You spend weeks juggling dates, turn down other significant jobs to work with an important client to keep them happy. Book flights, pay out lots on advanced expenses for a 10 day job and all is set. Then at the last minute the 10 day job becomes a 4 day job, new flights have to be booked etc and all your planning goes out the window. I don’t think some clients realise how much it can cost a freelancer to have work cut or cancelled. It’s not just the loss of earnings from the cut job but also the loss of business with other clients and other additional costs. It takes time to re-book flights and hotels etc.
Earlier in the year the plan had been: Fly long haul from London to Singapore (client A), fly from Singapore to LA for a job for client B, then while in the US go storm chasing, fly home. One round trip ticket, 6 days for client A, 4 days for client B no dead time. Cost of ticket split between clients. Everyone happy.
But client A decides they can get better value for money by extending my trip, so I work with client A to make that happen, but this means I have to cancel client B. So now I’m all set to fly to Singapore for 9 days for client A. Then fly home. Then fly to USA for storm chasing a few days later. This involves the expense of two round trip long haul tickets. Client A happy, client B not so happy (but understands the situation). Everything is confirmed, set in stone. Flights are booked, hotels booked. Dates blocked out in my diary so when people try to book me on those dates I have to turn them away. June is always very busy for me.
But now last minute, client A has decided they no longer want to extend the trip, so I will fly home 5 days earlier than booked (IF I can get flights). There is now dead time in between Singapore and Storm chasing that I cannot fill, time when I could have been working for client B or client C, D and E who were turned away because I thought I was going to be busy.
What’s really annoying is that Client A KNEW that I was going to have to cancel another important job to help them with the extra days in Singapore.
So all in all I’ve gone from 10 days of work to 4, I’m having to pay out for long haul flights that I could have got covered by Client B, all because I decided to work with client A to help them out. When I quoted client A for the 10 day job I gave them a 10 day discounted rate. Now they have asked me to send in a new quote for the job and have indicated they are expecting the same 10 day rate when now the job is only 4 days!
Not only all that but I used an upgrade voucher that took a year to earn on the original Singapore flight bookings, but as it’s so late in the day now I will loose that voucher when I re-book, and there is still the big question as to whether I can actually get seats and how much extra they will cost booking just two weeks ahead instead of two months ahead.
Bit of a rant here as one of the roles I perform on some shoots is that of DIT or Digital Imaging Technician.
What does a good DIT do? Well lots of things. One of the key roles of the DIT is to work with both the camera department and post production to ensure that the shoots proposed workflow will work. Some DIT’s may even oversee some parts of the post process, ensuring the footage is correctly handled all the way through the production chain. On set the DIT may be responsible for camera setup including any paint settings, gamma curve and gamut choices. The DIT will work with the DP to create LUT’s for use in the camera, on set as well as in post production. Then the DIT may (but often not) be responsible for gathering the media and rushes from the camera and copying it or backing it up. Next the DIT will look at the footage checking for issues, not just file corruption but any other technical aspects that may trip up post production, possibly apply a first pass grade on set so that the production team can get an idea of how the footage will end up looking.
A good DIT will have a sound technical knowledge of the way a video camera works, how to set it up, how to best handle the footage plus how to ensure the footage passes through the post production chain. It is not an easy role as a good DIT can make or break a production.
But often the term DIT is used to refer to a person tasked with copying footage from the camera. This role is more normally referred to as “Data Wrangler”. A good Data Wrangler will manage the backup of the rushes from the camera. All backups will have their data integrity checked and log sheets with checksums and details of the contents of the files will be produced. As footage is passed from the shoot to post the data wrangler should keep a log of who has received what and track all copies of the footage. Sometimes a Data Wrangler will also perform some roles similar to a DIT such as producing footage with a first pass grade applied or viewing copies of footage. The role of the Data Wrangler is extremely important. But a Data Wrangler will not normally be asked to produce LUT’s, setup a camera or oversea any part of the post production process.
