Perhaps the greatest influx of new video shooters is coming from the world of photography. I myself am coming from the opposite direction, now having to learn skills that photographers have mastered long ago. One of the most often overlooked pieces of gear that photographers will have to wrap their mind (and wallets!) around are tripods. But wait a minute, you say! Photographers are already very familiar with tripods and have been using them for years. True but we are going to be talking about tripods specifically designed for video shooting and that's a whole new ballgame.
Why Can't I Use My Current Photography Tripod?
Well actually you could but you won't be happy with the results. Photographers are interested in getting that one great image. They may shoot tons of pictures at one location, bracketing their exposures, changing focal lengths and ISOs all in an effort to capture a single "frame" of image.
Video shooters, on the other hand, don't have that luxury. We need to capture a minimum of 24 frames for every second of video and each one must be a keeper. Secondly, we are capturing images in motion which means our cameras are moving too as we film. We need to be able to pan, tilt and dolly smoothly and that's no easy task. Just touching the camera while shooting can introduce unwanted jitter into the video.
Perhaps it's a bit of an over-simplification but photography tripods are designed to hold the camera steady and "locked down" - video tripods are designed to follow the moving action.
Enter the "Fluid Head"
A "fluid head" is an absolute necessity when filming video. I should point out that I am breaking down the overall "tripod" system into two major parts; the legs (or "sticks" as you will hear video shooters refer to them) and the "head" which is the part that actually connects to the camera. So a fluid head is one in which a literal oil-like fluid inside the head is used to smooth out the up and down and sideways movement of the camera. Other type of heads are what I tend to call "friction heads" although I am not sure if that's an industry standard term or not...basically these are using simple mechanical means to tighten up and loosen the head. These tend to be jerky particularly at the start and end of a move. Go with fluid!
Tripod Legs, Bowls and Half Balls
Here are some things to look for when purchasing a pair of sticks for your video tripod. The jargon gets a little confusing so I will try and make sense of it for you.
First of all, most pros prefer legs that allow the use of a half ball type joint at the top rather than a small round, flat plate with a threaded post sticking up. Essentially, where the legs meet at the top of the tripod is a big hole, or "bowl" measuring 50mm, 75mm or 100mm across.
A "Half Ball" type of mounting device is inserted into the bowl from the top and that's what the fluid head will screw onto. Here are some pictures I found online to help illustrate (click on the images to see more clearly):
Don't confuse this with the traditional ball joint found on photographers tripods, this setup is very different. So why are these preferred? Because it makes it so much easier to level the head of the tripod even if the legs are sitting on uneven ground. The central post can move independently of the legs.
Let's move on. The next feature to look for are legs that collapse and have two or three major stages you can manipulate up and down.
Many pro tripods come with (or you can buy separately) "spreaders" that help further stabilize the tripod system by connecting together all 3 legs. Most of today's video tripods are pretty light really. Made of aluminum or sometimes carbon fiber they are made to hold different weights of gear on top. Common sense says not to overload your legs and stick with the manufacturers weight recommendations but I have to say I've never myself seen a tripod collapse, have you? I guess it could happen.
Old-time photographers like the really sturdy wood or metal legs that can hold an image rock steady. On movie sets the tripods and dolly systems being used are absolutely huge and cost many tens of thousands of dollars but then again they are securing camera systems costing hundreds of thousands so it's worth it to them.
What to Get and What To Spend
Okay, this is where I am going to blow your mind. Many of these tripod systems cost more than the camera they are supporting. One of the hallmarks of professional video are buttery-smooth moves and these kits will help you achieve that. By the way, the recommendations I am passing on come from people like Philip Bloom, Vincent LaForet and Shane Hurlbut - all of whom are extremely experienced cinematographers.
As often as I refer to these guys you'd think I was their press agent but I've never actually met them - still they've taught me tons and you should be following them too if you want to make this a profession.
FLUID HEADS - ENTRY LEVEL
LaForet recomended this one for budget shooters who are only going to be placing the camera with no additional gear on their tripods. It's the Gitzo 2180 which can be purchased for about $210. But check out the next level up.
FLUID HEADS - BASIC
A nice step up would be the Manfrotto 501HDV. At $190 it's a steal and is actually one I am looking at because my Manfrotto 503HDV was recently stolen out the back of my vehicle. Since I am now working with much lighter gear, I think the 501 will suit my needs.
FLUID HEADS - ADVANCED BASIC
There are some very nice choices at this level. One that LaForet pointed out was the Manfrotto 526 selling for $1,170.
I have heard Philip Bloom recommend the Miller line of tripod systems several times including their DS-20 fluid head. Cost is $1,160. He's also mentioned highly the Miller Solo DV 20 complete kit which you can get for under $1,500 - this would be an excellent choice.
FLUID HEADS - PRO
Even without getting into the Hollywood style support systems, here the sky is the limit in terms of what you can spend on a fluid head. Brand names to look for include Sachlter and OConnor. Both companies offer heads in the $3,000-$6,000 range that while very pricey would be worthwhile investments for those that have the cash - they WILL make a big impact on the quality of your productions.
LEGS/STICKS - BASIC AND ADVANCED BASIC
This is the first time I've done this but I am going to go ahead and suggest you look at the Manfrotto 525MVB as a great example of what kind of tripod legs you should be going for. $450 is the least amount you would want to spend anyways but of course you would still have to include the cost of the head.
Here's a really great Manfrotto tripod system based on the 525MVB that includes all you will need in a support system for $720. Bottom line: I would get this one.
LEGS/STICKS - PRO
I mentioned the DS-20 Miller head earlier, you can get a complete tripod system based around it for $1,594.
Otherwise I don't have any specific recommendations for legs but at this Pro level but you can't go wrong with either OConnor or Sachlter products. Just for fun, take a look at this one from Sachlter that gives you everything in one system for the low, low price of only $12,373.