Your Tripod Search Ends Here

The only tripods I've ever loved - Gitzo GT1542T and Gitzo GT2531LVL

The only tripods I’ve ever loved – Gitzo GT1542T and Gitzo GT2531LVL

If you’re looking for the perfect tripod for documentary video, you’re probably already pulling your hair. There are lots of heavy duty video tripods out there, from the popular and cheap Amazon Fancier video tripod to very heavy and expensive Miller tripods. And don’t get me wrong, if you’re just using a tripod for interviews and occasional static shots, then many of these heavy tripods will work just fine.

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The popular $140 tripod with fluid head on Amazon

The advantages of a heavy duty video tripod are: 1) they’re heavy a.k.a. stable, 2) they typically have ball mounts for easy leveling, and 3) they often come with fluid heads already, in addition to the tripod sticks.

The disadvantages are: 1) they’re annoyingly heavy and difficult to transport, 2) the ball mounts mean they don’t have extendable center columns, so their heights are limited, and 3) Just because they have “video” in the description doesn’t mean their load capacities are high.

The Sachler Ace M

The Sachtler Ace M

We have both the cheapo Amazon video tripod, which is short and pretty much only good for sit-down interviews, as well as the Sachtler Ace M shown above. It’s hugely popular with first-time video tripod shoppers, because it seems to be a ready-made system for all the DSLR video shooters out there wanting a decent but not extreme video tripod, and it’s about $590, which seems like a fair price, compared to other video tripods and fluid head packages that are thousands and thousands of dollars.

But in my opinion, the Sachtler Ace M is garbage. It’s heavy (nearly 10 pounds), the fluid head is not intuitive, so in quick run-and-gun situations you never seem to find the pan/tilt lock, drag adjustments, not to mention all the leg adjustments, plus the spreader adjustments. Seriously, it’s really a pain to use in all but the most time-friendly situations. Worst of all, its load capacity is only 8.8 pounds – in the real world it can handle more, but essentially it’s not built to even hold a DSLR rig on top of a slider.

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MeFoto $189 tripods that fold down to 15 inches

So once you leave the “video tripod” world and venture into photo tripods, your affordable and lightweight choices multiply by the thousands. You can choose from many brands, you can get lightweight carbon or heavier aluminum, you can have one with an extendable center column for a higher reach, one that has a very low angle setting for on-the-ground shooting, varying amounts of sections and different locks that speed up your setup time per shot, single or dual legs, short for travel or long for stability, silver or pink…

The main thing is you still need a leveling base to go between your tripod and your fluid head. A simple ball head would be sufficient to take an unlevel tripod and level out just the camera out for one photo. But in the video world, as soon as you start panning or tilting, you need the whole fluid head to be level.

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Acratech Leveling Base

The heavier, bulkier Manfrotto 438 leveling base

The heavier, bulkier Manfrotto 438 leveling base

A popular entry level combo is, for example, a Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod sticks, a Manfrotto 438 leveling base, and any kind of fluid head. I’ve been using this setup along with one of the cheap Fancier fluid heads for a few years now, and it’s decent, but too bulky for travel. As a result, I never traveled or used it outside of interviews and talking head studio shoots.

But last year I wanted to uproot my shooting strategy and gear, hoping for crazy portability but more stability than shoulder rigs and monopods can offer. And after a lot of hair falling out, I got the super tiny Gitzo 1542T carbon tripod, an Acratech leveling base, and a Manfrotto MVH500AH fluid head (the 701HDV head is just as good and even smaller, but it’s discontinued and you can only get it used or for steep prices).

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Me and the Gitzo Traveler in the “I Am A Water Taxi Captain” episode of Indie Alaska

This lightweight tripod/leveler/head system has been a total lifestyle change for me. I bring this thing everywhere, and where I used to shoot B-roll on a tripod maybe 5% of the time, I now shoot on it about 80% of the time, and the rest handheld and monopod. It’s heavy duty enough for me to use my C100 on, even with a slider on it, and I usually hang a backpack on its hook to stabilize it during interviews. It’s about $525 for the tripod, $150 for the fluid head, and $150 for the leveling base. Don’t forget your Manfrotto 394 Quick Release system ($45).

Now that the Gitzo 1542T hooked me on tripods (after hating them immensely), recently I began to look at something a little more heavy duty, something that was a step up, not necessarily built for the smallest/lightest portability, and could handle bigger load capacities. Essentially, I got a Kessler Pocket Jib Traveler, which with a C100 and counterweights comes in at about 22 pounds, and the little Gitzo’s load capacity is about 15 lbs. Actually I tried it out for a few minutes, and it definitely didn’t look like it was comfortable.

