Tripods are simple but essential videomaking tools. Unfortunately, they’re often overlooked.

I know what they’re whispering, down at the club:


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“Poor old Stinson. He’s gone potty, you know.”

“I say!”

“Oh yes; blithers on about tripods morning and night; tripods, tripods, tripods.”

“Got tripods on the brain, has he?”

“And not much else, I’m afraid. Sad, what?”

“Mm. Pity.”

I admit I do run on about tripods, but only because they’re so undervalued, especially by video folks who’re just getting started. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that when people buy their first camcorder, not ten percent of them buy a tripod to hold it up. In my book, that’s like buying a first fishing outfit without a reel. Sure, you can catch fish with a hand line, but your options are, well, limited.

The same is true about shooting without proper camera support. You can get acceptable handheld footage as long as you and your subjects are both on the move; but too much material that heaves and lurches will have your audience groping for seasick pills–or pails.

So, with the Official Getting Started Motto firmly in mind (“Low tech, low cost, low sweat.”) let’s look at easy ways to ensure that your images don’t rock and roll.

A Stable Platform

As a matter of fact, you can improve picture stability even before buying a tripod by choosing a camcorder with one or more of these key features: image stabilization, an external viewfinder, and remote control.

The cheapest of these is wireless remote, which lets you start and stop recording without touching the camcorder. Why is this useful? Because it is almost impossible to press the record button without jiggling the camera. That’s no biggie if you routinely edit your raw footage; but if you assemble in the camera as you shoot, you may get stuck with shots that begin with an unsightly jiggle. With remote record capability, you can set the camcorder on any convenient surface and operate it without touching it. Even modestly priced camcorders may include wireless remote recording, so look for this feature when you shop.

Many cameras just one rung up the dollar ladder now come with external color LCD viewfinders. (Lately, I’ve seen them in my local paper for under $400.) I try to avoid absolute pronouncements, but in this case I’ll make an exception: if you haven’t yet bought your first camcorder, you should definitely choose a model with an external viewfinder. They are clearly superior to tube-type finders for several reasons, and one of these is stability.

Instead of pushing the camcorder against your forehead (which is a dandy transmitter of vibrations) you hold an external-viewfinder model in front of you so that your two arms act as shock absorbers. The resulting images are noticeably smoother than shots made with a viewfinder stuck to your mug. (External viewfinders also make for better-looking compositions, but that’s a topic for another time.)

And if your camcorder budget is yet a bit larger, consider image stabilization. Stripped of technicalities, stabilization works like this: when the camera shakes, it makes the image jiggle too. Working at amazing speed, the stabilization circuitry analyzes the extent and direction of each zig and compensates with an equal and opposite zag. The result is that the image appears to stand still.

Some camcorders achieve stabilization electronically by adjusting the recording area on the imaging chip. Others do the job optically with motor-driven compensators in the camera lens. Both systems work quite well, and either one is amply worth the extra investment to get it.

But image stabilization can’t defeat the shakes completely, so you still need a tripod. Here then is a fast and painless introduction to these three-legged animals. (For a more thorough treatment of tripods, see the May, 1997 Videomaker.)

A Micro Course in Tripods

You can use your old still camera tripod for video, but unless you routinely use the remote control mentioned above, a still model moves too jerkily for even the most casual video shooting. So bite the bullet and invest in a real video tripod; you can get one for less than a pair of good basketball tickets. And when you go shopping, look for three things: smoothness, convenience, and stiffness.

If nothing else, a tripod has to do three things: rotate smoothly on its horizontal axis (pan), swing up and down with equivalent finesse (tilt) and stay put when you want it to (lock). Cheap tripods lock in one position by increasing tilt tension to its maximum, but it’s better to find a model with a separate movement lock. That way, you can adjust the pan and tilt drag (resistance) to your taste and then fix your beast in place without disturbing your settings.

As Archimedes would be happy to explain, the key to smooth movement is a long lever–which on a tripod means the pan handle–so look for the model with the longest handle you can find. Also, check smoothness by attaching your camcorder and trying out the combination, observing the results in the viewfinder.

And when you mate your camera to the tripod head, note whether the unit has a quick-release mechanism. With this system, you bolt a mounting plate to the bottom of your camera and then dock it on the tripod with the click of a simple release handle. Easy off/easy on is as important for quick shooting as it is for gas stations on interstates.

Another reason for trying tripods with camcorder attached is to test their stiffness. Fighting to save weight, tripod manufacturers build their units as lightly as possible, and sometimes they get carried away. I’ve seen models so flimsy that the legs torque and even lift off the ground when you pan with too much drag on the tripod head.

So even if your tripod costs less than $75 (and several competent units do) you deserve to have a smooth head, rigid legs, and a quick camera release. Oh, and don’t forget that long pan handle.

Tripod Techniques

Once you’ve got your hands on a tripod, you need to learn how to use it; but even before that you have to learn how to level the stupid thing. A level tripod is vital. Otherwise, shots that start with flat horizons will skew up or downhill as soon as you pan left or right.

Ball-level heads are fast and easy, but you can’t get one at the Getting Started Bargain Counter; so here’s how to level a conventional model:

  1. Extend tripod legs to working height.

  2. Inspect bubble level to identify uphill side. All decent tripods have these levels, whose air bubbles move toward the high side of the unit.

  3. While holding the head with the bubble still in the same position, rotate the legs so that one and only one foot points uphill too.

  4. Shorten the uphill leg until the bubble centers.

Sounds obvious, right? But you can’t believe how many people try to adjust two or even all three legs, until the tripod has crept down to Munchkin height and its owner is muttering ancient Hittite curses.

With your tripod nice and level, you’re ready to operate it. So here are some simple techniques for professional looking pans and tilts. First, if you’re working on a level surface, ignore what I just said about leg placement and set up the tripod with one leg pointed directly at the center of the action (call this 12 o’clock) with the other two legs at the four- and eight-o’clock positions while you snug between them at six. This will give you room to work without falling over your own tripod (which does not look cool).

Spotting tripod legs at 12, four, and eight o’clock is fine for relatively static situations. But when you have to make wide pans, say when following the play from the sidelines of a game, you may want to experiment with the opposite setup. In this situation, place two legs forward at the 10- and two-o’clock positions, while you straddle the third leg at six. This may seem awkward, but, to continue our clock metaphor, it will let you swing the camera all the way from three to nine o’clock and back, to frame the passing action.

Vertical camera movements (tilts) can be even more awkward than pans, so here’s a technique to try. Suppose, for example, you want to tilt from the roots to the awesome top of a giant redwood tree. With one hand on the tripod panhandle, aim the camera downward and then grasp the tube of the viewfinder in the other hand. As you swing the camera upward, hold on to the finder so that it pivots away from the camcorder body. At the end of your tilt, the camera will point steeply upward but you will still be looking slightly downward into the finder. For a tilt downward, just do the same in reverse.

So that’s the skinny on tripods for Getting Starters. Invest just a few bucks, practice just a few minutes, and your camera moves will be a smooth as Teflon on ice.

Good shooting!

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