Finally the term DIT gets most abused when it is used to refer to a runner or other production assistant who is simply tasked with copying the footage from the camera to a hard drive or other backup. Sadly this incredibly important job is often given to the least skilled or cheapest person on the set. It’s often perceived as an easy job that anyone can do. But it really needs to be done with great care, lots of checks followed by lots more checks because a mistake at this stage could put the entire production at risk. Checksums should be used, log sheets made and you want to use a reliable person that won’t be distracted and will treat this highly responsible role with the respect it deserves. Not use some spotty faced kid that spends his time on facebook waiting for the copies to finish when he could be playing back and checking clips for problems.
Video sensor size measurement originates from the first tube cameras where the size designation would have related to the outside diameter of the glass tube. The area of the face of the tube used to create the actual image would have been much smaller, typically about 2/3rds of the tubes outside diameter. So a 1″ tube would give a 2/3″ diameter active area, within which you would have a 4:3 frame with a 16mm diagonal.
An old 2/3″ Tube camera would have had a 4:3 active area of about 8.8mm x 6.6mm giving an 11mm diagonal. This 4:3 11mm diagonal is the size now used to denote a modern 2/3″ sensor. A 1/2″ sensor has a 8mm diagonal and a 1″ sensor a 16mm diagonal.
Yes, it’s confusing, but the same 2/3″ lenses as designed for tube cameras in the 1950’s can still be used today on a modern 2/3″ video camera and will give the same field of view today as they did back then. So the sizes have stuck, even though they have little relationship with the physical size of a modern sensor. A modern 2/3″ sensor is nowhere near 2/3 of an inch across the diagonal.
This is why some manufacturers are now using the term “1 inch type”, as this is the active area that would be the equivalent to the active area of an old 1″ diameter Vidicon/Saticon/Plumbicon Tube from the 1950’s.
So, I’m happily shooting lots of 4K with my Sony F5/R5. I really love this camera and get beautiful results time and time again. It amazingly versatile thanks to it wide range of recording options and interchangeable lens mount, but…. it’s quite a big camera, definitely more tripod/shoulder mount than handheld. For many of the documentary productions I’m involved in a small handheld camera is required for pick-up shots or for slinging over your shoulder while racing around on a snow scooter or diving out of a car to shoot a tornado. I start storm chasing in May, so I need to pick something up before then.
I’ve been keeping an eye out for a compact 4K camcorder. At first I started looking at the Sony PXW-Z100 or FDR-AX1. These are both very capable camcorders. The have nice 20x zoom lenses and use either XAVC or XAVC-S. The pictures from the Z100’s that I’ve played with have been very good…. provided the light levels are good. These two cameras have very small sensors. There are pro’s and con’s to this. The small sensor size makes it easy to add a good quality 20x zoom lens and give deep DoF (something desirable for a 4K run and gun camera). But small sensors have small pixels and this makes them less sensitive and restricts the dynamic range. So the Z100 is still an option and I’m still considering one, but now there are more cameras on the horizon that look very interesting.
The first I spotted was another camera from Sony. The FDR-AX100 should be available in April with a price tag around $2K. So for a start it’s a lot cheaper than the Z100. It’s also a lot smaller, which is good (for me at least, remember this is a grab and go camera to work alongside my F5/R5) as it will save space and weight when travelling compared to the bulkier Z100. The AX100 has a 12x power zoom matched to a 1″ 20 megapixel sensor. Apparently this is the same sensor as the RX100 II, which produces lovely photos and HD video. The bigger sensor, means bigger pixels, so it should be reasonably sensitive. It may even end up more sensitive than the Z100, time will tell, I’d really like to get one to test and review. Ergonomically this is a handheld video camera, designed for exactly that with both a flip out LCD screen and a small rear viewfinder. It records using XAVC-S on to SD cards so cheap and easy to work with media, but I’m concerned about the quality of the UHD (3840×2160) video when the bit rate is only 50Mb/s. It should be good, but I want to see it for myself.
What about non Sony options? (I’m not a Sony employee, I’m a freelance DP). Well there are a couple.