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Not the jib I got, but a good idea of how cool I feel when I’m using a jib

Here's my Kessler Pocket Jib Traveler on the Gitzo, with Travis Gilmour at the helm.

Here’s my Kessler Pocket Jib Traveler on the Gitzo, with Travis Gilmour at the helm.

So I figured I could use my old Manfrotto 055XPROB setup for the occasional jib shot. But despite being much heavier than the Gitzo Traveler, its load capacity was about the same at 15 lbs, and I wanted something that I could still travel and walk around with, even for jib shots.

My search took me basically to the beginning of this blog post – to “video tripods.” That ended very quickly. Manfrotto makes carbon tripods but their size/weight to load capacity didn’t seem quite right, Really Right Stuff carbon photo tripods are supposed to be really awesome, but are pretty expensive.

Then there are Benro tripods which could be considered Gitzo rip offs, but are not that much cheaper considering there’s not as much history and engineering going into them as Gitzo. Gitzos are supposed to last for a long time – there are people on my local craigslist selling 30 year old Gitzo tripods for not much more than they paid originally.

So I came back to Gitzo, of course. There are several lines, the Traveler (which is what my GT1542T is), the medium-duty Mountaineer, the heavy-duty Systematic, and photo Explorer line. Within each line there are several sizes – or series – and there can be older and newer versions of the same tripod. The model numbers can be kind of confusing…

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But essentially I settled on a Mountaineer, and within that line, a 2000 series, and either 3 or 4 leg sections. I was expecting to add the Acratech leveling base to it, but then I stumbled upon the LVL extension – one Mountaineer tripod that happened to have a built-in leveler. The clouds parted.

The GT2531LVL

The GT2531LVL

The Gitzo GT2531LVL has everything I wanted: 26 lb load capacity, it weighs only 3.5 lbs, at 3 sections it’s durable and faster to setup than a 4-section tripod, it doesn’t fit in a carry-on as nicely as the Gitzo 1542T does, but it’s still reasonable, and at $750, it’s not totally ludicrously expensive. It still needs a head, of course. But the most important thing is the built in leveling base!

The leveling base is incredibly simple and quick

The leveling base is incredibly simple and quick

As leveling bases go, sometimes they’re not so quick to adjust – the Manfrotto 438 is the worst at usability, and the Acratech is nice but still can be annoying on occasion – you have to both find the knob and also where the bubble is, and in fast situations, this step can take too long. I’m talking about the scenarios where you’re filming somebody walking toward you and past you, and then you run ahead to film them walking toward you again. You can leave the tripod legs fully extended as you’re walking around grabbing shots, but you have to adjust the level constantly, every time you pick up the tripod and place it anywhere, which makes it the most important part of your tripod system. The GT2531LVL built-in leveler nails it.

If you haven’t used a Gitzo before, at first glance the G-lock twist knobs feel plasticy and cheap, and slower than flip locks. But they are actually very tight, and after a few days getting the hang of it, you start to get really fast at unlocking/locking and setting up/putting away the Gitzo legs. But boy, that leveling base….

This tripod is so good, I’ve been leaving my GT1542T Traveler at home and taking this one instead. I think it really is the perfect tripod.

Gitzo also makes another leveling tripod, the GT2540LLVL (which is the newer version of the GT2540LVL, mind the L’s… sigh). It’s taller if you need that extra height, but it has more leg sections and is more expensive ($860). For my use, the GT2531LVL is tall enough. The benefit of photo tripods is that they can get pretty tall.

My friend Scott Karlins with a Gitzo Systematic - http://scottkarlins.com

My friend Scott Karlins with a Gitzo Systematic – http://scottkarlins.com

The strange thing about the Gitzo GT2531LVL is that it seems to be the perfect solution for so many DSLR shooters, and yet nobody is talking about it. There really is nothing like it, in that price range, for that ratio of size/weight to load capacity, to usability, portability, longevity. That’s partly why I wanted to make this post. For amateur shooters just starting their video tripod search, all roads seem to end at the Sachtler Ace M.

The only other similar tripod with a built-in leveler that I could find is the Manfrotto 755CX3, which is cheaper (at $500), and has similar height and weight (slightly heavier) than the Gitzo, but its load capacity is only 15 lbs. At any rate, it might be a solid option for DSLR shooters who like the flip lock tripods and won’t be needing 25 lb load capacity anytime soon. But other than those two, why are there so little choices for the masses of DSLR shooters who are entering the market?

