We're always looking for the sweet spot between price, performance and operational smoothness in fluid head tripods. Will this one fill the bill?

Sirui VH-10X

I never know what to think about tripods for video. Oh, I get what makes a good set of sticks (the tripod legs) but I'm often mystified by what makes one tripod head a universal budget classic at under $200 (the Manfrotto 5oo series) and what makes a Miller head that much better at a couple thousand dollars. 

Sure, there are different use cases. A big, heavy camera and lens combination logically requires a stronger head that will handle the weight. And I understand that some tripod heads are able to be very well balanced and silky smooth to operate but.... really, is the last 10% or 5% of performance actually worth ten times or even 20 times the price? 

If you are a cinematographer; a real one who works with big cameras like the Arriflex Alexas, the Sony F55s and the Canon C500 series I can guess why you need a bigger and more expensive tripod but if you are in the same boat as me I'll find it hard to understand your rationalization if your goal is to get a Sony A7S3, a Panasonic S1H, or Canon C70 up on a platform with which to pan or tilt, and you're looking at $10,000 tripod heads. I'd suggest you re-think the strategy but at the end of the day it's your money and I'm even willing to admit that I might be missing something about which you have more insight. 

But I'm basically putting a camera like the S1H, along with a medium range zoom lens, on my tripod platforms and all my moves are slow and practiced. No "whip pans" here. 

I've been using a Manfrotto head that's the ultimate compromise. It's the Manfrotto MH055M8-Q5 PhotoMovie Tripod Head with Q5 QR Plate and I bought it many years ago because it has a control that allows you to throw a switch and convert the head from a horizontal video head to a photographic style head that is in a vertical orientation. The price hasn't changed much; it's still about $340. 

But last week when I went to execute a pan on a shot I felt a slight hesitation or null spot when I initiated the pan instead of a smooth start. And I've never understood why the handle mounts to the tripod in such an overly complex way. A method that introduces a bit of play there as well. Finally, it's set up to be strictly a left hand operating head. And since I'm profoundly left-handed I prefer to operate my camera and focusing ring with my left hand and pan with my right. So I'm constantly just a little confused. 

I still like the Manfrotto MH055M8-Q5 (who in the world thought that was a brilliant name for a product???) and it's great to use in situations where you might make small adjustments to a shot and mostly stay locked down, but I don't love it. I'm also less than thrilled with its handling as a photographic tripod too.

Even though I suspect that I'll want to do more and more gimbal shots I know I'll still need two good tripods and fluid heads for two camera interview set-ups and three position streaming shows. So I'm always hunting for a new head that won't break the bank but still delivers an good performance. 

"Good performance" means the head pans from start to stop smoothly and with no hesitation. The head can be balanced for all kinds of camera and lens weight distributions and it can tilt up and down with the same smoothness I expect in the pans. I want the head to do all this and the heaviest load I expect it to handle would be about seven pounds (camera at 2.5, lens at 2.5 plus small monitor and audio interface). 

I was picking up fresh gray cards at Precision Camera and I found myself doing a bit of shopping. I found the Sirui head on display and played with it for about 20 minutes. It felt much better than the Manfrotto 500 series head I gave away to a young videographer earlier in the year. It felt and operated more smoothly (and logically) than my current, bi-directional Manfrotto head as well. The price was a frugal $250. I think it's a better all around video head just because it's not trying to also be a photo tripod head.

I'll use this on a set of Gitzo legs and the MH055M8-Q5 on a set of big Benro legs about four times this month. We're filming a concert series under the stars on four consecutive Saturday evenings. The client is looking for a two camera set up and this head and matched tripod matches up with my intended "A" camera perfectly. 

I'll also bring along a smaller tripod with a Benro S4 video head on it because I think I'll want to put a fixed wide angle camera close to the stage and run it for the full hour of the show. Just to have a third look for the editor to cut to...for fun. 

If it didn't seem ultimately indulgent to me I guess I'd pick up a Vinten Vision 250 video tripod and be done with it. Curious to see what $13,300+ buys you in a video tripod? See for yourself: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/271968-REG/Vinten_VB250_CP2M_VISION_250_Carbon_Fiber.html

Me? I want a tripod I can accidentally run over with my car and not feel devastated about destroying. I mean, I would be devastated if its demise happened before a job... but I wouldn't be that upset if we already had our material shot and in the "can." For me that's a video tripod; with head, in the $400 to $700 price range. 

I mean there's professional and then there's Professional. I generally only charge for professional...


MikeR said...

Prompted me to get my Manfrotto tripod out of the corner, brush off the dust and cobwebs, and check it out. It has a 700RC2 head, a not expensive and pretty simple piece of gear. Probably not professional enough for your needs, not a lot of bells and whistles. I tried both pan and up-down, and it seemed smooth, but that was a no-load test. Obviously (dust & cobwebs), I haven't used it all that much, my dreams of "getting into" video having been a bit, shall I say, premature.

TMJ said...

I have been using Sirui heads for some years now. Beautifully made, but not expensive.

Anonymous said...

Consistent, adjustable resistance, counterbalance-ability, and schemes to prevent the payload from tipping over are often what drives prices waaaay up. The ability to release a pan or tilt lock, adjust the framing - often at a long focal length, without shaking the image -- is also a differentiator. I've been in TV for a long time - and the higher tier fluid heads are a theoretic 'one-time' investment that are well worth it -- IF -- you work with a camera on a tripod for hours on end each day. Otherwise - I think the more reasonably priced models are just fine and getting better and better for the price. Also - a lot of scripted productions still use geared heads, mostly for repeatability, as the same scene, with the same planned camera moves, may be photographed dozens of times.

David said...

I am glad you are back with excellent posts like this. I only have one video head, was something thrown in with the tripod. Worked ok the one time I used it with a camera. Now I have a light mounted to it that I can sweep in for light painting or just constant exposure setups.

I haven't gotten used to even the hold and loose knobs on photo heads. I think I would like one knob with 2 settings, loose and rock hard.

Robert Roaldi said...

What I know about video rounds to zero. But I learned one thing about fluid tripod heads: don't buy the cheap ones that spring a leak and dump repulsive fluid all over the tripod legs and your hands and the carpet.

Michael Kohnhorst said...

The Cartoni Focus 10 & Focus 12 fluid heads are the best compromise between price and performance that I've found. The biggest difference between the two is the top plate. The counterbalance is continuously variable instead of having set positions and I find the resistance on the pan and tilt to be consistent and also continuously variable. I also have a Focus 8, but I can't get enough resistance on the pan tilt and use it mainly for lock off shots. Your mileage may vary.