Tripod Guide For Camera Cranes and Jibs
When putting together your crane (which, in this discussion is identical to a jib) system, you will inevitably have to deal with the fact that you need to get the proper stable platform in order to effectively and easily use your crane system. No matter how light or heavy your crane, and camera are, you simply need a solid base. In this section we will discuss the tripod which we use as the crane base. In further pages we will cover the other items such as dolly, the crane itself, remote controls and monitoring, and finally the details that will make your job easier and more effective.
A wooden, aluminum or carbon fiber tripod is used to stabilize and elevate the crane system. All tripods have three telescoping legs and fluid mounting head to couple with the crane. The mounting head usually includes a pan/tilt handle to control the movement, dampeners to provide drag, a locking mechanism, a release plate receiver in order to attach to the crane via a release plate, and either a “ball” type or a flat type mechanism to connect the head to the tripod legs.
In this discussion we will concentrate exclusively on the points and features that make sense when considering a tripod for use with a camera crane or jib. We will not consider from a camera operator point of view, however we can certainly use this tripod for camera shooting, but it would most likely be overkill for that application. For example many tripod heads are rated for numbers that relate to their spring back feature. Crane users are not concerned with a spring back head, so there is no reason to pay extra for those features, nor will they contribute to your overall value. In fact if your tripod head has a spring back feature, as a crane operator, the first thing to do is to turn that feature off. You would not want the crane and camera to ever spring back!! Our discussion is limited to camera cranes and camera jibs that mount to fluid heads.
As an operator you will really appreciate the heavier and more stable tripod with a crane since you are moving a lot of weight away from the center pivot, and that additional stable base will make those shots look so sweet as well as make you feel so secure when you are shooting them. Since this is how you earn your living, it is a major reason to do it right and you will enjoy the work much more.
For the sake of clarity a simple tripod is illustrated below with labels identifying the parts. Virtually all tripods have most of the same parts. The two key parts are the Tripod body and the Tripod head.
The tripod body includes the clamp or yoke, which is a cast made from aluminum that couples the legs and of course the legs themselves, which in most cases are telescopic, retractable legs that slide within themselves allowing for ease in transportation and storage. Finally the legs are secured with leg braces called a spreader, which secures the tripod for splitting.
The Tripod Head is usually filled with a viscous fluid that slows or dampens the action, thus providing smooth fluid camera movements. The head is controlled by a “pan arm”, many times called a pan/tilt handle, that the operator uses to rotate or tilt the head. Adjustments and locks for the tilt and pan are located on the head. The head has a receiver on the top which receives the sliding plate which would be connected to the crane (or camera or other device). Finally the head connects to the top of the tripod body by either a center column as shown on the generic picture or via a ball system, which is used to level the head.
In a crane only environment this ball system is not required and really does not provide much value, since we balance the head via the tripod legs, not via a leveling head. The reason we do not use the leveling head is that the ball can become loose because so much torque is placed on it. We would rather the crane not slip, thus the flat head on a column is usually a better solution for crane only applications.
The Tripod Body consist of the “clamp” or yoke which is usually a cast aluminum part which holds the legs securely and connects the legs to the head. The legs are the most important feature here and as a crane operator we are looking for heavy duty legs that will not buckle under weight. Additionally we are looking for good quality clamping hardware and non breakable fasteners along with a secure spreading system.
We also want to make sure that the hardware which supports the telescoping functions are of good quality and make a long lasting hard grip so the legs do not retract on their own while under the weight of the crane system.
A mid level or ground level spreader (or leg brace) is highly recommended to eliminate the legs from spreading on their own as well as adding weight bags to secure the tripod onto its surface.
A flat head to tripod mount has its benefits vs. a 75 or 100mm ball mount as it tends to eliminate any potential slipping the ball may do under stress. While ball heads can be loosened and leveled, in the world of crane support, that loosening could be a problem. Having a solid mount that literally screws into the head will provide excellent support in lighter tripods and eliminate any chance of loosening.
To determine the weight requirements of your tripod you need to understand and calculate the weight of the Crane + Weight of the Camera + Weight of the Counter Weight + the weight of other devices that are on the crane such as monitors, remote controls, pan tilt devices, weight bags, etc. For now we will cover the main elements. You will have to deal with your accessories after the main counterweight is calculated.
There are a couple of considerations.
First of all, lets agree: in order to balance, the weight on the left should equal the weight on the right. Since both weights are the same distance from the center (pivot), the weight should simply be equal and the system will balance.
However crane systems usually require the camera to be further away from the pivot, therefore the system will not balance, unless we compensate by adding additional weight to the shorter side. In our case we add additional counterweight to compensate for the camera being further from the center. The camera is now 3 feet from the center, and the weight is 2 feet from the center. So the general ratio is 3:2.
The next thing to consider is the crane itself has some weight that will be also add to the overall camera weight in our overall consideration. The difference between the amount over the pivot minus the amount below the pivot equals the amount of weight needed before you even add the camera. So below you will see the crane counter weight which is the left side of the fomula added to the camera counter weight required on the right side.
To calculate the approximate counterweight. (CobraCrane 1 example used)
- Given: Crane weight: 10 lbs (a)
- Camera weight: 5 lbs. (b)
- Given: Crane Length: 5 feet (c) with a ratio of 3:2 (d):(e)
It is important to understand that using a crane on a fluid head is going to cause more wear and stress to the head (and legs), so consider that crane tripods would have a duty cycle of about 50% or less than a camera alone. Get a good quality tripod. Don’t buy on price. Don’t buy one you will have to replace in a year or less, or worse breaks when you need it. Make sure you can get parts in case you will need them at some time.