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I wonder if it has something to do with this? Manfrotto, Sachtler, Gitzo – all of these tripods come from the same master brand, Vitec. Maybe there’s no incentive for competition among them. Manfrotto gets all the entry level first time photographers/video shooters, Sachtler gets most of the DSLR market as well as the higher end productions, Vinten gets broadcasters. And Gitzo is supposed to stick with photographers. Nevermind that built-in leveler.…

Medical Videos and Smiling Doctors

Here’s a short post that might save you a lot of time. Having shot several promotional videos in clinical settings, the one thing I’ve learned is:

You may shoot a lot of “doctors at work” shots, some more medically specific than others, but honestly the only shots that will most likely end up in your final video are simply smiling people. That’s it. Doctors and patients smiling.

Here’s two :15 spots for Providence Imaging Center

AKPM Prov Imaging Spots 11-2013 from Alaska Public Media on Vimeo.

And here’s a longer video I made for my mom’s dentistry clinic in Pasadena, California. Again, lots of slides of smiling people. I probably threw away 75% of the shots I took, simply because they didn’t feature smiling people.

So next time when you shoot one of these commercial medical videos, just go ahead and ask your subjects to fake smile all the time. Trust me, those are the only shots you’ll use.…

Behind INDIE ALASKA: Ski Bums

Right now I’m editing the 52nd episode of INDIE ALASKA. That marks a full year of weekly documentaries (!), and boy did we learn a lot about video production in Alaska in the last year.

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To continue the chronological behind-the-scenes posts of episodes (that I worked on*), here’s the story behind Episode 5: “I Am A Volunteer Ski Bum.”

On the heels of our first episode on the Ski Train, Travis was working on “I Am An Ice Diver,” and I was going to come along to help shoot. It took a lot of time to pack and get everything ready, so when Saturday morning we found out the ice dive had to be postponed (due to weather), we scrambled.

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Although we wanted to feature Arctic Valley Ski Resort eventually, we certainly didn’t intend to do another ski-related episode immediately after our first one. But at the time I was still in charge of member fundraising at the station, so my shooting time was limited, and we had already set aside all day Saturday to shoot. So with our bags packed and ready to shoot, and with no preproduction or subjects contacted, we set off anyway.

Well, on this day there was a huge snow storm. Many of the cars in front of us going up to Arctic Valley couldn’t even make it up without turning back around. So as far as shooting scenarios, this was going to be a pretty grim (and wet) day.

Travis was smart to wear waterproof bibs.

Travis was smart to wear waterproof bibs.

Needless to say, our cameras were soaked the whole time, there was water in front of the lens, and we could barely see what we were shooting. Which was not much, since it was mostly flat white snow.

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On top of the shooting difficulties, we also didn’t know who we were featuring or what the story would be (or where we could interview). Very quickly, however, we could see that volunteers were basically keeping the place alive. And then our friend Harry Need, also a volunteer, tracked down a couple people we could talk to, as well as a private cabin where we could interview.

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And it also happened to be the Merry Marmot Festival that day, with races and festivities. So in the end, we put together a story that was both about the volunteers, as well as the festival. 50 episodes later, I think we’re a lot better at pre production, but with a weekly series sometimes you just gotta go with the flow!

*I didn’t work on episodes 2-4 – “I Am An Ice Diver,” “Singer/Songwriter Emma Hill,” and “I Am A Native Youth Olympian” – so I won’t be writing about these. And episodes 6-7 – “I Am A Paramotorist” and “I Am A Musk Ox Farmer” were also made by Travis and John. So next time I’ll be going straight to Episode 8, “I Am A High School Indie Rock Star.”…

The State of Video Journalism

The NAB panel discussion from yesterday’s post is a fun watch, but if you want to know what the reality for video journalism is today, this researched report is really, really good.

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There’s videos and short texts, so your attention span will be fine. In Alaska’s news world outside of TV, there’s one full-time video producer at the Alaska Dispatch, a few photographers at ADN who occasionally make videos, and the rest of us who hustle to make videos on top of other job duties. But, that still seems a lot more video-focused than some of these other national papers. …

NAB 2014: Newsshooter Video Journalism Panel

NAB 2014: News Shooter – Video Journalism Panel from Teradek on Vimeo.