There is the new Blackmagic 4K production camera. This is a little more compact than the F5/R5, but not by much. At the new reduced price of $3K it’s a lot more “disposable” than the F5/R5 meaning I would be less worried about chucking it about or hanging it over my shoulder via a camera strap. It has some appealing features including a global shutter (wish I could afforded an F55 with an R5) which would be great for shooting thunderstorms and lightning as well as raw or ProRes recording, but I would be back to the same lens challenges. No nice lightweight servo zoom here. By the time I’ve added hand grips etc I will be back to a large and bulky camera, so the BM 4K is not what I’m looking for right now, but an interesting camera all the same.
Then there is the Panasonic GH4. This is the dark horse right now. The GH3 shoots great HD video and the GH4, on paper at least sounds like it will do a good job at 4K. Being a compact (micro 4/3rds, MFT) DSLR type camera means I will still have lens issues, again no silky smooth, variable speed 20x servo zoom. But thanks to the Metabones MFT to Canon adapter I should be able to use all my Canon lenses and Panasonic have a number of compact zoom lenses including a 14-140mm and a few power zooms, although most of these are in the f3.5 – f4 range so not very fast. The GH4 records 4K 4096×2160 at 24fps or UHD 3840×2160 at up to 30fps to SDHC cards at 100Mb/s (Long GoP). This should produce good looking pictures and again SD cards are cheap and readily available. What really appeals to me about the GH4 is that it doesn’t look like a video camera, so you can shoot almost anywhere with it. In addition it is a stills camera, so I don’t need to include an additional stills camera in my shooting kit. It even has a built in time-lapse function. The sensor is “only” 16 Mega pixels. For video less is more, the lower pixel count will help compensate for the smaller than 35mm sized sensor and should help lessen any aliasing issues (remember this is a stills camera. The OLPF will be designed for 16MP stills).
So right now I’m still sitting on the fence. It will be really interesting to see the first reviews of the Sony AX100 and GH4. Right now I’m leaning towards the Panasonic GH4 as it ticks many boxes, handy 4K video camera and useful stills camera, but at the end of the day much will depend on the quality of the 4K video from these cameras.
OK, so if you already shoot and edit then you’ll know this already. But I’m surprised at how many shooters there are that have no idea of how to edit or have never studied the editing and post production process. Very often I’ll hear comments form people like “I shoot this way because it the easiest” or “they can sort it out in post” with clearly little understanding of exactly what the implications for the poor post people are.
Modern post production workflows can be very powerful with the ability to perform many corrections and adjustments, but very often these adjustments only work well when the footage was shot specifically for those kinds of adjustments. Just because you can adjust one type of shot in a particular way, it doesn’t mean that you can do that to any type of shot. You should shoot in a way that is sympathetic to the post production process that has been chosen for the project.
The other thing that learning to edit brings is an understanding of how a program or film flows. It teaches the camera operator the kinds of shots that are needed to support the main part of an interview or drama scene. Those all important cut-aways that help a scene flow properly. It’s not just a case of shooting a bunch of random shots of the location but thinking about how those shots will interact with the main shots when everything is edited together. If your shooting drama then it is a huge help if you can visualise how cuts between different shots of different characters, scenes or locations will work. How framing and things like camera height can be used to change the tension or intimacy in a scene. I think one of the best way to learn these things is by learning how to edit and I don’t mean just pressing the buttons or randomly dropping stuff in a sequence of clips. Learn how to pace a sequence, how to make a scene flow, understanding these things makes you a better shooter.
But don’t stop at the edit. Follow the post production process through to it’s end. Learn how to grade with a proper grading tool, not just colour corrections in the edit suite (although it’s useful to know the limitations of these) but things like power windows and secondaries. You don’t have to become a colourist, but by understanding the principles and limitations you will be able to adapt the way you shoot to fit within those limits. It is a good idea to find a friendly colourist that will let you sit in on a session and explain to you how and why he/she is doing the things being done. There is always the Lite version of Resolve which you can download and use for free. If you don’t have anything to edit or grade then go out and shoot something. Find a topic and make a short film about it. Try to include people, interviews or drama. Maybe get in touch with a local drama group and offer to shoot a performance.
