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In the age of smartphones and tablets a forgotten piece of video kit is the humble tripod - David Hague looks to rectify this
We are often asked when a tripod should be used, and really, the generic answer is "whenever you have one with you". Unless you purposely want that jerky, jumpy 'dirty' video look that was a trademark of some TV shows for a period, then there is nothing worse than a video that is not rock steady.
There is a reason that TV camera operators routinely use them no matter the circumstances. Trust me, you wouldn't lug one of those dirty big TV camera tripods around everywhere with you by choice!
But not all tripods are created equal.
The one you can buy for $15 in Big W has nothing in common with any of the tripods you'll see in this story other than it has three legs and a screw to mount a camera! (Of course, if you have no other choice in order to get s stable picture then the $15 tripod is better than absolutely nothing, but we would never recommend such a thing long term).
There are a number of factors that differentiate quality tripods from 'the rest' as well as defining which particular tripod style is best for the required job. These factors include the load the tripod can carry, the type of head that it has, maximum extension in height, maximum spread, weight, build quality and the amount it flexes under load. Other things that can be taken into account by some is whether there is fine tuning of leveling available, the number of segments in the legs and the maximum height of the adjustable center piece - also known technically as the windy up and down bit!
This refers to the maximum weight the tripod is designed for. For example, the Velbon Sherpa 6380D, the top of the range of the samples we have here can take a load of 4.5Kg. For reference a 'standard' consumer camcorder weighs usually less than 250g as against a 'professional' model such as a Canon XF305 at 2.6Kg. A full on Sony digiBeta on-the-shoulder weighs around 7Kg.
Maximum height is the point using the tripod that the attached camera can reach. Generally this will between around 150cm to up to 175cm or so. Remember though, the maximum height includes the maximum height of the extender and this affects the stability of the tripod when at its peak due to leverage.
Tripods are not just used for height, they are also used for stability, so at times it is useful to have a tripod that can go 'down' as well as 'up'. To lower a tripod means spreading the tripod's legs as far as possible to bring the mount downward. This spread to gain the lowest level AND the maximum stability then is the maximum spread distance.
This is MOST important. A cheap head, no matter the quality of the rest of the tripod, means a cheap tripod. This is why you will see many tripods used by professionals that are given a second life by keeping the original body of the tripod but has had a new premium head fitted.
What is vital in terms of video is that the head type is a fluid based one. This allows for extremely smooth movement of the head when panning the camera particularly, whereas a non-fluid head can stick and give a jerky motion which is not a good luck. Even if you intend to keep the camera 'locked off' (fixed in position) always invest in a fluid head tripod as insurance.
This goes pretty much without saying. Tripods tend to cop a bit of a bashing and if the build quality is suspect, then it will rapidly fall apart. Make sure that all the parts are made of corrosion resistant material (including nuts, bolts, handles, shafts etc) and also check as to what lubrication (if any) may be regularly needed as well as the availability of spare parts in case they are needed down the track.
Flexing is something that is not desirable, and simply, is the chances the tripod will twist or buckle under load. The best way to find out is to extend the legs to maximum and then with the heels of your hand, press down on the mount to see if the legs bow at all.
Other things to check, but are not mandatory just the sign of a good tripod, are whether there is a levelling gauge on the tripod head, whether there are cross braces to hold the legs together and whether the feet have spikes that allow them to be anchored into soft ground.
To give you an idea of the breadth of tripods out there in different styles, sizes and intended uses we asked the manufacturers to have a chat to us and let us know their recommendations. Velbon in the form of Australian distributor Maxwells (www.maxwell.com.au) did, and sent us some samples to have a play with. The top of the range we now have here at Chez Auscam is the aforementioned Sherpa 6380D which sells for $349.95 and the bottom is the budget priced Videomate 438 ($119). To aid in the comparison, we also were also sent a monopods that costs $95.
Sherpa 6380DThe Sherpa 6380D is designed for the professional video person who uses a mid-range camcorder such as a Canon XF300, Sony PMW200, Panasonic AG-HPX255EN, JVC GY-HM600E or similar.
It supports up to 4.5Kg weight.
Maximum height is almost 179cm with a spread of 25.2 centimetres in three sections. The legs are tubular in cross section and components all corrosion resistant. Knobs and tightening mechanism are plastic. The head is of course based on a fluid head and is super smooth in operation. It contains dual spirit levels - one for the head and one for the tilt section containing the actual quick release. Spare release plates are available but only one is supplied.
The feet are rubber encased and there are no 'spikes' to secure in soft or slipper ground. There are no leg braces either.
The Sherpa 6380D ships with a carry bag and weighs 2.6Kg.
The DV-6000 is the latest carnation of my own personal tripod which I bought in 1995 and is still going strong (what exact DV model numberVelbon DV6000ber it is I couldn't tell you as that wore off ages ago!)
The 6000 is a 'classic' tripod in that it has the proven three leg with spreaders shape in tubular steel in three segments. As the 'DV' name suggests, it has a fluid head that tilts and pans. Oddly though, unlike my venerable 1995 model, there is no bubble level gauge nor spikes in the feet, instead these being rubber capped. Spare quick release plates are available.
Maximum weight the DV-6000 can take is 4Kg and the maximum height it can reach is just short of 127cm. Fully depressed, it is 51cm high.
Priced at $209, and weighing 2.2Kg, the DV-6000 is probably the unit I would recommend to the 'average' camcorder user. Sadly, it is not supplied with a carry bag.
