The Benro S8 tandem

So you're looking to shoot video and you need a tripod. Do you have one that you use for stills or maybe you're starting out with nothing and looking at purchasing your first one?

Either way there are a few things that you need to consider. If you’re not planning to move the camera during the shot then your existing setup may work for you. As a stepping stone using the same tripod with no extra outlay can work out in the short term. As you develop your skills you will probably find that your existing tripod will cause some frustration through its limitations.

There are things that you don’t need when shooting stills that are key when shooting video and some features that you can live without but once you upgrade you will wonder how you ever managed without them.

Let’s have a look at the constituent parts, the legs and the head, and investigate some of the considerations.

The legs or sticks

One of many options, the Manfrotto twin tube carbon fiber legs and mid level spreader

This is the part that is the easiest to deal with. A good set of stills legs (often referred to as 'sticks' in the video world) will actually have more longevity in terms of use with video than a typical stills head. You may find that the legs you have already work fine, however there are some things to consider if you are planning to upgrade.

Bowl or Flat mount

A typical stills tripod with detachable head will often have a flat base; in contrast, a video tripod usually has a bowl mount. These are available in a number of diameters, usually 50mm, 60mm, 75mm, 100mm and 150mm. There are exceptions to this, especially with cinema cameras.

Having a bowl allows much easier adjustment for leveling, no longer do you have to adjust the tripod legs to achieve a level camera. Instead of multiple adjustment points there is only one underneath the head at the top of the legs. (Sometimes you may find that leg adjustments are still necessary.) Some legs are sold with an adapter so that you can easily use a head with a smaller ball with a larger bowl.

Spreaders

Video tripods offer three different ways of adjusting the angle of the legs for better stability at low or high extensions. The choice of these is mainly down to experience and personal preference.

The ground level spreader

This can get dirty very easily and needs frequent maintenance but provides great stability. With a lot of tripods you do need to remove it if you want to use the leg spikes or place it on uneven ground.

The mid level spreader

This doesn’t get as dirty but sometimes can be more awkward to remove and re-attach, although easier when setting up and packing away. It also allows you to use the legs on uneven surfaces without having to remove the spreader.

The no spreader approach

The angle adjustment is achieved through limiting the spread with angle locks at the top of the leg.

This has gained a lot of traction in the video world over the last 15 years, although it doesn’t work well with very heavy payloads. It does offer the unique advantage of not being left behind as can happen with separate ones.

Leg construction

There are two styles of tripod leg, the single tube, which is not very different from stills legs and the twin tube. The twin tube versions tend to offer greater rigidity as they use two connection points at the top of the legs. Video work often involves lots of camera movement, and you don’t want the top of the legs to twist in any way while moving the camera as this can cause the tripod to lift. This can be more noticeable if moving the head quickly with a heavier setup.

As with stills legs you also get two main choices with materials, alloy or carbon fiber. The choice is mainly down to budget although weight saving and sturdiness can also be deciding factors.

Leg locks

Clamps that rotate 90 degrees to lock the legs, the Pozi-Loc system from Vinten.

As with stills legs you have two main options here, a twist lock or a flip lock. For twin leg systems the default is a flip lock. Some manufacturers use a rotating clamp instead, Vinten for example has it’s Pozi-Loc system.

Another option is the flowtech system from Sachtler. This system has only three clamps located at the top of the legs next to the head, very quick and easy to adjust but at a cost.

A single lock at the top of each leg simplifies adjustments

The feet

One option, removable flat feet that attach over spikes

In a similar way to stills legs there are usually two options here: spikes or flat feet. A lot of legs offer screw down rubber feet over spikes. Some video tripods offer completely removable flat feet that attach with clips over the spikes. There are some advantages to this, such as when you need to clean them or if they get damaged and need replacing. However, as they are detachable they can be left behind if you’re not careful. The other common option is feet that are integrated into a ground level spreader.

Center column

Center columns are useful but make sure they're not over loaded

A single center column extension is normal for stills legs but not for video. There are some video focused tripods that offer this option, but it's not widely adopted and requires care in use as stability can be an issue due to the higher weight demands of some video set ups. Benro among others do offer a number of tripods that offer this feature.

The Head

A handy way of using a flat head on a set of legs with a bowl

There are two main types of heads – flat or ball – and they interface with their associated leg type, although flat heads can often be adapted to fit most bowl mount tripods. Another option is a leveling head that allows you to add a half ball mount in between a head and a flat base for quick and easy adjustment.