Whatever you do, get out there and learn to edit, learn to grade and then experiment and practice. Try a workflow where you create the finished look in-camera, then try shooting a similar project very flat or with log/raw and take that through the post production process and compare the end results. I think the best shooters are normally also competent editors. By full understand the post process you will keep the editor and colourist happy. If you make their lives easy the director and producers will see this when they sit in on the edit or grade and you’ll be more likely to get more work from them in the future.
One final thing. Even if you think you know it all, even if you do know it all you should still speak to the post production people before you shoot whenever possible to make sure everyone is clear about how they want you to deliver your rushes.
So here it is… a short compilation of clips shot across 10 days in the US this May. To get these shots I drove over 3,500 miles criss crossing the states of Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and South Dakota. It was a trip that started and ended with some tragic events and left me quite unsure of my own emotions and thoughts with regard to storm chasing, something that has been a very big part of my career, business and life for nearly 15 years.
The aim of the trip was to start building up a library of 4K stock footage to supplement the extensive (200+ hours) of high quality HD storm and natural extremes footage that I already hold and sell worldwide, almost all of which was shot using Sony XDCAM camcorders of one type or another. To help share the costs I opened up the trip as a week long workshop and I was to be joined by Les from Scotland and Michael from Australia. A few days before my scheduled departure from the UK to Oklahoma I was looking at the long range weather forecasting models (a vital part of storm chasing) when I noticed that a highly dangerous weather pattern look set to hit Oklahoma the following day. A quick call to the airline and some frantic bag packing saw me heading out in a rush on the first available flight to Oklahoma City on May 19th.
My shooting kit included my PMW-F5 with R5 raw recorder, a selection of DSLR lenses (Canon mount), a Miller Solo tripod, media, batteries, chargers, and a whole bunch of storm chasing electronics and computers. When your packing in a hurry like this a check list can be a life saver. Forgetting something as simple as a cable when you won’t have time to find a replacement can ruin a shoot. 24 hours later, me and my 75Kg of gear were in Oklahoma City.
The morning of May 20th was like many spring mornings in Oklahoma. Warm, humid and a little overcast. The local TV stations were all warning of the possibility of severe storms, but this isn’t uncommon in tornado alley in the spring. I spent a couple of hours fitting all my storm chasing gadgets to the car and analysing weather data, trying to figure out where the best chances of seeing a storm or tornado would be. I didn’t need to go far. By lunchtime I was near Lawton in Oklahoma and soon after the first storms of the day started to get going. I followed a storm south of Oklahoma City that produced a brief tornado. I couldn’t find a safe place to stop and shoot it so I didn’t get any footage, frustrating! Meanwhile on the mobile weather radar in the car I could see another very strong storm approaching Oklahoma City. At 2.56pm this storm produced a large, violent tornado that struck the Oklahoma suburb of Moore. Listening to this unfold just a few miles away on local radio stations and watching it on my mobile radar was quite shocking. The storm had developed very quickly, very early in the day (storms don’t typically get going until early evening) and it was obvious it was going to be a killer. I didn’t chase it, it was in a busy city and congested roads and panicking people would make it a dangerous place to be.
That evening in my hotel the full story of the Moore tornado (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Moore_tornado) was on every TV channel, sadly 23 people were killed, over 12,000 homes were destroyed, 30,000 people displaced. While I love seeing the power and beauty of mother nature, it deeply saddens me when things like this happens, but happen they will whether I am there or not. Little did I know that terrible things would come even closer to home later in the week.
