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Tripods & Stabilizers: Better Video From the Ground Up

If you want your work to look more like the shots you see on TV, you need to shoot rock-solid steady footage.

There’s no place for unintentionally shaky shots or sticky pans in professional productions. When you think about shooting rock-solid shots you may be reminded of that famous wise man who built his house on a rock and his foolish friend who built upon the sand. When the storms came, the house built on the foundation of the rock stood strong, but the pad on the beach ... not so much.

What does this have to do with video? The wise builder knew that without a firm foundation even the best building would be shaky at best. It’s a simple matter of science. If something is going to be steady on top, it has to be securely anchored at the bottom. If we apply this principle to a paraphrase of our parable, it might go something like this: The wise man shot his video from a high quality tripod with a bubble level, strong but lightweight flip-latch legs and a true fluid head so his shots were stable and his moves were smooth. The foolish videographer? After seeing his friend’s fantastic footage, he decided it was time to go tripod shopping.

Analogies aside, tripods are some of the most important tools that videographers employ. Because they are responsible for supporting your expensive camera and for creating smooth moves and steady shots, they are an absolutely essential part of any professional’s production paraphernalia. Every serious shooter should have a tripod that is well matched to his or her camera and production needs.

Many videographers have multiple support options designed for different applications. So, depending on where and what you shoot, you may need to have more than one piece of gear in your trunk. To make the right choice, you need to know your particular needs, and you need to be familiar with the key features and components of today’s supports, so let’s review them from the ground up.

Feet

In order to anchor your shots, it’s important that your tripod’s feet grip the ground without slipping around. There are a few different types of feet that you’ll commonly see, and it is worthwhile to know what your options are as you shop for the right set of sticks. In general, watch out for cheap feet made of hard rubber or plastic. These hard feet may slide around too easily on smooth flooring and they are more prone to breaking. The type of surfaces that you typically shoot from is a key consideration. If you primarily shoot indoors, look for feet made of soft, pliable rubber that won’t slide across the room or cause damage by scratching up hardwood or vinyl flooring.

Look closely at how the feet are attached. Some are caps that are simply slid over the outside of the leg, some are securely glued on, others are plugs that insert inside the tubular legs. The biggest consideration here is that the feet are attached in a way that will last without popping off and getting lost. Many high-end tripods also include spikes on their feet for getting a good grip in the grass or digging in on the dirt. These are typically concealed by rubber covers that either twist to retract or slip over the top of the spikes for indoor use. 

Legs and Latches

The legs are what give the tripod it’s name. While all tripods have three legs, all tripod legs are not equal. When you look at legs, it’s important to consider their strength, height, weight and the type of latches that secure the extensions. The strength of a tripod is gauged by the amount of weight it is rated to hold. This spec is readily published in a tripod’s marketing documentation. The key here is to select a tripod that is well-matched to the camera you intend to mount on it. If you have a lightweight camera, it may work quite well on an inexpensive, light-duty tripod. But the same tripod may flex and bounce under the weight of a full sized, heavyweight camcorder. ACEBIL’s hefty j-805GX can carry a payload of 8.8lb. while the smaller i-605LAX is rated for an 6.6lb.-payload. Make sure you know the weight requirements of your camera, and select a tripod that meets or exceeds your need.

Overall height is another important spec to check. If you want to be able to shoot comfortably while standing up straight, you’ll want your tripod’s mounting plate to be about chin-high when the legs are extended. For maximum stability, you’ll want it to be suitably tall without having to crank up a center pole extension more than a few inches. Not all tripods are equipped with center extensions, but they are an excellent option to look for if you think you might ever need supplemental lift to shoot over people’s heads

If strength is important to you, consider that legs with multiple extendable segments are stronger than those with just a single long one, but the additional sections also make a tripod heavier. The Matthews M25 has three leg sections, and stands 5-feet tall (1520mm) and weighs 7lb. Tripods with fewer leg sections tend to not be as heavy, but they trade strength.

Many light to medium-duty tripods include a stabilizer hook that hangs in the center of the tripod below the center pole. Users can increase stability by hanging weight on this hook. The Libec TH-650DV is an entry-level model that features a counterbalance system with a built-in spring.

Consider also the type of latches on the tripod’s legs. The two most common latch types are twist and snap. Of the two, snap latches are quicker and easier to engage. We’re not saying that all screw-type latches are bad, just that users need to be aware of their potential drawbacks and use extra care to tighten them well but not so much to strip the threading.
 

Head

A tripod’s legs are responsible for adjusting height and handling weight, but camera position and movement are the job of the head. The tripod’s head mounts your camera to the legs, and allows your camera to rotate laterally and vertically to pan and tilt. It also supplies resistance, so your camera stays put without drifting or falling out of position when you let go. A good tripod head lets the shooter make butter-smooth moves. The smoothest and best performance comes from true fluid heads, like Vanguard’s PH-111V, which uses an internal viscous liquid to cushion and control movement. True fluid heads are at the top of the totem pole. In terms of pan/tilt heads, they are the exclusive choice of serious shooters as they let the camera operator start and stop moves smoothly, easing in and out of pans and tilts without a hitch, and allow the varying of speed through the duration of the movement.

