We videographers go to great lengths to make our productions look more professional. We buy the best camcorders we can afford, invest in expensive external microphones, get gold-plated cables and scrutinize our tape stock. Nothing, however, screams "Amateur!" louder than shaky camera work. Your camcorder’s image stabilization technology can reduce some camera shake, but it is no substitute for a tripod.
There are lots of tripods on the market at a variety of prices, ranging from $50 to well over $1,000. What you buy will depend largely on your needs and your budget, but there are a few important features to consider as you seek a set of sticks to support your shooter.
Head Type – A fluid head allows smooth pans and tilts. Watch out for imitation fluid heads, often called "fluid action." These are usually friction heads, which may stick or grab as you attempt to make a camera move. For the smoothest moves, look for a tripod with a true fluid head.
Mount – Mounts come in two styles: flat or bowl-style. Bowl mounts let you level the head without adjusting the legs.
If you need to get your camera on and off the tripod quickly, look for a mounting plate with a quick-release lever. Also, take a look at the construction of the mount. Plastic parts are not as strong and will not last as long as metal ones.
Bubble Level – A fluid-based level indicator is the best way to make sure your tripod is level when you set up. Tripods with bowl-type mounts often have two bubble levels, one for the legs and another for the head.
Weight – Heavy tripods are harder to carry, but more stable than lighter ones. You decide which is more important for the shooting that you do.
Height – A tall tripod is important for high-angle shots or for shooting over the heads of a crowd, but getting low can be important as well. Evaluate both maximum and minimum height when looking for a tripod.
Maximum Weight Capacity – A heavy duty tripod isn’t necessary for compact camcorders, but a lightweight tripod may not support your XL1s. It’s a good idea to try your camcorder on the tripod to see if you have a good match before making your purchase.
Collapsed Size – Storage space and portability can be crucial considerations, especially for travelers.
Leg Locks – Some tripods have quick-lock and release systems for legs and others have screw-type fasteners. Again, look at the quality of the construction before making your decision.
Spreader – If setting up quickly is a concern, look for a tripod with a leg spreader. The spreader lets you quickly and securely position all three legs in one movement.
You can find tripods at your local SuperMart store, consumer electronics warehouse, photo or video store, on the Web or through any of the various mail-order vendors in this magazine. Wherever you shop, take a moment to visit the Web sites of the original tripod manufacturers listed in our sidebar to identify the models that interest you.