Travel tripods are a bit like superzoom compact cameras. They offer the promise of extraordinary versatility, without the size and weight penalties typically imposed by more specialized gear. They can’t do everything but they can do enough – without weighing you down – to make up for their limitations. There are a lot of compact tripods out there, most of which are very cheap, and perform accordingly. You know the kind of thing I mean – at some point you were probably gifted one by a well-meaning relative at Christmas.
Also like superzoom compact cameras, there are very few travel tripods which manage to be both genuinely light and portable while also being genuinely good. And those that are tend to be rather… spendy.
|RRS Ascend-14||Peak Design Travel Tripod (CF)||Gitzo GT1545T (legs only)|
|Weight||3.2 lbs (1.45 kg)||2.81 lbs (1.29 kg)||2.34 lbs (1.06 kg)|
|Packed length||18.6 in (47 cm)||15.4 in (39.1 cm)||16.7 in (42.5 cm)|
|Packed diameter||3.4 in||3.1 in||4.3 in|
|Max height (center column lowered)||48 in (122 cm)||51.25 in (130.2 cm)||51.2 in (130 cm)|
|Max height (center column raised)||59.9 in (152 cm)||60 in (152.4 cm)||60.2 in (153 cm)|
|# Leg sections||4||5||4|
|Load capacity||30 lbs (13.6 kg)||20 lbs (9.1 kg)||22 lbs / 10 kg|
|Head included||Yes (integral)||Yes (integral)||No|
Today, I want to look at a product which has just been launched into the upper end of the travel tripod market (i.e., the really spendy end), from Really Right Stuff – the Ascend 14. Really Right Stuff (RRS) has been building a reputation for solid, elegant, no-compromise tripods, heads and plates for a long time in the US, and in recent years RRS gear has started to become more widely available to photographers around the globe.
The Ascend-14 is RRS’s attempt to make a really right travel tripod, which doesn’t suffer from the same compromises that we’d typically expect in this class: flexible legs, low maximum weight rating, or limited features. Unstated, but fairly clearly implied, is also a desire to cater to the same demand that made Peak Design’s Travel Tripod the most successful Kickstarter project ever, back in 2019.
Like the Peak Design models, the Ascend-14’s standard configuration features an integrated ball head and a non-cylindrical aluminum center column, to allow the legs to fold flat against it. This immediately makes both products slimmer than your average compact tripod, while still maintaining the versatility offered by an adjustable center column (if you don’t mind a fixed apex and lower max height, RRS already makes the cheaper TFC-14 Mk II). The center column of the Ascend-14 can be divided into two sections, to save weight (losing the lower portion shaves off about 150g) or to facilitate very low-level shooting.
To remove the lower portion of the column, you push the tiny hook on the bottom flat, then unscrew it. It takes a bit of effort, and can be a bit fiddly (becoming very fiddly with cold hands or gloves) but it works well enough for something you probably won’t do often.
The ball head is a little unusual. Basically a scaled-up and refined version of the RRS BPC-16, the ball has a decent range of movement (including a drop-notch) and is tightened with a locking clamp. An integral panning platform sits on top of the ball, which can be locked with a small knob. The head features a compact version of RRS’s popular quick-release lever clamp, which makes mounting and removing an Arca-style camera or lens plate very quick and easy. The center column is unlocked via a lever clamp too, making a total of three such controls on the upper part of the tripod (which isn’t necessarily a good thing, but more on that later).
From the spider down, the Ascend-14 is a pretty conventional carbon-fiber tripod, albeit an unusually small and well-made one. The Ascend 14’s leg extensions have really solid-feeling twist locks, and removable rubber feet. As you’d expect, the legs can be angled outwards in 3 positions, the outer of which allows the tripod to sit almost flat to the ground. The overall feel and finish of the tripod is excellent, and small vents in the cups that hold the legs to the spider allow air in and out of the tubes when the legs are extended and retracted. It’s a small thing, but it makes a positive difference to the smoothness of the operation.
So what does the additional $850 over the Peak Design carbon-fiber travel tripod buy you? In a word – stability.
It might sound silly, but from the spider down, the Ascend-14 feels like a big, sturdy conventional tripod that has simply been miniaturized. Where the ribbonlike lower leg sections of the Peak Design tripod are slim and the whole thing feels rather ‘whippy’, the Ascend-14 feels good and solid even with all of its legs fully extended, and dampens vibrations noticeably better. To be fair, the Peak Design model gets a lot more rigid with its lower leg extensions collapsed, but it also, obviously, gets a lot shorter, too.
In use, the Ascend-14 lives up almost entirely to my hopes for a tripod costing as much as it does
It’s important to take manufacturers’ claims of weight ratings with a large pinch of salt (there’s no agreed-upon standard) but, by reputation, RRS’s max load rating of 30 lbs for the Ascend-14 is likely to be conservative.
For context, 30 lbs of gear works out to roughly ten Fujifilm GFX-100 bodies. Obviously it would be ridiculous to put ten GFX-100s onto the top of a tripod (but if you feel like doing it, at least we know you can afford the Ascend-14). The point is that 30 lbs is a lot of weight, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be putting that much load on top of the head.