While true fluid heads perform the best, they are also at the top end of the price scale. Many intermediate level tripods boast of “fluid action” heads, that simulate the performance of fluid heads without the expense. Ultimately, these are not fluid heads, but a variation of another type: the friction head. Friction heads function by pressing parts, usually made of heavy-gauge plastic, against one another, providing enough pressure to hold the camera in position, or to slide against one another so the camera can pivot on an axis. The user can adjust the amount of drag to permit more or less movement, or lock the camera in place, but the amount of friction is constant. At certain tensions the friction plates begin to grab, so moves become sticky and jerky. Friction heads range in quality. Some are better than others, so it’s wise to try before you buy if possible. One of the biggest problems with low-cost tripods is the tendency of their inexpensive plastic heads and mounting plates to break, rendering the tripod useless. Almost every videographer has an old broken tripod or two in a closet somewhere. Once the head breaks the tripod is trashed, so it may be wise to spend a little more money on a well-built model that will last, rather than save a few bucks in the short term on a tripod that you will quickly have to replace.

Shoppers should note that photo and video tripods are not interchangeable. Photographers and videographers have different needs and their tripods have different features. One of the most obvious observations is that still cameras are designed to shoot stills, and video cameras are designed to record motion. Therefore, tripod heads designed for shooting photography are specially crafted to hold a camera in a variety of fixed positions. This often includes the ability to flip the mounting plate up on it’s side to rotate the photographer’s camera for shooting portrait layouts as well as in the traditional landscape aspect ratio.

As specialty tools, photo tripods do have value to videographers. They are excellent tools for locking your camcorder into creative positions; allowing you to tilt your video camera to create a canted angle for instance. Just be aware that these tripods are not made for panning or tilting the camera as you record.

A good head will also include a bubble level, which is an excellent feature to have. Tripods with a single bubble level (typically the circular “target” style) allow you to find where flat is with uneven ground. This is usually done by adjusting the height of each leg until the bubble centers in the target. If you regularly shot on tilted terrain, you might consider a head that has a ball type mount. These mounts let you adjust the level of the head within a mounting cup so you can find level quickly without the hassle of adjusting each leg. Some tripods include two or more leveling bubbles so you can center and level your tripod both horizontally and vertically.

DSLR Rigs

The popularity of DSLR cameras in video production has spread like wildfire. They capture amazing-looking footage, but shooting video from these lens-heavy powerhouses requires wrists of steel. A few short years ago video cameras were huge. While the giant shoulder-size dinosaurs that broadcast professionals used to lug around were heavy beasts, they produced shots that were inherently steady because their heft was anchored on the shoulder of the shooter. As sensor technology has improved, camcorders have gotten exponentially smaller and smaller.

The perennial problem with palm-sized cameras is the unstable whipping and blurring caused by quick twists of the wrist, which are the mark of amateur video. A similar instability is in the DNA of the DSLR design. DSLR cameras can be mounted to standard video tripods, but there is a also a special category of stabilizer mounts designed specifically for DSLR shooters who want additional control without having to be tied to a tripod.

The solution is a lightweight rig that attaches to the camera, adds a handgrip and extends back to the shoulder. Basic models include the Steadi-Stock Black and the Opteka CXS-1 Shoulder Stabilizer Support System. This feature alone provides shot stability that gives footage a more professional quality. Mid-level models like Redrock Micro’s microShoulderMount and the ikan Flyweight add a second handgrip, improved ergonomic design and include horizontal and vertical adjustability for a more comfortable fit. High-end rigs like Redrock Micro’s DSLR Field Cinema Deluxe Bundle can be configured with accessories like monitors and mic mounts and include counterbalance weights and a follow focus feature.

Flying Supports

Sometimes you need steady shots without being anchored in one position. Flying stabilizers like the HD-2000 from Glidecam or the Pilot HD from Steadicam are excellent options for keeping your shots smooth while you’re on the move. Varizoom’s unique CrossFire-FP is a hybrid device that acts as both a flying stabilizer and as a tripod. Flying camera stabilizer rigs like these let you shoot smooth gliding shots like the ones you see in feature films. In the last few years, this category has exploded with a wide variety of affordable options for videographers at all levels.

Floating rigs are an excellent solution for active wedding and event videographers who need to move around a venue quickly without sacrificing shot stability. Rigs generally include a camera mount on a gimbal, and a set of weights used to counterbalance the camera. One consideration shooters should keep in mind is total weight. Many models are held in the hand. If you plan to shoot short shots, this is not a problem, but if you need to shoot for extended periods of time, your arm may become quickly fatigued. If you have a heavier camera, or need to shoot for long durations, you can consider a vest-type rig like the VariZoom Navigator arm and vest with FlowPod or the high end Steadicam Pilot-AA. These wearable camera stabilizers still require an amount of upper body strength, but transfer the bulk of the weight of the stabilizer onto your body instead of falling fully on your forearm.

