5 Tripods Under $500

Heads and Legs

On most tripods more than $100, the tripod legs can be removed from the head; in fact, many legs and heads are sold separately but are also available as sets. Tripod legs are usually rated for different weights, and you will probably visibly notice the difference between legs made for video and legs made for photos. Other features of the legs you should note before purchasing include maximum and minimum height abilities and stability features including locking mechanisms and spiked feet.

Video Heads Vs. Photo Heads

Just like you can use many still cameras to shoot video, you can use a tripod designed for still photography for video work. A tripod built for video is not necessarily better to use than a photography model. The key is understanding the differences between the two and how they relate to your production workflow.

Video heads on professional tripods typically have fluid in their mechanisms to create smooth movement for pans — moving the camera angle left or right — and tilts — moving the camera angle up or down. Video heads typically come with one or two control arms to make it easy to pan and tilt the camera. There are often drag adjustments that place tension on the pan and tilt controls making them a bit harder to move which can help make the operator's movements smoother. Fluid heads tend to be larger and heavier than photo heads making them not as easily portable.

If you've got a heavy rig and need smooth camera moves, then you definitely should be looking at video tripods.

Gear heads use internal gearing instead of fluid to smooth out their movement and are controlled by hand cranks. One of the advantages to gear heads is numbered settings that are useful on long multi-day shoots. Big budget productions are usually the only place you'll see gear heads used because of their high cost.

One of the only uses for a fluid head in still photography is for shooting panoramas so there isn't a huge demand for them. Photo heads typically only lock in place for pan and tilt adjustments, and ball heads have only a single lock for both pan and tilt. Photo heads tend to be smaller, lighter and cheaper than video heads.

If you want a compact, easy to carry tripod and you’re not panning or tilting while shooting, a photo tripod could work well for you, although recent tripods innovations including carbon fiber components and compact design are giving videographers more choice. If you've got a heavy rig and need smooth camera moves, then you definitely should be looking at video tripods.

Italian For Life

Manfrotto MVK500AQThe Manfrotto MVK500AQ tripod offers the build quality you'd expect from the Italian manufacturer plus some unique design features. The MVH500A head features a quick release that makes it faster and easier remove the camera. The head also has a threaded ?-inch hole for attaching an accessory arm to hold a monitor or other device. The 60mm half ball fluid head has locks for pan and tilt but the tension for both are non-adjustable. The single tube aluminum legs (MVT535AQ) have four sections and a standard 75mm half bowl, which can be used to attach other 75mm tripod heads. The angle of the legs can be adjusted allowing the tripod to be used from 8.9-inches high to 67.3-inches high. The tripod supports loads up to 11 lbs. The MVK500AQ weights just more than 11 lbs and is 28.35-inches closed, so it may be hard to fit in your Fiat 500 with your other gear. It retails for $490 and has a generous lifetime warranty as well as a sporty carrying bag.

Support For Your Heavy Rig

Davis & Sanford Provista 7518BDavis & Sanford is has been around for 80 years, and the brand is a member of the Tiffen family, a company known for it's filters as well as its Steadicam camera supports. The Davis & Sanford Provista 7518B Tripod with a FM18 Fluid Head is professional-level support for serious video shooters with an impressive 18-pound load capacity that will accommodate most professional and virtually all prosumer video rigs. The two-way fluid head with bubble level has dual adjustable pan handles and a variable balance quick release platform. The tripod had a 75mm claw ball leveler with 3/8-16-inch stud to prevent camera vibration. It has heavy-duty, dual-strut, three-section aluminum legs for enhanced stability with a mid-level spreader for additional support. The legs have a maximum height of 64-inches and a minimum height of 28-inches and feature flip locks. It folds to 29-inches and weighs 12 lbs. For $198, you get the tripod, an extra quick release plate, a carrying bag and a 10-year warranty.

