No matter what kind of camera you're using: a studio camera, a handheld, a DSLR or a pocket video camera, they all need a solid, steady mount to make your video pleasing to watch and looking more professional.
Wild, reality style shooting may be popular but you should use it carefully, for effect. Most shots should be steady and level, even if the camera moves. Whether it is static or moving there are many ways to support the camera.
The basic camera support every videographer should have, tripods are composed of two distinct and usually separate parts that combine for support: the tripod head and the legs.
When shopping for tripods keep in mind how you will use them. Will you set up in one place or move around? Are you shooting over crowds or do you need a sturdy mount for long distance shots? Are you shooting film style, or documentary? Each has different needs requiring different tools.
Say you're an event videographer and you need to shoot over crowds at a wedding or music performance. If you don't need to change locations, a tall tripod, jib or crane would be fine. However, if you are using a small DV camcorder and moving often, you might look for a smaller tripod such as Libec's RT30B ($270).
Shooting sports, however, often requires long distance shots and rapid movements. Here you'll need a shorter and sturdier system that might take a little more time to set up. If you're shooting film style, you'll need a versatile tripod with three-section legs and a removable spreader, the device that both holds the legs together and keeps them apart. This allows tripod use in many different locations and heights. A ball head enables you to level the camera even with the tripod at an odd angle. A good choice could be the Libec RS-350, $1,540 with a ground level spreader, 75mm ball head and sliding mounting plate.
Tripod legs are made of a few different materials. Wood and aluminum are a bit heavier and less expensive. Advanced materials such magnesium and carbon fiber are very light and strong but more expensive. Check how many sections the legs have and how long they are. These are factors in how high the tripod legs will extend and how compact the legs will pack up. Some legs have two collapsible sections and others have three. Some are styled like telescopes (single shaft) and others are like crutches (dual shaft). The dual shaft tripod is sturdier and steadier but heavier. The locks that support the legs when extended should be easy to operate and robust in strength.
The Heads and Tails of It
In two-part systems, you attach either a ball shaped or a flat-plated (often still able to be leveled) head to legs. The advantage of the ball head is that leveling the camera is much quicker.
Sometimes, however, the flat plate tripod has an advantage. It usually has a vertical shaft running through the center of the tripod so you can pedestal the camera up or down. The Manfrotto 755XB MDEVE, aluminum tripod, $334, is a good example of this type. Tripods that pedestal up and down have an advantage when shooting events where you need to raise or lower the camera without repositioning the tripod, but can wobble if raised too high or have too heavy of a load.
When discussing the head we must mention one of the most important features, the pan and tilt drag. An adjustable drag helps dampen any sudden or jerky movements from your hand and gives you some resistance to push against when panning. A fluid head is the preferred type for shooting video but there are also friction types, which are less expensive and simpler to maintain. Shop carefully. There are true fluid heads and semi-fluid heads. True fluid heads use a cartridge with a special fluid inside for resistance while semi-fluid heads use springs and friction plates with a heavy fluid adding smoothness to the resistance. The Manfrotto 502HD Pro Fluid Head, available with both a ball and flat plate mount, at $260 and $230 respectively is an example of a semi-fluid type.
The drag control adjusts the resistance you feel as you pan or tilt. There are also controls for pan and tilt lock, to stop the head from moving. Look for large controls that are easy to find with your hand while looking through the viewfinder. It's good if the drag and lock controls are different so you won't confuse them in the dark. Forcing the head to move against the lock will damage the system.
It's always best to try out a tripod and head before buying. One factor that you must test is backlash, when the camera shifts backwards a slight amount at the end of a pan or tilt, as you release the handle - not ideal. Other tripod features to look for are a bubble level; make sure it's there and easy to see, and a sliding camera mounting plate, which helps to center the camera over the head's pivot point. Also notice what type of control arm is used, and if it can be moved and adjusted easily.
There is a wide range of prices and features available. Libec's TH-650DV, $195, is an entry-level system with advanced features. Sachtler's Ace M GS system, $615, with a fluid head and glass fiber composite legs, is a good choice for compact camcorders and DSLR cameras.
The Libec RS-350 system, $1,540, supports as much as 20 pounds, has a ball head and dual shaft legs. Manfrotto's 509HD Pro Video Head 100 with 545B legs, $1,650, is a fine example of a true cartridge-type fluid head.
Sachtler has the FSB 8 tripod system, $2,550, which combines the FSB 8 fluid head with the DA 75 L legs. The head features a large sliding leveling plate and a leveling bubble that illuminates when touched. The Libec LS-70, $2,490, is a high-end, heavy-duty system with a 100mm ball head and can handle camcorders that weigh as much as 33 pounds.
A cousin to the tripod, the monopod uses only one leg, much like a cane for cameras. The camera mounts on the head plate, like a tripod, and then you rest the monopod on the ground. Some monopods, such as Manfrotto's 560B-1, $178, and 561 BHDV-1, $334, even include fluid tilt heads. Other companies, such as Vanguard, include ball heads which are preferred by many professional shooters for their accurate rotation and better stability. Vanguard's Tracker AP-364 ($100) can use a ball head.