Jibs and Cranes

Cranes and jibs are a specialty category of camera supports that raise the elevation, allowing you to lift your camera high overhead to achieve spectacular shots from heightened points of view. Height, length, weight, capacity, collapsibility and camera controls are just a few options to consider as you consider a crane. Most jibs mount onto tripod legs that you must purchase separately; something to keep in mind as you budget for your jib.

Lightweight and easily portable models like the CobraCrane FotoCrane UltraLite single bar jib will support DSLR cameras up to 3lb. and provide an 8-foot lift for $279. Generally speaking, costs go up as you increase payload and extension. The CobraCrane I Plus ($430) is a single-bar arm that will raise a 6.5lb. camera to 12 feet, and the CobraCrane II Plus is a 20lb.-capacity jib offering seven feet above a tripod for $500. The VariZoom QuickJib will support cameras up to 50lb. and extends to 10 feet. Professional models like the JonyJib2 - $1200-$3400 for arms reaching 8-feet to 18-feet - are highly modular and feature-packed. One JonyJib2 option is a heavy duty arm that can extend to 18-feet with five telescoping sections and can be fitted with options like a motorized pan and tilt head and monitor.

Finding the Right Support

There is a wide range of tripods and supports on the market, and they each have their own strengths. The secret isn’t simply to buy the most expensive one, and bigger isn’t always better. You need to determine which support is best matched to the camcorder it will hold and the specific job it needs to do. Be sure to consider the weight rating, height, and above all, the quality of the craftsmanship. Watch out for flimsy or springy legs, fragile camera mounts, sticky pan heads, and unreliable locks and latches, any of which can cause bad shots or a broken camera. Ultimately, reliability and durability are the two most important features to look for in a foundation, whether you’re building a house or a video.

Chuck Peters is a 3-time Emmy award winning writer and producer. He is currently VP of Production at KIDMO/Rivet Productions.

Sidebar:
Sold Separately - Higher end heads and legs are sold separately, so you can mix and match the legs and heads to build your own tripod that is perfectly suited to your personal preferences. Manfrotto’s website allows you to select the parts to customize your own rig. You can even select accessories like mounting plates and pan handles. 

Sidebar 2:
Monopods
- Not all camera supports have three legs or rest on your body. Monopods like Manfrotto’s 680B or the SIRUI P-326 are highly portable one-legged supports that provide assistance in holding a camera for quick steady shots or for stabilizing a small camera for a long shoot. Monopods are more popular with photographers than videographers, but they are gaining popularity in video as camcorders continue to shrink in size. If you don’t need all the features of a tripod, but would like more stability than simply shooting handheld, a monopod may be a superb solution.

Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Tripods and Stabilizers Buyer's Guide

Tags:  June 2013
Chuck
Peters
Mon, 05/13/2013 - 10:18am

Comments

artsmith's picture

Here are some comments based upon several years of carrying, at all times, a 'Slik' carbon-fibre tripod:-

 

(1) As the legs are extended, with any tubular-leg equipped tripod, the smallest diameter lowest section definitely has more 'spring' or 'whip' that the larger diameter upper sections. Work from the top down when extending legs, and if it is at all possible, shoot from a lower position and don't extend the bottom legs at all. The assembly, with thinner legs retracted within the upper sections has a lot more stability and is far less prone to involuntary movement.

 

(2) If using a tripod anywhere near the sea, especially on wet sand, make it the first thing you do on arrival home, to check that all sand grains have been removed from the screw-up locking mechanisms which set the legs at the best extensions. Many of the threads are of anodised aluminium alloy and are prone to rapid wear from sand, especially if it contains fine quartz dust as the sands on many New Zealand beaches do.

 

(3) While carrying out step '2', screw any rubber-shod retractable feet to either the the fully up, or fully down position, and give a light spray of 'CRC', 'WD-40' or something similar. Manually run the feet to the opposite end of the thread and do the same again. That will ensure that the next time you use your tripod, especially after an enforced layoff, you will still be able to adjust the feet.

 

(4) I have a 'fluid-action' head of a well-known and not-so-cheap brand which is well-night useless. It has large friction-surfaces, but when drag is adjusted, in both planes, to slacken off the screws by the required amount, supports the moving portion of the head by only one side. When you have slackened-off the screw sufficiently for drag-free movement, which you sometimes need, the upper portion of the head wobbles all over the place due to insufficient support. Any pan-and-tilt head worth its salt, should be supported on both sides of the 'gimbal' in at least the vertical plane, and preferably both.

 

(5) Since I usually separate my audio/video in editing, and audio recording direct from my camcorder is impossible for 90 percent of the time anyway, I use the accessory shoe which is left vacant by the absence of an extension microphone, to take one of those handy little moulded plastic bubble-levels which read in both planes. And, if you have the time, level up the fore-and-aft tilt bubble as well as the lateral one. That way you will not encounter any unpleasant surprises at panning time.

 

(6) And one more thing; when all else fails, there's always 'Mercalli' to fall back upon.