Maintenance is part of the long term strategy. Keeping your tripod clean and dust and oil free is a must for long term reliable service. Clean the tubes after use with a dry cloth. Clean any dirt or dust off of the knobs, connectors and links. Make sure the path the release plate takes through the receiver is clean and if necessary wipe it clean with the dry cloth. Clean and lightly oil the threads on the spike feet, so they screw in and out smoothly. Store your tripod when not in use in the carry bag.
A good tripod is a very solid investment (pun intended), and should last 15 to 20 years. Do yourself a favor and make yourself happy during that period of time. A tripod is a great investment to purchase on financing, since it will most likely long outlive the time it takes to pay for it. Unlike any electronics stuff or certainly your camera. Financing a 20 year life tripod over three years would make a real lot of sense to me. You can finance a $3000 tripod for about $100 month for three years, then benefit from it for 17 additional years without payments. Good quality tripods last. Cheap ones get replaced. Often!!
Lightweight video tripods to support UltraLite crane systems such as our BackPacker UltraLites can be found from $200 - $500. The key requirements is a two pole video head and strong legs to support your weight. These tripods when coupled with a jib usually are restricted to GoPros, SmartPhone cameras and a variety of light-weight units such as mirrorless cameras and small DSLRs. Manfrotto 502 based, Libec, Benro, and some other manufacturers offer various product in this range. CobraCrane offers one, but we feel the CC501 is a best choice in this range.
Medium duty tripods are those that support from 20 – 50+ lbs. and are usually in the price range of up to $800 - $1000. These include Manfrotto 502, 503, 504 heads on a wide variety of solid legs. Sachtler, Benro, Libec and others offer a wide variety in this range. These tripods are compatible with CobraCrane BackPackers, CobraCrane Single arm camera jibs and CobraCrane UltraLite series.
Heavy Duty tripods will definitely improve the stability of your gear and thus, your shot. The bigger and stronger the base is, the better your crane shots will look. Miller, O’Connor, Vinten, Libec, and Sachtler offer very solid, exceptionally stable platforms in this range. These tripods meet the requirements of our dual arm CobraCrane UltraLite and our CobraCrane 2 line of dual arm camera cranes.
Heavy Duty tripods usually range in prices exceeding $1000. Good values are found on EBay and Amazon in the used categories. The system below is the Hercules head with the K-Pod tripod and we feel this product is an exception value for crane operators.
The K-Pod with Hercules head is about $1000 and one of the best values in this range and can be found at B&H and Adorama. It is a purpose built unit, very solid, has excellent leg locks and will certainly outlast the financing. Although a competitor on the crane side of the house, certainly a favorite tripod of ours.
From my personal point of view, its difficult to find affordable tripod solutions for a crane. I like many of the older tripods from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. They are of significant value to crane operators, since they are so heavy and provide such a solid base. We love the big fat aluminum legs and we match them with more modern heads. Great deals available on Ebay and Amazon.
If you are tempted to use a lighter tripod when you travel, bring some weight bags to weigh it down when you are shooting, but if getting stable shots is of high priority, bring a heavier duty tripod. If you need to use a lighter tripod than your crane, add weight.
Weigh your tripods down to create a heavier base for your crane to pivot on. In virtually very crane shoot I do, it has some type of swinging involved. It is important to make sure the crane swings freely and stays extremely stable on the platform. Make the tripod weigh at least as much as the crane, camera and counterweights. The challenge is: Who can afford that big of a tripod and lug it around. The solution is to use your solid legs tripod with mid spreader and add weight bags to the spreader, thus securing the base. Using the weight bags solves two problems, carry less weight and having "stuff" available where you need it. The bags hold all sorts of “stuff”, such as batteries and tools as well as rocks, water bottles, sand and just about everything else
Use duct tape to provide additional security to your leg tubes where they telescope into a larger tube. Wrap a ring of duct tape around the smaller tube, right where it would tend to telescope into the next tube. This helps prevent the smaller tube from retracting into the larger one. Use additional duct tape to secure those latches.
The more stable the tripod, the better your crane experience will be and the nicer your shots will appear. Make a single long term investment and use your financing for a Tripod vs. camera or any electronics gear. If you overbuy anywhere, do it here on the tripod. A strong base means everything.
Use Financing and get a great tripod. Remember you are financing a 15 - 20 year investment for only 3 years or so. It makes sense and will be the stable base you will use to make the most amazing affordable, easy to get shots.
A stable platform will make your shooting experience better, for the next 20 years,
For a camera system exceeding 10lbs, use a heavy duty tripod from some of these fine vendors.
For cameras up to 10lbs use at least a medium duty tripod. Some of the manufacturers below can help.
For very light cameras such as mirrorless, smart phone and GoPros, small DSLRs & all single arm cranes. Call us here at SteadyTracker or visit our website:
Sign up in the white block on the bottom right of the cobracrane home page to get on our mailing list and get our newsletters and cool camera support info. We should have additional Crane Essential Pages available every couple of weeks. The next one will cover the crane itself, followed by dolly and pan head alternatives, then remote control and monitoring, and finally the last chapter will cover things to make your job better.
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Comments? Suggestions? Contact me: Dana Smith firstname.lastname@example.org