An Introduction To Video Tripods
What’s the single most important piece of equipment you need to capture video … besides a camera? The trends of cinematography change as frequently as the seasons, from slow motion tvo gimbals, to drones, but remaining consistent is the importance of a good tripod. This article will introduce you to various aspects of video tripods and aid you in choosing your own - as well as share a bit of my experience in selecting my current video tripod.
Before jumping into options. The most important consideration when buying a video tripod is the weight of your camera system. That’s more than just the weight of your camera - it’s the combined weight of everything the tripod will need to support: rails, follow focus, matte box, monitor - everything. There is little point investing in legs and a head that are unable to support the weight of your rig.
Starting from the ground up, the legs you choose can impact the quality of your footage - as well as any aching joints … and bank account. Carbon fibre is the logical choice for those seeking the lightest option, but it isn’t always the most affordable. Aluminum tripods are often less expensive, but the cost savings typically come with added weight - which may be alright if you’re not frequently travelling. Regardless of your choice in construction material, overloading legs can lead to bowing and flexing: which can produce visible shake in your footage and cause permanent damage to the legs. Using legs with a higher load capacity than the weight of your camera system, may sound like a good idea - until you carry it on your back for an entire day.
If you’re a stills photographer and you’re puzzled by the lack of a centre columns on video tripods, let me introduce you to the wonderful world of bowl heads. Bowls come in many different sizes, such as 75mm, 100mm and 150mm to name a few - and the size refers to the diameter of the bowl. Bowl heads offer a much quicker leveling option than adjusting individual legs one by one. Video tripods also have a few different flavours of spreaders, there are ground, mid-level and none at all - each with their own advantages and flaws. Ground level spreaders off the most stability, but they’re not well suited for outdoor use on uneven terrain. Mid-level spreaders typically offer less leg splay than ground spreaders, but are much better for use on rough ground. If you’re working super close to the ground, legs without a spreader provide the most leg splay possible.
As a wildlife videographer I often travel long distances on foot before even touching a tripod, but I also use heavy super telephoto lenses so I wanted system offering the best combination of lightweight, quality and affordability. When deciding upon legs I focused on three carbon fibre options: Miller’s SOLO DV 3-stage legs, Sachtler’s TT/75 2 legs and Gitzo’s GT3542 legs which I’m going to refer to as Gitzo Series 3 legs, because I can’t remember that ridiculous string of numbers. All three retail for similar prices and they all have comparable weights and load capacities. Ultimately, the deciding factor for me was the collapsible length and fastener type. A shorter collapsible length is more convenient when attached to a backpack and I’m not a huge fan of how hard clips behave or rather don’t behave in cold weather.
I’ve been using the Gitzo Series 3 legs for roughly six months and I have zero complaints. They’re super light weight, don’t flex under load and don’t perform any differently in extremely cold temperatures. The swappable centre port is great for quickly switching between head systems. The quarter turn locking system for the legs is fantastic and even if accidentally left partially unlocked they still have enough friction to prevent legs from extending unwantedly. They’re super easy to disassemble and clean as well - which is great when working in harsh environments. Gitzo provides a number of optional feet that help tailor the legs for usage in multiple environments. I’ve also invested in LensCoat leg warmers, that provide protection against the cold and give your shoulders a softer point of contact.
The fluid head you decide upon has a profound effect on the quality of your footage. Cheap fluid heads, not necessarily inexpensive ones, can leave your footage looking as if it were captured by an antelope after ten cups of coffee. Whereas a quality fluid head, creates movements so smooth you won’t believe “it’s not butter”. Video heads usually have a viscous fluid inside enabling smooth starts and stops during panning and either have stepped or continuously variable adjustment settings for drag. Additionally, a video head with a counter balance greatly aids in neutralizing the momentum created by the weight of the camera when panning vertically.
To set up your counterbalance begin by moving the drag adjustment setting to zero or it's off position - and move the counterbalance setting to zero or it's off position. The next part is very important: keep one hand on your camera. Then release the friction from the tilt. If your camera falls in one direction - it's not balanced. From here you’ll want to move the plate either forwards or backwards, depending on which direction your camera fell. When it's balanced it won't fall in either direction. Now it's actually time to turn up your counterbalance. When it's properly set up - your camera will actually stay in position when it's moved.
When I began looking for my own video head, I quickly narrowed things down to three competitors: the Miller DS-10, the Sachtler FSB-6T and the Sachtler FSB-8T. All three of these heads have comparable retail prices, similar load capacities and all weigh about the same amount. The winner in my opinion is the best combination of lightweight, quality and affordability. In the end, my decision to go with the Sachtler FSB-6T was based on previous experience using Sachtler products for ENG work. Now. the more expensive Sachtler FSB-8T does offer a bit more in terms of load capacity, but the camera systems I typically use are lightweight and hiking friendly. So, the Sachtler FSB-6T met my needs perfectly while being a little more affordable.
If you’re trying to decide between Sachtler’s three 75mm bowl FSB series fluid heads - the two factors you’ll want to consider are camera system weight and how many grades of drag you’ll be needing. For camera systems heavier than 4kg, or 9 lbs, you’ll be looking at the FSB 6 and FSB 8. Impressively, camera systems under 4 kilograms can utilize all three FSB heads. The FSB 6 and FSB 8 have similar weight capacities, the big difference between the two is how many grades of drag they provide. All three heads are available in two variants, a side-loading option and Sachtler’s amazing Touch-n-Go option.
A feature often overlooked by many while deciding on a video head is the plate type. There are many different plate options each with their own advantage. One of the most common is a simple sliding plate. The great thing about sliding plates is their ability to easily balance the weight distribution of you camera system, which can be particularly helpful if you’re frequently changing lenses. However, the balancing process with a sliding plate does add an extra minute or two. The faster alternative is using any sort clicking quick-release plate, which is a much better option if you’re consistently using the same lens or rig setup. Some heads offer a quick release plate and an integrated sliding balancing plate. A hybridization of sort is the side loading plate - which is particular helpful is your rig has attachments mounted below your camera that may interfere with a traditional sliding plate.
The steep prices of mid and high-end video heads can be rather daunting, but it's well worth investing beyond your couch cushion savings funds. Manufacturers aren't exactly engaged in a tripod technology arms race - or would it be legs race? Anyway, the point is video head technology doesn't change often and if you invest in the right one - it should last you a lifetime. Having said that if you're simply shooting static locked-off shots with no camera movement - head over to your local BetterBuy big-box electronics retailer and pick up the least expensive Benfrotto video head that you can find - that will do the trick for you. The benefits of a quality video head are most pronounced during camera movements with heavy cameras and long focal lengths.
To wrap things up the best tripod for you is one that meets every one of your needs. It's really not worth compromising even the slightest feature, because there are so many options out there. Remember you don't have to find a head and legs from this same manufacturer. Mix and match to make the perfect combination for what you want. Having said that, if you do a lot of work on foot you're bringing your camera and your tripod with you give this combination some serious consideration.