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Let’s face it, low-budget film and video work have always been a tough business, but in the last couple of years, video equipment has undergone a massive diversification in terms of products and price.
While this trend has provided a slew of cheaper models, which is excellent for prosumers and people just starting in their business, it can also be overwhelming when you realize just how big the waterfall of choices out there is.
Next to camera and lenses, the next most crucial facet of a videographer’s equipment cache is the tripod. “What could be easier to purchase,” you think to yourself, “three legs and a mounting plate for the camera.”
Then your cursory online search returns 20,000 results, each marginally different from the one before it.
Where do you start?
Not to worry, we’re here to help. Here are six things to consider before purchasing a tripod to add to your inventory.
1. What height/size/weight do you need?
As you probably guessed, tripods come in a ton of different sizes.
For film and video production, your height isn’t the most critical factor as it generally is in photography, where you want to avoid bending more than necessary by keeping the viewfinder at eye level.
For video, the most important consideration is the type of camera you will be using. A camera that is too heavy for the legs and head of your tripod can damage both, stripping the screw grooves on the center column or collapsing the legs.
Conversely, it’s not a good idea to grab a tripod weighted for cameras heavier than yours either, since you’ll be lugging it to and from jobs, and dragging unnecessary dead weight is no fun for anyone.
Finding the right weight range for your camera will both optimize the tripod’s fluidity of movement and put the lightest load possible on your kit.
Remember, include lens and external microphones in your consideration, as they all add to the weight of your camera body.
Tip: If you’re looking for a tripod and video head specifically for smaller cameras such as DSLR, mirrorless, or camcorders, we recommend you read our buyer’s guide 10 Best DSLR Video Tripods for beginners, travel, and professionals.
2. The Head
Looking to achieve some smooth pans and fluid tilts to add a crisp layer of production value to your work?
Static shots are good, but the adept videographer or cinematographer needs the pan and tilt like bread needs butter. With that in mind, let’s go through the types of tripod heads.
The Ball Head
Ball heads are a popular choice for photographers because they let you position the camera in almost any angle you could need, up to 90 degrees thanks to the dipped housing on some models like the one below.
This can also work for video as well, but without a clear axis for panning or tilting, it can be tricky to achieve smooth results or minor tweaks and adjustments.
The Pan and Tilt Head
The pan and tilt head is bulkier than the ball head, but it does allow for some fine-tuned adjusting when necessary thanks to the twist arms.
This head operates on two axes that enable you to execute pans and tilts independently of each other.
The Fluid Head
Fluid heads are by far the best for video work.
Regarding planes of movement, fluid heads have the added benefit of induced friction or drag when panning or tilting. This is very effective in achieving silky smooth movement.
These heads often come with a counterbalance setting as well, allowing you to adjust for the weight of your camera when tilting forward or back, eliminating the tendency for a camera to keep tilting further than you intended.
3. Tripod Legs
Tripod leg features are more straightforward and less complicated than the head. What leg choice comes down to is the type of metal, number of leg tubes, locking mechanisms, and feet grips.
The biggest construction (and price) choice between tripod legs is whether they are aluminum or carbon fiber.
Aluminum is lightweight, and it can take a beating. For smaller cameras and quick, mobile jobs where you’re packing up and heading to multiple locations, this is a good choice. It usually doesn’t break the bank or your back.
Carbon fiber is an even lighter alternative to aluminum and a bit sturdier with regards to the amount of weight it will support. But carbon fiber does run higher price-wise than aluminum, so it’s all about deciding what’s right for you.
In this case, both types are pretty evenly matched with carbon fiber slightly edging out aluminum performance-wise.
Keep in mind though, that lighter doesn’t always mean better. If you end up having to carry an extra sandbag to tie down your carbon fiber tripod because it’s too light in windy conditions, you might have been better off with an aluminum tripod instead.
Build and sturdiness of tripod legs
Tripod legs also have different internal builds, with most lightweight tripods featuring one-tube leg sectioning.
These days, some medium builds are also using one-tube construction, giving you some options when moving into upper-tier tripods.
Heavy-duty will usually always have two-tube legs. The difference between one-tube and two-tube is the level of stability under a more massive load. Two-tube legs provide more support.
Again, the choice here is dependent on the size and weight of the camera you’ll be using and the movements you’re looking to execute.
Center-column or not?
