How to Choose a Video Head and Tripod

Tripods and heads are essential gear for all videographers. However, which type to buy for a given application can be a challenge because there are so many brand and price points from which to choose. A quick overview on the latest in tripod and heads might be useful.

Most novice videographers, because they have been hit for a large total start-up cost, begin with a cheap tripod system. It is always a rookie mistake and one that results in spending the money again on a system more appropriate to the job at hand. Avoid making that mistake. It’s a no-brainer.

The job you want to do is also a very important consideration in choosing camera support gear. There are professional tripod systems designed for many different tasks, ranging from news and documentary, broadcast television to feature films.

Think about your types of projects

Picking the system most appropriate for each user starts with the job to be done. From there, depending on the users budget, the search for the right combination of tripod and head begin. It is wise to buy the best support gear you can afford. It will be money well spent.

Tripods are not all the same.

Tripods are not all the same.

Videographers need a fluid head. It is essential gear for smooth panning and tilting, and getting shots that are cinematic in quality. The weight of the gear on the head is essential to choosing the right model. Don’t just weigh the camera, but also include the weight of various lenses and accessories, like batteries, matteboxes, outboard viewfinder/recorders and audio gear. The cumulative weigh matters. Give yourself the headroom to use heavier lenses should the situation arise.

In fluid heads, a sealed liquid is used inside to create a hydraulic damping system. This damping is what gives the camera steady motion and reduces the jerkiness often found with lower-cost heads. Most professional quality fluid heads can tilt up or down at least 75 degrees and pan 360 degrees.

Pro heads have adjustable tilt and drag resistance for controlling camera movement. Users need to dial in the right amount of resistance for tracking the subject being shot. Counterbalance is also an important consideration. It allows users to tilt up or down and then let go of the head without it shifting further. It makes a big difference.

Consider tripod construction

An important decision is whether to get a tripod made of aluminum or carbon fiber —the two most common materials used in the construction of modern camera support gear. Carbon fiber costs more than aluminum, but offers an overall lighter weight tripod, making it easier to carry on location.

However, the stability of carbon fiber might be problematic for some users in outdoor high wind conditions. The added weight of aluminum may be more stable and actually lower in cost. Some tripod models come with hooks that allow weights to hang on the tripod to give it more stability in windy conditions. Again, this is a consideration for the how the tripod will be used.

Sachtler HotPod

Sachtler HotPod

Some tripods come with a column in the center that allows the user to raise the level of the camera without having to adjust the legs. A good example of this is Sachtler’s popular HotPod, which is targeted to news shooters who need the added reach to get over the head of competing video crews. At the same time, extra height can also make a camera less stable and increases the likelihood of vibration. It depends on the job you want to do.

A tripod with a bowl mount allows the user to level the camera quickly without adjusting the tripod legs and provides additional stability. The most common bowl sizes for modern low weight cameras are 75 and 100mm.

As cameras have gotten lighter in recent years, so has tripod and head manufacturing. Chinese manufacturing has dramatically improved, resulting in lower priced gear reaching the market. The result is not only an increase in the number of brands, but different models within those brands.

Because many cameras are now used for both stills and video, it’s important to distinguish the kind of shooting one does. A good head for designed still use won’t work well for video production. Sometimes its not so easy to tell the difference and many sales people don’t know.

Price is only one factor

On the lower cost end, brands like Benro and Libec make entry level tripod and heads for under $300. Based out of Northern Italy, Manfrotto makes good quality entry level tripods with a range of features beginning in the $400 range. Acebil, a company in Taiwan, makes good quality video gear in the $500 range.

VariZoom TK100A

VariZoom TK100A

VariZoom, an American company, makes its popular aluminum TK100A, which can reach heights ranging from 29.5 inches to 76.5 inches. It has two-stage legs and can hold up to 15 pounds. It has a FH100 100mm fluid head with indexed quick release plate and has an independent variable drag adjustment for pan and tilt. It is priced at $795.

However, most professional videographers use higher end gear due to its long-term reliability, performance and good support. Most of these companies, who have strong, loyal followers, have been in business a long time.

Vinten is a premier brand for high-end broadcasting and sports. It makes a range of products that stay on the job for many years. Among its products is the aluminum Vinten VB-AP2M, designed to provide advanced technology and features to videographers with smaller camcorders and DSLR’s.

Vinten VB-AP2M

Vinten VB-AP2M

It can hold 4.6 to 11 pounds and adjust from heights of 21.7 to 66.7 inches. The Vision Blue pan and tilt fluid video head mounts to the two-stage Pozi-Lock tripod by a 75mm bowl. The heads offers an adjustable system that allows operators to set the appropriate amount of counterbalance for their camera. It is priced at $1,395.

Miller, another premium level company, held the first patent for fluid head designs for film cameras. It’s Miller SOLO DV 20 Carbon Fiber Tripod System with multi-step Dynamic Fluid Drag system ensures fluid drag control along with integrated counterbalancing system.

This tripod, with a 75mm bowl, provides light weight and solid stability. It can reach up to 69 inches and pack down to a compact 27 inches for transport, and hold up to 22 pounds. It’s priced at $1,740.

Sachter FSB 8/2 HD M

Sachter FSB 8/2 HD M

Sachtler, a premium brand for news and documentary production, offers the FSB 8/2 HD M system, which supports weights from 2.2 to 22 pounds. It’s legs range from 23.6 inches to 63.3 inches. The head features a 75mm ball base with integrated flat base. It offers frictionless leak-proof fluid with five levels of drag, including a zero setting for complete disengagement of drag for fast panning.

This system has a sliding balance plate with a 4.7 inch range to help balance a variety of cameras, lenses and accessories. The tripod legs feature an independent height adjustment, which allow the legs to remain stable on uneven surfaces. It’s priced at $2,385.

All of these systems offer a wide range of heads and tripods. Heads from one manufacturer can be placed on a competing brand’s tripod, if the dimensions are compatible. Most smaller tripods use either 75 or 100 mm heads though there are other sizes. If you mix and match, make sure you use a head that matches the capability of the tripod. Mismatches usually don’t work very well.

The best way to choose a tripod, if the option is available, is to take your camera to a dealer and try the combination you are considering. If a try-out is not available, make sure you weigh all your gear and give the support system you are considering plenty of headroom.

As with everything in video, you’ll get best performance from a known brand with a solid reputation. The company will not only help with the best choice for your application in their line, but will offer long term support after the sale. Camera support systems are a major factor in the successful use of any video camera. It is not a place to skimp on price.

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