Lightweight & Compact Tripod for Travel & Safari
A while back I reviewed another Vanguard tripod for the Best Binocular Reviews website, the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AT and because I liked it so much, I bought one for myself. But even though it is an excellent tripod and very stable, for most people going travelling or on safari it is just too big and heavy.
The ideal safari or travel tripod must be small in size, lightweight, stable enough to easily take your equipment, easy to use and quick to set up. So with these main criterias in mind, I put the Vanguard Nivelo 204BK Tripod though it’s paces, to see if it has what it takes for safaris and travel:
Established in 1986, Vanguard began by producing photo and video accessories like lens cleaning kits and since then they have grown to a truly global company manufacturing a diverse range of mostly optical equipment and accessories that includes binoculars, spotting scopes, photo bags, monopods, gun pods, shooting sticks and tripods.
A great travel tripod must not only be compact enough to easily fit in with your luggage when you fly across the globe at the start and end of your adventure, but must also be small enough for you to easily carry with you out in the field – this is especially true if you plan on going on activities like walking safaris and want/need to have your tripod with you.
The Vanguard Nivelo 204BK Tripod is very compact – Once the legs have been folded, it has a height of only 30cm (11.8 inches) – meaning that it will easily fit into most bags and can easily be either put into your daypack or attach to it’s outer when you are out in the field. It is so small that if you wished, you could even carry it on the aeroplane in your hand luggage rather than putting it with the rest of your luggage in the hold.
Maximum Tripod Height.
Fully extended the Nivelo has a height of 101cm (39.8 ins) – This could be an important consideration if you’re quite tall, since you may end up having to crouch a little, especially if for added stability you don’t want to fully extend its center column. On the other hand, you may not wish to take your photos at eye level most of the time, since this can make for an ordinary looking perspective.
Being compact is only part of the story, the ideal travel tripod will also have to be as light as possible. If you plan on putting the tripod in with your clothes suitcase on the plane, then every gram you save helps, not only with making sure that your bag is light enough so as to please the airline, but will also help with carrying your luggage during your travels. A lightweight tripod will also help you greatly when you have to carry it around in the field. This is not so important if you are mostly going to be driven around on safari, but on a walking or hiking holiday or safari it is vital.
Once again the Nivelo 204BK does not disappoint. The first time I picked it up, it was a strange sensation – because of the quality of it’s construction, it looks way heavier than it is – at only 0.6kg (1.32lbs) this Vanguard tripod won’t be taking up too much of your baggage allowance nor is it too heavy to carry about in the field all day.
Stability and Strength
According to Vanguard, the Nivelo 204BK has a maximum loading capacity of 2kg (4.4lbs), which will mean that it can easily take all compact digital cameras, superzoom bridge cameras and the new mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras that provide DSLR-quality pictures in a significantly smaller camera.
To keep weight and size down, the Niveloâ€™s head with its Quick Attach Camera Screw is small, but the platform was large enough to securely attach my Panasonic FZ18 bridge camera to it.
The FZ18 weighs 407g with batteries, which the Nivelo 204BK had no problem with and even with the legs fully extended, there was only slight flexing, which with a tripod this light, is expected and I am sure even with a camera like the Fujifilm FinePix HS20EXR that weights 730g (25.7 oz) it will have no problem with.
Taking photos as well as video with the Panasonic superzoom camera with the tripod legs and central column fully extended was fine even at full zoom, but once I added my 2.2x Raynox DCR-2025PRO Super Telephoto Conversion Lens to my camera, it did make a difference to the stability. This was not really because of the weight because the lens and adapter only adds about 300g to the total, but because it makes my whole camera setup much longer and therefore a small movement where the camera is attached to the tripod makes a big difference in movement at the end of the lens. This “lever” effect combined with the fact that with the teleconverter attached, I am effectively taking photos at 39.6x mean that even the smallest movement can affect the photo.
A solution to this problem would be a lens collar or telephoto lens support, which is an attachment that fits around the lens somewhere near its base or midsection. The tripod head then directly attaches to the lens collar itself (instead of the camera body).
This causes the camera plus lens to rest on the tripod at a location which is much closer to their center of mass. Which not only makes a huge difference in how susceptible the tripod and head are to vibrations, but much less rotational stress is therefore placed on the tripod head, which greatly increases the amount of weight that your tripod head can sustain without creeping or slipping.