This tripod is beautifully suited as a general purpose tripod, suitable for the enthusiast who may regularly use camcorders in the vein of the Canon HF G25, Sony HDR PJ790, Panasonic HC-X920M and especially for the JVC GZ-EX555 due to its excellent slo-mo capability. It is also a very god tripod for those in the news gathering business have larger bodied cameras again akin to the Canon XF300, Sony PMW200, Panasonic AG-HPX255EN, JVC GY-HM600E or similar as it can also support the greater weight of these units.
If you are looking for a tripod specifically for video, then the VS-443D is not the one for you, UNLESS you are only going to lock off the camera and never pan - highly unlikely. The reason is that the VS-443D does not have a fluid head; it is an adjustable ball joint. And apart from that there is no panning arm anyway!
What makes the VS-443D unique however is the adjustable centre column. This can be unlocked and tilted and then locked back in place again, letting get some unique angles on things, for example, 'looking' around corners in conjunction with the height adjustment.
It's an immensely strong tripod too, with a suggested maximum loading of 5Kg. Maximum reachable height is 161cm and at its lowest 24cm.
I can see a use for this tripod immediately; as part of my motor sport video and photography, I love to get shots and footage that others cannot get, but in many cases, the positions you need to be in are far too dangerous and marshalls simply won't let you go there. However, with the angles this tripod can attain, mounting a GoPro and having it wireless controlled is an ideal solution. If you are in an environment where there is no dust or water, then one of the new baby Panasonics with its remote and monitoring via a tablet would be brilliant!
The VS-443D comes with a carry bag and is priced at $299.
Strictly speaking the Sherpa 250R is not really designed for video, being that the camera mount is a three way pan head as against a fluid head. At a pinch it will suffice as the mount movement is actually pretty smooth.
If however you are after an excellent tripod for mainly still cameras, and the occasional video use say, or perhaps to lock off something such as a GoPro or Sony Action Cam, then the Sherpa 250R would suit indeed.
One nice feature is the flip up head containing the quick release plate letting you put a SLR or dSLR in portrait mode.
This makes the Sherpa 250R a good bet for those that use a dSLR for shooting events such as speeches or product demonstrations say where this is little to no camera panning required. But the beauty here is that you can also take stills and it is a simple matter of flipping the camera to the vertical to get PR shots in portrait mode of the speaker(s).
If youi do happen to - for whatever reason - keep shooting the video in that portrait mode, then to fix it 'in post', an inexpensive application such as ProDrenalin from ProDad is designed to do just that (also useful for GoPros etc that have been shot upside down!
The legs are three piece with the bottom two segments being adjustable, and with the centre column fully extended, maximum height is 167.5cm. And the lowest level, the Sherpa 250R can go down to 59cm and the maximum load weight is 5Kg.
Spare quick release plates are available.
Priced at $209 the Sherpa 250R ships with a carry bag.
The $119 Videomate is purpose designed for the camcorder enthusiast. In a way it is like a DV-600 'lite' without some of the advanced features.
The legs are box section steel with two extendable legs and also spreaders. Maximum height is 153cm when fully extended, however the legs cannot be collapsed to get low level shots.
The head is fluid mounted and has a spirit level. Maximum load weight is 2Kg making it perfect for the consumer camcorder.
This is the "LandRover" of tripods in my opinion. It's pedestrian enough to have the price kept low, is suitable for a multitude of tasks - both video and still photography - but is still good enough to be used for formal situations and doesn't look out of place at a formal or black tie event with a Sony PMW200 or similar attached. While a "pro" might opt for a more "upmarket" model such as the Sherpa 6800D for the extra facilities it offers, the Videomate is still suitable for everyday use, or perhaps as a back up tripod, as well as for enthusiasts.
A carry case is supplied, and the Videomate 438 is eminently portable weighing only 1.2Kg. Replacement quick release plates are available.
We said at the start that the best time to use a tripod is when you have one. I am not sure about putting a camcorder on a monopod mind you, and admit to never having done it, but according to our Auscam Survey 30% (approx.) of people have used a dSLR for shooting video, and the form factor of camcorders such as the JVC GC-PX100 have a form factor that can lend itself to a monopod.
Now having said that, I put a Canon HF G25 and it does actually play nicely with the RUP-L438II. The important factor I think is that this camcorder has a viewfinder - if the viewfinder tilts, which on the HF G25 it doesn't - even better as I found I dug out my old Sony TRV10E and put that on.
An advantage is that as monopod can collapse into something not much bigger than a portable umbrella, so can fit inside a backpack easily and is therefore easy to grab and setup in seconds. At $95 it is also cost effective.
A monopod will never replace a tripod, but it certainly has its place. I can easily see myself using one at a motor sport event for example for the portability it affords.
Of course if you want the Rolls Royce of tripods, you could opt for the Velbon FHD-65D fluid head which retails for $269.95 and their top of the line carbon fibre GEO series legs - Velbon GEO N840 (4 section max load 9kg) which retails for $849.95 ... so an over $1,000 combo!
As you can see, there are many factors contributing to what makes a tripod. So when choosing one, just don't buy the first you see or the cheapest. Ideally take your camcorder with you, s crew it on and have a play with each model you test for 5 minutes or so.
David is the owner and publisher of Australian Videocamera. He has a background in media dating back to 1979 when he first got involved with photojournalism in motorsport, and went from there into technology via a 5 year stint with Tandy Computers.
Moving back to WA, David wrote scripts for Computer Television for video training for the just released Windows and Office 95 among others, and was then lured to Sydney to create web sites for the newly commercial Internet in 1995, building hundreds of sites under contract to OzEmail including Coates Hire, Hertz Queensland, John Williamson, the NSW Board of Studies and many, many more.
David can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org