is your thing.
The catches that secure the legs in position are not spring loaded as on some tripods but I actually prefer this. What they are is very solid with a nice positive feel making it a breeze to lock the legs in one of the 3 offered positions.
Leg height adjustment is done using dust and moisture resistant twist locks. Now, I know that these tend to polarise opinion, people either love them or loathe them but personally I love them and the ones that Benro employ on this particular model are the best I have used. The legs are 4 section units which means there are only 3 twist locks per leg and all the locks on each leg can easily be grasped in one hand to undo them. It only requires about half a turn before the leg sections extend with ease and tightening the locks again is easy as they don’t need doing up too tight to be secure.
One nice touch is the ability to replace the standard rubber feet on the legs with some included metal spikes. I have taken advantage of this a couple of times now in windy situations and I have found it makes a real difference to the stability. As can be seen in the picture below the spikes have a nut on them to allow them to be tightened with a spanner. Interestingly Benro don’t supply a spanner but do supply an allen key which fits snuggly in the hole and works great for tightening them.
So far everything about the Benro Travel Angel has been positive, but as with any tripod it is only ever going to be as good as its ball head, so wouldn’t it be a pity if this crucial part let it down. Well, thankfully it doesn’t. The ball head on the FTA18C is equal to the rest of the tripod and performs well.
The unit as a whole is rated to hold up to 8kg which is a weight that I simply cannot test it to. My whole backpack complete with the tripod in it only weighs 6kg and the heaviest combination I could put together to put on the tripod was my OM-D E-M1 and 12-40 Pro lens which weighs in at less than a kilo combined. With this kit on the tripod the ball head is a pleasure to use. It uses an Arca Swiss style quick release plate which thankfully has a hoop on it for tightening, this is a big plus, too many manufacturers insist on forcing you to utilise a coin or allen key to attach the plate to your camera. This is a pain and Benro have quite rightly made things easy on this front. They have also employed a very nice safety mechanism when attaching the plate to the ball head which stops you accidentally loosening it enough to allow the camera to fall out. Another nice touch.
The ball head has just 2 knobs, a pan lock and a combined friction / ball lock control. Both have a nice positive feel and work well and the ball head itself has a nice fluid feel with a good range of movement. The friction / lock control has a nice feature which employs an inner adjuster which allows you to set the maximum it can “open” up meaning that when you unlock the ball you get a consistent feel every time and never get your camera flopping down because you have undone it too much. Another nice touch. Panning is smooth an the lock is quick and secure.
Benro claim a minimum height of 44cm on their website. This is the height that the tripod stands at if you simply just put the legs at their widest angle, but there are a couple of ways you can go lower than this.
The first way is to remove the centre pole and use the included short centre pole. This reduces the height to 25cm. The second way is to reverse the centre pole and hang your camera upside down. Obviously this makes things a little more difficult for shooting but is certainly a viable alternative if you need to get really low.
If you are someone who uses a monopod then Benro give you an extremely competent one which is quick and easy to set up. Simply unscrew the designated leg, remove the centre column and screw the 2 together and hey presto, you have yourself a six foot monopod complete with ball head. I’m not a big user of monopods but I have given this a try and as well as being quick and easy to set up it makes for a very usable monopod.
Ok, so far I have loved everything about this tripod but there was bound to be something that frustrated me and here it is. Benro have included a feature that is both excellent and frustrating in equal measure. With the inclusion of a simple wooden knob and a wrist strap that attaches to the top of the detachable leg Benro allow the user to create a walking stick / hiking pole. But here’s the thing, why just the one? Why not include 2 wooden knobs, 2 wrist straps and make 2 legs detachable? That way you have a really useful set of hiking poles rather than a pretty gimmicky walking stick. I do a lot of hiking, most landscape photographers do, and I have often wrestled with whether or not to purchase a set of hiking poles but I have always been put off by having to carry them, as well as all my photography gear, if I am not using them. So I have never made the purchase and my knees probably suffer as a result.
With a very simple change of design Benro can save my knees and ease the weight in my backpack whilst I hike. So come on Benro, if you change one thing on the next iteration of the Travel Angel please make it this. I’ll wager I won’t be the only one who finds this extremely useful.
Minor gripe about the walking stick aside this is a superb tripod that has rightly taken pride of place in my backpack. At an RRP of £299 it gets the balance between cost, weight, stability, ease of use and quality pretty much spot on and with a 5 year warranty you should have nothing to worry about as long as the Benro customer service is good.
I’ve tried travelling with larger tripods and I’ve tried travelling with smaller ones and have never been completely satisfied, but with the Travel Angel Benro appear to have delivered almost everything I need and it will be quite a tripod that dislodges this one from my backpack. I just hope that it is the next iteration with 2 hiking sticks that eventually does, then I’ll be a very happy chap.