Gearing up – tripod essentials

In the first of our series of gear blogs we’ve decided to talk about tripods, on the surface you might wonder how important a tripod is and from our experience on courses we find quite a few students looking to us for advice on choosing a tripod.  When joining us on a course this isn’t an issue if you don’t have your own kit as we have a selection of video camera gear that you can use and get the feel of.  But what about when you are ready to invest?  How much should you spend, what features should you look for?  Carry on reading to demystify the world of tripods.

No matter how much money you spend on a camera, how high the resolution is, how sensitive it is in low light or any of the other specifications a poor quality tripod will seriously affect your ultimate image.  I realise that is quite a sweeping statement but ultimately it’s true.  You can have the best camera money can buy but if you are producing shots that jerk, wobble, bump or drift then all your effort will be in vain.  A good quality and suitable tripod will support your camera, offer counter balance and allow you to select different friction levels or speeds to enable you to control your pans and tilts.  Lets start by taking a look at what makes a tripod…

The picture above shows a tripod kit, this is all you need to buy to mount and support your camera.  The kit comprises of a few different parts:

  • Tripod Head – Where you mount your camera and control the movement from  – see below.
  • Tripod legs – The legs support the tripod head, legs are made from aluminium or carbon fibre.  Legs can have 2, 3 or 4 locking stages depending on their height.  When filming animals it can be important to get an eyeline with the subject so a range of sizes of tripods is available.  For low shots you can use a set of “baby legs”.
  • Spreader – A spreaders job is to stop the legs opening fully and the tripod collapsing or falling over.  A mid level spreader (in the main photo) is ideal when filming outside on bumpy or uneven ground.  If you are filming indoors a ground or floor spreader is a great solution for flat surfaces.
  • Rubber feet can be fitted when you use a mid level spreader, these feet have rubber non-slip pads on the base and are great of protecting wooden floors or carpet from the metal spikes that you find on the end of the tripod legs.  The metal spikes are great for spearing in the ground when filming outside.
  • Kit bag – a carrying bag that protects your tripod – your camera will not fit in here.  If you are travelling a lot you may want to buy a plastic tripod tube to offer greater protection.

Tripod head – this is the most important part of the tripod as generally you’ll spend most of your time with it.  The head allows you to pan and tilt your camera.  Pan is a horizontal movement and tilt is a vertical movement.

  • Generally tripods have a removable tripod plate with screws that attaches to the underside of your camera.  The screws are two standard sizes 1/4″ and 3/8″.  Each different make of tripod have different plates and screw lengths so a plate from a vinten tripod won’t necessarily fit a miller tripod.
  • Tilt brake lever – this is a locking lever that stops the tilt (vertical) movement from moving, the tripod head also has a pan brake lever (not shown).
  • The silver numbered dial in the picture is the pan speed dial or friction level control, the number 0 means the head can spin and move freely, each number gives a stiffer movement, as you increase to a higher number the tripod gives more resistance.  The vertical silver dial (not labelled) is the tilt speed control.
  • A pan arm (cut off in photo) is the handle that you hold and move to control the direction of the camera movement.
  • The Counterbalance dial allows you to tune your tripod to the weight of your camera, this is important when you leave your camera tilted at an angle so it doesn’t move on its own, more expensive tripods allow you to adjust the level of balance for lighter and heavier cameras.  A cheaper tripod may only have one counterbalance level – i.e no adjustment and is only suitable for a specific weight camera.
  • The tripod bowl is at the very base of the tripod head and fits into the bowl on the top of the tripod legs.  The bowl allows you to level or move the tripod head at an angle to the legs, this may be useful if you are filming and your tripod is setup on uneven ground.  Small tripods will have a bowl of 75mm, tripods used for larger shoulder mounted TV cameras are 100mm and films cameras use large tripods with a bowl size of 150mm.

As a wildlife filmmaker there are a few things to bear in mind.  If you are shooting animals far away then you will want a tripod head that offers you a high level of friction or speed which will enable you to move your camera smoother.  When filming with a telephoto or long lens any movement you make, any shake even movement on the ground can travel through your tripod and create a wobble in your image.

Another important consideration is weight.  If you are travelling on foot any distance you want to make sure your tripod is not too heavy for your own comfort.  Getting weight down can be as easy as buying carbon fibre over aluminium legs – this does come with an increased cost however.

On Wildeye courses we bring a selection of tripods so you can feel and see the difference between a low cost, mid priced and expensive tripod.  If you have any questions feel free to ask away…

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