The next day and more storms were forecast, this time in Texas, so on with the storm chasing. I was shooting with my PMW-F5 with the R5 raw recorder docked on the back. The more I use this camera the more I like it. One of the big issues with storm chasing is the speed at which things change. So I needed an all round lens that could shoot wide panoramas one moment but then also get in tight for action shots. In addition I needed to be light and very portable. This meant using a DSLR super zoom. I was going to use a Sigma 18-250 but that went faulty just before I was due to leave home, so I used a Tamron 18-270mm lens (the Tamron focusses back to front which is why I prefer the Sigma). This is an image stabilised lens, very useful when shooting in high winds! To get the stabilisation to work you have to use a powered mount with electronic control. This means a Canon mount as no one makes an active Nikon mount. I used one of my prototype servo zoom handgrips with Canon iris and remote focus control. Other mount options would include the MTF Effect or Optitek Canon mount. I shot at 23.976p in 4K raw and XDCAM HD, this would give me a little over an hour of 4K on a single AXS card. Why XDCAM and not XAVC for the secondary (proxy) recordings? Well simply because I can edit the XDCAM material with any application, XAVC isn’t at the time of writing supported in Premiere and that’s what I currently edit with (it’s coming in Premiere CC due very, very soon). In addition a 32GB SxS card holds 60 mins of footage just like the 512GB AXS card and 24p raw, so I have the same clips on pairs of cards rather than all over the place.
The 3rd day was when I was joined by Les and Michael, it was also a chase day so an early start as we headed out to the Texas Pan Handle. The storms that formed that afternoon produced some very strong winds, hail the size of baseballs and dust. Tons and tons of dust from the parched Texas farmland was getting sucked into the storms and then blown back out again creating zero visibility sand storms. By the end of the day everything was covered in sandy, gritty dust. The cameras, the car and us. The F5 being solid state just carried on working despite the dust, but did require a good clean with a soft brush at the end of the day. If you have a dust covered camera don’t use canned air or compressed air to blow the dust off. The compressed air can blast dust in to the cameras interior and do a lot more damage than good. A soft paint brush will quickly remove dust from the cameras exterior. If you have dust on the optical port a gentle puff with a hand held puffer can be used to blow the dust off before you wipe it with a clean high quality lens cloth. Also keep your lens cloth in a sealed bag like a ziplock bag. Cleaning a lens or other optics with a dusty or gritty lens cloth is not a clever thing to do.
As the week progressed we were to see some incredible storms. One one night we witnessed one of the most impressive lightning shows that I have ever seen. A spinning Supercell thunderstorm was throwing out bolts of lightning every few seconds and we had a grandstand view. While the Sony F55 uses Frame Image Scanning to eliminate rolling shutter artefacts the F5 like most CMOS cameras does not, so it suffers from a degree of rolling shutter. A trick I learnt some time ago when shooting lightning, strobe lighting or flash photography with a CMOS camera is to use the slowest shutter speed possible. So this means turning the shutter off and using straight 23.976p for lightning during the day. At night I use a 2 frame slow shutter. Shoot like this and 90-95% of the lightning I shoot is not affected by rolling shutter effects. Sadly my budget wouldn’t stretch to the F55, I could only afford the F5. For my lightning shoot in Arizona later in the year I’ll probably hire an F55.
As the end of my planned storm chasing shoot drew near, while I had shot some amazing storm footage I had not yet captured a big tornado in 4K. With a lot of money invested in the shoot I was starting to feel a little disappointed. But the weather gods decided to play ball. My morning weather forecast had suggested Salina in Kansas as a good place to target for the day, so off to Salina we went. As we approached the town the first storms of the day started to fire. After briefly chasing one short lived storm we were soon parked up right in front of a second, almost stationary Supercell thunderstorm. You didn’t need to be a weather expert to see that this storm meant business. The clouds above us were swirling and turning. Just a short distance ahead a wall cloud had formed, this angry, looking low cloud was spinning rapidly and soon a small tornado formed. Trying to accurately expose when your in a hurry, fighting strong winds and have only moments to get the shot can be difficult at the best of times. I was shooting raw, so I was able to take advantage of the F5’s built in look-up tables and Cine EI gain. By dropping the EI gain to 800 EI (use 640 EI on the F55) and with just the smallest hint of zebra 2 (100%) starting to show on my brightest highlights I know that my exposure is good and bright but not quite clipping. This gives me nice low noise levels after grading and is an easy way to shoot.
