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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Set Up For Smooth Motion

Traveling gear that will keep your camera steady for video

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Of the great array of gear that I've used over the course of my career, there is no item about which I'm fussier than my tripod. I can get used to the most annoying handling peccadilloes of the latest DSLR or the extra weight of a superfast zoom, but if the heft, feel and finish of a tripod doesn't win me over the minute I pick it up, I know I'll never carry it, and I simply won't buy it.

For me, that feel has to be light, yet sturdy, with smooth leg locks and a strong ballhead with silky action—in other words, the holy grail of tripod combinations. Over the years, I've come up with three different tripod and head combinations—from lightest to lighter to light—that I use for various assignments, and I've grown very attached to them.

So, as my interest in video grew into more of an obsession, I knew two things. One, my days using a ballhead on my tripod would be numbered. Can you use a ballhead for shooting video? Sure, but sooner or later, you'll feel the need to track movement with a pan or a tilt, and that's when you'll run right into the limitations of our beloved ballheads. And two, I'd be using a tripod much more in video than I ever did shooting stills.

The famous "Bridge of the Woman," Buenos Aires, Argentina.
I'll Level With You. It didn't take long for me to realize that, in general, video tripods are heavier and more expensive, and many are still made out of aluminum (not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's heavy and clunky when you're coming from the carbon-fiber world). So rather than take out a second mortgage for a carbon-fiber video tripod, I decided to stay with my old sticks, which have been tried, true and vetted by many years and countless miles of travel use.

Up to this time, I had been shooting video with a ballhead on my tripod, and as much as I try to follow the tenet of "no pans and tilts" for video (it's easy to get carried away with shooting too many long panning shots when the trick is actually to shoot a lot of different stationary angles), there are times when you really need to smoothly move that camera. A fluid panhead was the way to go. But just slapping a panhead on your sticks isn't enough; you need to find a way to easily level the tripod. This isn't such a big deal in the still world, but it's huge in the video arena. And if you think you'll do this by playing around with the heights of the individual legs of your tripod, you'll be disabused of that notion the first time you try it and see how time consuming and hit-and-miss a method this is. No, you need a leveler.

Most good video tripods have bowls in which their heads sit on a half-ball, and you can loosen that head and maneuver it around the bowl until you level it. Usually, you check this with the onboard spirit level. But to give your bowl-less, regular still tripod legs the same ability, you need to add a tripod leveler between your sticks and your panhead. You're going to be surprised at how few of these are out there, and how heavy and poorly designed they can be.

Using Your Head. Choosing a fluid panhead is a highly personal choice, and I suggest, if at all possible, that you try to physically handle and play with one before you buy it (especially if you're as tripod-fussy as I am). The feel will be important, and if you thought a good ballhead was expensive, buckle your seat belt, because the prices on good fluid panheads can be breathtaking.

Keep in mind that even in my video pursuits, travel is my main subject, so a head that's lightweight and relatively smooth is the ideal. Also, remember that we're shooting video with DSLRs and smaller mirrorless, interchangeable-lens and compact cameras, so the humongous fluid heads that are often used by professional videographers, as smooth as they are, can be overkill.

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