For years, I had a high-end carbon fiber ultra-light travel tripod that frequently traveled with me along with a heavier duty model. However, those travel tripods all required the center column to be extended to approach adequate normal use height, and I was never fully satisfied with the vibrations the extended center column allowed. Eventually, I sold the travel tripod, replacing it with a second Really Right Stuff TVC-24L Mk2. While larger and heavier than the series 1 tripods, the TVC-24L tripods are outstanding performers, especially for their size and weight.
Then RRS owner Joe Johnson showed me his new Ascend tripod at the Photo Plus Expo in New York City.
At Ascend-14 review time, B&H has 1260 tripod models for sale. While some of that count includes color variations of the same model and many table top tripods are included, and while that total number has not been changing significantly in recent years, the selection remains vast and overwhelming. The Really Right Stuff Ascend-14 is a small, lightweight model, a category highly-represented in the availability list, and perhaps more than for any other tripod type, design and build quality are especially big differentiators among the available lightweight models.
Let's make this easy: In this extremely crowded market, the Really Right Stuff Ascend-14 is at the top of the list in terms of quality and performance — and price. There are very few other tripods similar in size and weight (or even moderately close to similar) that compete with the Ascend-14's level of performance, including strength, rigidity, and vibration dampening. That performance comes at a price. An Ascend-14 model falls into the 4th most expensive tripod slot at review time.
With the ultra-high resolution of the current generation of digital cameras, a steady camera is more important than ever and, unfortunately, a significant number of beginning photographers make the mistake of buying low quality on their first tripod purchase. As long as the Really Right Stuff Ascend-14 is sized adequately for your needs, there is little risk in buying this one.
Tripods come in all sizes, ranging from tiny table top models to super-tall models that may require a step ladder to use. Along with a vast size differential, a large weight differential exists. You can carry the lightest tripod all day and barely know it is there, while the heaviest model will become burdensome in a very short period of time. Strength and rigidity are often the balancing factor between size and weight. A heavy short tripod is likely much stronger and more rigid than a super-light tall tripod. So, tripod selection starts with choosing a model that offers the right balance of load capacity, dimensions, and weight, along with the features it avails, for the need.
The Ascend-14 is in the small and light category, but its performance is equal to or better than many significantly larger and heavier tripods.
Let's take a look at the Really Right Stuff Ascend-14 Tripod's specs.
|Ascend-14 Long Int||1||4||68.9"||(175.0)||5.1"||(13.0)||21.3"||(54.0)||3.37||(1.53)||30||(13.6)|
Made obvious in the chart is that there are four Ascend-14 tripod models to chose from (at review time). Select from standard length or long models, and select the center column with a standard platform or integrated head.
While a load much heavier than the stated capacity can be placed on most high-quality tripods (this tripod fully extended easily holds my weight with its feet on a smooth epoxy floor), the amount of vibration experienced becomes high. I'm usually unstatisfied with the vibration level experienced with load weights considerably lower than the rated capacity, and 1/2 is the fraction frequently used for a low vibration load approximation. Don't underestimate the importance of vibration control as there are many causes of vibration, including wind.
Even using the 50% rule, the Really Right Stuff Ascend-14 Tripod's 30 lb (13.6 kg) load rating is higher than the weight most of us will be placing on a small tripod such as this one. I'll provide more-specific gear capacity advice later in the review.
The taller a tripod is, the more likely it will accommodate eye-level height when shooting on a level surface, or even eye-level height with one or more tripod feet positioned downhill below you. The latter is a frequent occurrence for outdoor photographers as well as those shooting from stairways, etc. Those photographing the night sky will appreciate tall tripods.
Most will find the standard length Ascend-14's extended height adequate for standing work, and the long version gets that job done without the extension. At 6' (1.8 m), I find the Ascend-14 Long's center column retracted height is just high enough to be comfortable for standing position use on a flat surface.
Remember that your tripod head and the camera or lens's tripod-mount-to-viewfinder height significantly increase the viewfinder height during use. Also, remember that mirrorless cameras may provide less height assistance than DSLR cameras and that battery grips increase the height.
While high is good, so is low. With the longer section of the center column removed, this tripod goes down close to ground level, a height ideal for table top and ground-level work.
A tripod's folded length is of primary concern for packing and transport. A smaller retracted tripod, regardless of its maximum height capability, consumes less space, making it easier to fit in luggage. A shorter length does not protrude as far above a backpack, where tripods tend to catch on branches during hikes. This tripod, especially with the triangular-shaped center column, folds impressively compactly.
