Handheld video shooting is engaging and dramatic when done well, but it can also look unplanned and amateurish. Now, if not for aesthetic reasons, the technical demands of high-definition video underscore the age-old value of solid, steady, and secure camera work. Shaky camera work just doesn't cut it on a 50" plasma!
More than ever, good camera support equipment—be it tripod, monopod, steadicam device, or jib arm set-up—is the foundation for good video. We'll look at all these categories in the next few editions of Gear & Now. This month, we'll start with tripods.
At first glance, there appears to be a broad and varied choice among manufacturers in the tripod space. Most videographers can rattle off a dozen names of companies who have viable tripod offerings. But did you know many of the best names in tripods are owned by the same company?
Vinten, Sachtler, Manfrotto, Bogen, Gitzo, and OConnor all fall under the Vitec corporate umbrella. Slik and Daiwa are related. Tiffen, Steadicam, and Davis & Sanford are family, too. Products from such companies may be labeled differently, but are otherwise identical. The point is to match a tripod's specs with your needs, and not get caught in the name-game comparisons among apparently competing products.
PRICING AND WHAT YOU'RE PAYING FOR
Many videographers say it takes at least $1,000 to get a decent pro tripod system, and there are those priced upwards of $5,000, so that may be a bargain. But other shooters have found perfectly serviceable supports for a few hundred dollars.
Although price is always a big factor (be aware that tripod legs, heads, spreaders, arms, and other camera support accessories can be priced separately or as a full system), there are several other elements to consider.
Weight (of both the tripod and the camera it supports) brings stability to your shooting. But carrying an extra 8 or 10 pounds on location can be a hassle. Tripods made of carbon-fiber and magnesium are generally lighter than aluminum, with equal stability. New materials, including basalt—a lightweight volcanic rock—are being used to make tripods, so watch for new materials, as well as combinations or composites.
Adding some weight to your sticks, but well worth it in some settings, are steel leg spikes (sometimes with removable rubber feet) that resist slippage and stick solidly into the ground.
The maximum height a tripod will extend to (using single, double, or triple stages, each with one or two collapsible legs) and still be steady is important, but don't forget about solid, secure low-level shooting; minimum height is important. Removable spreaders are a key part of a full tripod kit.
Multi-stage collapsible legs are advantageous, but have their own issues as well. Quick-release and quick-lock mechanisms are needed for easy and fast setup. Manfrotto's ART legs and Miller's Sprint-Loks are good examples of quick-release technology.
Multi-stage legs require built-in leveling devices, such as a leveling ball or bubble level. If the legs are not on an even plane, a quick twist of a good leveler should correct it easily. In poorly lit locations, an illuminated bubble leveler can be a lifesaver.
Quick-release camera mounts or plates are essential; those that are adjustable for front-to-back balancing are best.
What you want for smooth shooting is, ironically, more drag—preferably adjustable, and with separate controls over pan and tilt friction. There are many ways manufacturers introduce tension into the tripod motion, but natural fluid-head mechanisms are usually best. Resistance is controlled by manipulating an internal oily liquid held inside sealed units (the more units, the better), adjusting for easy, cushion-free movements and heavier resistance when required. Dial-in degrees of resistance are very handy.
Regardless of resistance, a full range of movement should be allowed. Counterbalance systems, such as the sinusoidal system from OConnor, bring good balance at any point within the motion range.
These days, high-quality tripod gear abounds. Which equipment you choose depends largely on what your specific requirements are, determined largely by the type of camera you have and the demands of your shoot.
Slik's tripod for lightweight video cameras (rated around 10 pounds) and budget-minded shooters, the 504 QF II, comes with a solid video head incorporating an easy-to-grip pan handle, long enough to give leverage for smooth panning. The tripod comes packed with a bubble level and a quick-release plate. Three-position legs with lock knobs fold down to 27 inches.
The unit weighs under 6 pounds, and is priced around $150.
DAVIS AND SANFORD
The new ProVista 75 tripod with FM 18 head from Davis & Sanford boasts aluminum construction, three-section quick-snap legs, a fluid metal panhead, bubble level, spiked feet, and more. All in all, the ProVista 75 is a 10-pound package designed for DV camcorders up to about 18 pounds. It has a minimum height restriction of about 28 inches, but is worth consideration at $230.
At just under 5 pounds, the Gitzo G 1325V monotubular carbon-fiber tripod comes with removable 75mm bowl, accommodating a range of heads, both fluid and not. Rubber feet with retractable spiked tips are featured. It is rated to support payloads of up to 26.5 pounds; when extended, it stands nearly 60 inches tall, but the legs will spread out 90 degrees for excellent low-angle shooting. It's street-priced around $600.
Gitzo has also introduced a new family of video heads called "Fluide," with separate pan, tilt, and other controls, as well as six head springs to accommodate various camera weights with one unit. Available in branded kits or on its own as an accessory for other products, the G1380 head is priced around $900.
OConnor has also introduced new fluid heads which it says are especially designed for HD shooting. While a top-notch fluid head, with all the latest features and functions, the 1030 sells for a steep $3,500 all by itself.
Manfrotto recently introduced its first two-stage, carbon-fiber video tripod with double-spiked feet, the 351MVCF. Stage one features a twin leg design, while a single leg is used for stage two, according to Manfrotto. With its composite construction, using aluminum, magnesium, carbon fiber, and reinforced nylon plastic, the 351MVCF offers lightweight (6.8 pound) support for DV, MiniDV, and compact ENG cameras.
The 351MVCF is compatible with a number of pro video heads from Manfrotto, as it incorporates a removable 75mm half ball. The tripod supports up to 28.6 pounds at heights ranging from 24 inches to 58 inches. When fully closed, the tripod measures 27.9 inches. The legs are priced under $600.
Miller did not introduce new support products this season, but its Solo DV tripod line is still popular and feature-packed.
In a kit with its DS20 fluid head, carbon-fiber legs, carrying case, mounting plate, and pan bar that's priced around $1,500, most videographers will find all they need for good camera support. Benefits including selectable counterbalance, and smooth pan and tilt fluid controls. A solid spreaderless tripod that sets up quickly, the Solo 20 stretches to a height of 65 inches, while folding into a two foot-long transport case. It's rated for cameras between 10 and 20 pounds; lighter capacities are available.
Cartoni's new Focus line of ¾uid heads is designed for DV cameras weighing from 2 to 20 pounds (the head itself weighs about 2 pounds). The continuous damping fluid inside provides very smooth pans and tilts, and the patented counterbalance system adapts to almost all cameras in the category. It tilts throughout a 90-degree angle with good response as a result.
The head comes with quick-release sliding camera plate, illuminated spirit level and pan arm, and fits 100mm bowl base tripods and supports. On its own, the head is about $900; packaged with a three-tube, two-stage tripod with spreader and rubber feet, the company's F102 system lists for $1,795.