Stepping Up to a Professional Tripod by David Flores has posted this fantastic article on Tripods for professional film-making by David Flores.

If you take your camera work seriously, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of a tripod. Quality tripod kits do more than just hold your camera rig up. These supports improve composition, force perspective, and provide smooth pan and tilt movements. While taking a look at some fine options from Sachtler and Vinten, we’ll examine the form and function of professional tripod supports.

Pro tripod systems typically consist of a head, legs (sometimes referred to as sticks), feet, and a spreader. The modular nature of these components allows them to be exchanged within a given system for the desired shot.

The Head

Tripod heads are the steering wheel of camera support systems. They control where you want your shot to stay or go. Utilizing an internal fluid for smooth motion through resistance, most video heads are referred to as fluid heads. This resistance, or drag, can be fine-tuned by the operator for a custom experience. The Sachtler FSB-8 and DV-10SB fluid heads offer 5 independent drag steps for both pan and tilt movements. Adjusting drag considers the weight of the rig relative to the speed of the desired pan and tilt.

Before tuning the drag, it’s important to properly level the head. Effectively positioning the camera parallel to the ground allows for natural composition and balanced panning. Leveling typically requires some type of balance scale. Pro heads, such as the Vision 3AS from Vinten, feature an integrated touch-illumination spirit level. The Vinten design glows in a soft blue color and provides a time saving tool for head leveling.

When you’re working with a shoulder-mounted camera, the rig feels more balanced in a horizontal position, with your shoulders directly above your hips. If you bend forward from the waist, the rig begins to feel heavier and less stable. The weight of the camera isn’t changing, but the amount of torque required for balance increases the further you bend. The physics of tilting forward or backward on a tripod head are basically the same. Unbalanced camera rigs have a tendency to tip over, or-at the very least- make movements rough and jerky. Threatening stability isn’t good for any type of production.

To remedy this, professional tripod heads often employ counterbalance systems to keep your camera, lens, audio equipment and other accessories balanced over the apex of the sticks. When shooting with a combination of video accessories or heavy gear, it’s best to utilize a head with counterbalance.

Vinten’s Perfect Balance System provides the proper amount of torque to counterbalance the weight of your rig throughout the tilt range of the head. This is particularly helpful in balancing ENG cameras, but is also highly useful when shooting with long glass on a video-enabled DSLR.

The Legs

Tripod legs assume the weight of the camera gear, and come in a variety of configurations. Stages refer to the number of locking positions on the legs. A single-stage tripod has 1 locking set combining 2 sections. A two-stage tripod uses 2 locking sets joining 3 sections. Because single-stage tripods contain fewer components, they are typically more stable than multi-stage sticks. However, two-stage tripods tend to collapse shorter for easier packing and transport.

In choosing a set of sticks, you should consider minimum/maximum height and weight capacity. Make a list of the shooting heights that best fit your project or style. The single stage Vinten V3AS-AP1M kit (which includes a Vision 3AS fluid head) offers variable height from 31.8″ to 63.5″. If your project requires lower or higher angles, it’s worth picking up multiple sets of sticks. Manfrotto’s 529 Hi Hat provides a minimum height of 5.7″ and features a 100mm half bowl with support for up to 44 pounds. For shooters requiring a higher vantage point, the Gitzo GT-5561SGT opens to 102.4″ or about 8.5′. You’ll need a proprietary bowl adapter to mount your head. Gitzo offers 75mm and 100mm options.

Manfrotto 529 Hi Hat Gitzo GT-5561SGT

The low-angle Manfrotto 529 Hi Hat and tall Gitzo GT-5561SGT camera supports

Since legs are rated for various loads, know the total amount of weight that you plan to put on top. Keep in mind that you might add or change equipment over time. If you’re using a compact Canon EOS 7D for a project today but have a Sony CineAlta shoot lined up for next spring, you should purchase sticks that can handle the weight of the beefier system. With 10-step counterbalance, Sachtler’s two-stage 0775 FSB-8 kit (featuring the FSB-8 fluid head) can accommodate up to 20 pounds.

Modern tripods are available in a variety of materials. The two most common flavors are aluminum and carbon fiber. Both are quite capable in terms of strength and durability, but there are some differences to consider.

As a composite material, carbon fiber is typically lighter than aluminum. It also conducts hot and cold at a slower rate. This offers some major benefits. If you’re shooting on location at the Equator, the sticks won’t heat up and burn your hands. On the flip side, they won’t get as cold at the North Pole. With minimal hot/cold energy transfer, carbon fiber sticks tend to require less service and adjustment over time. For those shooting in extreme environments, this is something to contemplate.

Feet and Spreaders

Feet attach to the sticks at the base level and are interchangeable for various types of terrain. Rubber feet are a mainstay of video tripod kits, and perform well on most flat surfaces. Spikes are useful when shooting on ice, snow, or loose soil.

Spreaders perform as a brace between the sticks and help minimize flex as gear is added or removed. They also help maintain the precise position of the legs as fine adjustments are performed to the camera or fluid head.

Floor spreaders attach to the tripod legs at ground level. These are most commonly used in studio or location reportage. The Vinten 3363-3 On-Ground Spreader features a unique hinged construction that can be folded along with the tripod. Quick-release tabs enable fast installation and removal.

Mid-level spreaders, such as the Sachtler 7011, are best employed for on-location shooting. The mid-level design keeps the legs from collapsing on uneven ground and adds stability when a narrow stance is required. Under certain conditions, operators hang weight from a spreader for extra strength.

Kits for Consideration

Whether you are choosing your first pro video tripod or adding another set up to the arsenal, B&H offers a wide variety of kits that can get you shooting right away.

Vinten V10AS-CP2MVinten V10AS-CP2MVinten V10AS-CP2M

The Vinten V10AS-CP2M includes a mid-level spreader and travel bag

Broadcast videographers would do well to consider the Sachtler 1060 DV-10SB and Vinten V10AS-CP2M. Sachtler’s aluminum, two stage kit features a floor spreader, soft travel bag, and support for ENG cameras up to 26.5 pounds. The Vinten set up offers carbon fiber sticks, a mid-level spreader, travel bag and support for up to 32 pounds.

Sachtler's 0772B-787 FSB-8 with DA 75L + Canon Power setSachtler's 0772B-787 FSB-8 with DA 75L + Canon Power set

Sachtler’s 0772B-787 FSB-8 with DA 75L + Canon Power set provides extra battery life for select Canon cameras

Independent filmmakers and journalists will love the Vinten V3AS-CP2M and Sachtler 0772B-787 FSB-8 with DA 75L and Canon Power Set. The Vinten set features a wide range of heights from 22.8″ to 67.8″. The Sachtler kit includes a powerful 7.2 volt lithium ion battery for the Canon XH, XL, and GL series camcorders. By adding this battery pack below the camera plate, leveling and counterbalance can be accomplished with greater speed and efficiency.

Going Pro

Stepping up to a professional tripod kit can enhance the quality of your work faster than any other type of video accessory. In many ways, a proper tripod rig is just as important as the camera itself. From static shots to pan and tilt movement, pro tripods provide the tools to refine your visual language and force individual perspective into every frame. The mother of all other camera supports, pro video tripods will have you composing faster, considering the deeper meaning of what’s in front of you, and making your uncompromising vision a reality.

David Flores is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City.

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