All other aspects being equal, aside from ballast reasons, lighter is preferred for tripods. All other aspects are not always equal, and a compromise is always being made to achieve lighter weight. The farther/longer you have to carry a tripod, the more important light weight becomes. Weight does not matter much for studio tripods that are seldom carried for more than a minute, while multi-day backpackers live at the other end of this spectrum. Those flying on commercial aircraft are required to comply with luggage weight restrictions, and in this case, tripod weight becomes a strong consideration. My Really Right Stuff Ascend-14 Long with Integrated Ball Head weighs only 3.40 lbs (1.54 kg), a number very appealing to those in the weight-conscious groups.
Tripod manufacturers typically offer many different models, and the model name often describes how the model fits into the family. Really Right Stuff tripod model names break down as follows: "T" is for Tripod, "QC" is for Quick Column, "FC" is for Fixed Column, the first number ("1") references the series (typically on a 00-5 industry scale), and the second number ("4") indicates the number of sections per leg. This tripod utilizes a word to describe the tripod and unique center column design: "Ascend".
Here is an expanded Really Right Stuff tripod specification comparison chart:
|TQC-14 Mk2 *||1||4||58.5"||(148.6)||3.3"||(8.4)||17.7"||(45.0)||2.60||(1.18)||30||(13.6)|
|Ascend-14 Long Int||1||4||68.9"||(175.0)||5.1"||(13.0)||21.3"||(54.0)||3.37||(1.53)||30||(13.6)|
|TVC/TFC-23 Mk2 *||2||3||52.6"||(133.6)||3.7"||(9.4)||23.9"||(60.7)||3.30||(1.50)||40||(18.1)|
|TVC/TFC-33S Mk2 *||3||3||50.8"||(129.0)||3.9"||(9.9)||22.8"||(57.9)||3.70||(1.68)||50||(22.7)|
|TVC-45 Mk2 *||4||5||84.5"||(214.6)||6.8"||(17.3)||24.8"||(63.0)||6.90||(3.13)||100||(45.4)|
While the TQC-14 and TFC-14 Mk2 tripods are smaller and lighter, the Ascend-14 models are considerably taller, the feature that pulled me back to a 1-series tripod.
As the various Really Right Stuff tripods share many similarities, their reviews will also sound similar.
Starting at the top of the tripod, we have the part that holds everything together. In addition to "chassis", this part is referred to as the "apex", "main casting", "spreader", "spider", "collar" and probably many more terms. The chassis's size and strength are keys to the overall strength and rigidity of the tripod. Skimp here, and nothing else matters.
The Ascend-14 gets a smartly-designed compact but substantial type-3 black anodized, CNC-machined, 6061-T6 aluminum apex. Less common for smaller tripods is the Ascend-14's spirit level, making precisely leveled setup easy to obtain.
Built into this tripod's apex are a QD (Quick Detach) port, ideal for a carry strap, and a 1/4-20 threaded accessory socket for attaching a wide range of accessories, including arms.
Perhaps not immediately seeming important is the comfort of the tripod in your hand. I carry tripods in my hand a lot, and any sharp design features where the chassis meets the top of the legs, the natural carry location, meets not-well-padded parts of the hand. Thus, a smoothly-design leg to chassis transition can make a big difference in the pleasure of using a tripod.
Really Right Stuff's tripod comfort ratings are always at the top, and the Ascend-14 models are no different. The Ascend-14's relatively thin carbon fiber legs are easy to grasp, and as long as the center column release lever is not included in the grip, they are comfortable to hold when opened to their first leg angle stop.
Folding this tripod, especially with the entire center column installed and retracted, eliminates the inside finger clearance, and grasping around the perimeter of the tripod becomes the natural grip. Holding two closed legs is comfortable.
Most tripods offer a solid top plate, a height-adjustable vertical/center column, or the choice of both options, offering the best of both worlds.
With a rapid center column, camera height can be quickly fine-tuned, and very high camera positions are enabled without impacting the tripod's fully-retracted length. However, the huge disadvantage of a center column is significantly increased vibration experienced when the column is raised, especially at full height, where the reduction in vibration dampening is dramatic. Another disadvantage is that the length of the center column limits the tripod's minimum height as it gets in the way when going low.
Integral to the Ascend line is a strong, non-rotating, triangular-shaped, machined aluminum center column. While the center column is removable, the top plate cannot be attached to the tripod without a section of the center column included, and a partially raised center column may be required to provide clearance for some heads at certain camera angles. The bottom 8.5" (21.6cm) of the center column is toollessly removable, permitting a low tripod height and a 5.53 oz (157g) weight reduction.
The small ballast hook at the bottom of the center column has a secondary function — as a lever. When the hook is pivoted sideways, the tension between the two vertical column sections is released. The hook can then be rotated (many times) to unscrew the lower column section.