Plates

Heads meant for video often use a longer plate

There are a lot of different plates for different manufacturers and some of them are interchangeable, however don’t rely on that without checking. A video plate is often elongated for use with heavier payloads. These plates also tend to have measurement marks on them so that positions can be easily repeated. A lot of plates are lined up and inserted from the rear of the head and once past the safety lock can’t accidentally fall off. Although that’s not to say that the whole tripod and head can’t fall over if not correctly set up.

Some heads like the Manfrotto N8 have a side loading plate

Something that is becoming more readily adopted and is trickling down from very expensive cinema heads are side loading plates. These are elongated as usual but attach more like a stills plate. They need to be angled slightly so that the left or right lip of the plate engages under the corresponding lip of the head. Then the locking lever is engaged when the plate is placed flat on the head. This can be advantageous when using heavier payloads.

Counterbalance

The need to achieve a good balance should not be underestimated. The counterbalance, or 'spring' as it’s often termed, is there to balance the camera on the head. This can take the form of a dial or a knob which increases or decreases the amount of tension in the head in the tilt direction. This is not the same as tilt friction.

Manfrotto's Nitrotech CBS system uses a nitrogen cartridge for a variable counterbalance

The counterbalance control should be adjusted according to the weight of the payload. The ideal situation is to increase the control in steps until you can tilt the camera to any position then let go of it and it remains stationary. In practice this might not be achievable at first and can take a few minutes to get an acceptable result.

Remember that better results can be obtained by making sure that the weight is correctly centered on the head. This is achieved by moving the camera back or forth on the head via the sliding plate and then locking it into place. Some setups might even require unscrewing the camera from the plate and relocating it fore or aft slightly especially when changing the weight of the rig.

Payload

Making sure that you’re not outside the recommended payload range of a head is important. The counterbalance and brakes are only designed with a certain weight range in mind. Ensuring that you don’t under load your head is also important, this might seem a bit odd but there’s a good reason for this. You won’t get a good result with a head that has a strong counterbalance when using a lighter camera, especially if you can’t turn it off. It will fight you when you try and tilt the camera even with the drag dialed down to minimum. You might get away with overloading the head but smooth movement then becomes difficult. The rating of the legs also come into play, you don’t want them collapsing!

Friction and brakes, or drag and locks

The tilt fluid drag control and lock on the Benro S8

Pan and tilt frictions or drag are usually adjustable independently of each other, commonly with a dial. The more expensive the head, the more positions on the dial. Lower end heads tend to have quite limited adjustment ranges for pan and tilt drag, sometimes only a simple on or off setting.

You will see some heads marketed as fluid heads, and these use a fluid to dampen or smooth out movements. The more professional ones contain the fluid in a cartridge, the very cheap ones don’t and some have been known to leak. Brakes or locks are usually either dials or small levers and shouldn’t be over tightened.

Pan Bar

The lightweight Manfrotto X PRO fluid head, a budget option for lightweight kit especially if you want to use your existing stills tripod

While not exclusive to video heads this bar doesn’t offer the ability to lock the head position as with some stills heads. It’s simply a handle, sometimes extendable, that helps with smooth movement. It’s not exclusively for pans; despite the name it also works well with tilts. It needs to be properly tightened before use or you will get some very sloppy movements. Be aware that it’s very easy to wear down the rosette at the head end of the bar and some manufacturers sell user replaceable rosettes to fix this issue.

Quality vs Cost

If you think that you’re going to move into video work then a decent tripod is important. As a general rule any tripod is better than none, but one that is so big and heavy that you don’t want to take it with you is mostly useless. A good tripod should be an extension of your arm, you should be working with it and not fighting to tame it.

Tripods may not attract the sort of gear envy that cameras and lenses do – they're not sexy and don't contain any electronics (apart from maybe a backlight for the bubble). This means they don't date quite as quickly and can usually last many years or even decades if looked after properly.

It's not elegant but well balanced set ups mean smooth moves

Good tripods can cost many thousands of dollars but they don’t have to. What's as important as purchase price is after-sales service. Are you going to be able to get the spare parts or servicing you require a few years down the line?

So how much should you spend? That's entirely up to you. As a guideline I'd be thinking about something in the $250-$750 range. For that you can get a decent set of legs and a fluid effect head. You can of course get much cheaper tripods but you will probably end up wanting to upgrade very quickly when you realize the limitations that budget kit brings.

Finally, if you're new to the world of video tripods and don't quite know where to begin, I'd recommend starting with one of the tripods listed below:

Each of these offers great performance at a reasonable price and can be a good starter system depending on your particular preferences and budget.

Do you have a favorite video tripod, or one that has worked really well for you? Let us know in the comments!