The stars of video production equipment are not tripods, dollies or jibs. That’s not their role. They are meant to blend into the background, be sturdy and dependable and never have tantrums on set. Of course, they may be typecast into supporting roles, but replace that sturdy, fluid and dependable friend with a loose lackey, and all of a sudden, everything else doesn’t seem to matter.
Choosing the wrong support system can make the video from even the best video camera look amateurish, so we’ve put together this guide to help you make the best decision in casting this key role.
Several types of stabilization systems fall into these categories: tripods, dollies, jibs and cranes, and motion stabilizers. For each of these types, getting the right one for your style and level of production is not necessarily just a matter of spending more money. If you are a budding videographer, you’ll be looking for a slightly different set of features, benefits and price ranges than someone working on a second documentary. So, we’ll suggest qualities to look for in both basic and advanced support systems.
A solid tripod is nearly as important as the video camera itself. Every one has two basic parts: the head and the legs. You commonly buy these parts as a unit, but you may find them listed individually. If you do your research, you can even mix and match, but it’s best to do this within the same brand.
A solid tripod must do several things well. It must stay where you put it; it must not bend or vibrate when you use it; and it must give you smooth and consistent resistance for tilts and pans. Starting from the ground up, look for feet that get a good grip on the surface you’ll be shooting on. This usually means rubber or soft plastic for smooth surfaces and spikes for soil. Some designs have feet that screw up and down to reveal both types of feet, while others have removable components.
Next, look for legs that resist twisting when you tilt and pan, even with higher drag settings (more on this later). Design, materials and height all influence this property. Given the same weight and materials, legs with split-leg or “crutch” design can often resist twisting better than those with single legs. But don’t avoid looking at single-leg designs, particularly if you need a compact and light set of “sticks” for travel. Material and its associated weight are considerations if you’ll be toting your tripod any significant distances. Leg materials include everything from wood to carbon fiber, but the most common material is aluminum. Some experienced shooters still swear by wood designs, claiming that they absorb some vibrations better than metal or synthetics. One last leg design feature to look for is a way to limit how far the legs will spread or splay. Some legs include devices called “spreaders” that limit the splay, while others use a ratcheting system, where the legs join at the top. If low-angle shots will be in your repertoire, getting legs that allow the head to get as close to the ground as possible will be critical.
The most important factor to consider when choosing a tripod head is matching the weight of your camcorder with the rated load capacity of the head. For those of you in the More-is-Better crowd, you do not want to get a head that is designed for a heavier camcorder, even if you have plans to get a bigger camcorder sometime in the future. You simply won’t get balanced performance throughout the range of the head’s motion. If you are considering a bigger camcorder or have more than one type you’ll be using, look for heads that allow you to install different gauges of counterbalance springs.
A big difference you’ll see in price and performance is between fluid and non-fluid heads (see sidebar). For much of the work by beginning and intermediate producers, a smooth-action non-fluid head helps to provide some great-looking video. Look for true drag settings on both the tilt and pan axis, and be careful that these are not simply locking mechanisms. Using locking knobs to increase drag resistance can ruin the head over time. If you will be doing much work outside, where the wind can ruin a lengthy pan, look for heads that offer higher drag settings.
Finally, the way the head mounts to the legs can give you an added degree of flexibility and speed. The head can be secured by a ball and socket, or “bowl,” or by a solid plate. The bowl design is faster to set up if you are on uneven terrain, usually requiring you to twist one knob and reference a bubble level to fix your position. This design also gives you the ability to get those artsy “Dutch” angles quickly. The solid plate design is very stable, but it requires you to adjust the legs to fix your level. In most cases, this will require more time to set up.
While anything with wheels and a camcorder mount can loosely be called a “dolly” (we’ve seen professional video producers successfully use a skateboard), getting truly stable moving shots, consistently, requires special design and manufacturing. Because of recent innovations and lower prices, dollies are no longer reserved for big-budget productions. The two major types of dollies include those that the operator rides on and those where the operator walks beside. Both types will often need special track for the smoothest shots. Most dollies in an affordable price range will have an aluminum base, hard rubber or urethane wheels and perhaps a seat for the operator. These configurations often require you to use your existing tripod. Tight-fitting connections at all points of contact between track sections, dolly base and tripod are critical for not only smooth, but also quiet operation. Oh yes, with a riding dolly, you’ll also need a push.
Jibs & Cranes
One of the most impressive ways to open or close a scene is by moving the camcorder up or down past a tall foreground object to your subject. You do this by using a jib or crane. Sometimes you hear these names used interchangeably, but a jib usually consists of a long arm with the camcorder on one end and counterweights on the other. The whole rig mounts to a tripod base. A crane can be a larger version of this, but it also includes designs that allow the camera operator and even a director to sit on the same moving platform as the camcorder. Consequently, cranes are normally something you rent. Like dollies, jibs have undergone recent retooling to make them affordable and usable by even a single operator. Less expensive jibs will fix the camcorder at a constant angle to the ground throughout its range. More expensive designs give you the ability to tilt and even pan the camcorder as you raise or lower the arm. If you are thinking of getting a jib in the future and have not purchased your tripod yet, be sure to account for the additional weight when ordering your head.
Perhaps the most exotic and flexible way to move a camera is by using a motion stabilization system. Steadicam has become practically a generic term, though wrongly applied, for all such systems. This category has exploded with innovative contraptions with a wide price range. If you need to move while shooting and can’t be encumbered by laying track, then a motion stabilizer may be right for you. Motion stabilizers can be broken down into two main categories: those you support with your arms and those you support by wearing a special harness. If you have a relatively light camcorder (one that won’t fatigue your arms when you hold it at odd angles for extended periods), then any one of the smaller handheld devices may suit your needs. They are certainly less expensive and are often easier to set up and balance. Harness-style systems are usually for larger prosumer and professional camcorders, and they tend to have the widest price range. Most of the systems on the market today are capable of providing very fluid-looking video, but all require moderate to significant amounts of practice.
So if your pans are still a bit shaky, your tilts are a little jerky and your general camcorder movement is less than fluid, then you might be in the market for a new stabilization device. We hope you’ll use the information we’ve given you here to research your next equipment investment, one that will make all of the shots in your next video rock-solid and silky-smooth.
Contributing editor Brian Peterson is a video production consultant, trainer and lecturer.
Sidebar: Fluid vs. Non-fluid Heads
Fluid heads use hydraulic pressure to regulate the resistance (drag) of both tilt and pan movements. But you’ll hear the oft-touted phrase, “fluid-like motion,” used to describe heads that rely on lubricated friction fittings, so it can be
confusing. This is one of those features that probably is determined by price and need. Consider a fluid head if you are an advanced shooter who will be doing a lot of tilts and pans on medium to extended zooms, can afford a head that may cost more than your camcorder and have an audience that will notice the higher quality.