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There’s more to most tripods than meets the eye. Manufacturers and seasoned users explain how the latest technology, combined with good old-fashioned workmanship, make for long-lasting, superior sticks.
When you think about advances in video technology, do you think about tripods? Probably not. Yet tripods are undergoing the same kinds of technological leaps we’re seeing everywhere else. Space-age materials are making tripod legs lighter and stronger. Innovative designs are producing heads with silky smooth pans. Add in competition from Chinese knockoffs, and you have a product category that’s bubbling with activity.
"Since the early 1990s, Gitzo’s primary focus has been on composite materials," explains David Fisher, U.S. product manager for the Italian-manufactured Gitzo brand. His company uses a high ratio of carbon fiber to epoxy resin when creating the tripod legs. "We use a blend of about 65 percent fibers to 35 percent resin," he says. "As a baseline, Boeing uses something like a 60-40 blend for their airplanes. So we’re above the industry standard in terms of the blend." Gitzo also uses an advanced pultrusion method when manufacturing the carbon fiber tubes. "Pultrusion is a woven fiber tube, so there are no seams in the tube. The fibers are aligned in such a way that they create maximum vibration absorption and strength."
Gitzo faces competition from Chinese manufacturers whose tripods look similar to the Gitzo brand, but are constructed of less expensive materials. About 90 percent of the Chinese carbon fiber tubes come from two factories owned by two companies, Benro and Weifeng. The Benro and Weifeng tripods often appear in the U.S. under OEM or private-label brand names, such as Giottos and Induro. The Chinese use a roll table method to manufacture their carbon fiber legs, as opposed to the pultrusion method used by Gitzo and Manfrotto.
"They basically take sheets of carbon fiber and slather glue between them at about 90 degree angles," says Fisher. "Then they roll them and seam them. Anytime you have a seam in a tube, it’s like having a seam on a shirt or bag. It’s going to conduct shock rather than absorb shock, and it weakens the tubes."
Fisher says the Chinese use a 50-50 carbon fiber to epoxy resin ratio, which makes the legs heavier because glue is heavier than carbon. "You can’t see it because they use an aesthetic layer on the outside to make it look similar to a Gitzo or Manfrotto tube, but inside, there are air pockets," he explains. "There are also layers of glass fibers in there, because they’re not using just carbon fiber. If you apply pressure on the tubes, with some of the mid- to lower-end Chinese knockoffs, you can actually hear the cracking and delamination of the tube itself."
The knockoffs are often sold at a steep discount or included for free with the sale of a camera. "The biggest problem with a lot of these knockoffs is their torsion rigidity, which is where the top spider comes out of a tripod to hold the legs- they have really bad torsion rigidity," explains Will Holowka, a Manfrotto product manager for Bogen Imaging. "When you go to do a pan, you get flexing," he says. The pan won’t be smooth, so you have to go back and try it again.
Carbon fiber isn’t the only advanced tripod material. Manfrotto is incorporating lighter forms of aluminum. "Sometimes it’s aluminum casting with carbon fiber tubing," says Holowka. "Sometimes it’s magnesium casting with carbon fiber tubing." The shift to lightweight aluminum has been mostly on the still photography side, though Holowka anticipates a similar shift on the video side next year. "The improving technology lets us make it thinner and stronger," he says. "Some of our small MVB-series tripods are coming out approximately 15-percent lighter than they were just a few years ago."
Gitzo uses an advanced polymer in the upper casting of some of its aluminum tripods for smaller HD camcorders. Soulid 238 is 30 percent lighter than traditional aluminum, yet it’s as strong as magnesium. "It’s really a hybrid because it uses a polymer casting with an anodized aluminum pan base and a magnesium upper plate for the quick release system," says Fisher. "It’s a true composite of materials, and it makes the video head very lightweight. It weighs about 1.2 pounds with something like a 10-pound load capacity."
Another key technology is the leg locks. Gitzo’s recent innovation in this area is its G-lock system. "It’s an incredibly strong locking mechanism that works on a compression-type lock ring- but it’s cone shaped and acts like a wedge," says Fisher. "The more pressure that’s applied vertically, the stronger the lock becomes. It’s a lot faster to lock and unlock than previous twist-lock systems, because it takes less torque to lock it."
The G-lock mechanism is patented, though that hasn’t prevented the Chinese from attempting to duplicate it. "They’ve done a very good job replicating the aesthetics of the G lock, but it has actually worsened their overall performance," Fisher explains. The tolerances of carbon fiber are very strict. If you take the shape of the Gitzo lock ring and apply it to a different tube, it won’t work well, because the company engineered the thickness of the cone, as well as the ridges on the cone, to grip that particular tube. "When the Gitzo engineers looked at it, they were worried it was going to be a very good knockoff," he says, "but it performed worse than what was already on the market from that particular company."
