It is easy to say that tripods are all basically the same, aside from the size. After all, with few exceptions, they serve the same purpose and operate with the same mechanics. Video tripod systems include the tripod legs, along with a fluid head to top them off. The head and the tripod can be purchased separately—but purchasing them as a system reduces the chances of mismatching your gear. If you’re in the market for your first system, or even looking to upgrade, I’d recommend buying a system that’s ready to rock, out of the box. While, for the most part, this list will be organized by price, proceeding from low to high, let’s start with what might be considered hybrid tripod systems. These systems feature a video-style head mounted on still-photo-style legs. Manfrotto leads the way here with its new Befree series, consisting of either aluminum or carbon fiber legs and the Befree Live Video Head.
I wanted to include at least one tripod that would be a no-brainer purchase for just about anyone, from absolute beginners to professionals. The price on this one may be laughable, and the features may not be up to snuff for a stand-alone solution, but don’t underestimate its usefulness.
Ringing the register at less than $100, the Velbon Videomate 638 is a useful tripod for smaller camcorders or DSLRs. It’s a good option for beginners because it’s simple to use, relatively lightweight, has a maximum height of more than 5', and has a decent fluid head for camera movements. Once you get into more professional work, this tripod is more useful as a locked-off option for alternate angles and such, since the panning and tilting actions have limited adjustment options. Regardless, if you’re using small cameras and just need them to be locked down, this tripod can easily be added to almost any videographer’s kit.
These tripods range in price and in functionality. Even the more affordable options will have all the basic features that a videographer will need, adjustable counterbalance, smooth fluid pan and tilt mechanisms, relatively durable construction, and a ball-style mount. If you’re looking to get into some serious videography, any of these three tripods will make a great starting point.
First up is Libec. Libec has been in the tripod game for well over 30 years, making durable tripods that stand the test of time (and film students who can destroy just about any piece of equipment). The Libec TH-X Head and Tripod system features a 65mm bowl and 9-pound load capacity. Its 30 to 62"-height capacity makes for a good all-around tripod system, suitable for most situations you may encounter. The mid-level spreader enables using the pod on uneven terrain and, combined with the independent leg adjustment, means that you can even use the legs on stairs and still get a stable shot. Moving forward, we come to the E-Image EK60AAM. This tripod has been popular for a while, and for good reason. It ticks a lot of boxes and doesn’t make a huge dent in your wallet. The fluid head is constructed primarily of metal, which is always nice to see, and it has a sliding quick-release plate. The pan/tilt drag are fixed, i.e., not adjustable, though, perhaps more importantly, the counterbalance offers three presets, one of which is zero. This feature enables it to be used with loads weighing nothing to 17.8 pounds, enough for most entry-level setups. For support, the two-stage legs offer a mid-level spreader and removable rubber feet for studio and field use. The tripod legs and head are mated with a 75mm ball mount for quickly leveling the fluid head using the built-in bubble level.
Next in line is the venerable Manfrotto 504HD system. Probably one of the most popular camera support platforms available today, the 504HD system covers all the basics in an ergonomic and easy-to-use package. Like the E-Image tripod above, the legs on this system are two-stage and secure the fluid head via a 75mm bowl. What the 504HD offers over the E-Image, to justify the price difference, is adjustable pan-and-tilt fluid drag, a fourth counterbalance step, an illuminated bubble level, and a thicker rubber grip on the pan handle. Another advantage to this system is the native use of Manfrotto’s widely accepted tripod plate standard, enabling quick mounting and removal from various accessories.
For a little more cash than the 504HD, you can buy into the Cartoni Focus 8 tripod system. The Focus 8 offers many of the features of the 504HD, but with the addition of a continuously adjustable counterbalance and composite construction, which is lighter in weight than all-metal construction, but still very durable.
Mid-range / semi-pro level
At the >$1,000 price point of the following tripods, you should be able to rock most gigs involving larger camcorders and built-up studio-style rigs. The main benefit offered in this tier is increased weight capacity, improved camera-mounting solutions, and other little features that make setting up and tearing down less stressful. These tripods make for great stepping-up points if you start taking on pro-level gigs.
A mainstay in many a setup, the Manfrotto 509HD tripod system is basically a larger version of the 504HD, with a larger weight capacity and a 100mm bowl mount. It maintains the same four steps of counterbalance and adjustment for pan and tilt drag, so anyone stepping up will be instantly familiar. Also, it uses the same quick-release plate system for compatibility.
Another great option is the Cartoni Focus 12 tripod system with two-stage aluminum legs. A step up from the Focus 8 mentioned earlier, aside from increased weight capacity and the move to a 100mm platform, the Focus 12 offers a Euro-style quick release, famous for its simple low-profile drop-in design. This Focus 12 uses Cartoni’s SmartStop legs, which release both stages from a single clamp, which is pretty cool!
The prices of pro-grade tripods can make some people jump and hide near the less bank-account-busting models, but be assured that these models are professional through and through. From DSLRs to ENG cameras to digital cinema setups, these tripods can handle it, and then some. The fluid response of tripods in this price range is more refined for smooth camera movements with either light or heavy cameras.
The stalwart Sachtler Video 18 has garnered much respect as a versatile camera platform. The Video 18 fluid head (now in its S2 variant) doesn’t flinch at setups weighing up to 44 pounds or (for some real overkill) down to 4 pounds. As expected, finer adjustments can be made to tune the head to your use by way of seven drag settings for pan and tilt, and a 16-step counterbalance adjustment. It also uses Sachtler’s famous “Touch n’ Go” quick-release system for a slick, yet secure, camera tie-down.
More recently, Sachtler and Vinten both released 75mm and 100mm bowl Flowtech Tripod legs—a completely different way of doing things. You can happily put a Video 18 head on a set of 100mm bowl Flowtech legs, and viola old-school tripod legs with new tech legs. A competitor to the Video 18 is the OConnor 1030Ds tripod system. While on the pricey side, this system is OConnor’s entry-level system, which uses technology that trickles down from their higher-end systems. Crank-style pan, tilt, and counterbalance controls allow for precise adjustment, while the side-load quick-release plate offers a wide range of fore/aft balance for your camera.
If you can only have the best
Not for the faint of heart. If you thought the pro-level tripods were expensive, I’d advise you turn back now. Otherwise, if you really are looking at high-end production value, feel free to continue reading.
Found on film sets everywhere, the OConnor Ultimate 2575D tripod really lives up to its “ultimate” name. Able to support setups weighing 90 pounds, and with native ARRI dovetail support plus the Mitchell base, there’s no question as to why this tripod shows up on high-end productions. The counterbalance is adjusted in 1% increments up to 100% and the precise pan/tilt adjustments offer a highly tunable camera support experience.
Now, this list is by no means comprehensive (one look at the tripod section of the B&H website, and you’ll see what I mean), so if your favorite tripod isn’t on the list, feel free to comment below to inform other readers!