However, many photographers are in the habit of adding weight under the head for stability. In real-world use, I’ve slung 15lbs of stabilizing weight from the Ascend’s lower hook with a Nikon Z7 and Z 70-200mm F2.8 VR S (~5 lbs) on top, and it’s rock-solid. By comparison, Peak Design claims a maximum load rating of 20 lbs for its Travel Tripod, and with the same load (15 lbs underneath, another 5 lbs or so on top) everything stayed put at full extension, but even under load, the legs still felt whippy.
In use, the Ascend-14 lives up almost entirely to my hopes for a tripod costing as much as it does. The only part of it which doesn’t quite convince me is the head. Everything from the spider down is great, but in making the compact head as fully-featured as they could, RRS’s engineers have, in my opinion, sacrificed some of the usability that has been a hallmark of popular RRS heads like the BH-40 and BH-55, with their large, easily-distinguished knob and lever controls.
Depending on the conditions in which you use it (specifically if you shoot outdoors, at night and/or in the cold), you might find that the Ascend-14’s head is just downright fiddly. The lever clamp which unlocks the ball is very stiff out of the box (but this can be adjusted with a T9 Torx), and can be hard operate with gloves, while the panning lock knob is pretty tiny. Although convenient in theory, the nested allen wrench is very stubby, and can be hard to extract from its magnetic slot in the head.
There are two lever clamps on the head. They’re quite close together, and you really do NOT want to get them mixed-up
The most potentially impactful issue though, in my experience, is the lever clamps. There are two lever clamps on the head, one for un/locking the ball, and one for un/locking the camera/lens from the top of the panning base. They’re quite close together, and you really do NOT want to get them mixed-up. Presumably in an effort to prevent this, RRS has made sure that they face in different directions, and has given them a slightly different shape and feel.
Unfortunately, this has not stopped me several times from trying to unlock the ball to reposition a shot with my eye to the finder, and accidentally releasing my camera from the head. Now, before you say anything, I know this is user error. And I also know that over time, I’ll get used to how the Ascend-14’s head operates and I’ll become a better, less error-prone user. But this isn’t my first rodeo, and still, it’s a mistake I’ve made a number of times since first venturing out with the Ascend-14.
There are two potential solutions that I can see which don’t involve me undergoing forced reeducation – one is for RRS simply to replace the quick-release clamp for the camera plate with a boring, traditional, but ultra-reliable screw-knob. The other is to employ a button-lock on that upper lever clamp, which would prevent accidental opening. That’s how Acratech’s quick-release levers work, and while it would add some additional complexity for the engineers, it would prevent accidental extension of the lever while not slowing down deliberate operation.
So – you’ve got $1,450 burning a hole in your pocket (lucky you). Should you spend it on the Ascend-14? That depends. Typically I’d recommend that serious photographers looking for a set of lightweight sticks consider Gitzo’s well-established Series 1 ‘Traveller’ range as the prosumer gold standard. The current high-end GK1545T-82TQDUS legs and head combination, while considerably less slim than the Ascend-14, still represents a good compromise between size, weight and load capacity, for $699. That’s what the Peak Design Travel Tripod (carbon fiber version) will cost you, too, and despite the compromises that I’ve mentioned, the PD is a serious and justifiably popular contender.
There are plenty of decent options available these days for less money, too. The (very) new Sirui ST-124 and ST-125 look particularly interesting, offering a pretty high maximum weight rating of 12 kg (26 lbs) for a very attractive price of $249 for the legs only. That’s pretty close to the Ascend-14’s load rating, with the usual caveats about such figures.
So we all know that you don’t need to spend $1,450 to get a good quality travel tripod. But the Ascend-14 isn’t just a really good travel tripod, it’s a really good tripod, full stop. It’s small and slim enough to be used for travel, but strong and rigid enough (and versatile enough) to replace a larger tripod for most purposes. In fact since receiving my review model from RRS, I’ve barely touched my normal tripod, a midsized RRS TVC-24 MK2.
The high cost of the Ascend-14 can’t be ignored, but it needs to be put into context
The high cost of the RRS Ascend-14 can’t be ignored, but it needs to be put into context. Of the truly compact travel tripods that I’ve tried (which naturally isn’t all of them, and I would like to check out the new Sirui models), the Ascend-14 offers the best combination of size, weight, features and quality. For a product that can satisfy so many requirements, $1,450 doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable.
When it comes to the two available configurations, personally I’d take a little more packed length and a little more weight in exchange for a little more usability, so if you gave that $1,450 to me (which I am fine with, by the way – pm me for my Venmo details if you’re feeling generous) I’d probably go for the legs with the platform column, and put the rest towards a compact ball head.
What we like
- Exceptional build quality
- Useful maximum height
- Very good max load capacity
- Slim enough to tuck into side pocket of a backpack
- Very rigid, even at full extension
- Versatile (platform column option, accessory feet etc.)
What we don’t like
- On the heavy side compared to competition (but does include a head)
- Ascend head can be fiddly, especially with gloves
- Twist locks slower to operate than clips
- Hook on center column is very small
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