A Fresh Look at Tripods

Knowing how to choose a tripod is foundational to the camcorder enthusiast. Why? Because there are so many good things to look for and bad things to avoid, and because you’ll live with your choice for a long, long time. It’s important for shoppers to understand the anatomy of these three-legged critters, and to shop with each part of the beast in mind. Knowing how to use a tripod effectively is equally important because the first and most potent indicator of competent work is a steady image; and that, basically, is what tripods are all about.

Anatomy of a Tripod

All tripods have two basic components: legs and head. In simpler models the two are permanently attached. But when you enter the professional class, you can usually choose head and legs separately, to meet your particular needs. Let’s begin with the leg section and, like a Horatio Alger hero, work our way up from the bottom.

Most tripods are fitted with non-skid rubber feet. In addition, some have arrangements for uncovering or otherwise enabling sharp metal pin feet. Unless you’re shooting on soft, uneven turf, like sand, dirt or grass, you’ll rarely need these pins, except to fit into spreaders.

A spreader is a three-armed star with a cup at the end of each one. To prevent tripod slippage on smooth floors, you set the spreader on the floor and the tripod feet pins in the spreader’s cups. If the spreader has wheels, (it’s called a dolly though the wheels are usually not smooth enough for dolly shots) you can always push the camera and tripod from one setup to the next. Many tripods don’t require spreaders, as we’ll see.

The feet are attached to legs, which are engineered in two or more telescoping sections so that the tripod can be collapsed for storage and adjusted for height. The legs sections lock in place via knobs, snap-over latches, or cams.

At the top, the legs are hinged to a horizontal ring, which often includes a central column descending from the ring. Usually, there is a pedestal shaft inside the column onto which the camcorder mounts. The shaft is raised and lowered with a crank to raise and lower the camcorder. The column often anchors three lateral struts that extend out to the legs. These struts brace the legs and make a spreader unnecessary. For this reason, a center column is often a good feature to have on tripod legs.

Have a Ball… Please!

Before moving from legs to head, we need to explain a feature that is sometimes split between the two of them: the ball leveling system. Typically, at the top of the legs is a cup and the bottom of the head is a matching ball, attached by a bolt and an oversized washer curved to match the cup.

To level the tripod you simply loosen the bolt, level the head while eyballing the built-in spirit level, and tighten the bolt again. Elapsed time: five seconds. Without ball leveling you must adjust one or more leg length to level the unit, which is a major pain.

Inexpensive tripods are sold with head and legs preassembled and they almost never have ball-leveling. Entry level professional models lack this feature too –but they do come as separate head and leg components that you can mix and match to suit your situation. And that usually means they will accept a self-contained ball level mechanism that threads between head and legs. Bogen offers a very nice version of this stand-alone ball system for under $100 and it is well-worth the price.

The Class of the Head

The most important part of a tripod is the head. It’s the business end that does the actual work. A good head has at least four essential systems: handle, release, drag and lock.

A professional pan handle (not to be confused with a bum’s request for change) is long enough for good leverage, bent slightly in the middle for versatility in positioning, and switchable from the right to left sides of the head.

The release system attaches your camcorder to the tripod head. The simplest version is a bolt that threads into the camcorder’s tripod socket. This method is slow but simple. A better option is a quick release system: a beveled plate that bolts to the camera and docks to a fitting that threads into to the tripod head. Simply push the plate into its dock and it locks the camera onto the head. Flip a lever and you can detach the camera instantly. Quick release mechanisms are available as separate add-ons for all tripods, and on better quality units they are often built in.

The drag controls adjust the head’s resistance to panning and tilting, and they are essential for smooth camera moves. Drag controls tailor the movement resistence or “drag” to the weight of your camera and your style of operating the tripod.

A good lock control is a must on any decent tripod. It disables vertical movement so that you can walk away from the camcorder without fear that its head will sink slowly like an old man nodding off for a nap and damage your zoom lens.

Tripod Price Ranges

Aside from refinements like vertical locks, all tripods have the basic components we’ve just discussed. So if they’re all so similar, how come they range from $40 to $4,000 and up? Because they’re like cars: the added cost comes from conveniences and refinements.

Tripods divide into five big categories. On poverty row you find cheap, flimsy still-camera tripods with sticky heads, dinky handles, and iffy legs. These cheapies are’ny meant to support camcorders. Don’t even go there.

On the hobbyist level you can get a perfectly good unit for $50-$150. The Vanguard VT-219 ($110) and the Tiffen Magnum XL ($150) are good examples. These units are light, reasonably sturdy and they pan and tilt smoothly. What they lack, however, is ball leveling.

If you’re more than a casual shooter, the next step up ($150-$500) may be for you. At this level you get legs that will last a lifetime, improved leg locking mechanisms, and heads with sophisticated lock and drag controls.

Some will even include ball leveling and you can often choose separate head and leg components, like the Bogen 3130 ($97) head and 3001 ($111) legs, and then insert a stand-alone ball level between them. The System 2 ($330) from Camera Supports International is a tripod system that includes a ball level.

As you graduate to working pro ($1,000-$2,000) you develop the need (and the budget) to move up-market to heavy-duty tripods. Paradoxically, heavier duty may actually mean lighter weight, because professional workhorse tripods are often made of carbon fiber and similar weight-saving synthetics. You also get more versatility in leg setup systems, and the ball level systems are larger, for smoother control.

But the real step up at this level is the head. The controls are more sophisticated and the all-important pan and tilt movements are as creamy as warm caramel. Popular units include the Cartoni Alpha 1 system ($1675) and Bogen’s Gitzo 1337 tripod and G1380 head, which sell together for $1780 and include a case and carrying strap.

Having started at the ridiculous, we conclude with the sublime: tripods that, like fine automobiles, are so beautifully engineered and fabricated that they’re a pleasure to play with or just to behold. Do they actually work better? Possibly, but people buy these models because only the best will satisfy them. Typical top-drawer tripods include the Vinten Vision 5LF ($2750) and the Matthews ST-80 system (T95 tripod and H80 head) for $4920.

Which category should you look in? Depends on your needs, of course, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Invest in a ball-level system, whether integral or stand-alone. Trust me on this.

  • If you’re just starting out, buy a tripod that’s at least one level up from the rest of your gear. Tripods last almost indefinitely, so don’t buy one that’s inferior to the camcorder you’ll grow into in a year or so.

  • Stay with established brands like Vinten, Cartoni, Bogen and Matthews. They’ve made tripods for a long time and they’ve lasted because of their quality.

Why Bother?

Since many video snapshooters don’t use a tripod, why should you? The short answer is, to achieve a rock-steady image. And what’s so important about steady shots? Nothing, if you’re shooting heavy metal music videos. But for other types of program material, there are two good reasons why you want a picture that doesn’t lurch, wiggle, wobble, or jerk.

The first is viewer comfort. Jittery images are annoying and distracting; and if continued long enough, they’re physically fatiguing to viewers’ eyes, which must make hundreds of small corrections per minute to stay focused on the image before them.

The second reason is professional presentation. A calm, unwavering image shows the viewer a class act.

So there, as promised, is a rapid survey of tripod lore. When all’s said and done, buy the best quality you can afford and make sure you get a ball level system. That’s all there is to it.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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