Moving from an $80 tripod to an $800 system at

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Old August 24th, 2007, 05:16 PM   #1
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Location: Portland, OR
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Moving from an $80 tripod to an $800 system

For the past year I've been using a Sunpak Ultra 757 Tripod ($80) with the Canon XH A1 in a 4.5 pound configuration at nearly full telephoto, which I think is around the 35mm equivalent of 600mm. Let me describe my current system, the research I've done on new tripods, and request your input.

The poor chinese-made sticks can't handle sixty-degree fahrenheit weather, so the first step is to warm it up really good and exercise the joints a bit and get the stiction glue moving. Then I set it up and screw on any pieces that fell off (again). Leveling, even on a flat surface, is often a problem, since the legs aren't stiff enough to handle their own weight, even with the mid-level spreader. The bubble level is built right into the tripod to remind me that it will never be perfectly level.

The next step is to lock down all the settings. Tilting is out of the question, of course, but not just because it couldn't counter balance even an ounce or two; but also because the tilt tension knob goes from completely stiff to utterly loose in the smallest fraction of a millimeter. Add to that the terribly loud creaking, cracking, and groaning noises that emminate from the throaty beast when it's asked to tilt, and I'm all but forced to settle for panning only. Which is good, because locking the tilt down helps the panning perform slightly better.

I've spent over sixty hours of hardcore training on the tripod spread out over a year and a half. Over time, the intense concentration during each minute that I pan has taught every fiber of muscle in my fingers, hands, and arms to compensate for shortcomings of the knock-off stiction glue. As such, I can proudly say that at the height of my performance, I can yeild quasi-smooth pans, with only a moderate amount of stiff-start, sticktion, and drift-back. Lesser mortals who've only used it for a dozen hours or so still produce shakey, stiff, jittery video.

Of course, I wouldn't dream of touching the tripod or camera to zoom, focus, or anything else. Only the pan handle is touched, and I must ask individuals walking by to please refrain from stirring up the air or stepping too heavily as they walk.

Alas, my skills with the Sunpak may soon become obsolete. We obviously have very little funding to work with (the camera was donated), but we do now have $800 in the video production budget. We can also wait for more.

That brings me to the next topic: tripod research. I've had a hard time of researching tripods. Unlike video cameras, there doesn't seem to be verifiable, repeatable tests from a variety of sources testing the performance of the tripod system, the claims of the manufacturer, etc. The best information I've found is just the many, many opinions posted in the Support Your Local Camera forum. I've dutifully read and re-read hundreds of posts there to get an idea about the options available.

The most prominent advice is, of course, to try out the tripods in real life and make a decision that way. But in the Portland, Oregon area, the stores I've called only have low-end video tripods, and Manfrotto's at that (no Libec). Their most professional model is the Manfrotto 503HDV head on 3046 sticks. It leaves me unable to compare that to more expensive systems, like Vinten, Miller, or Sachtler. (The two times I've been to B&H were like a dream.) Zotz Digital probably has a good selection, but they're a little far.

As far as requirements, I need at least 60" height, but 70 would be really nice (without a center column, of course). I'm a good pack mule, so carbon fiber is an unnecessary luxury: aluminum (or even steel!) for me. I'll be on a level surface 99% of the time, so I think a floor-level spreader would be prudent. Setup time is no big deal, so I can forsake a ball-level. I want to "sandbag" my tripod (how do you do that, anyway?) to dampen vibrations on the cheap. I'd like to get a LANC controller and long pan arm(s) some day. I'm only using 4.5 pounds now, but I'd like a system that can handle the bigger Canon battery, wide angle adapter, and microphone. My goal is smooth pan and tilt, but the real highest priority is price: $800 would be very nice. However, if I can't achieve my objectives with that little outlay, I'll wait for a bigger budget ($2000 would be in a year or so).

For heads, my impression is that the very cheapest one I should consider is the Manfrotto 503HDV for $338. Although no one has posted comparisons of the "HDV" and vanilla versions, I'm going to assume that the updated version is at least equivalent in performance.

Stepping up to the $950/head range, many recommend the Vinten Vision 3 head. But I have a hard time thinking I'll need the extra performance to reach my goals.

