There are many things to consider when buying a tripod that will give continued support as your gear needs grow.
The Perfect Support, or How to Spend $625 on a $100 Tripod
You just popped a pretty penny for your camera and have little left over for a tripod or other support. So you hope to get by with that cheap dimestore tool until you can upgrade later. Here's how to go from entry-level shooter to pro in four steps:
First buy a cheap tripod at the local department store for, say, fifty bucks. Use it a few times, just to get used to the idea of having a tripod. Then use it a few more times, and make sure you scratch it up pretty well, so you can't return it. Then try out somebody else's nice tripod, so you can get used to using a good one. Then go back to using yours and say to yourself "well, it's good enough." Then go shoot a critical project and have one of the legs fail on you. No real problem - it only slipped a little bit and most of the taping went well.
Repeat Step 1, but this time spend a bit more. Let's say you spend $75 and the legs hold up well, only to have the head tip while shooting unattended. No problem, because the legs are pretty good, so you can now go out and get a new head for, say, $100. The only problem is that your tripod doesn't have a removable head.
Repeat Step 1, but this time spend a bit more. Let's say you spend $100 this time and the legs hold up well and the head's not too bad. Now you have a nice tripod and the confidence to go out and shoot some really great stuff. With the camera in your bag and tripod on your shoulder, you go out and shoot some distant subject, only to find out that using your zoom at maximum reveals all the flaws your tripod really has to offer. You can't tilt, zoom or pan smoothly at all - and it shows. After some investigating, you realize the head isn't really very good. No problem, because the legs aren't too bad, and this time you can separate the two, so you can now go out and get a new head for, say, $100.
OK, now you have a tripod with a pretty good head atop an OK set of legs. But when you stand back and look at it, you realize it's pretty silly, because the head looks way too big for those tiny legs. So you finally break down and buy a good tripod, for, say, $300. You put that other tripod along with the "rest of the story" in your closet.
From Entry to Pro, in One Step
It's a ridiculous thing but it happens all the time: we start out with an "entry-level" item, only to outgrow it several times and finally get what we should have purchased in the first place. So what should we have purchased in the first place? Say you shoot for a theatrical production company and you need to put up two cameras, a stationary camera to cover the entire stage and one to cover individual performers. That means you need at least one tripod, but you would like to shoot the performers with a long focal length, since the production company doesn't want the videographer near the stage. You really need two tripods. But you can't afford two really good tripods, so you have to strike a compromise. This is where you need to understand just what you are going to do with the camera, where you can skimp and where you shouldn't.
The stationary tripod really doesn't do much of anything but stand there and earn you money, but the tripod for the performers is in constant motion, because the performers are in constant motion. The stationary tripod must be steady, but, since you're not really interacting with it, the head can be pretty clumsy. That means it doesn't need to be lightweight and fast to set up and, since you're not panning and zooming, there is no need for a high-quality head. It does need to be steady, because your reputation depends on it. On the other hand, if you are moving around a theatre taping performers during a live performance, that tripod needs to be a really nice unit: lightweight, fast to set up, with a nice head for panning and zooming. As with anything else, you get what you pay for. So let's roll up our sleeves, sharpen our pencils and figure out how to get the most bang for our buck!
Consideration: Tripod Head
The first thing to consider when investigating tripods is whether the head can be separated from the leg-set without the use of farm implements. In other words, whether the components are available separately, because no self-respecting videographer needs to consider any tripod components that are not. The second consideration is the head. This is the "money" part of the system: it can make or break your production. Here is where you show your talent and please your clients, because, as a videographer, you are expected to "render" your ideas visually, and that means nice steady pans, zooms and tilts. Heads come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can cost anywhere from a few dollars to several thousand. Just as you interact with any subject you are taping, you interact with the tripod head. You become "one" with it, learning just how it reacts when you suddenly pan or tilt. You learn exactly how to adjust it for each situation. If you treat it properly, it rewards you with fabulous pans, gives you years of service and pays for itself many times over. So start with the best head you can possibly afford, even if you have to compromise on the leg set.
Size and Weight Matter
When selecting a head, you should consider the weight of the camera you are using. Obviously the heavier the camera, the sturdier the head must be, but, if it's too sturdy and mismatched to your camera, you will find the resistance on the drag settings are just too strong. This results in jerky movements, especially when starting and ending pans and tilts, even when the settings are at minimal. On the other hand, if the head is too small, you will find the head does not control the movements you try with your camera. The key word here is "control." Your tripod head must control the camera with ease and finesse. This leads us to which type of head to search for. Ideally, your first choice would a true fluid head. This head controls resistance hydraulically with fluid, similar to the hydraulic suspension system on any machine. This system allows for extremely precise control of the resistance and offers the advantage of not overheating the surfaces when you are continuously panning and tilting. It's not like your tripod head is going to catch fire, but, if you select a friction head, it controls by just that: friction. Friction generates heat, and, with long shoots and lots of pans such as you might find on your stage performance, that friction will change the characteristics of your settings. So, if you can live with re-setting the "drag" on your tripod frequently, and you are on a tight budget, any high-quality friction head will do just fine.