The tornado didn’t last long, but then just a few minutes later a second tornado formed. This was a big one, a powerful one. In the viewfinder I could see it getting bigger and bigger, yet it wasn’t moving left or right. This isn’t normally a good sign, normally you only have a few moments to get a quick shot of the tornado before it’s time to run away, but this tornado barely moved at all, it was just simply getting bigger and bigger. It’s slow movement allowed me to get some great shots, some wide, some close up. Now I was happy! Following storm chaser tradition we celebrated that night with a steak diner.
At the end of each day I made a backup of my footage. Using a the Sony ACS-CR1 card reader, a retina MacBook Pro and a 3.5″ 2TB desktop hard drive I had space to backup up the equivalent of 4 full AXS cards, a little over 4 hours of material. A full card taking about 30 minutes to transfer. Once the cards were transferred to the 3.5″ drive a secondary copy was made to a 2.5″ drive overnight. The 2.5″ drives are much slower, but it’s easier to hand carry them on flights. The SxS cards were backed up to a NextoDI, NVS-Air. These are great stand-alone devices for backing up SxS cards. You simply pop the card into the slot in the NVS-Air’s side and select the backup mode you want, fast or secure and off it goes, backing up your card. A 32GB SxS card can take as little as 6 minutes to backup. It’s simple, it’s fast and you can even plug in a second drive to make two simultaneous copies.
Even though the weather pattern for the next few days was great for storms I had to break off the chase to go to Los Angeles for the Cinegear trade show. As I left Oklahoma City early on the 31st of May I was aware that there was a significant risk of tornadoes in Oklahoma that day. Oh well I thought, I’ve done well, got some great footage, time to move on.
Friday the 31st of May is a day that storm chasers around the world will remember for a long time. A Supercell storm near the town of El-Reno in Oklahoma exploded in size and ferocity. It produced the largest tornado ever recorded, 2.6 miles wide, a tornado that was erratic and violent, rated at EF5, the strongest tornado strength rating. The storm caught many chasers out, many literally driving for their lives creating storm chaser traffic jams on narrow roads as they tried to escape the rapidly expanding storm. Some didn’t make it. Several cars were swept up by the tornado. Tragically 4 storm chasers were killed by the storm. 3 of them I knew, one was a friend. The 3 chasers I knew were researchers measuring the wind speeds around tornadoes in an attempt to better understand them. They were some of the most experienced storm chasers out there. I think every storm chaser knew that one day a chaser would get killed by a storm, but no one expected it to be theses guys, highly experienced, professional, researchers. Not hung-ho adrenalin junkies just there for the thrill of getting as close as possible. I have to admit that this was a bit of a wake up call. I’m not a big risk taker and I do like to keep a a little distance from the storms, I’ve always had the greatest of respect for their power, in the future I’ll be avoiding chasing in areas where large numbers of chasers can lead to traffic jams and blocked roads, most notably around Oklahoma City in May.
Once back at home it was time to review the footage shot and to put together a short demo clip. Using my off-the-shelf 15″ Retina MacBook pro I cut together a short sequence using Premiere Pro with Sony’s raw plugin. I edited directly off the single 3.5″ hard drive, no raid or anything else. Once I was happy with the edit I exported an AAF file from Premiere which I then took in to DaVinci Resolve. I used Resolve to grade and finish the footage rendering it out overnight. It did take about 3 hours to render the finished 4K project, but I used a little noise reduction on many of the clips and this takes a lot of processing. Lets face it a laptop isn’t the best way to work with 4K material, but it can be done. I’m currently putting together a workstation specifically for Resolve that will have dual graphics cards to really boost the render performance. I have to say that I am delighted with the quality of the material. The detail in the corn fields is incredible, the lightning bolts are detailed and crisp. There are no clipped highlights in any shot. Now all I need to do is to go back through the entire 4 hours of footage that I have, clip it down into stock footage sized chunks and write all the keywords and metadata for the stock footage libraries and my clients.