A triangular brass section between the hook and column provides a smooth bearing surface for the lever, and when not aligned with the center column, it prohibits the column from exiting the chassis. Unfortunately, the legs impact the brass piece when folded in the restrictive position.
The bottom of the upper section of the center column has a rotating triangular weight loop that doubles as a safety stop when rotated out of alignment with the column. This loop features a slight detent to encourage it to stay in the released or safety positions.
The Ascend-14's rapid column can be installed upside down for a potentially on-the-ground camera position.
The rapid column has substantial aluminum construction. Aluminum is heavier than carbon fiber, but the difference for this small part would be minor. Advantageous is aluminum's lower friction coefficient, allowing it to slide smoothly in the apex. The triangular shape combined with the thickness of the metal increases strength and rigidity while keeping the overall size compact.
Adjusting the center column height or removing it is fast and easy — just lift the vertical locking lever integrated into the tripod's apex and move the column. This lever lock works very smoothly, and the column locks tightly (though not tight enough to hold me). The tripod head base diameter is unrestricted with no locking wing nuts flaring above the top plate as in previous RRS models.
An integrated ball head version is optional with the Ascend-14 standard and long tripod center columns. I'll discus this option later in the review, but note that the integrated head cannot be installed on the standard platform column. However, the columns are individually available, permitting both options for the same tripod.
The Ascend-14 tripod head mount thread size is the usual 3/8"-16 standard.
Unless you are only going to use the tripod on a completely flat surface, typically a floor, you probably want a tripod model with an independent leg spread. This feature enables tripod legs to open at various angles, accommodating whatever terrain you may encounter.
Models having an independent leg spread feature angle stops above the leg pivot axles, and this seemingly basic design feature plays an important role in the tripod's functionality. Observe how strongly the leg angle locks transition into the stops provided on the apex. Is the stop a weak little tab that protrudes from the apex? The latter invites failure, and consider that failure may mean your camera and lens hits the ground. Much better is solid material between the apex and the leg lock.
The RRS Ascend-14's small chassis dimension limits the strength available for leg angle stops, but this tripod's smart design directs the pressure coming through these stops directly into a substantial part of the chassis for a strong, rigid hookup.
Most tripod models offer multiple stop angles, and the specific angles offered (25, 55, 85° for RRS models) are seldom a strong differentiator between models. But, small "Traveler" tripod models often feature only two leg angles (three positions total) vs. the three (four positions total) found on the Ascend-14. Also differentiating are the Ascend-14's ratcheting locks that magnetically snap into the locked position when the direction is reversed from outward to inward.
Yet another differentiator is the angle locks' ease of use. The Ascend-14 leg locks are designed just like it's larger counterparts, pulling out to enable repositioning. Though compact, the locks are nicely shaped and easy to use.
The axle bolt tightness determines the force required to spread the legs. With the included wrench, this adjustment is easy. The brass bushings keep leg angle movements very smooth.
The legs are another critical component of a tripod, and a primary consideration is what the legs are constructed of, with aluminum and carbon fiber being the two most common options.
What are the advantages of carbon fiber tripod legs? Carbon fiber models are typically lighter than equally-weight-rated aluminum models, and carbon fiber dampens vibrations faster. In addition, carbon fiber does not transfer heat as easily as aluminum, making carbon fiber preferable to hands in cold weather.
What are the advantages of aluminum tripod legs? Aluminum is also a great material, and its primary advantage in tripod form is it's low cost. In addition, aluminum generally has a lower friction coefficient than carbon fiber, making it slide more easily during height adjustment.
Aluminum dents and bends, while carbon fiber breaks. Neither is good, and while the latter is less likely, dented or bent may remain usable.
Carbon fiber is my nearly-exclusive choice.
The RRS Ascend-14 gets carbon fiber legs, and they are impressively rigid for their small size. These legs look great and operate smoothly.
Another important aspect of tripod selection is leg section length, along with the number of sections per leg. Roughly, the number of leg sections times the length of the sections (minus some overlap, plus the chassis height) determines the maximum height of the tripod. Also, the length of the leg sections is a strong factor in both a tripod's minimum height as well as its retracted length.
Because there is one leg lock on each leg section joint, tripods with more leg sections have more locks, and for that reason, they generally cost modestly more. Increasing the number of leg sections also increases the setup and take-down time. With each leg section having a smaller diameter than the one above it, tripods with more leg sections usually have a narrower lower leg section than the equivalent tripod with fewer leg sections. Though formerly an issue, thinner lower leg section stability is no longer an issue in current high-quality models.