Dollies provide rolling movement for cameras and can range in size from a set of wheels for your tripod to a rolling, four-wheeled platform for the camera and operator. Some tripod and platform dollies also have tracks for slightly uneven ground. A tripod dolly, or set of wheels that the tripod mounts on, is very handy for studio situations in which there is a clear, smooth floor. Concerts or stage events with seated audiences are a good fit for a tripod dolly. Some tripod dolly systems also run on portable tracks and are usually less expensive than platform track dollies.
Platform dollies, with or without tracks, are best used for film style shooting. When using a platform dolly without tracks look for big, pneumatic tires. They provide more cushioning over rough ground. Track dollies, of course, have wheels designed for the track use. Matthews Studio Equipment has a few platform dolly systems, the basic Doorway Dolly, ($2,600) the Round-d-Round Doorway Dolly, ($3,400) and the Western Dolly, ($3,250) a larger and heavier duty platform dolly. Matthews also has a track system that works with nearly any dolly (34-inches wide or less): the Centipede ($2,920).
Other variations of the dolly are sliders and camera trolleys. The slider system is a small set of rails that a small camera platform, or slider, moves on when pushed by hand. The trolley system, like the slider, is a small, platform that rides on rails and supports the camera head, however, this platform is a little larger, is motorized and controlled remotely. An example is the ProTracker Trolley from the Camera Turret Company, $600 for the trolley and $99 for each three-foot section of track.
CPM Camera Rigs has a CPM Carbon Slyder - Stage 2, $399, which is a good example of a slider. You place the rail system on the ground for low shots, on a tabletop for higher shots or mounted between two tripods.
The Libec TR-320 track system, $2,380, includes track and a Libec tripod dolly for use with any Libec tripod or just a Libec head, for low angle shots.
The camera jib consists of a long, boom arm usually mounted on a tripod with a fulcrum point near the base and counterweights on the short end. With the camera mounted on the long side, you may move the jib to raise the camera freely and smoothly from ground level to several feet over the operator's head.
Less expensive jibs may only include a tilt function for the camera. While others include remotely controlled pan and tilt heads and a remote monitor. Some more expensive jibs include full remote camera controls. Jibs require a counterweight, and indiSYSTEM got creative with their AIRjib, $229, by designing around plastic beverage bottles.
CobraCraneUSA's FotoCrane UltraLite jib ($235) is a small, inexpensive tripod-mounted jib. This jib will elevate a camera to a height of eight feet when mounted on a five-foot tripod. The CobraCrane II ($345), can support cameras of up to 20 pounds and has a reach of 12 feet while the VariZoom QuickJib ($1,200) will lift a 50-pound camera from ground level to over 10 feet.
The big brother to the jib, the crane allows camera movements from ground level to well over your subject and tend to be longer and carry more features. Cranes are great for flying cameras over the audience at a concert. Prices range from a few hundred for smaller systems to several thousand for the larger systems.
The Glidecam Camcrane 200, at $600, is an affordable crane with a long reach. With the adjustable boom set to 8-foot, its maximum length, it can lift a 25-pound camera from ground level to a 10-foot elevation. The boom mounts on a medium or heavy-duty tripod with the standard mounting bolt.
Camera Turret Company has the ProTracker Crane ($1,000) which is capable of raising 38 pounds to 11 feet above the tripod's height.
Handheld and Body Mounted
If you like the freedom of movement of a jib arm but don't want to be held stationary by a tripod then consider handheld or body mounted camera supports.
Steadicam, the originator of the body-mounted camera stabilizers, makes a large assortment of both handheld and body mounted stabilization system. Designed by Garret Brown, the new Merlin 2, $850, aims to give the video enthusiast the same smooth motion of Steadicam's $60,000 professional film rigs.
Another popular handheld rig is Zacuto's shoulder mounted Indie Kit V2, $2,390. This very adjustable rig will support a large number of popular cameras with a matte box and follow focus. Zacuto makes a large variety of handheld and shoulder mounted camera supports, for video and DSLR cameras. The Bolt Action, $1,610, is one of Zacuto's simplest in-line, shoulder mounted dual-handgrip system for DSLRs.
Let's Go Shopping
Camera supports, in all of the various sizes and types, are your most important tools, second only to the camera. Take your time shopping, it is entirely likely that your support will outlast your camera. Explore your needs and wants, look at your budget carefully, then dive into that wide marketplace, and have fun.
Sidebar: New Toys
With so many different cameras and camcorders on the market it's rough trying to find a camera support that is versatile enough for all of the cameras or camcorders you might have in your arsenal.
Filmtoys is a new system, made in Nashville, that is comprised of a collection of blocks, plates, handles and connectors which allow you to assemble the camera support that you need whenever and wherever you need it. Machined out of black aluminum and anodized, the blocks and plates are much like a child's construction set - you can assemble the parts as needed, and even add accessories during a shoot. Find them at www.filmtoys.com.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Camera Supports Buyer's Guide
Jim Martin is a producer, editor and journalist with more than 30 years experience in broadcasting.