PS: On my last day in LA I had an interesting discussion with a production company about a 4K, 3D storm shoot. Maybe I’ll be back chasing storms in July with a pair of F5’s!
When your buying a camera kit it’s all too easy to focus all your attention on the camera itself and forget about all the other bits and pieces that you need to make your camera kit work at it’s best. One of the most important parts of any decent camera kit is the tripod. You can have the best camera in the world, but if your tripod is wobbly then your pictures won’t look good.
However while wobbly pictures are clearly not desirable you also need to consider how practical your tripod is. there is no point in having a substantial, rock solid tripod if it is so heavy and bulky that you don’t use it.
A good tripod is a long term investment. Cameras come and go in a few short years, but a good tripod will last a decade or more if well looked after. I only recently retired a Vinten 5 tripod that I purchased used in 1991. That tripod was still silky smooth even after 14 years of abuse. It may be that you find you need more than one tripod. For example, when I’m travelling on low budget or self funded projects then the weight of the tripod becomes critical, so I use a lightweight system (Vinten 5AS or Miller Solo). However when I’m filming drama or commercials then the camera can end up loaded with lots of extra accessories and a much more substantial tripod is essential (Vinten 100). Then there are the air-shows and aviation related shoots that I do where stability with very long telephoto shots is paramount. Again a very large tripod is needed. For the airshows we tend to hire in the tripods as these are only needed for a couple of weeks a year (O’Connor 2575).
So how do you select the right tripod for you? First of all I would strongly urge you to stick with the main brands: Cartoni, Libec, Manfrotto, Miller, O’Connor, Sachtler, Vinten all make decent tripods. You can get some bargain Chinese made tripods and these can be reasonably good, but don’t expect them to last, think of them as short term “disposable” tripods. Libec and Manfrotto make good ranges of lower cost tripods that are well made and last well, but for me these are just a little bit too budget and don’t have the feel of the more substantial (and more expensive) brands. There are also blatant rip-off copies of some of the reputable brands. My experience of these is that initially they can be very good, performing much like the real thing. But they don’t last, bits break and they wear out due to the use of inferior materials. Again, if your not fussed about the long term, perhaps these are worth a shot, but as I said at the beginning a good tripod can and should last many many years.
It’s all about the payload.
The first thing you should establish is the all up weight of your camera system. You need to include any accessories that you might add to the camera like microphones, lights, monitors, recorders or high capacity batteries. When your calculating the weight you need to support, for anything mounted more than 5″ or 12cm from the base of the camera (for example a monitor on the top of the camera) I would double the weight of that item to allow for the fact that objects a long way from the tripod head raises the centre of gravity of the system and thus requires a bigger tripod or greater damping effort.
For example if you have a 3kg camera with a top mounted 1kg monitor that uses an attached 0.5kg battery I would calculate a load of 3Kg + (1.5kg x2) = 6kg. Do not under estimate the extra load on your tripod that accessories add. Here’s an example:
Sony FS700 (2kg), Battery (0.5kg), Lens (1kg), Lens adapter (0.3kg), 15mm rails and mount (1.2kg), Matte Box (0.8kg), Top mounted Atomos Samurai with batts (1kg x2 to account for high position). This comes in at 7.8kg.
Once you have your weight then I would add a 20% contingency to allow for changes to your rig, for example a heavier lens or bigger batteries. In this case that brings me to a rounded up figure of 9.4kg max with 7.8kg min.
This is the payload my tripod needs to support. So when choosing a tripod it would have to support this as range. At the same time you don’t want to go too heavy on your tripod. If the tripod is designed for loads significantly higher than your payload you may find that you can’t balance it correctly or that there is too much damping for fast pans. Given a payload minimum of 7.8kg and possible 9.4kg you will probably want to look at tripods with a payload range around 6kg – 12kg or thereabouts.