General-purpose tripods are most frequently offered in 3 or 4 leg section models, and I usually choose 4-section leg models. Four leg sections give me a relatively-compact retracted size, with a maximum height that works well for me. The Ascend tripod number of leg sections decision is easy as of review time as only 4-section models are available.
Another great feature of RRS tripods is that the legs do not over-retract. Simply close the legs until they stop, and they will be in the perfectly folded position.
Most tripods have multiple legs sections, allowing them to be set up at various heights or retracted compactly. Naturally, this means that leg section locks are needed, and the first decision choice is typically between lever or flip locks and twist locks. I've used both and much-prefer the twist locks for numerous reasons, including their faster and quieter operation.
The Ascend-14 has best available, extremely short throw twist locks. The resistance change when a leg section unlocks is easy to feel, and that seemingly small feature helps avoid overtightening, optimizing the speed of the short-throw feature in use. After using RRS tripod leg locks, it is hard to be satisfied with lesser versions.
Want to know how strong a tripod's leg locks are? Fully extend the legs, tighten the leg locks, and while keeping the legs together (not spread), pull straight down on the legs, gradually with significant weight. Note that exceeding the weight limit of a tripod could break it, but quality leg locks will not retract under the pressure of my weight (165 lb / 75 kg).
The Really Right Stuff Ascend-14 Tripod's leg extension locks make the grade, impressively holding my full weight when set up with the normal leg spread, even on a smooth epoxy floor. Also impressive is that a single Ascend-14 leg will vertically hold my weight, showing the extreme locking strength of these leg locks. This performance provides confidence that these legs will support expensive gear, and the confidence to recommend that you do the same.
I will also rely on this tripod for moderate personal support assistance when traversing difficult terrain.
Important to me is that the leg sections do not rotate when unlocked, allowing any individual leg lock to be tightened before others. Most quality tripods support this feature, and the Really Right Stuff Ascend-14 Tripod checks that feature box.
Lateral rigidity is a primary responsibility for the leg section locks. Applying lateral pressure (but not too much as this is a breakage risk) to fully locked legs will quickly illuminate any play or flex that exists. Also, with modest pressure on the top plate, a tap to the middle of the extended leg will cause visible vibration. How quickly that vibration dissipates is the observation to make during this test. The Ascend-14's legs are laterally very rigid, and vibrations settle out fast.
The Ascend models feature O-rings in the leg locks, helping to keep the locking threads clean.
The tripod must rest on something, and we logically call those features "feet". The RRS Ascend-14 tripod's removable rubber feet feature a teardrop shape that helps keep the legs off of the ground even when fully splayed.
Spiked feet are optionally available.
The right tripod head can make a huge difference in your tripod use experience and in your results. Do not let your head be the limiting factor.
After the gear capacity section in tripod reviews, I usually include the tripod head recommendation section. However, this Ascend-14 topic warrants discussion before the capacity discussion.
As mentioned, this tripod is available with a standard platform center column and a center column with an integrated, non-removable head. While I was nearly certain that I wanted the integrated head, this model seemed forever on backorder. Then, in a divine alignment of opportunities, a long Ascend 14 with a standard platform showed up in stock while a like-new used integrated head center column was privately offered for sale. Having both center columns provides the fullest range of tripod utilization options and, seemingly, the potential for nearly unlimited test scenarios.
Starting with the head recommendation for the standard platform: a small, light head is typically desired for a small, light tripod, and the Really Right Stuff BH-30 Ball Head is a perfect choice for this model, with BH-30's base diameter matching that of this top plate.
Consider the Really Right Stuff BH-40 Ball Head if a modestly larger head is desired.
A smaller, lighter option is the RRS BH-25 Ball Head.
The integrated head should be high on the options list if light weight is important to you.
Get this: the integrated head center column weighs 13.12 oz (371.9 g) vs. 10.00 oz (283.5 g) for the standard platform version. So, the 12 lb (5.4 kg) capacity rated integrated 22mm ball head, featuring panning and a lever-release clamp, weighs only 3.12 oz (88.5 g). That is lighter than the tiny 4.4 oz (125.0 g) Really Right Stuff BPC-16 Microball that is rated for less than half as much — 5 lb (2.27 kg).
The BH-30 has a modestly higher 15 lb (6.8 kg) capacity rating, but it weighs 11.2 oz (318 g). The BH-25 has a lower 8.8 lb (4 kg) capacity rating yet weighs over twice as much — 7.8 oz (221 g).
In use, I find the integrated head's performance similar to that of the BH-30 — impressive for its compact size. Equally impressive is the overall design of this head. Essentially, the same features found on the BH-30 are included.