So unless you have some sort of support for the lens, I would recommend getting a sturdier tripod if you plan to attach large teleconverter or telephoto lenses to your camera, but for most standard users of bridge cameras, in terms of stability the Vanguard Nivelo tripod is ideal for travel and safaris.
To compare the difference in stability, I took the video below that shows video footage shot using the Vanguard Nivelo 204BK Tripod and a Panasonic FZ superzoom Camera. In the first part I am just just using the cameras 18x zoom, in the second I have also attached the 2.2x Raynox DCR-2025PRO Super Telephoto Conversion Lens.
Ease of use & set up time
As a person who mostly takes photos of birds and animals, one thing that I really hate is fiddly photographic equipment that takes too much time to set up as by the time you are ready to shoot the shot, the subject has already gone.
The Vanguard 204BK comes with a “quick-attach” camera screw on the pan head as opposed to the more usual quick release shoe and is obviously done to save weight. Like it’s name suggests you just screw it into your camera to secure it to your tripod.
The Pan-Tilt Head
To keep size and weight to a minimum, the pan head does not have long levers as you commonly find on a pan head, but it is rather controlled with a couple of knobs (one for panning, one for tilting). Pan heads in general are great because you can independently control each of the camera’s two axes of rotation: left-right (yaw) and up/down (pitch). This can be very useful once you’ve already gone to great care in leveling the tripod, but need to shift the composition slightly. It is also great, if like me you also often use your camera to take film as it allows you to easily “pan” over a wide area taking 360 degree smooth panoramic shots or follow a slowly moving Zebra for example.
However a pan head can also sometimes be a disadvantage, since you will need to adjust at least two knobs before you can fully recompose a shot if the object you are trying to capture moves both vertically and horizontally.
One of the most annoying thing on any tripod is if the tripod head creeps/slips under heavy weight. This is surprisingly common, so to test this I attached my teleconverter lens to my camera on the tripod and took an exposure of 30 seconds to see whether the image had slight motion blur when viewed at 100%. I can report that with my set-up, without a teleconversion lens there was no motion blur, meaning that even after 30 seconds there was no movement which is good.
Another point to mention is the tripod head comes with a built-in bubble/spirit level which is an extremely helpful feature, especially when out in the field when your tripod legs aren’t equally extended on uneven ground.
On the whole, I do like the Nivelo’s head and whilst it does take a little longer to attach your camera to the tripod than the quick releases found on standard tripods (once set up), I feel that the weight it saves is significant and it is quick enough. Another thing is that because the Nivelo tripod is so light as well as small with the legs folded, out in the field I would probably just keep my camera attached to it, meaning that all you have to do when spotting something to photograph is to extend the legs saving you time compared to any type of camera fixing.
This is where a the Nivelo 204BK Tripod excelled – The 4 leg sections are extended or contracted using twist locks. Usually lever/clip locks tend to be much quicker to use, but to fully extent the legs on this tripod all you need to do is twist the foot lock and pull – and all the sections will extend saving valuable seconds. To fold them back together again you just do the same and push. Another nice touch is the shock absorbing rubber feet.
So all things considered I would rate this tripods ease of use very highly – It is definitly not one that I would buy and then keep in my cupboard because I couldn’t be bothered to use it!
Overall the tripod looks great and is made very well, highlights for me are it’s very compact and lightweight design and just how quickly you can extend and contract it’s leg sections. One feature that I have not mentioned until now that is the Nivelo 204BK open canopy design that enables you to invert the central column between the tripod’s legs, this is great for things like macro photography or for taking photos from a low level, to give you a unique perspective.
On the whole I highly recommend the Vanguard Nivelo 204BK Tripod as an excellent choice for a lightweight and compact tripod that is ideal for anyone going travelling or on safari who has either a compact, superzoom bridge camera or a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. If you use a DSLR camera or if you want to attach large telephoto conversion lenses to your camera, I would suggest getting a more robust tripod.
Cost & Where to Buy
UK Residents: Vanguard Tripods on Amazon.co.uk
US Residents: Vanguard Tripods on Amazon.com
Short Video Review of the Vanguard Nivelo 204BK Tripod