Hey! A Little Support Here?

I thought about writing about tripods for my second article for SVN immediately after I finished the first article.

Since that time, I had opportunities to observe just how students and adults have no clue about how to set up and use a tripod.

Ray01OK, first things first. (pardon my Pittsburgheez) When buying a tripod a few factors must be kept in mind. First, buy a video tripod and not a photo tripod. The heads are different. Second, it must be durable because it will be banged around and abused especially in a school setting. The discount store plastic models will be broken before you know it. Buying a durable rugged tripod will save money in the long run. The leg extension locks must be very durable and hold the extension position without slipping.. My brand preference is Manfrotto. I have use a several models for over 25 years and they are in great shape.

Another selection consideration is to select one that when the legs are totally collapsed it is small say 24" to 30" and when the legs are fully extended it should be 6' to 7' tall. Having a unit that can be setup on a table top or used over a standing crowd is extremely useful. The next consideration pertains to the weight of the camera it will hold. One does not need a tripod that will support 20 plus pounds for a 6oz. palmcorder. Finally, I like a tripod that enables the head (the part that the camera is attached to) to be removed from the legs and replaced with a different head. If something happens to the head or the legs the whole tripod does not need replaced. Many tripods have a quick release head system. This allows for the quick placement and removal of the camera. These are great. The cardinal sin of mounting a camera with a quick release plate is to have the control handle pointing to the right or left. I have seen this happen too many times. This handle must be pointing towards the videographer.

The first thing to learn in using a tripod is how to extend and lock the legs and know how to level the head.. To Ray02Leveling Bulbkeep the horizontal plane of the picture level the head must be leveled. This is done in several ways. First, if the unit has a the small glass leveling bubble built into the head use this to level the head. This is done by adjusting the length of the legs to center the bubble in a black circle inside the glass then locking the legs to keep the bubble centered. Once this is done the head is level. Pro systems uses a metal leveling ball system to level the head., This device is located between the top of the legs and under the head. A grasping claw around the ball can be loosened or tightened. When loosened, the head can be swiveled until the leveling bubble is centered. When level, the ball is tightened.

Alright, what if you don't have a tripod with a leveling bubble how can the head be leveled? Here are two tricks not found in many books. The first one is for a flat surface such as a floor. Start by keeping the legs together and extending one leg of the legs to the floor to the height the tripod will be used. Any flat surface works. I have used tables and often my hard camera case. Next, keeping the tripod legs together, extend the other two legs to the flat surface. This makes all 3 legs the same length. When the tripod legs are spread apart the head should be level.

Second, for any uneven surface, start by attaching the camera to the head. Extend and spread the legs of the tripod to a working height. Adjust the leg extensions to bring the head into an approximate level position by just "eyeballing it."

Turn the camera on, look in the viewfinder and find a known level or perpendicular (plum) line. Ex. where a wall meets a ceiling. the side of a building, bleacher seats, etc. (No telephone polls - they are not plum.) Pan or tilt the camera until the either the top, bottom or one side of the viewfinder screen just touches the chosen level line. Then adjust the appropriate leg(s) extensions to make the edge, top or bottom of the viewfinder is parallel with the known horizontal or perpendicular line. The head is now level.

So why go through the leveling process? It's simple. If the head is not level the scene will appear to be slanted and this is not normal. Football players don't play on slanted fieldsRay03 But, an unleveled camera has a place in creative video.

A few final tripod tips. First ,if the center post of the legs can be raised, never extend it more than a few inches. A fully extended post will cause the camera to shake. Don't rely on the vibration reduction system in the camera to stop the shakes. Second, always adjust the pan and tilt tensions to work smoothly. It doesn't matter if the pan and tilt drag is controlled hydraulically, mechanically, or a combination of both. Smooth movements are a must. Third, place one leg of the tripod in front of the camera under the lens and the other two behind the camera. This will provide room for the operator to move around without kicking a leg and jarring the camera. Fourth, if the head has a slide on quick mount plate, the camera must be slide forward or backward to balance the camera and not let it tilt up or down when the control handle is not held and the pan and tilt drags are loose. This is especially important for large or shoulder mount cameras.

These are a few basic considerations and techniques. I hope they have helped or refreshed your thoughts. To be continued. Comments or questions contact me


Raymond S. Adams was a high school teacher from 1964 to 1995. He earned a BS Ed from California University of PA, an MS Ed from Duquesne University and a certificate as an Educational Media Specialist from Indiana University pf Pennsylvania. This Specialist Certificate enabled him to have the background to open a home-based photography studio inRayAdamsCover 1969. As video became popular, video production became part of the studio's services.

During his teaching tenure, he taught photography, social studies and video production. In 1992 he published a textbook on video production, Video 101: A First Course in Video Production. In 1993, he was Pennsylvania's PPTN/PBS Instructional Television Teacher of the Year.

After retiring, he became an adjunct instructor at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he taught television production and methods of teaching history. Presently, he operates his photography and video studio. His business career has provided the opportunity to create photographic works in a variety of areas. The video production services has produced works for a great number of social, business and educational clients.