Carbon Fiber at a Steal

Davis & Sanford  TR654C-36 TraverseNewly available as of July 2015, this new Davis & Sanford TR654C-36 Traverse Tripod is a carbon fiber, four-section, grounder tripod with a ball head. Featuring a lightweight, compact form factor, its adjustable grounder leg system can navigate just about any landscape terrain allowing for three independent leg angles. With a capacity load of 15 lbs., it conveniently folds to 18.5-inches and weighs only 3.25 lbs! The carbon fiber Traverse Tripod has four-section legs with quick twist leg locks and an easy-glide center post. The legs have rubber-to-spike feet for inside or outside shooting and a bottom center post hook that allows you to hang equipment or add weight to increase stability. Its maximum height is 65-inches, and its minimum height is 9-inches. A bag for the tripod is included in the phenomenal price of $170 which includes a 10-year warranty.

Can't Decide Between a Tripod and a Monopod?

Aero 4 Travel TripodThe Aero 4 Travel Tripod from Benro is both! This 3-section tripod features detachable legs that convert the tripod to a monopod with a 65-inch maximum height and 21-inch minimum height. The tripod features flip lock aluminum legs, rubber feet and independent leg adjustments. With an 8.8 lb.  load capacity, the Aero 4 weighs only 5.8 lbs and is 22 inches when folded. It has a video head with a QR6 quick release plate and integrated leveling platform. Retailing for $259, the Aero 4 also includes a carrying bag and a 3-year warranty.


Compact Enough to Fit In a Backpack or Large Purse

Davis & Sanford Traverse TR-553-228If you're really low on cash, this $115 tripod might meet your basic needs. With an ability to support 10 lbs., the aluminum Davis & Sanford Traverse TR-553-228 has a dual control ball head-with quick release and a calibrated base. Featuring 5-section legs that have 3-position, independent leg adjustments with twist leg locks, it has a maximum height of 53-inches and a minimum height of 12.5-inches. Compact and folding to 12-inches, it weighs only 2.6 lbs. With a 10-year warranty and a carrying bag included, it's the type of tripod that you'll want to keep long after you've upgraded to something bigger and better.


Before You Buy

Think about what you'll be shooting and make a list of the features that are important to you. Do you need something lightweight or something very small and compact? Perhaps, you're shooting weddings and need the tallest tripod you can afford to shoot over people in church pews?

Do the math! It's important to consider the capacity loads of each tripod. Long lenses are often as heavy as if not heavier than your camera body. Remember to include these as well as other accessories such as batteries, lights, microphones and hard drives in the equation when calculating your load capacity needs.

Recommendations from friends are always good, but the tripod that works best for a friend may not fit your specific needs. Do your homework to find the tripod that fits your budget and is right for you.

Side Bar: Hello Dolly!

Davis & Sanford W4DSTripod dollies seem to be most popular with wedding photographers and videographers. Why haven't the rest of us bought one? Granted, you need a really even surface to get a smooth, steady shot, but a dolly can also be helpful in just physically moving your camera around from mark to mark.

There are several factors to consider when purchasing a dolly. Do the wheels lock? How does your tripod lock into place onto the dolly? Is it a universal dolly or does it only fit specific tripods? Other features include the size of the wheels as well as the material the wheels are made from; this may be one of the most important factors because larger, rubber wheels provide smoother moves as opposed to smaller, caster-type wheels.  Prices vary depending on the features.

Davis & Sanford have some of the most reasonable dollies ranging in price from $62.95 for their W3 dolly, which has 3-inch ball bearing rubber and metal wheels with a step-on brake, to $187.95 for their W4DS dolly, which has heavy-duty, 4-inch wide tread rubber wheels with a step-on brake.
Remember, a tripod dolly and some plywood can help a one man crew get that perfect shot.

W. H. Bourne is an award-winning director; her most recent film played at more than 40 film festivals, including international screenings.

Susan Schmierer
Susan Schmierer
Susan is the Art Director at Videomaker and Creator Handbook Magazines.

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