The versatility of tripods is incredible. Other than your camera, a tripod is the only piece of equipment you own that will go to every shoot. Despite all the talk of the latest 3-axis gimbals or drones, you should never underestimate the importance of having a great tripod.
Consider this scenario. A proud parent stands on a chair in the back of the school auditorium. At full zoom, he valiantly tries to capture a 45-minute dance recital. As fatigue spreads to fingers, hand, arm and shoulder the video starts looking like San Francisco earthquake footage — not good.
The solution is a tripod. Tripods were conceived when cameras were roughly the size and weight of a small refrigerator. No human could hoist one of these cinematic dinosaurs onto a shoulder. Today, cameras are so small that they can fit into a wristwatch. Have tripods become obsolete? Absolutely not.
In this article, we’ll endeavor to convince you that the stabilizing power of these three-legged creatures easily overshadows the minimal effort required in hauling one around. We’ll meet five videographers challenged by very different filmmaking scenarios where a tripod becomes their best friend.
Heads Above the Rest
Let’s explore the dance recital scenario described at the beginning of the article. The biggest challenge to overcome is distance — the space between the camera and the stage. A tight shot is necessary in order to see the expression on a young dancer’s face. To get a tight shot from the back of an auditorium, the magnifying magic of a zoom lens is necessary.
At high zoom settings, the lens will accentuate even the tiniest twitch and bob. No human can hold a camera steady for an extended time — even with image stabilization technology. Solution: use a tripod with a good quality head.
The head is the single most important mechanism on a tripod. It must offer silky smooth video camera movement — anything less is intolerable. Tripod heads designed for still cameras are typically not smooth enough for video use.
A good tripod head offers a dependably consistent amount of resistance to movement. That movement can take the form of a pan (side-to-side movement) or tilt (up and down movement). The steady resistance allows the operator to execute controlled movements like smoothly following a child pirouette across the stage. Control knobs located on the head adjust pan and tilt drag — or allow the head to lock completely.
The smoothest tripod head uses an oil-type fluid to dampen and control camera movement. Ball-and-socket and other friction type heads don't typically offer acceptably smooth camera movements. Four manufacturers of fluid heads are Manfrotto, Sachtler, Miller and Libec — you can even buy legs and heads separately to get just the right combination for the size and weight of your camera.
Breathing Life into Old Photos
The next scenario involves a woman with a box of old photos. Only her 94-year-old aunt can identify the people and places. Time to get busy capturing some family history. Why not convert that unruly box of images into a folder of digital files.
You don’t need to send your photos off to a pricey service that digitizes images. You don’t even need a scanner — although that could get the job done. All you need is a decent digital camera and a tripod.
First, find a way to securely hold the photos in a vertical position. The perfect solution is a music stand or easel, but with a little improvising, you can turn a clipboard resting against a wall into just what you need. Or even magnets on the fridge will hold photos still.
The magic begins once the images are stationary. Use the camera’s pan, tilt and zoom features to bring movement and interest to a still photograph. A good tripod makes it possible.
For example, a tripod can help animate a historic still photo of a child’s birthday party. First, establish the scene by showing the entire image. Next, zoom in and begin smoothly panning across the guest’s faces. Finally, slowly zoom into the glowing candles on the cake. The scene comes alive. Don't attempt this sans tripod — you won’t be happy with the result.
In order to achieve professional results with historic images, a level tripod is necessary. Some tripods feature a bubble-type balance allowing filmmakers to achieve a plumb tripod by telescoping individual legs up or down. A locking device secures the telescoping legs in position — typically a ring that tightens or a lever that snaps into a locked position.
Another leveling solution is a cellphone app. Built into iOS 7 for iPhone is a leveling feature in the Compass app. Also available are free leveling apps for other iPhones and the Android operating system.
Rock Climbing Challenge
Let’s follow the adventure of a young filmmaker setting out to document the sport of rock climbing. With little budget, the filmmaker elects to use his iPhone 5 camera. Is this camera choice a fatal mistake? No. An iPhone captures HD quality 1080p video. But can you attach an iPhone to a tripod? Yes.
There are multitudes of universal and model specific accessories that make mounting cell phones and tablets to tripods a snap. Our young filmmaker could also add an accessory lens to the iPhone to bring the action closer.
There’s nothing level about the surface of granite boulders — the location where the young filmmaker sets up his tripod. Fortunately, he packed a tripod with a bubble-type balance that will allow him to achieve a level tripod by telescoping individual legs.
But what if two legs are on rock and the third is on dirt? No problem. Many tripods have feet that transform between a spike and a rubber pad. The retractable metal spikes are particularly useful on grass or dirt surfaces where they bite into the terrain.
For stability, a tripod has three legs. This configuration creates a stable triangular design. The geometry was even steady enough for an unfortunate dog named "Tripod" owned by famous American photographer Edward Steichen (1879-1973). The scrappy Beagle was missing a leg.
Rock climbers use aluminum for the same reason videographers do. The aluminum carabiner is an essential fastening device used in rock climbing. The strongest ones, made from high-grade aluminum, can safely support a small car — yet weigh only a few ounces. Aluminum affords the same lightweight strength, safety and durability for tripods.
Strong as it is, make sure all controls are locked before walking away from a tripod. With legs fully extended, especially in windy situations, anchor a tripod with a sandbag or other weight. Better yet, in adverse conditions, don't leave a precious camera unattended.
We meet our next filmmaker as she prepares to shoot a scene for an episode of her YouTube web series. The scene calls for a tracking shot that follows the star walking from kitchen to living room. The script demands a rock steady shot, so letting her DSLR camera go handheld is not an option.
One solution is a dolly — a wheel and support system attached to the foot of each tripod leg. The kitchen and living room share the same smooth wood laminate flooring. The dolly will roll smoothly across the floor, giving the filmmaker the desired steady shot. Dolly manufacturers include Manfrotto, Sachtler, Miller and Libec.
Before pressing the record button, make sure all three wheels are pointed in the desired direction of travel. For best results set the camera lens to wide angle to lessen the intensity of bumps and jiggles.
What if the living room has deep plush carpet? The dolly’s wheels would certainly thump when making the transition from wood to carpet. The solution is to place the tripod on a specially designed track similar to a roller coaster. This system offers a fluid solution to following the action over varied surfaces. Tracking rails can get pricey, but the resulting silky-smooth camera movement may be worth the cost. One source for tracking rails is Libec.
The Product Shot
Our final videographer’s task is to shoot a video commercial for a new yo-yo. The client wants movement and excitement in a shot of a yo-yo sitting on a table. Sounds like a challenge! The excitement-generating solution is a slider.
The slider is an accessory that attaches to a sturdy tripod and allows a video camera to smoothly slide along a short track. The setup can even be used between two tripods. The slider offers just enough camera movement to result in an engaging yo-yo image destined to catch the eye of the audience. Libec is one company that manufactures sliders.
A round knurled ring attached to a bolt typically secures the slider, or a camera, to the tripod head. Some tripods include a quick release mechanism allowing for easy attachments. A plate attaches via the threaded tripod socket, then mates with a locking mechanism on the tripod head.
The best quick release mechanisms offer feedback that docking is complete with a reassuring "click." If the mounting system doesn't give this feedback, physically check the camera to ensure it's secure — anything less could lead to picking up camera pieces off the ground. Ouch.
Sure, the type of shaky handheld shots made famous by mockumentaries like The Office and Modern Family are popular. But, no matter what the production, there’s always a place for the steadiness offered by a sturdy tripod. It’s time to take your dusty tripod out of the closet and let it prove its place in your gear bag.
David G. Welton is a professor of Media Studies