Counterbalance. It is essential that the tripod head you choose has a counterbalance range that fits with the range calculated above. The counterbalance systems stops the tendency of the tripod head to want to tilt up or down when your shooting with the camera pointing up or down. Not only is this important in respect of getting smooth camera tilts but also from a safety point of view as it will help prevent the camera form unexpectedly tilting on it’s own and potentially unbalancing the tripod which can lead to your expensive camera kit crashing to the ground.
Damping and friction. There are several different methods used to damp the movement of a tripod head. Some use friction clutches with “sticky” grease, some use special fluids, valves and pistons. Provided you stay with a reputable brand these all work well. Best if you can try before you buy. Friction clutches and sticky grease may not be quite as silky smooth as a true fluid head but they tend to be cheaper, maintenance free and robust. True fluid heads can develop leaks over time if not serviced adequately, but offer the smoothest action. If you work in environmental extremes check that the greases or fluids will work at the temperatures your likely to encounter. A lot of the greases and fluids used in tripods become very stiff at low temperatures and can freeze solid in arctic conditions.
Play and Slack. Check for play and slack in the head. There should be none. Also check for twist and flex in the head itself. I’ve come across some tripod heads where if you push and pull the pan bar with a high damping setting the actual head assembly can warp and twist slightly.
Pan Bar. This is what you will use to control your tripod. It should have a good adjustment range for angle and lock into place when adjusted with a rosette type mount. Make sure it is good and secure as does not bend when working against a large amount of friction or damping. Extending pan bars are the worst for this, they can sometimes flex at the joint where the extension piece goes.
Legs and Spreaders. Most tripods use some kind of spreader to control the splay of the tripod legs. There is often the choice of a ground spreader or mid-level spreader. For lightweight and medium weight tripods I would almost always choose a mid level spreader. The big advantage of a mid level spreader is that they work just as well on rough or uneven ground (stairs and steps too) as on the flat. For heavy duty applications ground spreaders are the norm. Carbon fibre legs tend to be lighter than aluminium, but if abused the carbon fibre can crack or de-laminate. Getting shards of carbon in your hand from a damaged tripod leg is unpleasant I can assure you. Aluminium legs, while heavier are often more robust. Check for twist in the tripod legs. Lock the pan lock on the head and use the pan bar to twist the tripod. A small amount of flex may be normal in a lightweight tripod but there should be no obvious easy twisting of the tripod, especially with medium and heavyweight legs. Any twist or flex makes starting and ending pans smoothly difficult.
Leg Locks. Make sure these are good and secure. Test them if you can, lock the legs and make sure that the legs don’t flex around the joint or collapse when you put a bit of weight on the tripod. Lets face it, someone at sometime will lean on your tripod for support! Also look for locks that won’t get tangled up in wires or cables. Quick release locks are easier to use than multi-turn locks. Also check to see if the locks can be adjusted by the end user. Over time they will wear and there may come a time when you need to adjust them to keep them tight. Look to see where the locks are. Locks located high on the legs are much easier to operate than locks at ground level or low down on the legs.
Feet. Some tripods have rubber feet, some spikes. Whichever you choose make sure they are stable. Rubber feet are best for solid floors, you don’t want to use steel spikes on someones luxury wood floor! But if your outside on loose ground spikes are best. If the tripod has removable feet make sure you can get them on and off without having to resort to special tools.
Looking after it. Keep your tipod clean, this helps stop dirt and grit building up around any of the seals that protect the damping mechanism. Wipe it down with a damp cloth if you have been using it in a dirty or dusty environment. When your transporting a tripod, particularly if it’s being shipped, remove the pan bars. I’ve seen several tripods ruined by the pan bar mounts getting broken off in transit through impacts on the ends of the pan bars. Also for transportation unlock the head locks. If the tripod isn’t going to be used for a while turn the damping to zero to prevent the grease from being squeezed out from between the friction plates and reduce the counterbalance setting to relieve the pressure on the spring. In use, avoid tilting or panning when the pan or tilt locks are set, this can damage the head and will eventually wear out the locks. With a little bit of care a decent tripod should last for at least 10 years.
Camera setup, reviews, tutorials and information for pro camcorder users from Alister Chapman.