IMAG — Solid Foundations

As promised, this is the first in a series of posts about the equipment needed for IMAG. I've decided that there is way too much information to cover in one post, so I'm going to do a series. This has the added benefit of giving me fodder for posts for a while ;-).

Like any good project, IMAG success starts with a good foundation. In the case of video acquisition, that foundation is the tripod. Now, you can spend more on a tripod than you can on a house (actually it would be a pedestal at this price point), but most churches don't need that level of product. However, a solid tripod is essential to getting decent images on the screen. The reason is simple. What looks like a tiny bobble or stick in a pan on 7" monitor is a 6" shake on a 16-foot wide screen. Creating big shaky images is a sure way to drive your audience nuts.

Let me point out that technically, a tripod is a three-legged stand. You don't attach a camera to a tripod, you attach the camera to the head, which is bolted to the tripod. The combination of a tripod (the legs) and the head (the pan and tilt mechanism) makes up a camera support system, commonly referred to as a tripod. From this point forward, when I say tripod, I mean the entire system.

So what kind of tripod do you need? That depends. Mainly it depends on what camera you are using, but it also depends on how long of a lens you are using as well. A "long" lens is one with greater telephoto capabilities. It zooms in farther an is often, incorrectly, measured in x as in 20x zoom—more on this in future posts. Again, let's consider the logic. When you are zoomed way in (try this with a simple camcorder), very minor camera movements create huge shifts in the image. That's why it's darn near impossible to handhold a camera and get a steady image when you zoom in.

Back to tripods, you need a tripod that is rated to handle the weight of the camera you intend to put on it, plus any additional gear (studio viewfinders, focus and zoom controls, etc.). There are basically two types of cameras most churches will use: ENG type cameras and Camcorders. ENG style are cameras that can be shoulder mounted, they often have interchangeable backs (for a recorder, or a studio output), and will typically have a 1/2" or 2/3" imaging chip. Expect these cameras to run in the $15,000 and up range. Sony's DCX series and D-30 are examples of ENG style. They will generally weigh in somewhere around 15-22 lbs. Thus your tripod needs to be rated for such a weight.

Camcorders range from the small Canon GL1 to the larger XL2 or H1. JVC, Panasonic and Sony all make "prosumer" camcorders, some of which can work for IMAG (with varying degrees of success). These are typically lighter (4-9 lbs) and demand less from the support system.

There are number of professional tripod manufacturers, and it behooves you to stick with a well-known brand. Companies like Vinten, Sachtler, Cartoni, Gitzo, Miller and Bogen have been around for a long time and make a wide range of tripods for all types of cameras and budgets (OK, maybe not all budgets...). Personally, I'm partial to Vinten because I've owned 2 of them and absolutely loved them. They are not inexpensive, however.

Ideally, you want to try out the tripod before you buy it. One good test I like to do is to set the pan drag control (if the tripod you're considering doesn't have tilt and pan drag controls, keep looking), near it's highest setting—this will make it harder to pan the camera—and try a pan. When you stop, the camera should stop, not stop then go back a little from where you came from. On lesser tripods, they will "wind up" when you pan, and when you stop, they unwind giving you unwanted movement. You should also be able to balance the camera in such a way that with minimal tilt drag you and set the camera up to 45 degrees up or down without it moving on it's own.

Also ideal is the ability to add 2 control arms on the tripod, so you can attach zoom and focus controls. These little tools make is much easier for camera operators to get good shots and not have their arms falling off after a service. Varizoom makes some really cool zoom and focus controls for both Canon and Fuji lenses (used on the ENG style cameras) and for mini-DV camcorders—very cool!

As I said, adjustable tilt and pan drag are a must, and the controls for both should be easy to get to and operate in the dark. Such a tripod will not be inexpensive (a quick search on B&H shows them starting at about $800), but you'll never regret spending the money. You're better off with one camera on a good tripod than with three on cheap, unsteady ones. Trust me on this one. You can also find some really good deals sometimes on used equipment at TVProGear and Media Concepts.

Whatever you do, don't go into a photo store (or worse, Wal-Mart) and buy a "video tripod" for $50-100. It may be barely passable for producing the occasional video, but it will not serve you well for IMAG. Your images will shake, you won't be able to follow the speaker well and you will frustrate your volunteers who want to do a good job. And one more thing, still camera tripods are an absolute no-no for IMAG. They are designed to pan and tilt the still camera into position and lock there, not move smoothly from point A to point B. Do not waste your money. Just don't.

Also, you don't want to over-buy. Putting a 5 lb. camera on a head rated for 15-22 lbs. will not work well. The camera won't have enough weight to effectively drive the pan and tilt mechanism, and you will not get smooth results. You want your camera's weight to fall into the middle of the rated range of weights of the head. Again, trust me on this.

That's a brief primer on tripods. There is a lot more to them than I've covered, but these are the basics. If you have other questions or want me to cover other options, leave a comment and I'll see what I can do. I can go on for a while about video gear…

Peace!