A lever is used for locking the ball. I wouldn't say that the lever is easier to use than a traditional ball lock knob, but it is more compact and offers significant locking strength.
The factory lockup pressure should be ideal, but the lever lockup pressure is adjustable if a different locking pressure is desired. Adjustment requires a Torx T9 bit. This bit is not included in most general bit kits, but the Platinum Tools 19101 Precision Screwdriver Set has this need and many others covered.
There is no traditional panning base, but the base, including the drop notch, rotates when the lever is open. The base requires a firm pressure to rotate, but pressing the locking lever against its travel stop makes this rotation easy. Open the ball lock lever, and keep pushing until the desired drop notch position is reached.
A compact panning lever release clamp tops the head. Note that this lever opens in the opposite direction of the ball release lever and opposite of RRS's traditional head clamps. A spirit level on the clamp makes leveling easy.
Were you wondering why the vertical column separates with a seemingly long 2.2"(56.4mm) section remaining? The drop notch provides greater than 90° of angle, but the integrated head is so low-profile that it must be raised modestly to avoid impact with the apex during drop notch use. The remaining short column length is sufficient for this use.
The integrated head center column tripod version costs more, with the difference equating approximately to the price of a BH-30.
As discussed earlier, the load capacity of this tripod is high enough to support nearly any camera and lens. But that doesn't mean it will hold that load without vibration. Vibrations are usually a limiting factor, and vibrations cannot always be tolerated.
To establish a comfort level, the Canon EOS R5 (1.6 lbs / 0.74 kg) mounted to a RF 600mm F4 L IS USM Lens (6.8 lbs / 3.1 kg) and a RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens (3.0 lbs / 1.37 kg) were utilized. With the integrated head and BH-30 performing similarly, this report covers both simultaneously.
The 600 f/4 is a lot of lens to sit on top of this light tripod, but the legs retracted performance was excellent, with strong vibrations settling out within 4 or 5 seconds. Fully extended, this tripod struggled to completely stop the 600 f/4 vibrations, even in 15 seconds. Extend the center column, and vibrations remain seemingly indefinitely. That said, image stabilization (or an adequately fast shutter speed) makes this scenario work.
Vibrations from the considerably smaller and lighter (the tail is no longer wagging the dog) RF 100-500mm lens at 500mm lasted 4 or 5 seconds with the legs fully extended and the center column fully retracted. The reduced magnification at 100mm liked all of this tripod's positions. Still, avoid raising the center column higher than required to ensure the most stable support.
As expected, normal and wide-angle lenses, those most commonly used on tripods of this size and weight, are easily within the Ascend-14's load-bearing capabilities,
The shorter tripod version will show very slightly reduced vibrations. Again, image stabilization or faster shutter speeds overcome vibrations.
A case is not included in the RRS Ascend-14 box, and a tripod of this value is worth storing and transporting in a case. Really Right Stuff's Tripod Bags are my favorites. The small bag is slightly large for the Ascend-14 Long tripod with the integrated head, but it works well. The Compact case is ideal for the standard length Ascend-14, and the long version with the standard platform may also fit in this bag.
Cheap, low-quality tripods are usually a waste of money and will leave you disillusioned about what a tripod can do for you. They will also dissuade you from using a tripod. On the other hand, using a high-quality tripod model has the potential to improve your image quality significantly, and such will be a pleasure to use and carry. Photographers that wished they would have purchased a lower-grade tripod model are rare (I have not met one), but many have regretted the purchase of a cheap model.
The Ascend-14 is one of the most expensive models among the best tripods. Justifying the cost is that this tripod is in an elite class — arguably the best tripod ever in this class. The primary negative Ascend-14 decision factor is the price.
Really Right Stuff defines customer service excellence. It is very easy to reach an RRS representative via email, chat, or phone, and this company stands behind its primarily made-in-the-USA products. RRS offers a limited 5-yr warranty on the Ascend-14, and I expect that this tripod will last a lifetime.
The Really Right Stuff Ascend-14 Long Tripod used for this review was purchased online retail.
Overall, this tripod "ascended" to the level of my expectations. Of course, the ultra-high price tag and RRS's name on the box set that bar extremely high. Anything less than outstanding performance would have the tripod back in the box with a return label on it.
My trust in this product was high enough that it was my solo choice for the Shenandoah National Park trip that accounted for the above image. I had no regrets for this decision.
The Really Right Stuff Ascend-14 Long Travel Tripod gave me reason to again include a 1-series option in the kit. If there is room for a high-performing compact, lightweight tripod in your kit and the funding permits, the Really Right Stuff Ascend-14 has your name on it. This tripod is an outstanding performer despite its small size and light weight.
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