Few pieces of video support equipment are as useful as the tripod. Simple in concept, elegant in function, the tripod has a long history of bringing needed stability to the world of photography.
In pre-video days, tripods served still and motion picture cameras. As far back as the 1860s, people like Matthew Brady were lugging tripods onto battlefields to help steady huge still camera equipment.
And before tripods became popular for image gathering, they supported the surveyors' levels used to map out the countryside.
Why, you may wonder, a tripod? Why not a monopod, or a quadrapod, or an octopod? This question doesn't require an Einstein to answer. One leg: camera falls down. Two legs: camera falls down. Three legs: camera stands up. Four legs: one more leg than you need.
The triangle is one of the most stable configurations for a support device. Ask a karate expert, or an offensive lineman. Or, for that matter, a tree.
Why a Tripod?
I know what you're thinking. "What do I need with a tripod? It's just one more thing to tote around."
Maybe you're right. If you have a steady hand, and/ or a lens stabilizer, you may never encounter a situation requiring a tripod. But if you shoot professional video and work with heavy equipment, you know that working hand-held for any length of time can get darned uncomfortable. Just try holding your hand on top of your head for a couple of hours to simulate the experience.
Aside from avoiding pain, tripods are handy if you want to be in your own shot.
Say you're shooting a news story for a cable access show and you want to do a stand up. This is the shot where you appear on camera, looking solemn, finishing up with, "for Cable Access, this is John Smith, reporting from Bosnia."
Using a tripod, you can stop somebody passing by, make him or her stand in the spot where you'll be standing when you talk to the camera. You can then compose the shot using this surrogate John Smith. Lock down the tripod. Take the passerby's place and say your piece.
Three S Theory
A tripod's purpose can be described in the famous Three S Theory, which I just made up. Tripods keep it Steady, keep it Straight and keep it Smooth.
Put a camera on a tripod and it will be steady. It won't bob, wave or float, assuming it's locked down. It will sit there like a rock until you get ready to move it. That's steady.
Keeping your shot straight is a little trickier. Let's say you've set your camera on the tripod so your shot is looking out across a flat desert. The horizon is that line where the sky meets the earth. In a standard shot, the horizon should be kept parallel to the top and bottom of your frame. Cancel this if you're trying for the Dutch angle so popular in the old Batman TV shows, where everything is tilted. It's possible for a shot to start out looking straight, horizon parallel to the top of the frame. But when you pan, the horizon will start to go downhill.
This happens because your tripod legs stand in such a way the camera isn't level to the horizon. Your tripod is sitting with two legs on either side of the front of the camera; the third leg points behind the camera, and is shorter than the front two legs. Even though your shot looks level when the camera's pointed straight ahead, when you pan, the camera begins to lean in the direction of the third leg.
Or, as I like to put it: look out, the world's tilting.
On the Level
Some tripods come with a leveling bubble, a handy gizmo that is nothing but a bubble floating in liquid.
You position the bubble either inside a circle or between two lines on a tube. By moving the bubble to its correct position your camera becomes perpendicular, relative, I think, to the gravitational pull of the Earth (but don't hold me to this). The result: you can pan your camera 360 degrees, the horizon staying straight in the frame.
You can position the bubble by raising or lowering the tripod legs or by adjusting the tripod's head-if the head attaches to the tripod with a claw ball. The latter allows you to loosen the head and position the leveling bubble without touching the legs. A nice feature.
The last S in the Three S Theory is keep it Smooth. The part of the tripod responsible for this action is the head. Some tripods don't have heads: cameras attach directly to the tripod. But on more sophisticated tripods the camera attaches to a plate, the plate attaches to a head and the head attaches to the tripod.
Using smooth resistance, a head helps make camera movement smoother. This resistance, known as drag, is usually adjustable. With a small amount of drag the camera pans or tilts easily. Add more drag and moving the camera becomes more difficult.
If you don't want the camera to move at all, you engage the locks. There are separate drags and locks for both the pan and tilt functions of the head. If you want a pan but no tilt, you can lock the tilt control and the camera will only pan. And vice versa.
Heads and Legs
Heads come in two flavors: fluid head and friction head.
A friction head creates resistance by pushing metal against metal. A fluid head floats on a bed of oil or some other viscous fluid. Friction heads aren't as smooth as fluid heads, but they're also cheaper, which is the way things usually work in this world.
Tripod legs generally extend by telescoping. This is necessary to position a tripod level on a hill or stairs. With tripods that extend you can get your camera high up in the air, useful when you must ascend to eye-level with NBA players. Some tripods have a center column that cranks even higher.
A word of caution here: if you get up too high, your camera, tripod and everything else can tip over. So put a sandbag in the center of the tripod to make it more stable.
Some tripods allow the legs to straighten out until the head is resting almost on the ground. Good for low shots. Good angle for your remake of Attack of the Fifty Foot Female Mud Wrestler, featuring a point of view shot from the terrified town's perspective. Coming soon to a theater near you.
With a nice smooth floor you may be interested in tripod dolly wheels.
What's a dolly? That's a movement ofthe camera and tripod. These moves can take the camera around the subject, or the camera can follow people at the same speed as they move. They require your tripod to have wheels or they require you to place your tripod on a wheeled device. These shots are very pretty, but they're also very difficult. If you don't have a smooth even surface every little dolly bump will translate into a very big video bump.
Wheels are handy, however, as transportation. Just leave your camera, extension cords, a grip bag and a light attached to the tripod and roll on to the next location. Sure beats carrying them.
Another feature you may want is quick release; a plate or shoe attached to the bottom of the camera. The plate fits into the head to secure the camera. But if you want to go hand-held in a hurry, you flip a switch or push a button to immediately release the camera.
If the head screws into the bottom of the camera, it will obviously take a lot longer to turn, turn, turn the knob to get it off again. Most professional model tripods feature quick release.
The Envelope, Please
Before leaving the subject of tripods, we should explore the Steadicam™. You may say, "Say, that's not a tripod!" And you'd be right. But it performs some of the same jobs, so we'll give it a glance.
The Steadicam JR™ is a system that balances your camera so completely the image seems to float on air. It eliminates shakiness, allowing a camera operator to walk up stairs or run along the ground without applying objectionable jiggle to the image. It's a slick little system, creating videos that look like feature film. (See our article on the SteadyTracker from CobraCranes in a previous issue)
But a Steadicam™ is not the same as a tripod. Although it has a stand, you can't lock it down on a shot. Also, some people think a Steadicam™ is like a gyroscope, forcing your shot to remain horizontal. Wrong. There's a bubble level on the monitor to show the operators when the shot is level, but it's up to the operator to keep it there. My conclusion: Steadicams™ are great tools, but should supplement a tripod, not replace it.
If you're in the market for a tripod, shop around. Try the model before you buy. As you test drive the tripod think about the three Ss: keep it Steady, keep it Straight, keep it Smooth. If you watch your Ss, you should be O.K. And if at first you don't succeed, try another tripod.