When you’re out in the field at night, sometimes in windy conditions, a sturdy tripod is everything. However, since widefield astrophotography so often means traveling to find dark skies and alluring foregrounds, taking a heavy full-size tripod isn’t always possible.
Cue the Manfrotto Befree Advanced tripod, a support designed for travel that’s nevertheless well suited to widefield astrophotography.
Taken in hand luggage to a solar eclipse and on journeys around Oman, Namibia, and the western United States in search of dark skies, I can attest to the Befree Advanced being easy to travel with.
Thanks to its carbon fiber legs, this Italian-designed tripod weighs 3.5 lbs (1.6 kg), has a load capacity of 17.6 lbs or 8 kg (and an integrated hook to hang a bag to add even more stability), and packs-up into a 15.7 inch-long (40 cm-long) package ready for stowing in luggage or strapping to the outside of a camera bag.
One of the things I love most about the Befree Advanced is its QPL Travel levers; just a flick sends each of the three legs down to its natural maximum position for locking. However, the Befree Advanced actually comes in two versions, the other has an M-lock screw mechanism. Almost immediately, I found it really easy to unfurl, and pack up the Befree Advanced in the dark when moving to or away from a shooting position. My only bad experience is when using the Befree Advanced in deep sand, which tends to get into the joints.
Although each leg has four sections, it stretches to a maximum height of 59 inches (150 cm). For some, that won’t be enough, and yet insisting on a tripod that stretches to eye-level makes them significantly more difficult to travel with. I’m sticking with the Befree Advanced despite its relatively diminutive size because (a) it’s easy to affix to a backpack for hikes into the darkness, (b) it’s proved to be sufficiently stable on several challenging shoots, and (c) it’s not like I, at 6 feet (1.8 m), have to stoop much to position a camera – it’s always around chest height.
When used on rocky, uneven, and regular surfaces the Befree Advanced proves itself versatile; the main joints are incredibly flexible, panning through 180 degrees to achieve various positions. Its rubberized feet never slip on slick rock. However, don’t count on its integrated hook, which worked itself free within a few days and was lost.
I’ve also been impressed with the central columns, which extends upwards and locks into place. Mostly such columns are wobbly and unreliable for long exposures in strong winds, but this one remains stable when extended to about three-quarters of its maximum length. Another plus is the ball-head mechanism, which allows -90 degree to +40 degree lateral and vertical pan and tilt. It fixes in place steadfastly, with a quick-release plate attaching to a camera via a 1/4-inch screw.
Versatile, reasonably lightweight, and easy to travel with, the Befree Advanced is a good choice for traveling astrophotographers who need support where it counts.