Most one-tube tripods also come equipped with an adjustable center column, allowing you to quickly raise or lower the height of the tripod without adjusting the legs. Keep in mind this does destabilize the tripod the higher the center column is raised, however.
Also, one-tube tripods with long center columns may be counterproductive to the job you need if you’re looking for extremely low angles.
On some one-tube tripods though, such as the Manfrotto 190 pictured above, the center column can be flipped 90 degrees. Couple this with the fact, that the legs can be extended to be almost horizontal, allows for incredible low shots close to the ground.
Tripod leg locking mechanisms: flip-latch locks vs twist locks
The locking mechanisms differ for the different types of legs. Most one-tube legs will have either flip-latch locks or twist locks.
Twist locks have a longer life and generally lock with more power, preventing any loosening over time as compared to latch locks which tend to lose grip strength the more they’re used.
Two-tube legs have clamp locks that are very strong and reliable and often come equipped with locking safeties to prevent over-tightening, thus keeping your leg-locks active for a more extended period.
Feet: rubber, spikes or wheels?
The final part of the leg of a tripod is the foot.
All tripod feet are built with some kind of grip. These grips vary from a simple rubber boot to prevent sliding, to grooved rubber or plastic feet that grip the environment and go a long way in stabilizing the tripod in precarious outdoor environments.
Some tripods also come with spiked feet which can quite literally root it in place. This is great for outdoor shoots on sloped or uneven surfaces. When setting these up indoors, either uses a rubber cover over the spikes or a spreader to prevent damage to the flooring.
Heavy-duty tripods are sporting big professional cameras used on big productions often sport wheels for easy mobility.
When you’re loading up 20 pounds worth of camera on an already bulky tripod, pushing is much more preferable to slinging it over your shoulder.
The quick-release plate allows for your camera to easily click onto and unclick from the tripod head, rather than having to tediously screw and unscrew the camera whenever you need to move it.
Most quick-release plates have either a twist-lock mechanism or a latch locking system. Both are good systems. The twist locks sometimes come with a button release, adding some safety redundancy to protect your camera in case you forgot to twist the lock closed.
While a quick-release plate isn’t a necessity to own and operate your tripod and camera on a job, it does make life a hell of a lot easier, especially on sets when camera batteries need changing or cards need to be swapped out.
I figured I’d mention the monopod here as well, because, while not a tripod, there are some shoots where a tripod isn’t necessary.
Monopods are useful for on-the-go quick and mobile shooting. They offer fast stabilization when accuracy isn’t the most important.
Monopods have easy adjustment locks on the legs, usually twist locks, not to mention they’re much lighter since you’re only carrying 1/3rd of the tripod in your hands.
Your best bet is to find yourself a tripod where one of the legs is removable and doubles as a monopod rather than buying yourself a monopod separately unless you can justify the expense based on the shoots you’re hired to do.
I also figured I’d mention this as one of the non-standard models available to filmmakers and photographers.
Perhaps better geared for photographers based on its static nature and ball mount head, the GorillaPod is a rugged tripod for outdoor use.
Its selling point is its flexible legs which are multi-jointed and can be bent in almost any direction, used to ground it on even the most untenable surfaces.
They even have a video production model with a fluid head affixed to the legs for videographers. This is a miniature tripod for cameras only up to as large as a DSLR (6-ish pounds or so), so anything bigger defeats the purpose.
Super lightweight and adjustable, this could be a good piece of equipment to store in your kit even if you’re not planning on using it.
Since it’s weight and size are negligible, it works for on-the-fly creativity for DSLR shoots or something smaller.
As a whole, the tripod is a deceptive piece of equipment.
What looks like a simple three-legged contraption has a slew of components all designed to give photographers and videographers an edge in their work.
It’s important to know what exactly you need for the work you do so that you can get the most tailor-made one to suit your needs.
Whether you’re looking to capture that beautiful outdoor mountain range at a golden hour or are whip-panning between two characters trading snappy dialogue, follow this guide and you’ll be on the right track.
Which tripod do you prefer for video and why? Also, if you’ve got any questions about tripods, please share them in the comment section below.
About the author
Nikola Stojkovic is a writer and filmmaker based out of Chicago. His short films have screened at festivals across the USA and his next project, Poser, is currently fundraising on Kickstarter. When he’s not shooting, he enjoys writing film reviews and playing his accordion, Fortunata.
Poser Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/mrniko/poser-short-film