Working with a fluid head can be a joy. When set up with your camera properly balanced, it is a boon to your production. However, when set up incorrectly, operating your tripod can be a nightmare. I remember when I just started out shooting, I acquired an Akely Gyro head. It was built for 35mm cameras way back in the early 1900s and used gyros to smooth out operation. And there I was, trying to use it with 16mm cameras. It was kind of fun panning with it, since you could hear the gyros start to speed up, and once you started panning, well, stopping became a bit of a problem because the gyros, designed for a heavy 35mm camera, would just keep the head panning. So, I learned quickly the importance of matching your fluid head to your camera.
Understanding your tripod’s counterbalance function is vital to smooth operating, and the best place to start is by discussing what counterbalance is not.
Counterbalance is not simply a spring that brings the tripod head back to level. This is inefficient because, when tilting down or up, you end up fighting the spring, and who needs that? Many inexpensive photo tripods incorporate a spring to bring the head back to level, but this is counterproductive to shooting video where you want to be relaxed. If you are struggling with your head, that will translate into a shaky shot.
Counterbalance isn’t used to compensate for putting too heavy a camera on your head. Fluid heads are designed to work with cameras and accessories of a certain weight range. Overloading your fluid head is going to make for sloppy operating, and may damage your fluid head.
Counterbalance is different from pan/tilt drag. Pan and tilt drag resist you as you pan/tilt, preventing the camera from jerking when you start and stop.
What a properly set up counterbalance does is neutralize the weight of the camera; the idea is you can tilt forward or back and then let go and the fluid head should remain tilted without having to lock the tilt axis. When you think about it, this is an impressive feat because, as you tilt the camera, the relative weight of the camera will shift forward or back. Engage too much counterbalance and you end up fighting to tilt the camera forward or back, engage too little counterbalance and you end up fighting to keep the camera from tilting too much.
How much counterbalance you want really becomes a matter of taste, combined with how fast and far you will tilt and how much tilt drag you have engaged.
The drag capability of the modern tripod head is the reason heads are referred to as fluid heads. The drag is created by fluid-filled chambers. Although manufacturers use different methods, for the most part the fluid provides the drag, hence the term “fluid head.” How much drag you wish to engage is a matter of taste. Your drag settings may be constant, or you may find that you adjust your drag settings on a shot-by-shot basis. Need a whip pan? Set the drag to zero. Need a slow steady pan or tilt? Set the drag to high.
Do not use the pan or tilt locks to add extra drag to your shot, this is not the purpose for which they are designed. I know it is tempting, but it is better to use a fluid head that is suited to the camera you are using than to use the locks to add drag.
How to set up your tripod
The goal is to have your camera’s mass exert zero effect on the tripod—in other words, to be able to pan and tilt as if there were no camera on the tripod head. The first thing you need to do is build your camera and balance it on your fluid head. I prefer a tripod head with a wide base. For me (depending on weight of the camera), 75mm flat base or ball is the minimum, 100mm is better, and if I’m working with a heavy camera (28 pounds or more) then I like a 150mm ball. The tripod I use does depend on the job, because the bigger the tripod head and legs the heavier the system tends to be, so for run-and-gun, I might try to get away with a smaller platform, but using too small a tripod will affect my operating. You may consider having a second tripod and fluid head as a good investment for handling special shots.
To balance your camera, you will need to have a sliding balance plate of some kind. Some tripod heads incorporate these, while others use a QR plate (like Sachtler’s Touch-and-Go plate) with a camera platform that slides for balancing, as opposed to a sliding balance plate that slides forward and back within the tripod head’s camera platform. The sliding balance plate can be difficult to line up and slide into a tripod head, especially with a weighty camera mounted on it. To ameliorate this problem, some tripod heads have a hybrid system that allows you to pop the sliding balance plate onto the tripod head like a QR arrangement, although you do have to slide it out of the head when pulling the camera from the head.
Set your tilt to drag to max, lock the tilt axis with the head at level, then build your camera with all accessories, batteries, lenses, etc., slide the camera so that it is about in the middle of the fluid head—this is why I like using a wide base—then make sure the counterbalance is set to zero. Loosen your sliding balance platform, hold onto the head and loosen the tilt lock. Now slide the camera fore and back until the camera and tripod sit level when unlocked (keep your hand nearby just in case). But wait, the tilt drag is still engaged, you say? Yes, it is; however, now the camera is close to being balanced on the head. Lock your tilt, set the drag to minimum, grab the camera so it doesn’t tilt wildly if it isn’t balanced well, and unlock your tilt. Hopefully you are close to balanced and the camera won’t pitch or roll wildly forward. Let go of the camera, keeping your hand at the ready to grab the camera, and see if the camera stays level. If not, loosen the sliding adjustment and tweak. Now the camera is balanced on the head, and this should go a long way to improving your shooting. Granted, there may be specific shots for which you want the camera to be out of balance, such as a tilt up from looking straight down. That is a matter of taste. However, for most your work, balancing your camera setup on your tripod will make for smoother operating and an easier shooting day.
From here counterbalance and drag is to your taste and what will help you get the shot, but at least you have put yourself in the best position to make the shot a success.
When packing your tripod away at the end of the shoot, it is a good idea to disengage the locks and set the drag and counterbalance to zero (or minimum). This will help the head survive any jarring movements, drops, or bangs with minimal stress on the internal components. Don’t forget to wipe it down from moisture and brush away any sand or dirt.