Competitors often find it easier to duplicate the appearance of the original. "When we first came out with a non-rotating center column, we had a rib put inside the casting that would prevent the center column from twisting," says Fisher. "If you’re doing panoramic shots, you don’t want the column to be turning. Or if you’re raising and lowering the center column, and you’ve already fixed your view angle, you don’t want to have to alter it. On the first go-round, one of the knockoff companies started to use this notched center column, but they had no rib on the inside to prevent it from spinning. It had this notch, and you could just spin it in circles."
The cat-and-mouse game between the European and Chinese manufacturers may be helping to drive innovation. "We came out with a fluid cartridge-based monopod," says Holowka. "It’s a patented technology that we brought out to separate ourselves from the Chinese knockoffs. That gives us a good separation because no one else is making that kind of base."
Video producers are using the enhanced monopod in places where a tripod isn’t allowed, or where there isn’t enough room for a tripod. And it gives them flexibility in environments where people are getting up and down, or moving about. When multiple cameras are assigned to a live event, it may make sense to use a monopod with one of the cameras. "We’ve seeing that especially with interviews where you’re showing someone from different angles," says Holowka. Camera crews are also using monopods with belt pouches to shoot from the hip. "They’re putting their expensive camera up in the air on an angle, or using it to get vantage points they can’t achieve by handholding."
What’s ahead for next year? Holowka won’t say, but he’s willing to drop a hint or two. "We’ll have two new ones that will be carbon-fiber based, and they’re going to be very, very interesting for the video market," he explains. "They’ll give you more height, and they’ll be lightweight, taking into account what I’ve said about torsion rigidity."
Truly Built to Last
With all these advancements in tripod technology, why don’t tripods receive more attention? One reason might be the slow turnover in sales. "People don’t change tripods as often as they change cameras, lenses or batteries," explains Nir Reches, sales manager for Band Pro Film & Digital, based in Burbank, CA. "A tripod can stay with the end user or rental house for ten or twelve years with minor repairs and refurbishments. Normally it’s a durable product, that if you treat it correctly, will last a long time."
Reches sees two distinct groups of tripod buyers: high end and low end. The high-end buyers tend to stick with the premier brand names, such as Sachtler, OConnor and Cartoni. "They’ll pay more to get a good product with a brand name behind it, thinking that if they compromise on price, they’ll compromise on the life of the unit." In order of importance, this group’s criteria are brand name, payload and price.
For low-end buyers, the criteria are reversed. "This is a much more price-driven market- more than brand name, service or quality," says Reches. "It’s the most active segment of the market right now." Even in an active market, Band Pro won’t sell the Chinese knockoffs. "I wouldn’t be able to back up the customer, because I wouldn’t have the support," he explains. "If a Chinese manufacturer has only one rep here with no backup or loan of equipment, it wouldn’t work for me."
Most of his customers prefer carbon fiber legs. "If you’re talking to individuals who have a camera package- and they need to carry everything themselves- weight is very important," Reches says. "They’re concerned about transport size and weight, especially now that the airlines are limiting packages to less than 50 pounds." For the rental houses, weight is less important. "They don’t care, because they rent it out. They don’t have to move the gear. It’s the people who rent from them who care."
Much of the innovation is coming from just below the top tier. The challenge for those companies is to offer as much top-tier performance as possible, while responding to the industry migration to less expensive, lightweight HDV cameras. "If everybody had their way, they would be using Sachtler and OConnor, but they’re expensive," says Donald Berube, a Boston-based director of photography with more than two decades of experience with public and network television. "We’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars for these tripods. An OConnor head can easily cost you $6,000 just for the head without the legs."
About 90 percent of the time, Berube uses a Manfrotto 542ART tripod, which he says "approximates the performance of a high-end two-stage professional tripod, such as a Sachtler, but much more affordably." He needed it to be lightweight, so he wanted carbon fiber legs. He also liked the 542ART’s advanced release technology. "It can open quickly, adjust quickly to the height I need, and then close quickly," he says. "It’s ideal for those times when I’m under the gun, and I need to move quickly between setups. At the end of the day, it feels like we’re getting more coverage because we have less downtime. The camera is rolling more."
A well-designed release system is essential if you have to cover a wide range of shots. "It allows me to go up high to a decent level, but I can also bring it really low to the ground for those funky low angle shots," says Berube. By contrast, he doesn’t like the Chinese knockoffs. "You’re going to see a lot of plastic and a lot of cheap materials that break on your first or second week of use."
