The Sachtler aktiv SpeedLevel tripod system with SpeedSwap Stud is a quick release method for mounting your tripod head on legs. However, there is so much more that the aktiv system brings to working with tripods and fluid heads, that the word “jaw-dropping” may not be enough to cover it. Fast, simple to use, and smart, the Sachtler aktiv system is not just a new mounting system for a tripod head and legs, it also has a separate mounting base for working with sliders or getting lock-off shots. The aktiv system expands the capabilities of flowtech legs, while enabling you to work faster.
The system is extensive and consists of four different tripod heads. The aktiv6, aktiv8, and aktiv10 all feature a Sideload plate S, while the aktiv8T features a Touch & Go plate S. The new aktiv6 head supports up to 17.6 pounds and has three steps of pan and tilt drag (plus a 0 setting), while the aktiv8 and aktiv8T support up to 26.5 pounds and have seven steps of pan and tilt drag (plus a 0 setting). The aktiv10 head is similar to the aktiv8 in terms of weight range and settings, but unlike the aktiv6, 8, and 8T, the aktiv10 has a 100mm half ball for leveling.
The heads are available as kits, as well:
- aktiv6 with flowtech75 legs and mid-level spreader
- aktiv6 with flowtech75 legs and ground level spreader
- aktiv8 with flowtech75 legs and mid-level spreader
- aktiv8 with flowtech75 legs and ground spreader
- aktiv8T with flowtech75 legs and mid-level spreader
- aktiv8T with flowtech75 legs and ground spreader
For those who like working with a larger ball leveling base, Sachtler hasn't left you out of the party. The following are also available:
- aktiv10 head with flowtech100 legs and mid-level spreader
- aktiv10 head with flowtech100 legs and ground spreader
- aktiv10 head with flowtech100 legs and no spreader
I was an AC for years, on productions ranging from indie documentaries to stop-motion animation, special effects, features and commercials, in video, 16mm, and 35mm, and for years after that as an independent cameraman, so I am very experienced with all manner of camera and tripod mounting. The Sachtler aktiv system is not just a refinement or an evolution, it is an enormous step forward.
How Does It Work?
It is surprisingly simple. Inside the bowl leveling base is a spring-loaded clamp. You pull up on a lever on the head and the jaws of the clamp withdraw. Then you lower the head onto a specially shaped stud or, as Sachtler refers to it, the aktiv Bowl Connector, and release the clamp. The clamp locks onto the bowl connector and the head is secure. It is really secure. I leaned on it, panned and tilted, yet the head didn’t shift around. Some things to note when doing this is that you have to pull the lever all the way up to fully release the clamp when removing the head from the legs, and when mounting the head on the legs, you want to pull the lever all the way up, as well. If you just place the head without releasing the clamp, the head may not seat properly on the bowl connector.
Once the head is mounted, push the lever all the way down to lock it securely. Don’t forget this last part. Pushing the lever all the way down to the locked position is what locks the clamp onto the mounting bowl connector, so the head is secured and won’t shift. Leveling the head is just as simple—just lift the lever partway. This releases the tension on the bowl connector, which allows it to shift around in the tripod bowl. Once level, just push the locking lever down and that firmly seats the head.
I recommend that you lock the tilt axis on the head when removing or mounting the head. This ensures that you get a clean release; otherwise, it can be like trying to land a fish.
How simple and easy is this to do? I decided to compare my Sachtler Ace XL head with flowtech75 legs, the industry standard tie-down bolt and knuckle method, to the new aktiv tripod system. Just to make it more interesting, I enlisted the help of my 14-year old daughter to operate the aktiv system, while I used the tried-and-true tie-down method.
She had three practice attempts with the aktiv system before we recorded the video above. I was moving at my normal speed, but, before you laugh at my fumbling to get the head back on the legs, everybody who’s dealt with a tripod regularly has run into the same problem that I did. I didn’t plan for that to happen, but it happens, although with the aktiv system, fumbling will be a thing of the past.
