Whether you’re an indie filmmaker, field reporter, or wedding videographer, a pro-grade video tripod will enhance your productions more than any other type of support accessory. By adding stability, forcing perspective through composition, and providing smooth pan and tilt movement, a good tripod + head can be just as integral to your production as the camera. So how do you choose the combination that’s right for you? Read on.
Most professional tripod supports consist of legs, a head, feet, and a spreader. These components work together to provide a host of stabilization and movement features. Though some parts are proprietary, many of these pieces are modular and can be exchanged from system to system.
Tripod legs, often referred to as sticks
, are rated by height and weight capacity. As you begin shopping around, think about the minimum and maximum heights that you’ll want to shoot at. Also consider the weight of your camera system. Keep in mind that your camera equipment is likely to change over time. You might be experimenting with a Canon XH-G1s
today, but come summer you’re planning on a RED ONE feature. Make sure that the sticks you choose can support the weight.
Stages refer to the number of locking positions on the legs. A single stage tripod has 1 locking set combining 2 sections. A 2-stage tripod uses 2 locking sets joining 3 sections. Because single stage tripods contain fewer components, they are typically more stable than multi-stage sticks. However, 2-stage tripods tend to collapse shorter for easier packing and transport.
Contemporary tripods are available in a variety of materials. In the video realm, the most common builds are aluminum and carbon fiber. Both materials are strong and durable, but you’ll need to evaluate their intrinsic qualities before making your decision.
Carbon fiber is a specialized composite material. Typically lighter than aluminum, it is easy to carry and extremely strong. Carbon fiber also conducts heat and cold at a very slow rate. If your work keeps you out in the sun all day, the legs won’t heat up and burn your hands. The same goes for sub-zero shooting. No need to worry about freezing your palms to the legs -- they stay comfortable at a neutral temperature. Because of minimal heat energy transfer, carbon sticks also require less maintenance over time.
The greatest advantage of an aluminum tripod is weight. True, no one wants to tote a heavy set of legs around. But if you’re working in a windy environment you’ll definitely appreciate the heft. There’s also less flex in aluminum. This translates to greater positioning consistency as you add or remove weight during a shoot.
Tripod heads are the steering wheel of the camera support system. Employing internal fluid for smooth control over pan and tilt movement, most video heads are referred to as fluid heads. Resistance (sometimes called drag) can be customized by the user with independent controls for pan and tilt. Adjusting drag control involves consideration of a variety of factors: user strength, positioning, and camera weight relative to the desired movement speed.
As a best practice, you should level the head before tuning the drag. Professional fluid heads are typically mounted to a bowl at the apex of the tripod legs. The bowl can be loosened to position the head parallel to the ground. This ensures level pan / tilt -- even on rough terrain.
When you hand-hold your camera -- regardless of the model you use -- the weight is easier to manage with the unit close to your torso, feet spread apart, and shoulders balanced over hips. If you extend the rig away from your body or bend forward at the waist, the camera instantly feels heavier and less stable. The weight isn’t changing, but the torque required to maintain balance increases dramatically. The physics are similar when tilting your camera on a tripod head.
To provide the maximum level of stability, many professional heads employ a counterbalance system. Using precision springs or gears, counterbalance can be customized to reduce the torque required for balance. This is especially helpful if you shoot at odd angles with heavy accessories or long optics.
Feet & Spreaders
Tripod feet attach to the base of the legs and are interchangeable based on the shooting surface. Rubber feet are the most common for video applications and perform well on a variety of flat surfaces. Spiked feet are helpful when shooting on loose dirt, gravel, or ice and snow.
Spreaders serve as a brace between the tripod legs, and minimize flex as weight is added or removed. They also help to maintain positioning as fine adjustments like zoom and focus are set on the camera. Floor spreaders attach to the tripod legs at the ground level. These are most commonly used in studio or location reportage. Mid-level spreaders are best employed for on-location shooting. The mid-level design keeps the legs from collapsing on uneven ground and adds stability when a narrow stance is required. Under certain conditions, operators will hang weight from the mid-level spreader to add stability.
Packages to Consider
Whether you’re buying your first professional video tripod or updating the sticks you’ve had for years, B&H has the best selection and pricing out there. Pro-grade kits typically cost a thousand dollars or more but with proper care, will serve you for many years.
Featuring over-sized dials for custom pan, tilt, and counterbalance, it’s the logic of the controls that got my attention. The orientation of the dials is complementary to the direction of the given control -- the pan dial is placed on a horizontal line, while the tilt and counterbalance are arranged vertically. Because of their size and textured finish, the dials are easy to locate by touch -- a major time-saver.
Miller offers the Compass 15 Fluid Head ala cart (you’ll need a 75mm bowl adapter for your sticks) or as a kit with various legs and accessories. If you’re shooting video with a medium-sized camcorder or DSLR, the Miller 1827
are excellent. Both 2-stage set ups can manage nearly 20 lbs and extend to over 68” in height. The 1827 model comes with a floor spreader, while the 1828 has a mid-level spreader. Both include a padded tripod bag and a 3-year warranty.
The Miller 1827 and 1828 feature floor and mid-level spreaders, respectively.
My favorite of the new Miller kits is the Compass 15 Solo
. This pairs the Compass 15 Fluid Head with a set of Solo legs. The sticks are made of carbon fiber and don’t require a spreader. The feet are convertible from rubber to spikes with a few twists. By simplifying the number of components on the tripod, the Miller Solo is great for quickly changing set ups or collecting footage by your lonesome.
Maximum height is over 80” but the kit folds down to just over 32”. For speed and flexibility, this is the way to go.
If you’re an ENG shooter with a rig over 20 lbs, check out the Vinten V8AS-AP1M Pozi-Loc kit
. This single stage tripod includes the awesome Vision 8AS Fluid Head and offers variable height from 30.6” to 63.1”. Vinten’s Perfect Balance System is infinitely adjustable for shooting at the most extreme angles with heavy gear. While many pro heads employ illuminated spirit levels, Vinten’s blue bubble is the best out there.
Budget conscious journalists will find the perfect balance of features and value in the Libec RS-450
. The kit comes complete with head, sticks, floor spreader, and case. By spec, it’s comparable to Vinten ENG offerings. Price is probably the most attractive feature -- just south of $950. For more money, a mid-level spreader version
is also available.
A Visual Language Tool
A quality video tripod will bring more to your productions than any other type of camera support system. Since the very beginning of the motion picture industry, these supports have proven time and again the importance of stability, composition, and movement. These inform the esthetic cornerstones of our visual language -- the building blocks of narrative and documentary storytelling. Choosing the right kit will have you composing with greater purpose, forcing perspective, and taking your stories to the next level. I can’t wait to see what you put in the frame.
David Flores is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City.