Tripods may well be one of the most important, yet under appreciated, accessories in our videographer's bag of tricks. Sure, image stabilization is great, but for perfectly still shots, you've still got to have a tripod. A tripod isn't an optional accessory; it's a requirement.
Tripods haven't changed all that much over the past twenty or so years. However, thanks to new materials and superior engineering, tripods have become lighter while retaining the ability to hold some significant amounts of weight. Let's shed some light on some of the most important things to look for when you begin to search for your next, and maybe your last, tripod.
Note: The features described here correspond to the column headings in our Buyer's Guide grid.
The Leg Material is generally either aluminum or carbon fiber. Carbon fiber-based tripods are remarkably strong for their weight, but they tend to be expensive. Aluminum is the most commonly used material for tripods, primarily because of its high strength and low price. There are a few tripods that use other materials, such as wood or stainless steel, but these tend to be the exception to the rule. Stainless steel is quite heavy compared to aluminum 'pods--but, then again, if you're going to be shooting hurricane footage, the extra weight could make the difference between having a camcorder at the end of the day or not. In a studio environment, weight is much less of a concern, so an indestructible steel tripod may be just what you need.
For tripods with interchangeable heads, you'll need to match the style of Head Mount to the particular head you want to use. While you won't be switching the heads of the tripod on and off all of the time, the mount is still important. Fortunately, standardization means that compatibility is usually not an issue.
A Spreader adds stability to your tripod and helps speed the set up process. Two types of spreaders are common: mid-mount and bottom-mount. Mid-mount spreaders are more common for tripods designed for field use. Studio tripods more commonly use bottom-mount spreaders, since the extra weight is not an issue.
A True Fluid Head can perform pans more smoothly, with imperceptible starts and stops. By using a joint with a pocket of thick fluid, true fluid heads dampen and smooth out the movements applied to it. Don't confuse these more expensive heads with cheaper 'fluid-action' heads. These heads try to mimic the capabilities of a true fluid head, but instead simply use more friction to get somewhat smoother pans.
A Spirit Level (bubble level) helps you to find a point at which the tripod is level, so your camcorder is also level. Some heads (especially those with bowl mounts) also have levels themselves, which is actually more useful that a tripod mounted level. After all, who cares if the tripod is level, just as long as your shot is.
A Thumbscrew for Camera Connection allows you to unscrew the mounting plate from your camcorder without fumbling for a coin, a key, a screwdriver or other creative means of removing the mounting plate. It also means that you can attach your camcorder securely to the mounting plate without one of the above tools as well. This highly recommended feature doesn't add much of anything to the cost.
A Quick-Release Mount allows you to separate your camcorder from the tripod in a hurry, should you need to do some fast handheld shooting. Some quick-release plates also slide back and forth, allowing you to precisely balance your camcorder, which means your pans and tilts will be effortless.
The Maximum Height and Minimum Height determine the range of heights at which the tripod can operate. A few tripods include a pivoting arm that can fold down to reach all the way to the floor, but most tripods use a central crank-based height adjustment control.
A tripod's Maximum Weight Capacity determines the weight of the camcorder, lights, microphones, receivers and other accessories that the tripod can hold.
The Collapsed (Shipping) Height of a tripod dictates how much space the tripod needs to travel, when folded up and with the legs retracted. If space is at a premium in your back seat, trunk or suitcase, this is an important number to keep an eye on.
The Weight of the tripod tells you how difficult it will be to haul. Certainly, heavier tripods are more stable, but, then again, lighter tripods are more portable. Weight is a feature where there is no magic perfect number, so you'll have to balance the weight versus your needs, paying careful attention to the weight capacity of the tripod along the way.
My Heroes Have Always Been Tripods
We hope this overview of tripod features and the buyer's guide will help you find the perfect 'pod for your needs. Whatever your specific requirements, however, one thing is certain: you definitely need a tripod.