Berube will swap out heads to suit a particular project. "Sometimes when I’m shooting with a Handycam, I don’t need my high-end 100mm fluid head," he explains. "I’ll take that off, and I’ll put on my 75mm bowl adapter." It isn’t just to lower the weight. "What’s more important is that I’m not using an over-rated head for a six-pound camera. I’m not using a beefy, heavy-duty fluid head that’s rated for a 25-pound camera, such as a DVX100. I would be fighting the head all day long, because the head would have too much drag in it." He favors heads with adjustable drag for both pan and tilt, "where you can dial in the level you want, rather than having just one or two preset levels of drag."
No tripod is ideal for all situations. There will always be tradeoffs in price, weight, and performance. "People want the best quality, but they don’t always have the budget to go there, so they look for alternatives," says Reches. "They go down the ladder until they get to one that fits their budget. Then they look to see if it can do handle the project. If everything falls into place, they buy. If it doesn’t, they rent."
How Much Can a Tripod Handle?
Do you overload your tripod? You’re not alone. "The biggest challenge we face is when we tell people what our products can and can not do," says Will Holowka, a Manfrotto product manager for Bogen Imaging. "Like anything else, it’s human nature. If the tripod is rated to take 15 and a half pounds, people will put 20 pounds on there to see what it can do."
As you may have suspected, manufacturers are conservative when rating their products, in part because they know you’ll push the limits. When you do overload your tripod, look for the additional strain to show up first in the tripod’s head. "If you put a little more weight on the sticks, will the sticks handle it?," Holowka asks. "Yeah, probably there will be no issue. Where you would likely see a breakdown of a product is if you put more on a video head, where you’re doing the pans and tilts, and it’s not designed to do it. In video, if you’re panning and you stop, and you have too much weight, then you’re not going to have the smooth flowing pan you’re looking for, if you’re overstressing the head."
The manufacturer’s weight load specification should be used only as a guideline when determining the vertical load of a particular tripod. "There’s no Wilheim testing on weight load capacity," explains David Fisher, U.S. product manager for the Gitzo brand. Henry Wilheim established a rigorous set of longevity tests for film- and digital-based photographic prints that was eventually adopted by the printer manufacturers. Because there’s no common standard among tripod manufacturers for measuring weight load, each company uses its own criteria.
Gitzo prefers to measure tripod strength using a calculation involving torsion rigidity. "In our catalog, we lay out how to test for torsion rigidity," says Fisher. "The torsion angle of the tripod needs to be less than the view angle of the lens. So we recommend a series 3 tripod for 300mm lenses because on a 300mm lens, you have a fixed view angle of 8 degrees. It doesn’t matter what the camera body is that you’re using. And it doesn’t matter if you have other accessories adding weight to it. The view angle remains 8 degrees. A 3 series tripod has less than 8 degrees of torque at the upper casting, which is what is required so that you don’t wind up with any shake or blur in the images."
While a lightweight tripod is best for quick setups and location shots, you may be willing to take on extra weight in exchange for increased versatility. Manufacturers are more than willing to accommodate this need with a wide array of accessories, including add-on arms that can transform your tripod into the equivalent of a one-man band. "We use a hydrostatic technology that places hydraulics into the arm," says Fisher. Why would you want a hydraulic arm? "You might want a small accessory monitor or microphone around your camera," he explains. "These arms allow you to hold products either on the camera or attached to a clamp on your tripod. It’s hydraulic because there’s a fluid in the arm that applies locking power to the joints."- D.E.
When Sticks Alone Are Not Enough
You load your 25-pound camera onto your tripod, set-up for a complex elevated shot, and change over to a low-angle shot. Then you discover you have to do the identical elevated shot again. Everyone is placed on hold, because you need extra time to reconfigure the camera into the same position with the same settings as before. Sound familiar? There has to be a way to automate the process.
The answer may be the TelePod from Telemetrics. It’s the first motorized elevating tripod. A motor raises and lowers the tripod head, and you can use Telemetrics’ line of robotic accessories to control and automate the camera’s angle and functions.
The TelePod weighs a hefty 35 pounds, though that’s less weight than is typically needed to elevate a camera using a motor. It supports cameras up to 25 pounds and extends from a manual height of 46 inches to a motorized height of 72 inches. An optional CP-ITV control panel lets you elevate, pan and tilt the camera remotely. You can also remotely adjust the focus and iris. – D.E.
www.studiomonthly.com for a directory of tripod manufacturers and products for every budget.