I read a few ardent recommendations for Libec systems like the LS-38 ($600) and LS-55M ($900), but I don't have any way to quantify their relative merit with Manfrotto's equivalently priced systems.

Sticks are much more difficult to decide on than a head. The cheapest I'm considering now are the Manfrotto 3046 for $244. They lack a ball level, and they aren't compatible with any floor-level spreaders (are they?), but they do have a nice height advantage: 70.5" without the center column.

From there, I'm considering the 3258 ($460), which seem to have the same limitations as the 3046, but taller at 85", and ostensibly more stable. The 525MVB ($436) is 60", bowl-base, and looks really stable.

I don't think I'll ever consider the high-end sticks from Sachtler, Vinten, or Miller. The price on their accessories is outrageous. But I would consider buying just a head if I could avoid most of the accessories.

What do you think?
Daniel Browning is offline   Reply With Quote
Old August 24th, 2007, 05:32 PM   #2
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Wow. You've really done your research.

I have the 3246/503 combination, with the addition of the 3502 ball leveler and 523Pro lanc control, and I'm pretty happy with it. I know the real pros on this forum probably consider it a toy but it works for me.

After I got the Lanc pan bar I moved the stock pan bar to the left side, with the help of additional mounting HW I had to order directly from Bogen. I could get incredible height by raising the center column and extending the bottom (3rd) stage of the legs, but I rarely do so. So for about $900 I have a reasonably light and portable two-handled rig.
Adam Gold is offline   Reply With Quote
Old August 24th, 2007, 05:37 PM   #3
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Hi Daniel,

I moved from a Sunpak $40 model to the Bogen / Manfrotto Pro Video Kit w/351MVB2 Aluminum Tripod Legs, 503 Pro Fluid Head, 75mm Half Ball, Spreader, Shoes. The Sunpak worked, but it was a pain (shaky, no fluid movements at all, and the joy of removing clicks in post). The B/M kit was around $500 for everything with a padded case - I don't have the B&H link for it sorry.

The spreader is mid-level though, not exactly what you were looking for. I love the 503, it works great for pans and tilts. The Half Ball is perfect for quick adjustments to angle. I don't really worry about leveling it with the bubble because I just level it with the camera viewer using the half ball.

I mostly use the pan/tilt function when I'm shooting Toastmasters speeches - some of those people jump all over the place. I am able to smoothly keep up with the speakers in both pan and tilt.

I know thats a little cheaper then what you are looking for, but thought i'd give you the info I have in case you find it useful.
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Old August 28th, 2007, 02:09 PM   #4
Join Date: Jul 2007
Location: Novato, CA
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I recentely went from a $70 tripod to a Cartoni Action Pro for my XH A1 that I found on ebay for $350. When I compared it to the Bogan/manfrotto 503 setup I thought the Cartoni was much smoother and I felt overall more comfortable with it. I would have loved to go to the Cartoni HiDV but my budget was really below the $500 range. I also looked at the Lebec but again liked the Cartoni better. The set up I got is around $700 street now so for $350 (vertually new, no marks at all) it was a good deal. I'd say the way to go is look for a good used setup. In the $800 range I've seen some of the higher end Cartoni's and even a couple of older Miller's and one Conner.
Garrett Low is offline   Reply With Quote
Old August 28th, 2007, 07:46 PM   #5
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I was recently in the market myself with a US$1000 budget.

I found the 503HDV head to be good, not perfect but good. It's better than the older 503 head. More subtle and smooth, with a more elegant design and response. Take a look at the Manfrotto 755 series sticks. They're another good option in that price range. B&H has several good 503HDV kits, I liked the one with the 755 carbon sticks, and the one with the Gitzo sticks.

But after trying out the Libecs, Vinten, Millers, and Sachtlers I decided not to go with Manfrotto.

My short list was:
Vinten 6
Libec LS55
Miller DS10

And then of course I ended up spending US$1800 for the Miller Solo VJ tripod + Cartoni Focus Head, which is a really awesome setup for the XH A1.

Happy tripod shopping!
"Ultimately, the most extraordinary thing, in a frame, is a human being." - Martin Scorsese
Michael Wisniewski is offline   Reply

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