Nothing gives a steadier shot than a tripod. With so many to choose from, our buyer's guide can help you select which model is best for you.
Camcorder manufacturers are always hyping new image stabilization technologies as some sort of panacea against shaky shots. However, a half-decent tripod is more stable than any image stabilization system--even the finest optical image stabilization system. Besides keeping basic shots stable, better tripods allow you to smoothly pan and tilt your camcorder.
What to Look For
With so many tripods available at such large a range of prices, how is a person to choose? The key factors in shopping for a tripod are the size of the camcorder it must support and the type of shooting you will do. A 15-pound S-VHS camcorder requires a heavier tripod than a two-pound Mini DV camcorder. A wedding videographer may look for a lighter tripod to tote into churches and reception halls than a video moviemaker.
All tripods consist of legs and head. The difference is in the quality of the head and the strength of the legs. The higher-end models combine heavy-duty, lightweight material and durable, smooth-moving, true fluid heads for easy-glide pans and tilts.
At the Head
One of the most important aspects of any tripod is its head. Tripods designed for still photography aren't meant to move side to side or up and down. A good video tripod allows the camcorder to pan and tilt smoothly without jerkiness or wobble.
The best video tripods have true fluid heads. A fluid head contains two plates that float on top of one another in a viscous solution that eases the tilt and pan movements. They work similarly to a car's transmission; the plates never actually touch. Less expensive models try to simulate the true fluid head with something called a near-fluid or fluid-effect head. These are basically marketing terms for lubricated friction.
A quick-release mounting plate is a handy feature that lets you quickly place or remove your camcorder without having to unscrew it from the tripod. This way, you can leave the base plate attached to the camcorder and just slip it into place when you're going to use it.
Other important features include reliable tilt and pan locks. Some apply gradual pressure for pans and tilts with variable resistance. These locks are key to making sure your camcorder is not going to swivel or sag during the videotaping of a crucial shot.
The primary requirement for any good camcorder tripod is its footing. If the legs are spindly and weak, or are in any way unstable, keep on shopping because this is not the tripod you want.
The legs are the foundation of any tripod and they determine the height, stability and portability of your tripod.
Anchoring the legs down are the feet. Typically made of non-slip rubber, some models have a combination of rubber and spike. You can twist the rubber and expose the spikes for extra traction on rough terrain.
Another important aspect of tripod legs is ease of set up and breakdown. The easier a tripod is to use, the more likely you'll use it. Quick-snap leg locks are perhaps the easiest, while twist locks are more rugged.
A tripod does more than merely hold a camcorder steady, it holds it level. If you're in your house, setting on a level platform may not be a problem, but when you're outdoors on rough terrain, a smooth, level surface can be hard to find. Many models, feature a bubble level to determine when the camcorder mount is level.
If you're in the market for a tripod, it's best to test it before you buy it. By actually screwing your camcorder onto the tripod, you can see for yourself if it's what you need.
Take a peek at the accompanying tripod buyer's guide. You'll see that there's a wide range of models and prices. Then get the tripod that fits your needs and budget; your production rests on it.