A Closer Look
Examining the system up close reveals that although it seems very simple in concept, the design is a bit more complex and the construction appears to be extremely durable. The first thing to note is that the clamping mechanism is integrated into the head, and the Sachtler rep confirmed that design involved weaving the mechanism through the head’s pan/tilt drag mechanism, which means that upgrading your existing head, unfortunately, isn’t a possibility.
The second part of the system is the aktiv Bowl Connector for 75mm Bowl Tripod, also known as the SpeedSwap Stud. This is a spring-loaded stud that floats inside your tripod legs’s leveling bowl. The mechanism in the head’s ball clamps onto the SpeedSwap Stud and pulls it against the bowl, locking the two into a rigid unit. You can’t overtighten the head, and as long as you make sure to press the locking lever all the way down, the head will stay secure. The SpeedSwap Stud is removable, or you can order a spare SpeedSwap Stud for outfitting additional sets of legs. I would recommend going with spares, because swapping the Speed Level Stud takes time. However, I only had the one aktiv SpeedSwap Stud, so to test that it was swappable, and would work on other tripod legs, I changed the SpeedSwap Stud between the legs that came with the head, my original flowtech75 legs, and mounted the SpeedSwap Stud on a set of legs with a 75mm bowl from a different manufacturer.
Once mounted on the legs, you do have to tweak the SpeedSwap Stud the first time, but as long as you leave it on the legs, you shouldn’t have to adjust it again. It took about 5 minutes to figure out how to remove and transfer the bowl connector, and then set the tension on it, initially. After that it took less than 2 minutes. It is worth noting that adjusting the tension on the bowl connector requires you to push in on the knob while turning, sort of like the child-proof prescription bottle caps—once you release the knob, the tension won’t change. You want to set the tension so that you can physically shift the bowl connector in the 75mm/100mm bowl, but the bowl connector won’t shift around by itself.
The first time you mount a bowl connector on a set of legs, mount the head, and make sure that it is mounted securely. Lift the release lever partway. There is a marking on the side of the lever to set the aktiv Speed Swap Stud in your tripod legs.
Please note that the bowl connector and slider adapter studs for the 75mm bowls are slightly different from the 100mm ones, and according to Sachtler they are not interchangeable.
The aktiv Head
There are some handy advances in the head that are worth pointing out. I was given the aktiv8 head to work with, which has a load capacity of 0 to 26.5 lb, and is similar to the Sachtler FSB 8, although the aktiv8 has a higher load capacity and 7 drag settings (plus 0) for pan and tilt with 15 steps of counterbalance (plus 0), as opposed to the FSB 8’s 5 drag settings and 10 steps of counterbalance. In addition to the improvements to the weight range and the finer drag and counterbalance control, the bubble level is also a lot more useful with aktiv heads.
Sachtler has installed a prism arrangement that lets you see the bubble level from the side and from the top. So, when the head is at eye level or higher, there is no more standing on an apple box to glimpse the bubble level. Now it is easy to see the level whether you are looking down on it or sideways at it. This isn’t a second level—it’s the same bubble level on which you would normally look down. Using the side view requires no learning curve, either. The movements to adjust level are just as natural as when viewing from the top.
Sachtler has also modified the bubble level illumination system. Instead of pressing a separate button, you press the bubble level’s side-viewing window to illuminate the bubble level. A short press illuminates the bubble level and a blue LED near the bubble level for about 10 seconds. A long press also illuminates a blue LED near the pan drag index mark for about 20 seconds. Pressing the side bubble level window while the light is on turns it off.
The aktiv 8 is available with a Sideload plate S, or as the aktiv8T, which features a Sachtler Touch & Go plate S. You should be aware that the Sideload plate S pops in and out of the head, like a Touch & Go plate. You pop the Sideload plate S into the head, and you can slide it forward and back to balance your camera on the head, but the safety stops are permanently cast into the head, so you can’t slide the plate out of or into the head as you can with an Ace XL. To remove the plate, loosen the locking knob at the top and press the release—remember to keep your hand on your camera when you do—and lift the plate out of the head. It is a whole lot quicker and easier than with the Ace XL.
