Not all tripods are created equal… One techie breaks them down to explain what each part does, and what to hunt for when you’re ready to stand on three legs… or one.
“Geez,” sighed Larry after the DVD was over, “how come my video never looks like that?” The words “talentless hack” danced through my head, but that wasn’t really helpful.
“One reason might be that you never use a tripod,” I said
“Why on earth would I want to use a tripod? I move the camcorder all the time!”
This was true. Larry likes to videotape auto races, so you get half an hour of a car going around in a circle.
“Tripods aren’t just for static shots,” I said. “There’s much more to using a tripod than sticking a camcorder on one in the back of a room and leaving it there.”
“Whenever I’ve tried to use a tripod, I’ve found it really awkward to move – all those knobs to twist and things like that – and I can never tell what direction it’s supposed to go in….”
“Well, Larry,” I said, “let’s talk about tripods then.”
Parts of a Tripod
A tripod has two distinct parts – the legs and the head. In most professional tripods, these are interchangeable components rather than a monolithic unit like you’ll find on less expensive ones.
The legs are usually telescoping tubes or crutch-style which can lock extended; these raise the camcorder off the ground. Typically they’re categorized by the amount of weight they can hold steady. These can be made of wood, aluminum or carbon fiber.
Some models, at both the high and low ends of the price scale, connect the legs to the center post or by a spreader at the base of the legs. Many mid-range tripods have legs that move independently of one another.
The head is the device which holds the camcorder. The head, more often than not, has a “quick release,” which is a plate that screws into the bottom of your camcorder using a 1/4-inch screw. The plate then attaches to the tripod head by means of a quick-release lever. Some people leave the quick release more or less permanently mounted to the camcorder. This allows you to attach and remove the camcorder from the tripod quickly – very useful if you frequently mix tripod and handheld shooting.
Tripod heads come in several flavors. The most common and inexpensive, but not the most useful for video, are the three-way tilt-pan heads. These have three levers for controlling up, down, left and right motion, as well as for canting the camcorder to one side (for taking portrait-style photos with a still camera). Another popular choice is the ball head, which is much easier to use. It allows the camcorder to move through its range of motion attached to a ball and sometimes has a pistol grip. These two heads, while common, are useful mainly in still photography. When a tripod needs to do double duty with family videos and still photography, one of these is a good choice.
The third choice is the fluid head tripod, which is very popular for use with video camcorders. Real ones, called “true fluid”, actually have oil in a sealed chamber through which the mechanism of the tripod moves. There are some cheaper faux fluid heads that just use friction to achieve a similar goal. The drag of the mechanism through the oil on a true fluid head produces a slow, steady movement for tilting and panning shots. Good tripods will allow you to set the tilt or pan drag independently. Some really good tripods have digital readouts to set extremely precise drag. Tripods specifically designed for video typically have one control arm (rather than three), allowing you to do a range of tilt and pan motions with one control.
Also popular with video are tripods which put some of the camcorder’s controls (pause, play and zoom) on the pan-arm, allowing you to keep an eye to the viewfinder and control the motion and function of the camcorder with one hand. These LANC controllers (also known as Control-L) are especially useful for studio and event videographers. Check to see if you can hook one up to your camcorder before you plop money down for an attachable controller.
Counterbalanced Tripod Heads
Some pricier tripod heads have what’s called “counterbalancing” which is a series of springs that even out tension when you move the camera, this keeps the relative weight of the camera the same when you, say, tilt down. An ordinary tripod would get front heavy when this happened, counterbalancing adds spring tension to assure that your camera feels and reacts the same, no matter how it’s tilted. It will also take over if you remove an interchangeable lens from the camera which would ordinarily make the camera tilt backwards.
Picking the Right Tripod
You want to really think about your needs when you’re buying a tripod because it is a device which is going to stay with you for a long time, and it’s not something you should skimp on.
There are three important measurements on a tripod: the maximum working height, the minimum working height and the length when collapsed. Ideally, you want the tripod that allows you to get your camcorder the highest and the lowest, and which packs the smallest. There are obviously trade-offs with all of these.
Transporting your Tripod
I’m not the kind of person who puts a tripod in a case because I’m afraid it’ll get scratches on it, but oftentimes it is more convenient to carry a tripod in a case because the case has a shoulder strap. You can also get a shoulder strap that attaches to the tripod without a case. Both of these are preferable to carrying it without a strap, if you’re going any distance. Also, some camcorder bags have straps made for holding tripods; keep this in mind next time you’re pricing new bags.
These are usually available for a few dollars in camcorder and video stores. They’re usually not terribly sturdy, but they will serve to hold the camcorder a few inches off a surface and point it in a particular direction.
Using a Monopod
A monopod is essentially one leg of a tripod. Some monopods have heads on them, but not always. Some heads are as robust as those on a tripod… but not always. Monopods aren’t nearly as sturdy as tripods and won’t reduce vibration and motion blur nearly as much, but they’re better than nothing, and they’re very portable. Sometimes it’s possible to brace your monopod, like between your knees while sitting in a chair which can create a relatively stable foundation.
Do Some Research
When I bought my first tripod, one of my cinema professors talked me out of the $30 model I was looking at by mentioning that, if I didn’t want to be back in the store in two years, I should spend the money up front and get the tripod I’d be using for the rest of my life. I did, and I haven’t regretted it. The price was a bit steep, but I’ve used it for years.
Buy a tripod sturdier than you think you need, with features that you don’t think you’ll use. Things to look for:
- How low to the ground will it get? Some tripods can have the legs splay out and lower the head to within inches of the floor; others will have you stuck a foot and a half in the air.
- Is the head interchangeable? Just because you can’t afford an expensive fluid head right now doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to later, so invest in something that’s upgradable.
- Do the legs move independently of one another? Most inexpensive tripods are designed for setting up in your living room and holding the camcorder steady there. Professional tripods realize that sometimes you’ll be in a stairwell or on rocks or other strange places. For this reason, many pro tripods have legs that can move independently of the others.
Remember, not all tripods are created equal, but they all serve a similar purpose: to keep your shot, crisp, clear and above all steady. Not every tripod suits every need, either. If you’re shooting a lot of low shots, you might not care for a pod that can extend 8 feet high. On the other hand, if you do a lot of panning or tilting, the head might be the most important part of the pod to examine. Determining your needs is the first step to your tripod research, and then that will give you a leg (or three) to stand on.
Contributing editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.
Side Bar:Homemade Substitutes
Tripods and even monopods are bulky, and you don’t want to carry one around if you’re not going to use it. There are a few stop-gap solutions that you can safely carry around in your camcorder bag without breaking your back or your wallet.
You can always try the old bit-of-chain-and-an-eye-screw trick to make a simple homemade monopod. This consists of a threaded -inch eye screw attached to a thin length of chain about five feet long. Screw the eye screw into the tripod socket on the bottom of the camcorder, dangle the chain, then step on it. With the chain held tightly under your foot, apply some upward pressure (pull up) on the camcorder. This will allow you to hold the camcorder steadier than you can hand-hold. It’s not as good as a monopod, but it weighs just four ounces.