Choosing the right tripod doesn't have to be a shaky experience. Follow these simple guidelines and you will be on your way to a smoother, more professional-looking video presentation.
Unlike many computers these days, a good tripod can be a long-term investment. There are many shapes and sizes from which to choose. But before you buy a tripod for your video camera, ask yourself these questions: What will you be shooting, and under what conditions? What kind of camera(s) will you be attaching to your tripod? Or, maybe a monopod is what you really need? Once you have these answers, then it should be easy to find the perfect 'pod' for your needs.
Our Tripod Buyer's Guide should help you decide what your needs for support equipment are, what to look for, and what type of tripod will work best in your video production.
The head is where the camera attaches to the tripod. A good tripod head assists you in achieving smooth side-to-side (pan) and up-and-down (tilt) movements. Look for a tripod that has a fluid head, designed specifically for these reasons. Head size and weight are important. You want the head to fit your camera. Also, consider if the tripod head will work on a range of different camera weights, just in case you have more than one. A quick release plate on your head is another good thing. This will make it easy for you to attach and detach the camera to your tripod in a hurry. You can buy quick release plates separately. The Cartoni APRO ActionPro Aluminum Tripod System, $650, features a sliding base plate for accurate balancing and a "true" fluid head (see sidebar). The Bogen-Manfrotto 501 Pro Video Head, $143, will fit any camera up to 13.2 lbs. It comes with its own release plate and an adjustable pan bar.
Legs and Feet
If you can afford it, you might think about getting a tripod with carbon fiber legs. They are sturdier, giving you smoother tilts and pans as well as better resistance to vibrations. Carbon fiber legs and a magnesium body makes these models about one third lighter than aluminum tripods.
Something else to consider is what type of feet you want on your tripod. Do you want a "spreader" that straddles the ground? Do you need independent "self-leveling" feet to set the legs at different lengths to create a level platform? Spikes will come in handy if you are shooting on grass or dirt, while rubber feet will work better on smooth surfaces. If you can get both, even better. The Sachtler SYSTEM DV-1 Aluminum Tripod System, $600, has a true fluid head, on-ground spreader and supports cameras up to 4.4 lbs. If you are on a budget, the Anodized Aluminum Bogen 3221 WN Wilderness Tripod, $165, with both spiked and rubber feet, will hold a camera up to 13.3 lbs (legs only).
When shooting video, make sure your camcorder is on the level, that those horizontal and vertical planes remain true. To help you with this, your tripod will come equipped with a spirit level, or "bubble." This way, even if the surface directly under your tripod is irregular, you can compensate by adjusting the relative position of the camcorder. Some heads even come with a bubble attached to the side so that you can establish a level position for the camcorder, regardless of the balance between the legs. The Vinten PRO-6-DC Protouch Lightweight Tripod System, $1,000, has a built-in illuminated bubble as well as a floor spreader and carry case.
Height and Weight
Most tripods are expandable, so they can stretch as tall as 70 inches or more, and collapse as low as two feet or less. In most cases, the taller the tripod can extend, the better, though it is also good if a tripod can shoot low. What about weight? Lighter tripods are easier to carry, however the heavier models are more solid and allow for smoother movements.
Another feature found on some tripods is a remote control. A mini 1/8" jack on the tripod handle, which plugs into the LANC port on your camera, allows you to adjust your zoom, stop and start record, even send the camcorder into standby. Sony's VCT-D680RM Tripod with Remote Control Grip, $80, has a 3-way pan head, and expands from 19 to 57 inches.
Whereas a tripod has three legs, a monopod has only one. You can collapse a monopod and support it against your belt buckle, or use it as a boom to raise the camera over a crowd.
News and sports shooters use them for their flexibility, and they don't take up much space. Slik makes the carbon fiber Pro Pod 381, which retails for $129.
The Final Word
Remember, that unless you're shooting the next Blair Witch Project, whether it's shooting the Little League team at play or the CEO's keynote speech, most video projects can be greatly improved by a steady well-planned and well-shot production. This goes double with that most important piece of equipment in a supporting role: your tripod.
Teresa Echazabal is a freelance video editor, writer, and producer.
Sidebar: Tripod Tricks
>A tripod with spreaders halfway up the legs works best in uneven surfaces. In high winds, anchor your tripod by placing heavy sandbags against the legs or on the spreaders. Look for heavy-duty hardware when buying your tripod - thin plastic knobs and rubber flip locks do not last long. Keep an extra quick release plate on hand, in case the original accidentally stays attached to a camera that doesn't make the present shoot (happens too often).
Sidebar: True Fluid
The best video tripods have what is commonly known as "true fluid heads." These tripods contain two plates that float on top of one another in a viscous solution that alleviates jerkiness and enables smooth tilts and pans. They work similarly to a car's transmission; the plates never actually touch. The entire mechanism is well sealed against wear and weather. Less expensive models try to simulate the "true fluid head." Be wary of tripods with names such as "fluid action," "fluid-effect" or "fluid like." Though these cheaper models do have fluid between the plates, they are not made with the same precision and are not sealed making them much more susceptible to harm from dust, dirt, cold and wear from heavy usage and heavier cameras. A "fluid like" tripod may feel very similar to a "true fluid head" tripod on the showroom floor but it will not withstand the test of time. In addition, a true fluid head will allow you to adjust the rotating resistance (a.k.a. drag) to be as light or heavy as you prefer.
Sidebar: Cheap Tricks
Don't put an old tripod out to pasture. Use it as a light stand for guerilla clip-on shop lights and other accessories. Also, use it when traveling or when a high-end tripod is just too heavy. In addition, you can use a lighter, second tripod to lock down a second camera, but be sure to lock it down good when unattended. You don't want the camera to fall off!
There are few differences between video and photo tripods, but the main difference is in the head. Since there is no movement in still photography, a fluid head is not a necessity. In still photography, a swivel tilt head will achieve the simple vertical and horizontal positioning that you need. In addition, still cameras are generally not as heavy as professional video cameras, so the tripod can be lightweight as well. This makes still photography tripods much easier to lug around.