One of the first things we did at NAB last week was take part in a live panel on the future of video journalism. I join Dan Chung, Felix Clay, Chuck Fadely, and Adrian Storey. …

Humbled today

Today my partner in crime Travis Gilmour and I were recognized as being two of the top 40 under 40 people in Alaska. It’s a pretty cool honor, and we even got a silly spread in the magazine. magazinespread

The Governor of Alaska, Anchorage mayor, and US Senate people were there, and Olympian Kikkan Randall presented the award to us. Here’s a selfie Travis took up on stage.

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In the end, the attention feels weird, and I’m much more comfortable turning the camera back on the people we document in our videos. So on that note, back to work!

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Back And Getting Pumped Up

It’s been like 3 weeks since the last post, so that’s no good! Apart from a vacation in Hawaii, it’s been lots of shooting and editing.

But looking ahead, there’s some exciting things coming up that I hope to blog about. First, I’m going to NAB and will be reporting for newsshooter.com

So that’ll be really cool, and I’ll get to do all sorts of gear reviews that will inform the things I’ll blog on here. And second, I’m going to be traveling around to some PBS stations to train producers on filmmaking, Indie Alaska style.

Feels good to blog again! Now back to work……

ASUS monitor back in stock

Right after I posted the review of the ASUS MB168B+, it ran out of stock on Amazon.

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But happily it’s now back in stock, for a limited quantity, and also slightly more expensive now, for some reason. Still completely worth it.

Lots of C100 goodies coming

Today I reviewed an upcoming eyecup for the C100 on newsshooter.com – http://www.newsshooter.com/2014/02/24/kickstarter-campaign-launched-to-improve-the-c100-viewfinder-with-a-c-cup/

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This eyecup is fantastic. This weekend I took my C100 on a bush plane ride into a remote lodge, filmed from the back of a snowmachine, among other fun shots, and I shot handheld using the C-Cup and viewfinder for most of the time.

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Also the C100 autofocus upgrade is now officially available, so I’ll be sending in my camera soon. Canon also announced a new firmware update to allow for adding “markers” during continuous record. I wonder how long before it’s supported in Final Cut Pro X? http://www.usa.canon.com/cusa/professional/standard_display/cinema-firmware-c100

FCPX 10.1 Quick Tip

I finally upgraded to 10.1 yesterday, following the excellent tutorial at fcp.co, and in the process of upgrading I stumbled upon something really useful that I haven’t seen posted anywhere.

The big change in 10.1 is smarter media organization. Until now, for one project you’ve had to keep track of two folders, one in “Final Cut Events” and one in “Final Cut Projects.”

Using this system, the best workflow out there (and I’ll go through it in case others are still using the old version) has been to nest everything in your one Events folder and one Projects folder:

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Before FCPX 10.1, you would nest all of your files in two folders, one in Final Cut Events and one in Final Cut Projects – anywhere one moved, the other had to follow.

1) Create a New Event and a new Project folder (where you can create several projects inside the folder) using the same name -

2) In Finder, create a folder inside the Event folder, called something like “My Media” and drag all your movie clips in here. I’ve used the name “Raw Video Files” but it makes no difference, just something you know is the place for your original media.

3) In Final Cut, import your media as linked files (so, Final Cut will create small files that link to your full movie clips, rather than copying your media into its own Original Media folder).

4) Use the Event folder for EVERYTHING from now, including where you place your final renders, associated files and graphics, etc. This way, all of your project files will now be nested in one Event and one Projects folder, making it easy to back those up or move them around.


 
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Okay, so fast forward to 10.1. Now, your projects and events reside within one single Library file – woohoo! But, you’re still supposed to keep all of your raw media and export files and everything else in a seperate folder – which is better than before, but now you still have to keep track of one main folder and your library file seperately. *Sigh*

And in case you’re wondering, you cannot keep your media files inside the library file. You can right click on the library file and “Show Package Contents,” but if you put anything in there (and it’s highly discouraged), in Final Cut you cannot import or export files within the library file, as in it won’t let you show the package contents.

SO here’s the tip (thanks for being patient with this post). You can actually move the library file, the .fcpbundle file, into your main folder. At this point when you open FCPX 10.1 your project will no longer load, but all you have to do is double click on your library file – wherever you placed it – and it will load in Final Cut, now and forever. FCPX will remember to look for the library file in the place where you loaded it from.

So there you have it, now you only need to keep track of ONE folder for everything pertaining to your video.

BONUS TIP: In Mavericks, scroll bars disappear and only reappear when you start scrolling. This can be annoying while you’re editing, because you constantly have to scroll left and right, so go into System Preferences, General, and under “Show Scroll Bars” click Always.

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