The third thing to consider is the leg set. The legs determine the weight of your tripod, which is critical if you are going to carry it around. If all specs are equal in the tripods you might consider - such as camera size rating, height fully extended and closed size - the one thing that will clearly differentiate them is price and weight. Tripods are available in either aluminum, carbon fiber, wood or a combination of the three. Generally speaking, the price goes up as the weight goes down, so we can get away with a low-cost, high-quality tripod for our stationary tripod, one with a basic head and sturdy, fairly heavy all-aluminum construction. But for the tripod we carry around, set up and take down, open and close and, frequently, toss around, we need a lightweight one. This one can be all-carbon fiber, which would be the lightest, easiest to set up and by far most expensive. Or you might choose a carbon fiber/aluminum combo material, which would be a nice compromise of price versus weight. Or you might go "old school" and choose a nice wood tripod, as many shooters do. They choose wood because wood tripods are incredibly sturdy, weigh relatively little and absorb vibrations quite nicely. There are basically two styles of folding tripods. The first type has been around for hundreds of years. Its tried-and-true design - sometimes referred to as a "crutch" design - has legs with a two-piece side-by-side arrangement at the top - or yoke - of the tripod and a single-piece tube on the bottom. The lower tube slides between the two top tubes and provides very sturdy leg. It is quite fast to set up, because there are only two sections, and can be very lightweight. This type of tripod is usually trussed, or secured with chains, straps or bars suspended between the legs.
The lightest and most compact leg-set features single telescoping tubular legs with three sections. Though not as sturdy as the two piece type, it provides the advantage of folding up to a very small package, which comes in handy on shoots that require you to trek long distances. It is a bit slow and noisy to set up, because each leg has three sections, each of which has its own latch, which leaves you with six latches to open and close and six leg sections to extend. Of course, the most important consideration is always cost, and this is where you really can save money. By purchasing the right system in the first place, you won't end up tossing away problem tripods.
A good way to start out is to buy the nicest head you can afford and match that to a lesser set of legs. As you grow as an artist, you can then migrate to a nicer leg-set and end up with a really nice tripod and a back-up leg-set. Once here, you can then buy a sturdy but cost effective head and have two functional tripods, one for stationary shooting and one for the thing that brought you to video in the first place: making fabulous video footage with beautiful pans and zooms!
The Other Support Toys
Now that you have a nice tripod - the "meat and potatoes" camera support in your kit - you might want to consider some specialty items such as jibs, dollies and stabilizers, and don't forget to consider a monopod. Imagine zooming out while you dolly the camera forward! It's usually referred to as a trombone shot or vertigo shot, and the results can be quite claustrophobic for your viewers. Dollies are necessary for a shot like this. Dollies are also nice for pans that require very consistent camera movement that follows or moves about your subject. They usually need a near-perfect surface or a track on which to glide. You can bring along plywood to make a surface. The effects can be quite nice, and the trouble involved in setting a dolly is worth definitely it.
How about a shot that comes from above the subject, slowly rotates around it, then drops in and down for a view from below? You'll need a jib for that, and they aren't too expensive for even a budding videographer to consider. Jibs come in a variety of sizes, ranging from a four-foot reach to as much as 25 feet. They can have simple pan heads or elaborate systems that control the camera angle and zoom the lens. Start off with a nice six-foot one, add to that your sturdy tripod and you can get a shot from ten feet right down to ground level. Yep, the smaller jibs actually attach to your existing tripod, and the nice thing is that they use standard weights you get from the sporting goods store. Good thing you bought a good tripod right from the start!
Ever come across a great scene while driving to work? You know, those times when you really don't have enough time to get out and set up. But the shot is so nice, perfect for your reel. How about a system that clamps right to your window? They make those too, and you can mount to it that great fluid head you bought for your tripod. "I'm always late! Even that's going to take too long," you say? Try flopping a bean bag over the glass window and shoot handheld. They make those and just about everything you could ever imagine for just about every situation you could ever imagine.
Another wonderful support is the tried-and-true monopod. Fast to set up and lightweight, they provide fantastic stability while affording you the freedom of handholding. They also provide a nice "pole" for those times you need to shoot from a high angle, such as over a crowd or some other obstacle. What if you want to get out and follow along with your camera, but the subject is just too far away? You know that if you zoom in and walk, it's only going to be too jittery to use. Grab your Steadicam, and just get out there and shoot! Steadicam or camera stabilizers, as they are known, really extend your capabilities, because they allow you to get great shots while following behind or alongside your subject. They work to counterbalance the camera and any motion you might transfer to it. Just make sure you get one that's right for your camera. This device might be the first camera support you should consider after you have purchased a really good tripod. The effects are contemporary and in demand, and the Steadicam allows you the creative freedom that inspires both you and your clients. Don't forget the original creators of this type of system were awarded an Academy Award for its innovative design, which speaks volumes about how its use has revolutionized the way cinema and video is shot today.
Today there are lots of camera supports available in many shapes and sizes, with pricing to fit just about any budget. Whether you are a seasoned pro or a budding artist, any one of them will provide options that will allow you to interpret your creative vision, please your clients and give you years of service. It's really up to you how you will unleash the power of these devices, so go out there and express your own POV!
Terry O'Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients world wide.