Is the whole greater than the sum of the parts? That’s the question I set out to answer when I tested Sachtler’s SOOM on a series of event shoots. With three components that function on their own or can combine to become a tripod system, I was reminded of the original Transformers cartoon series and animated movie, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2006. The most interesting characters were the Constructicons, the first combiner Transformers, because in addition to being able to transform from their robot mode to a vehicle mode, they were also able to combine to become a larger and more powerful Transformer called Devastator.
As a marketing tool, creating combiner Transformers was a smart move for Hasbro; kids needed to collect all five Transformers in order to be able to perform the third and most impressive transformation. For the writers, having a more powerful combiner Transformer created great storylines, but they were smart enough to ensure that despite the larger size and combined forces of the combiner Transformers, they were never able to perform well in battle. Would the limitations of the Transformers combiners hold true for Sachtler’s SOOM? Or would it be able to perform equally well as individual pieces and a combined system?
The SOOM system ($2,490; $3,570 with FSB6 fluid head) is more than just a tripod. It has an ingenious mid-level spreader that transforms into a low-level baby tripod and a center post that transforms into a monopod. As a part of the tripod system, the components add the mid-level spreader and center post features that I wish my regular tripods had. On their own, they offer a range of possibilities: The FSB 6 fluid head can be fitted on the main tripod, the baby tripod, and the center SOOM tube as a monopod.
That’s not a typo—I have two tripods: a Manfrotto 055SSB with a 503 head and center post, which I use on uneven ground and over chairs for stage events, and a Vinten Vision3 tripod with a ground-level spreader, which I use for even ground. Although I’ll always need one tripod for each of my cameras, a SOOM system has me covered regardless of the location. It gives me options that my two tripods don’t have: namely, the ability to extend higher when fully extended, top set lower as a baby tripod, and to use freer as a monopod.
Since receiving my review system from Sachtler, I’ve had ample opportunity to test the SOOM in a variety of different shooting environments over the past 60 days—31, to be exact—from Victoria, Vancouver Island on the West Coast, to Montreal in eastern Canada, and back to British Columbia’s "northern capital," Prince George. Thirty-one locations in 60 days is a lot of location shoots in a short time, but it would have been the 32nd shoot—or rather, the first of 32—that would have allowed the SOOM to show off its combiner mode and outperform my existing tripods.
The day before the SOOM arrived, I was filming a cheer competition from a balcony. The balcony’s railing was high and I needed more height in order to avoid framing the railing in the shot when the cheerleaders used the front of the floor. Not yet having the SOOM when I did that shoot (but knowing it was due to arrive soon) gave me a clue as to how valuable this device could be in certain shooting environments. Fully extended, the SOOM reaches 92" from floor to tripod plate, height I could have sorely used for that cheer event. I made due by fashioning a riser out of aerobics stepper blocks and positioned myself and the tripod on them. But I would not have needed to raid the gym storage room if I had the SOOM.
On the subsequent 31 shoots, I found that with the SOOM I never really had to worry about what I was going to be shooting to determine which tripod to bring. The SOOM does it all and it does it in style.
The black Petrol case that shipped with my SOOM system is monogrammed with the SOOM logo in white and red and is lined with a rich, red velvet material. At 42", it’s as long as the main tripod with the head attached. The case matches the mostly black, carbon fiber 2-stage legs and head which also have some items trimmed in red, such as the feet and knobs. The case is double wide at 12" to allow room for the center post next to the tripod. I wish Sachtler would have made the case just 5" longer so that when in combiner mode (with the center post as part of the main tripod), the tripod would fit in the case. That small quibble aside, the extra room is welcomed and a great place to put XLR cables and extension cords.
In true SOOM transformer fashion there are four ways to carry the case: The center straps combine to form a handle so you can hold the tripod at your side, a shoulder strap allows you to carry the weight on one shoulder, the top handle allows you to pull the tripod behind you thanks to the luggage-inspired wheels at the base, and a side compartment unzips to reveal a pair of nicely padded backpack-style straps and a waist strap that frees your hands and gives you a narrow profile.