One interesting aspect of the aktiv system is that it helps the flowtech legs reach their full potential. With the aktiv system, you can spread your flowtech legs out wide and lay them flat on the ground for a low-angle shot that you could never get before on a tripod because the tie-down knuckle would get in the way. No more transferring the head to a high-hat or other platform, though as you saw in the video above, a teenager can do it in less than 13 seconds. So, if you are on the move and want to get that low-angle shot and still be able to pan and tilt, just remove the spreader (if you are using one), release the leg stops, and lay your tripod legs out flat.
I must hand it to the person who came up with this idea. The aktiv Slider to 75mm Tripod Adapter builds a Sideload plate S mechanism into the quick release bowl of the aktiv system. So just mount a Sideload plate S on the track of the slider and set up the legs with the aktiv stud. Then pop the slider adapter onto the legs. Note that the release mechanism is a little different on the slider adapter. Instead of a vertical lever, the slider adapter’s locking lever moves horizontally. It takes a little more effort to operate, but nothing outrageous. The slider adapter has a built-in bubble level, though, sadly, it has no illumination.
Once you’ve mounted your slider track on the slider to 75mm tripod adapter, you can mount an aktiv Adapter for 75mm aktiv Head to Slider (from here on—slider adapter stud) to the slider carriage, which lets you use the aktiv head on the slider. The aktiv adapter stud for the slider carriage is slightly different than the one for tripod legs, and it doesn’t allow for quick leveling. This means that you have to use the slider adapter to level. The adapter stud comes with a removable 3/8"-16 threaded stud, which you can screw into the slider carriage, or if your slider carriage has a threaded stud instead of a threaded hole, you can remove the adapter stud’s 3/8"-16 threaded stud to reveal a 3/8"-16 threaded mounting hole. My slider carriage has a 1/4"-20 to 3/8"-16 bushing for mounting your head to the slider carriage, which caused a problem until I used an old-school filmmaking trick of putting camera tape on the top of the slider and the bottom of the stud adapter. It worked perfectly, and Sachtler is looking into a solution (beyond using a different slider), but if you do run into this problem, a couple of pieces of camera tape and you will be just fine.
Here is a little extra tip about using the slider adapter: Since it has a Sideload plate S on the top, you can mount your camera directly on the adapter, without using a head. This is great for getting that extreme low-angle lock-off shot.
One Small Want
Dear Sachtler, please put a removable rubber plug in the Sideload plate S so that the captive screws don’t keep falling out when there is no camera attached to the plate. I cannot stress enough how important this is. This is such a well-designed and thought-out system; I even like that you have included space for storing an extra 1/4"-20 and 3/8"-16 tie-down screw in the top of the head. It just boggles my mind that I still have to use tape to hold the tie-down screws in the camera plate so they don’t fall out when I pack everything away at the end of the day.
Ease and Speed
The entire aktiv SpeedSwap system is designed to be fast and secure. I was able to fit the legs, head, slider adapter (swaddled in bubble wrap), and slider adapter stud neatly inside the carry bag, which is satisfying, but I don’t recommend carrying it around that way during a production. I feel that once you get an aktiv head, then it is a no-brainer to get the slider adapter, which is extremely fast to work with and equally secure as the head. I put the slider on the legs, and then the head on the slider, and was ready to shoot. When I wanted to put the head back on the legs directly, I pulled the head from the slider carriage, pulled the slider carriage from the legs, put the head back on the legs, then leveled the head. The whole process takes longer to explain than to execute, but only a little. Even when using the system on other legs, once I installed the aktiv SpeedSwap Stud and set the spring tension, the system worked flawlessly.
What is your experience with the Sachtler aktiv SpeedLevel with SpeedSwap Stud? Please feel free to leave comments or questions below.