All my tripod cases have center handles and shoulder straps, so the wheels and top handle are welcome additions that I found myself using more than the other options. I actually thought I wouldn’t ever use the backpack straps, and for most of my testing, I didn’t. On most locations, I had an assistant or a flat dolly cart that made transporting my equipment much easier. But it was on my final shoot, a gymnastics competition, that I benefitted by this hidden fourth carrying method. I had to bring my rolling camera case and tripod trough a crowd of spectators jammed in the gym’s lobby. I figured if I tried to carry the tripod at one side I would be bumping into innocents the whole way. I also didn’t want to be pushing one case and pulling the other; it simply took up too much room in a crowded space. So I carried the case like a backpack, albeit one that topped my head by a good 6". Suddenly, the crowds parted as they saw the approaching tripod case looming overhead – I’ll have to remember that trick for next time.
A Head for Business
The FSB 6 fluid head performed similarly to the smooth action of my Vinten Vision 3 fluid head. However, to allow the head to connect with the SOOM tube, a short claw grip clips to the hollow of the bowl and the grip articuulates around the rounded clip portion. The underside of the tripod needs to be flat for the clip portion, meaning the standard long ball-level column lacks leveling ability, while it is more difficult to use the short claw grip to loosen, balance, and tighten with fingertips only.
While it is more difficult, initially, to balance the SOOM, once the tripod is balanced, making height adjustments using the center SOOM tube is a single-step procedure and is much quicker than adjusting the height of all three legs and then rebalancing.
I found that when I was filming 18 profiles of finalists for a business award, the initial and subsequent tripod setup and adjustments took less time, which makes a difference when you are on a tight schedule. I think it also goes without saying, although I will put it in print, that with its three levels of drag on both the pan and tilt and 10 levels of counterbalance, the FSB 6 head outperforms my Manfrotto 503 fluid head, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone as it doesn’t have the four levels of counterbalance that the newer 503 HDV does. Although the Vinten 3 can be modified to handle different weights of cameras by changing the internal spring, this doesn’t compare to the ease of use that Sachtler allows with its 10 levels of counterbalance that you can dial in on the rear knob—no assembly required.
I usually don’t pay much attention to pan handles, but when I couldn’t attach my LANC controller due to the skinny Sachtler pan handle, I took notice. A wad of gaffer’s tape unrolled on the handle fixed the problem, but I feel it’s worth noting.
I’ve never been a big monopod user, mostly because I have never owned one. So when I equipped the SOOM tube with the sturdy FSB6 head and my Sony HVR-Z7U, my first monopod weighed in at a little less than 14 pounds. Although a bit on the heavy side, the SOOM-as-monopod impressed me with the smoothness I was able to achieve on my dips, overhead shots, and mini-crane shots, all requiring the use of both my hands. I’m now excited with the new types of shots I can add to my shot list when I shoot off the sticks.
During those 31 location shoots, I filmed a lot of conferences on the sticks from the backs of conference rooms. Being zoomed-in to full telephoto magnifies any bumps, shakes, and tripod-stiction on pans and tilts. The SOOM integrated very well into this workflow and was equally adept while I was filming a gymnastics competition, which had me running between the floor, uneven bars, vault, and balance beam continually for 2 long days. The tripod legs came together easily, and, with the camera attached, it proved easy to carry and set up again between the different apparatuses.
So is the SOOM truly more than meets the eye? Has it overcome the limitations that plagued the combiner Transformers? Judging by its performance on the road, I’d say yes. Now it’s time to transform and roll out.
Shawn Lam (video at shawnlam.ca) runs Shawn Lam Video, a Vancouver video production studio. He specializes in stage event and corporate video production and has presented seminars at WEVA Expo 2005-7 and the 4EVER Group’s Video 07. He won an Emerald Artistic Achievement Award in Stage Production at Video 08.